I recently did a livestream to highlight – and judge- the top 10 entries of the #noticeMe Game Jam by Yoyo Games and Opera GX. If you missed the news, this was a competition that was held among indie developers using Game Maker Studio 2 with the theme “Then the Night Changed Everything.” One reason why I have been paying attention to it is that the competition promised to reward creators “…in the hopes of seeing their game appear in physical arcade cabinets.” While I have not encountered details as to whether or not these will show up in a cabinet of Yoyo’s making, or perhaps something pre-existing like the Polycade, it does mean potential new content for our space.
Over 300 games were submitted to the content but only 10 were deemed worth enough to go up for a public vote, so being an arcade operator with what I think is some kind of eye for what makes an arcade game work, I played them and judged them on the merits of whether or not it really would work in an environment like mine:
Voting took place up to April 5th and yesterday, they announced the winners. I did a video about this as well if anyone cares, although there are no celebrities smacking comedians here to get those sweet clicks:
If you’d rather just read about it, then I’ll lay it out here – the top five games were, starting with #5:
Out of those, I think that Soulvester VS Lil Beezey and Moonleap would required the fewest changes to be properly adapted for coin-op commercial use, although out of the 10, I ultimately voted for one not on the winner’s list, High Moon.
Now on that video, I did get asked what qualities make for a good arcade game, something I did talk about in the livestream, but let me lay it out here for anyone who cares.
I approached looking at these games like I would any game for my arcade. Having been in business for almost 14 years now, having purchased everything from brand new major manufacturer games to retro games to several indie games, I like to think that I have a decent sense of what makes an arcade game work – a winner or the “arcade X factor” if you will. So here are the points:
- Is the gameplay intuitive? I.e., How quickly can I pick the game mechanics up to start having fun? In writing and filmmaking, there’s the concept of “show, don’t tell.” In arcades, the game cabinet often accomplishes this as when you have a steering wheel, you know you’re going to be racing. With a joystick and buttons, it is a little unknown since there are many genres that can fit into that. Since everything for Notice Me is supposed to go into a joystick cab, I asked: How well does the game present it’s concept that it doesn’t need to tell me what to do or what is going on? Pac-Man is a great example of this, if you could put yourself into the mindset of being wholly unfamiliar with the concept and playing it for the first time. Granted, some concepts may need a little explanation, but where that is necessary, the less said the better – this is because in a real arcade, people do not like to read. Sometimes, they may not know how to, in the case of a child or someone who doesn’t speak English. Of course even when they do, I’ve had many adults not figure out simple things like how to start a pinball machine or how to navigate the different games. Thus, the game needs to be able to convey to the player what to do and how to do it so they can start having fun as quickly as is possible.
- If the mechanic is a little complex, is there a tutorial? Are you shoving menus at the player before they can get to the game? If so, then how complex is it? Can they be skipped? Most players when they approach a game for the first time just expect to insert their coins and get going. While you can have menus (thinks like stage or character/car selection), these have to be simple and they have to be brief. If they aren’t, it tends to make people walk away, even if they’ve paid for the game. Again, if you’re making the player read a bunch, you’ve failed. The same goes for a story, as I mentioned above. If arcade games have/want to tell a story, then it has to be integrated in a clever “show don’t tell” kind of way with narration, not text. Another key here is one “sin” that a lot of these #NoticeMe games committed – you CANNOT have a title menu with options in a coin-op arcade game. If you need something like that then it has to be on a timer and move them along quickly – you don’t have the luxury of a game console where you can sit around and tinker with things for as long as one likes (Gimmick! Exact Mix accomplishes this by telling the player to HOLD START when a game begins if they wish for options, then have a menu with a timer).
- Is it designed to play like my quarter is on the line with every play, or is is more like a console game under the “arcade genre”? I suppose this should be under the intuitive category, but I feel like it’s important to separate out for these Game Jam titles. There really is a different approach to designing a game to be played at an arcade vs. a mobile device or console. Sadly, a lot of the Game Jam entries did not seem to fully grasp this, although they weren’t totally off either.
