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.
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. It usually raises more questions, which can be a good thing. That said, data is only as good as the person using it. If players embrace a game, responding in ways (live updates) to keep them engaged over time is the key to a game’s longevity. 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:
- 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.
- 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.