Those working in the game business understand there’s more than design, coding, artwork and audio. A variety of disciplines are now dedicated to maximizing the business and “usability” potential of games. People are dedicated to game and business analysis, contributing to key decisions, working with designers to optimize the user experience (UX). The field of game user research (GUR) studies how players interact with games. Genre and complexity of games today are so broad, game maker’s today must know their audience, interpret data collected and listen to community feedback.

In each game played, we as players consciously and subconsciously perform a mental checklist. It’s a process that determines if and to what degree we engage in a game. The level of engagement found in the majority of players ultimately determines a game’s popularity.

My interest in game analysis began in arcades during the early 80’s. While waiting to play, I would often chat with other players. But I found it equally informative to quietly observe. I compared their learning curve to my own. Was learning intuitive, did difficulty ramp fairly, and was challenge and achievement rewarded? Being able to translate my observations into actionable items, helped me better understand the user experience. By being a voice of the player, I could enable teams to make games that would be played over and over again.

Coin-Op: It’s About Earning Power

loose quarters, game analysis

Game earnings were the universal metric to evaluate arcade game performance

The best of the classic games distinguished themselves by earning more quarters than others. A simple, yet honest barometer.  They did so by commanding attention, engagement, and retention.

Weekly “collection reports” (see later example) documented each game’s earnings. Like a mini App Annie they ranked games by a metric ($) time on location (weeks), this week vs. last week’s rank. Obviously, mobile games don’t charge for each play like an arcade game. But doing so would reveal very interesting data. You never truly know the demand or perceived value of a product until people have to pay each time they use it.

Joining Nintendo

Figure 1: My Donkey Kong Junior report

In 1982 I met Nintendo of America’s VP of Marketing, Ron Judy while playing Donkey Kong. He arranged for me to meet with Mr. Arakawa over a then test game called Donkey Kong Junior. He asked me to visit Nintendo the next day and show the company how I played it. Surprisingly my demo and game comments while the company watched earned me a job. Hired on the spot, it remains as one of my best days ever.

Nintendo created the Market Research Analyst position for me. Improved information would lead to more informed business decisions. But I had no experience in the game industry. Nor did I know anyone else who did. Nintendo was the only game company in the Seattle area. I reported directly to the president of Nintendo of America, Minoru Arakawa.

Uniquely smart and confident, yet gracious and unassuming, the door to his office was always open. I was eager to learn and he willingly shared his knowledge. He was a very logical thinker but never assumed to have all the answers.

One of my first projects was a formal game analysis on Donkey Kong Junior (Figure 1). I described in detail the game’s different stages, level progression, game strengths, weaknesses and recommendations for improvement. Understanding its underachieving performance wasn’t as clear then as it is today. Was it too close to theme and timing on the heels of Donkey Kong? Did it have the right mix of easy to learn and hard to master? Was the basic storyline not as compelling? Or as a sequel to a blockbuster hit, were expectations just too high?

Personally, I liked Junior and believed it had the potential for a better fate. A few design tweaks to improve “onboarding” and goal recognition would have increased early engagement. In retrospect, the timing of when to introduce a sequel to one of the best games ever could have been better.

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10 Responses to Methodologies to Analyze Classic Arcade Games

  1. Frank Ballouz says:

    Well done, Mo Mo!!

  2. Jeff Walker says:

    Well done Jerry. I think all of us in the coin-operated amusement marketing side of things had a much harder challenge of selling units of entertainment time versus our counterparts selling package goods. Great article

    • Jerry Momoda says:

      Thank you Jeff! I agree with your challenge comment. We couldn’t B.S. a game was good when it wasn’t. The cashbox told the truth. But coin-op sales people really knew/know how to sell the less than great product. That takes chops. Coin-op has so many great stories to tell. The game is the game, yes? 🙂

  3. Mark West says:

    That’s a well-written article, Jerry, and it opened my eyes to the marketing research done in those days. I should have listened to more of your advice for “Danger Express”!

    • Jerry Momoda says:

      Well thank you Mark! As you know, at Atari Games we used a more process-minded approach to game development. Looking back, somehow incorporating an approach like mine into the concept approval process and at milestones might have been useful. I still remember how awesome an artist you are! Thanks for reading!

    • Jerry Momoda says:

      Nice article. Thanks for the heads up on using my Paperboy evaluation. At Atari, I worked with Dave Ralston on the Cyberball series. Dave designed 720, and co-designed Paperboy, Rampart and others.

      FYI, I wrote the Paperboy evaluation while at Nintendo. At each tradeshow I sought out new competitor offerings. I shared my competitive evaluations with Nintendo management, sales, and R&D in Japan.

  4. Cool article about classic arcade games. I had no idea that there were collection reports that could document how much each game earned. It could be fun to see how those earnings changed over time especially with new games that had come out.

    • Jerry Momoda says:

      Taylor, thank you for your comment. Perhaps there’s enough “meat” on the subject to write a follow up post and drill down more on the subject. Back in the day, collection reports were used to justify many a game buying decision. In arcade gamings heyday, the constant flow of new games put a lot of earnings pressure on existing games.

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