Well I’m back from my Vegas vacation and while I didn’t come home a millionaire I did managed to come back in the black. Oddly enough the entire time there I had The Twilight Zone episode “The Fever” running in the back of my mind. While there is a great article waiting to be typed up about the gaming vs the games industry, this article is about something else I experienced while in Vegas. During my down time I stopped in a few arcades and it was like stepping into a museum. As someone who spends their time analyzing game design, looking at the arcades made me realized why things went so wrong and what could have been done. For this article I’m going to take apart the arcade genre and then show how it could have been put back together.
Too much of the same: Walking around the arcades the majority of the games I saw fell into 2 categories: Shooter, and Fighter. This was odd to me as I remember the beatemup genre to be a popular genre back in the heyday. The variety is definitely lacking compared to the console market, how many shooter games can you play before you get bored? When Dance Dance Revolution came out a few years ago, it provided a much needed shot of adrenaline to the market which I hoped would get things going again. There are so many more games that could fit into the arcade scene which I will be talking about later on in the article.
Seeing (too much) green: Next issue is a simple one, the money required to play in the arcade. Now this isn’t an issue about the economy and such but one about the lack of a standard rate for playing games in the arcade. In my time I’ve seen arcade games go from 25 cents to even two dollars a play and I can say with complete certainty that the quality of the games was not a factor here. During my trip I saw the same game in two different arcades; one charged 50 cents to play it the other $1. The reason why this was so detrimental to me was that it made me question even playing any arcade game in the place as I could probably find it cheaper somewhere else. If arcade games could have a set price similar to the console and PC market, this kind of problem wouldn’t happen.
Appetizer game design: As I’ve no doubt mentioned in countless entries, gameplay and game design are my main focus when it comes to games and that is why I’ve always had a hard time spending my time in an arcade. The entire nature of the arcade business is to get your money and delivering excellent gameplay is unfortunately on the back of the creator’s minds. I’ve played arcade machines since the early 90s and I can say at least in the US, which in terms of gameplay complexity I’ve seen Snes titles that offered deeper gameplay then most arcade titles. There are a few exceptions to this rule here; many more in Japan but finding them is like finding a diamond in the rough. The problem is the tightrope that designers had to cross when designing an arcade game, make it too complex and long and people will just stand and play the game until they finish and not make much money. If the game is too simple and too much about quarter crunching, then people will get tired fast and the money will stop rolling in. That kind of mentality is also a great stepping stone to my last problem with the arcade market.
Stuck in the 90s: Simply put, the mentality of what the arcade market should be never advanced past the 90s, compared to the console and pc markets that have changed drastically over the years. The arcade market was successful in the early 90s when consoles were still behind tech wise to the cabinets. That all changed around the time of the Dreamcast and PS2 when consoles could either come close or match the arcades in terms of graphics. Game design has also improved over leaps and bounds since the 90s, proving that you don’t need incredibly frustrating games to make a sale. In order to combat these changes the arcade publishers did… absolutely nothing, well except for raising the prices to play a game. It is a shame that the arcade market has declined (or maybe even died at this point) as I have a few ideas that could have helped it continue.
Do something new: Instead of releasing the same games over and over again the arcade market should have played towards its main strength, being able to create a game that financially or physically won’t work in the home market. DDR was such a great hit at the time because the setup wasn’t done before in the home market and being able to set up multiplayer with it in the arcade was a great idea. Imagine if in the arcade there was a complete set of instruments for Rock Band and it cost 50 cents a person to play a set list of songs or create your own. Gun Games had a great start with this idea, like Sniper Scope and Time Crisis. Two years ago while in Vegas I played this excellent gun game from Sega that allowed the player to control their movement and do special moves as well. That kind of thinking is what I wanted to see in arcades, let me play a game that I could not play at all from my house. To be honest I’m surprised that a game similar to Steel Battalion was never released in the arcade or at least in any that I could find.
One is the loneliest number: To put it simply if you are going to an arcade to play a game by yourself, you’re doing it wrong. While I both understand and agree that there are plenty of great arcade games designed for single player, the arcade market should have been co-op or competitive heaven. Going back to my previous point the arcade scene should have been on the fore front of designing new interesting ways for gamers to play together, which leads me perfectly enough to my next point.
Going online: The fact that arcade games never took advantage of the online revolution was a shame as it could have given the arcade a whole new life. The basic use could be simply having an online high score list as well as the local giving players the #1 spot to shoot for. The more obvious reason of course would be providing online games to play, which I admit that in the last few years with the arcade’s decline wouldn’t be feasible at this point to do.
