Collection Report for Popeye in 1982

Figure 3: Collection Report for Popeye in 1982

Performance is Dynamic and Uncertain

An interdependency exists between an arcade game and all other games in the room. Its earnings are only relative to the competition in the location (Figure 3). But a consensus amongst multiple locations established a consistency that could be trusted.

For manufacturers, understanding a games relative strength contributed to more accurate forecasting. Distributors could justify spending a greater share of their budget with one manufacturer and less with others. Only extraordinary games moved the needle enough to expand the purchasing budgets of distributors and operators.

Before joining Nintendo I was introduced to the sport of horse racing. Trying to predict the winners and losers of a race, I saw an eerie similarity. In the “Daily Racing Form,” past performance and class were an indicator of future performance. But you couldn’t bank on it.

Both horses and arcade games compete in a race against others

Both horses and arcade games compete in a race against others

And like a horse race, an arcade game competes against several competitors. The games are judged at different points in the race (hours, days) and how they finish at the end (week). But because of so much uncertainty, we manufacturers had the saying, “you’re only as good as your last game.”

Throughout the history of video games, people have tried to make it a science. But thankfully there will always be an “art” to making games. For me, that’s a large part of its lure. Today’s analytical, data-centric approach arms developers with incredible insight, but seldom provides the answers they need. That said, once players “accept” a game, responding in ways (live updates) to keep them engaged over time is much more plausible. This is especially true in the case of “GaaS” (games as a service).

Criteria of a Good Arcade Game

In 1983, the industry experienced the “North American Crash.”  Devastating for the console industry, its effects sent a shiver throughout the coin-operated games business as well. The 1984 AMOA Show revealed the shift from only dedicated games to include “system” and “kit” games. This placed a focus on lower capital investment with a faster “return on investment.” Hopes were game operators would more frequently reinvest capital into new games.

Our competitors game’s often influenced the performance of our own. And while we had no control over them, we could learn from the games they made. Analyzing why certain games are popular has always been interesting to me.

What criteria could be considered common denominators of arcade video games? What criteria was most important? I created a list of twelve I thought were key. Each was scored from low (1) to high (5). With a total score, I could quantify and compare one game against others. Though subjective and far from perfect, I felt it was a step in the right direction (Figure 4).

At the AMOA show I used a rating system in my game analysis of 23 games, using the following criteria:

  1. Ease of Learning: “Easy to learn, hard to master” has been a design credo since the early days of video games. Games that can be learned intuitively pose fewer barriers to entry. “Intuitive” doesn’t have to mean of low player skill or low ability to learn. Nor is teaching only required for complex games. Effective instructional design makes the complex feel intuitive. In early player observations, I saw that Junior’s mechanics and goals weren’t as intuitive or clear as Donkey Kong’s. New players couldn’t see the path and suffered confusion and frustration. Though there’s a fine line between providing enough instruction and smothering a player, so is there between being taught and discovering things on one’s own. The “onboarding” process was, is and will always be key to video game engagement. The most intuitive arcade games require but a few instructions. Those instructions communicate the most information in the fewest words. They explain what to do (mechanics), how to win (stay alive) and how to die (game over). It’s a fact most players don’t read game instructions before playing. That’s just the way it is.
  2. Perception of Goal: A well communicated short, intermediate and overall goal structure keep players engaged and motivated. Multiple ways to complete a goal create agency and empowerment, depth and reason for repeat play. And if measurable through points, a possible perfect score. Back then I wasn’t aware of what’s termed as, “intrinsic” and “extrinsic” motivation. My favorite games used extrinsic motivation (points), but I was intrinsically motivated to achieve maximum points (perfect score) for each level.

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6 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!

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