Thanks to ‘Venumspyders’ for the tip. I was just going to briefly mention this in addition to something else but then I started writing and it became its own thing (cue, “It’s aliiiiive!” here).
Here is a blog article posted to Gamasutra by Eric Yockey entitled What Really Happened To Arcades? Eric’s work has been discussed on AH before with his NEON FM arcade game.
As I have learned over the years, answering that in full is not as simple as a quick phrase that can fit onto a bumper sticker like “home consoles killed them!”. I think that dilutes the reality of the big picture, enough to the point that it misses several important factors. Eric tackles what the arcade industry has been going through, offering his perspective both as an arcade player and an indie developer/manufacturer. I do find his analysis interesting as we do not often get a manufacturer’s view of why they do things in a certain way in this business. Often on AH’s channels for commentary I see questions like “Why doesn’t this company do x?” and I think that this article does touch on that in a couple of places. So if you are wondering why they might not do this or that, give the article a read.
One good chunk of why things are the way they are these days is due to high risk – there are many operators that have been in this business for a very long time, including those that were there during the Golden Age. They’ve seen many game concepts come and go, and due to negative experiences at times, they won’t touch certain games again. Some of that might be joystick games, others it might be something that doesn’t feature a well-known license. If you look at the arcade releases for the past few years, it is easy to notice that the trend towards licensed games has exploded. Fortunately we are not at pinball levels yet (where the non-license is a true rarity) but the rosters of arcade game makers seem to indicate that we might reach the point soon, where if there isn’t a license of some kind attached to it, the game will not be made. Operators feel more comfortable with licenses since that attracts a built-in fanbase, which equals lower risk on the investment for them. It also means lower marketing costs for a manufacturer. I cannot argue against that completely as when I look at my earnings, my top stuff is usually something with a known license – Fast and Furious Super Cars, Terminator Salvation, Transformers, and now Jurassic Park (which made a little over $250 in two days, in case anyone was curious). My non-licensed stuff can earn but not as consistently. I usually have to be the one to promote them to get more plays and most manufacturers/distributors still are horrible at marketing their products to the public at large, moreso if there is no license attached to it.
Another point to make from the perspective of the arcade game maker is that the risk for them is dumping money into both software and hardware. The impression is that arcades are just PCs in a cabinet but there is more to it than that – the controls and the I/O boards are often proprietary and are not cheap to develop. Then maintaining them can be an issue. If you have to develop your own hardware solutions from scratch, get ready to pay up. Even if you want to use a pre-existing solution, it is not cheap (operators know this well when you have to pay $800 for a graphics card that would otherwise be $50). Yockey’s article also points out some good perspectives on what can
happen with location testing and it is a massive risk to undertake, much more so than getting your game on Steam Greenlight. I have two games in my arcade that were killed due to something going wrong on test, so that is very much a possibility and there are behind-the-scenes costs involved with those cancellations or reworkings that are not always made public. I think it is amazing that any indie has ever managed to get a game into production in the modern industry, given the costs, risks and challenges involved.
The article also generates discussion of video vs. redemption style gaming, pointing out why operators love ticket redemption. Ticket redemption doesn’t need to rely on licenses, just good ol’ physics and the possibility for a prize. One line I have heard a lot in recent times is that “people don’t trust video redemption like they do mechanical”. The article does point out how people don’t have as much an issue of dropping money down on a 10 second game experience if a prize is on the line, which they find more value from than playing a game for a high score which last several times as long.
This is not an insurmountable challenge for video to overcome, given some creative thinking. I think what is lost at times is the element of surprise – video games have to work harder at surprising the player to get them coming back for more and they need some personality. A license can give a game some built-in personality but not always, it depends upon how it is used. Play too much on the license and you are just relying on the comfort sympathies of the player (i.e. I love this TV show/movie so that is the only reason why I am playing this). Have a game that is surprising and fun and people will come back to it no matter what license is slapped on the marquee.
The surprise element I think this is lost when games try and handle things to the level of the Prompt ’em Up (my name for modern game types like The Last of Us, Call of Duty Advanced Warfare, The Order 1886, Thief 4, etc. etc. that have to label and script EVERY usable game element, assuming that the player is a complete idiot) as there is no real surprise there – it is going to be the same hand-held semi-interactive cut-scene every time you play, which is less enticing to spend continue money on. Of course that is why laserdisc games died such a quick death back in the day, although gamers were less forgiving of such gimmicks back then. Now most of the current top-selling AAA console games now use Prompt ‘Em Up style to one degree or another.
I think good games find ways to properly balance what is scripted and what is randomized, while not treating you like a Luddite moron. Doing that does take more work and money to develop than ‘get the coin through the target and win a prize’ but I think when achieved it is more memorable, which for the operator can equal more money.
People loved Asteroids since you would create your own chaos while breaking down rocks or Street Fighter II because it was a memorable surprise to pull off the special moves, or Mortal Kombat’s fatalities, or when coming across certain unexpected boss battles like the baby in CarnEvil. I was surprised by the depth of what you could do in Dariusburst in using your Burst lasers in different ways to create different scoring combos. For a more recent example, I was surprised by the humor elements in the new Doe of the Dead zombie game on Big Buck Wild. I wanted to play through the game to see how it would present the next zombie class with a funny line.
I think one reason pinball is enjoying a high right now is that people love that random surprise element to each game. In the case of Star Trek pinball, the game surprised me moreso than other pins due to a couple of features. I can still remember that moment when I activated the projected laser starfield, which I wasn’t expecting. That is when I told myself “I have to get this” and it was a good buy as the players have enjoyed it too. Speaking of indie challenges, we have seen that making a new pinball table is not as easy as drawing out a design on paper and getting the parts together. I guess you could say that there is no “get rich quick” scheme to creating a successful game for this industry.
The amount of casual players approaching gaming is larger than ever and given that trend, the way to make a top earning game is seen as toning down the skill required/challenge confronted. I think that can be overcome based on how a game presents itself on the first play. In the home space, there are creative ways some games have approached on how to tutor a new player and the best is finding a way to teach them how to play without them realizing that what they are going through is a tutorial. Arcades have the challenge of that requiring a condensed form of that given that people want quick play and instant gratification. This is of course why racing and light-gun games are so popular – you already know that you need to drive the car or point and shoot. They are ubiquitous enough that they teach you most everything you need to know upon a glance. But I think other types can still be done, as long as they present it correctly.
Anyways, I’ve rambled my bit for long enough, what are your thoughts on the article?