No matter how optimistic I may have sounded in this post, I do feel that arcades in their current form are finished, at least in the US. Consoles that now provide online multiplayer and LAN centers that offer gamers a place to go to play games leaves the arcade scene stuck in time. At this point it would take a phoenix rising from the ashes restructuring similar to what Nintendo managed to do with the NES to the home market all those years ago to revive the market in my opinion. It is in some sense a shame that the place that made the industry so popular a few decades ago has shriveled up.
I leave you with 2 of my finest moments in the arcade. First was about 14 or so years ago: I was at an arcade minding my own business when a man came up to me and told me that he had to leave but had so many tokens left. So he decided to give me all the tokens he had left, then another man who saw that came over and did the same thing. Then 1 or two others came over and I had easily over 60 tokens left, unfortunately my father saw this and didn’t want hang there for me to finish took them away. Deep down I still hold some “gamer anger” towards him for doing that 🙂
Next moment came a few years later, Twin Galaxies that record high score world records came to my town to look for anyone to break a record or two. I managed to get the #1 high score on an arcade game (Captain America and The Avengers) and a pinball game (Star Trek I think, but I’m not sure). Last I checked I was still #1 in the world, but it has been a few years since I looked.
P.S I know that I didn’t mention the fighting genre in a positive light. The reason is that I wanted to focus on the parts of the arcade industry that are still stuck in the arcade. The fighting genre has made a successful transition to the home market and is still thriving.
Isn’t That Spatial? Every video game has certain benefits and constraints in the way it represents space. Interaction fiction, arcade titles, 2D side-scrollers, isometric RPGs, and first person shooters all have advantages and disadvantages to how they deal with space–some technical in nature, some design-based. This month’s topic invites you to explore the ways games have represented the spatial nature of their storyworlds and what this does for the audience experience. Is it possible to ignore the constancy of spatial relationships in a graphical game? What would such a game look like? Are there ways of representing spatial relationships that we haven’t explored? Do you have ideas for games that could intentionally twist the player’s perception of space, or do you want to write about a game that already has?
Curse that Corvus for his open ended topics forcing the gears in my brain to turn and turn. For this month it’s about the relationship of space in the world and its effect on storytelling. For this entry I’m splitting it into two parts, first I’m looking at what could be called a 1d title that still managed to pull the player into the story. Next I jump forward to an under use plot device of storytelling in games that I would like to see more of.
Scenic Storytelling: Most of you should know that when it comes down to it, I’ll take excellent gameplay and storytelling over a million dollar art budget any day and this title is an excellent example of the first two. King of Dragon Pass or as I like to call it “AAR heaven” was a unique title that came out awhile ago. The game is in essence a strategy title mixed with choose your own adventure books of yesteryear. You mission is to lead a clan to dominance in a valley by overseeing the tribe with your council. The entire game is nothing but still shots of your village and of important story elements which I’ll get to next.
The game is split into seasons which dictate your options as each season goes by an event will pop up and asking you to decide the outcome. What makes things interesting is that it’s never just a yes/no choice; with each choice affecting things from that point on gives the game a lot of replayability. What makes the game so endearing is that it is one big choose your own adventure, from the start to the end the player dictates how everything plays out. This is one of those games that really lend itself to AARs (After Action Reports) as one simple choice will lead each player somewhere else. I’ve always loved the choose your own adventure books growing up and I wish that we could see more games use that style of narrative. They allow the player to have a deeper role in the story and can be done without breaking the budget on art.
“Time and space:” Moving onto part 2, there have been many, many plot devices and themes used in game story telling. One that I’m partial to is the use of time travel or time manipulation. Now before I get started, Braid is not an example of what I’m looking for. Braid used time manipulation as the center of its gameplay, but it had very little bearing on the story as a whole. Chrono Trigger comes to mind as the first great example of time manipulation but I would like to see something more open ended. Imagine a game where you have control of the events and even the people that will make up the main situation of the game. Changing them around will drastically change the game and story providing the player with numerous options on how to affect everything.
Looking at the game ideas I’ve came up with over the past, very few of them use this style which is why I believe we don’t see a lot of games like this, because it is hard as hell to design something using time mechanics effectively. The challenge is balancing out the over powered imbalance feature of controlling time and still make a compelling game. Prince of Persia provided a great use of being able to rewind time as both an interesting and balanced mechanic. I think my interest for time travel and time alteration grew from watching Back to the Future too many times growing up, we’ve seen many games use some form of time control as a game mechanic. However I’ve yet to see it use effectively in the story of a game. I guess without being too much of a pun, time will tell if we’ll see a game that takes advantage of it.
This past month I finally picked up the Twilight Zone definitive collection featuring every episode of the original series. Which now leads me with the arduous (yet great) task of watching every Twilight Zone episode made . Two things stand out to me about the series , one was the thought that the show copies a lot of twists I’ve seen in newer shows. After thinking about that for a second I realized it made more sense if that statement was in reverse. Second is that a lot of the themes and stories still hold up today which brings me to the point of this entry, creating timeless works.
