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On Arcades

06 Nov 2012

So yesterday, after thinking about Wreck-It Ralph, I came across this blog post by Alex Kierkegaard discussing why the North American arcade scene is dead. It's a long read, but a good read. I'll paraphrase what I think are the relevant portions below.

  1. Arcade games need a steady supply of tokens / quarters to be profitable. The only way to do that is to kill the player as fast as possible.
  2. Players don't want to spend more money than they have to.
  3. Arcade games, then, are a battle between the player and the programmer where the player's skill allows him to play longer on a single credit.

The core of Alex's argument comes down to the "one credit rule". He says that the North American game players don't understand the culture in Japan of the one credit rule, where you never press Continue. Instead, he says, Japanese culture has it right in that you should restart from the beginning and earn more playtime through skill.

So you pick a new game, play a credit for ten or so minutes until you lose, and while the continue timer is counting down you consider your options. If you let it time out and start over, you will get another ten or so minutes of playtime, but if you continue you probably won't even last half as long, since the game has obviously got harder now and you obviously can't handle it.

Do you see?

And with each successive time you continue you end up getting less and less playtime, to the point where you might as well just be emptying your wallet's contents into the fucking thing.

But if you take it from the beginning enough times, the opposite starts happening -- you get increasingly more playtime out of each credit, instead of less; eventually, you get to a point where you can go on for twenty minutes or more on a single credit. Get good enough at two-three games, and suddenly spending a few of hours in an arcade ends up being relatively inexpensive.

I both agree and disagree with this argument.

I agree that the arcade game is best treated as a game of pure skill. You should come into the arcade with a mindset of "I'm training myself to be better at X". You shouldn't ever use the continue option, as that bypasses the skill barrier you're training yourself to climb; instead you should work on learning the game's mechanics, grinding away until you finally get that elusive AAA rating or defeat M. Bison. It will feel like much more of an achievement.

However, I don't think "scrubs who hit continue" is what killed arcades. Instead I think it was the rise of the PC opening up new avenues for games, which lead to an eventual demographic shift.

Arcade games are designed for nerds. They're designed for the people who, as Rands would say, chase the first and second highs. They are designed to provide a challenge to the same kind of people who build complex spreadsheets and databases to maximize their virtual money per hour in MMOs. When playing an arcade game, it's us against the machine, player skill against a complex system of mechanics and numbers we can learn and conquer.

With the rise of the ubiquitous PC (I include consoles here), suddenly gaming machines are everywhere. Games begin to appear that don't require constant quarter munching to be profitable. Suddenly there's room for story-driven point-and-click adventures like Myst or RPGs like Morrowind and Skyrim. On the far end of the spectrum, there's games that involve persistent building and maintenance, like Farmville and SimCity. There's certainly complex systems to master in all those genres, but skill mastery is not a requirement to enjoy the game.

That's why I think arcades have died. Not because gaming culture is dead but conversely because the gaming industry has thrived. The gaming industry has moved away from games of skill towards a well-rounded playerbase; a playerbase that includes skill-based gamers, certainly, but one that also has room for your mother.