- Is it fun? Replayable? One could also call this “service to the player.” Generally if it’s intuitive, it is fun, but overall, am I being entertained by this concept? Do I want to keep playing it over and over again? What we call the classics show how it’s done – it’s been 40 years but I still have people playing Ms. Pac-Man because it’s nailed the mechanics of everything up to this point.
- Is there extra depth to a game that surprises me? Street Fighter II and subsequent fighting games serve as great examples in this category – while on the surface you’ve just got fighting going on, control combos work to provide an extra layer of depth to skilled players that rewards them for going beyond the initial intuitive side of the game play. Dariusburst Another Chronicle showed how to do it in a shoot ’em up with mechanics like the Burst Laser and the Chronicle Mode. I would also put secrets here – every arcade game should have secrets in them to incentivize repeat play, but sadly most games these days lack such surprises. Which leads me to:
- Does the game have a personality? This is a little bit sweeping as it really incorporates some of the other aspects here including graphics and sound. The best explanation of what I mean can be said with Midway’s CarnEvil (or NBA Jam or Mortal Kombat). That’s a game that oozed personality, thanks to interesting villain characters. People remember a game with an interesting personality while bland, sanitized games quickly fill up history’s dustbin. This is also why I would lump secrets here – a game with secrets you can uncover show more personality for a game than one without it. I mentioned NBA Jam – the secret characters and personality played off of each other in that game, but sadly when was the last time you could think of an arcade game that did that (ok, I’m digressing)? Of the #NoticeMe games, Soulvester Vs. Lil Beezey had the best personality, which is why I think it should have been higher on the list (among other reasons).
- Do the graphics catch my attention? One thing I’ve learned about owning indie games is that the idea of “looking old” generally doesn’t work in a modern arcade, unless it’s something that has an established name. It’s hip and cool for Steam or eShop to make your game look like it fell out of 1984, but in an arcade environment where you can have games that span decades, if a brand new game looks like it’s from 1980-something, people generally don’t pay much attention to it as they think “eh, I don’t recognize this as a classic, I’ll move on.” Now can this be worked around? Sure. One thing that helps here when it comes to 2D games like those above is vibrancy. On my exA-Arcadia, one of my most played games has been Gimmick! Exact Mix. While the game is super tough and doesn’t get a ton of replay, it gets a lot of first tries because it just looks so inviting, despite being designed after an NES game. On the flipside, Blazing Chrome AC is also an awesome game with a much more forgiving learning curve, but where the graphics look more drab early 90s, it hasn’t been capturing that same level of attention.
- Does it have catchy/memorable sound effects and music? The audio side of any game is also important – and it’s also tied with the game’s personality. Sadly, many modern arcade games have just been going to licensed prefab music/effects archives instead of getting musicians to make something original. This makes them more forgettable and bland. There are certain sounds or songs that I could play that you would instantly be able to identify a game with. This is one area that exA-Arcadia titles have generally been nailing – Vritra Hexa and Gimmick! in particular have amazing soundtracks that I remember well after I’ve played the game. Now with the #NoticeMe Game Jam, they did exempt devs from having to create these since those can be time consuming and require musical talent that perhaps a single developer doesn’t have, so it wasn’t as weighted in this instance. But generally speaking I do consider such a thing.
If the game fulfills the points above then, it tends to positively answer the all-important question for arcade operators like myself – Will it earn? No players don’t think about this since they’re not the ones making the money, but they are the ones spending it, so if a game is fulfilling the points above, it tends to be a game that players want to pay to play and if that’s the case, operators make the money they need to make it viable.
As it is, the winners of the Game Jam will need to make some adjustments if they have a hope of doing well on the arcade market. As they are, they might do all-right in certain retrocades where they don’t charge by play and things get that console feeling going on of taking ones time. I don’t say this to slam these developers, I just say so as fixing/tweaking certain things will make it so that when these games show up on a cabinet, ops will be more inclined to grab one, which then means players can get a chance to play those titles in a real arcade setting. Otherwise, at least you can play them online in your browser too.
So, let me leave off with a congratulations to the winners – it is great to see that so many developers spent their time on submitting games to the event. If I had better familiarity with Game Maker then there is a concept I would have submitted, but oh well this time.
What do you think of the winners? What do you think of my arcade game design points – agree or disagree?