The Twilight Zone hits numerous themes in the world of Sci-Fi, Fantasy and social commentary that still ring true today. Whether it is a horrible future or the threat of the unknown the stories still hit home today as they did at least 40 years ago. To me, what makes TZ stand out compared to other shows of the period is that they were allowed to do what they want and didn’t have to worry about appealing to a specific group. The show was amazing at detailing the human condition and creating stories around it. I’m right now in the middle of the 2nd season and enjoying the variety of the tales. My next example is something a bit more modern and is one of my favorite animated series of all time.
Going from the late 50s to the early 90s hopefully most of you know what series I’m talking about. Batman the animated series was my first exposure to the Batman universe and is considered by a lot of people to be next to the comics as the best version of Batman. The show features in my opinion one of the best art styles I’ve seen (before the change in the later seasons) and it still holds up well today. Similar to TZ, BAS delivered unique content that anyone could watch; the stories were impressive and somewhat dark for a children’s show (both figuratively and literally).One thing that I really admired BAS for was how it treated each episode as a small movie. Other then the obvious two parters the rest of the episodes were standalone. Yet unlike a lot of kids cartoons today, even though there were wasn’t any cohesion between the episodes, they were allowed to create many unique stories because of it. It is this kind of dedication and quality of the episodes which would carry on to later shows like Justice League and to a lesser extent Teen Titans, but Batman was the one that started the trend. Avatar: The last Airbender is the most recent example of a great animated series but it’s still too new to talk about in this entry 🙂
My last example I want to talk about before looking at the game industry seems to fit perfectly with this week. The Beatles: RockBand is coming out and is set to introduce a new generation of people to the epic band. I admit that I’ve heard some songs from The Beatles growing up but I’ve never really sat down and listen to their later works. Listening to the small clips on websites from the game, I was amazed that the music really didn’t seem dated to me. I’ve listened to a lot of songs from the 50s, 60s, and so and with a lot of them you can hear in either their tone or lyrics a certain sense of being stuck in that time. I really don’t hear that with a lot of the songs I’ve heard from The Beatles. At this point I’m really thinking about picking up the game so that I can hear all these songs that I’ve missed. I won’t bore you about my views on music but I’m just not fan of most songs released today. Now then with all that said, it’s time to link this article to the games industry.
Creating something legendary in the music or TV genre can be a bit simpler compared to the games industry on the simple fact that here we actually have to interact with the product. I think the issue of creating games like this also fit into the issue in some sense of designing mass appeal video games. In my opinion there is a difference between designing a game for everyone and making it accessible to everyone. The former is a fool’s errand in my opinion and the latter is something every designer should strive for. The top video games that come to my mind are those that weren’t designed so that everyone can buy and enjoy them, but are polished and aimed at gamers who enjoy that genre. On the other hand creating a game that anyone can play is a different story, imagine if someone could design a 4x strategy title with the depth of Masters of Orion 2 and yet make it as accessible as Civilization it’s very hard but possible. A game like that could win major accolades , however making a 4x strategy game so simplified that anyone can play it may earn a lot of money but I bet won’t be remembered in a few years.
When I look at my design documents I don’t even think about what group of people will enjoy them, instead I focus on creating a polished experience that anyone can get into. Whether or not the game appeals to them is besides the point, the game is explained and created that someone will be able to figure out what is going on. I don’t care if a 18 year old skater punk likes my game instead of a 36 year old house wife, I’m more concern about if both people are able to understand the game play. When I think of games that I still enjoy playing today as I did when I first bought them, it’s not because they set out to create a game that everyone would love but because the game hit all the right notes for the genre or game mechanics and hasn’t been replicated since. For those reading this, what games come to your mind as timeless experiences that you still enjoy today?
Watching an old interview of Rod Serling last night on TZ he talked about the censorship of TV shows and the push for sterile cookie cutter programming over original pieces of work at the time. As I listened to him make a case for doing something unique and something that he wanted to do, I couldn’t help think about my own views of a designer. When you create a piece of work aimed solely at today most often it will stay there forever. Creating something with a passion and developing it to the best of your ability will hopefully last a lot longer.
When I think about it, I’d rather make an amazing title, something I can be proud of instead of a banal derivative game that has been copied so many times before. To end this entry I’m going to attempt to paraphrase a famous quote from The Twilight Zone ” If you design a game for everyone,it will appeal to no one.”
P.S. There was a great portion of the interview where Rod talked about the issue of creating art vs creating commercial properties which is a great discussion point but a bit much for this article.