Increasing Challenge: Instinctively players lose their motivation for achievement without sufficient challenge. Obviously, there is a distinction between too little challenge and overwhelming a player. As much I like the classic Williams Electronics games of the 80’s (e.g. Defender, Robotron 2082), they were known to be very difficult games. Their average play times were often less than 90 seconds. To encourage repeat play, I liked to set games for an average playtime of three minutes.
- Concentration Required: I believed “concentration” and focus was a component of engagement. The more focused, the better the comprehension, the more engaged players were in a game. However, to the contrary, I now believe players can concentrate, without being fully engaged in what they’re playing. Nowadays we often multitask while playing games on our smartphones and tablets. We often watch television and have conversations while playing.
- Player Controls: Arcade game controllers ranged from joysticks and buttons to custom controls. Good controls empowered players to best perform the actions required in the game. Both game software and hardware (controller) needed to work in tandem. At Atari, the flight controller in “Star Wars” was perfect because of its straight inline camera. But using the same controller in “Return of the Jedi” was unempowering and problematic because of an isometric camera viewpoint.
- Randomness, Variety: I shouldn’t have used these two terms in tandem because they are distinctly different. “Random” simply is the absence of a pattern. It’s used to reduce predictability and keep players on their toes. In Donkey Kong, barrels drop down the ladders with some degree of randomness. Being unpredictable, players had to take chances. “Variety” is used to provide depth in game design. For example, Donkey Kong is comprised of four different stages. But if it only had one stage, players would have become bored playing the same level over and over again.
- Skill vs. Luck: Skill fuels competition because performance is measurable. Players prize their skill far more than value their luck. Skill games provide a feeling of empowerment and control. With skill and a platform to display it, it’s like the carrot of retention.
- New, Unique Factor: Original game themes attracted crowds, got people talking and literally drove them to arcades. Better technology, innovations in controllers, impressive graphics were like shiny new toys. It was easier to be original then because classic arcade games were at the dawn of creation. Good games of less originality were often viewed as “been there, done that” and often flew under the radar. Though the natural instinct is to follow up a hit game with a sequel, they were usually far less successful than the original.
- Graphics Quality: Improvements in technology were most noticeable through higher resolution graphics and larger monitors. Appealing graphics drew people in to get a better look. Good gameplay without equally good graphics could cause a game to become a “sleeper.” Good graphics made a good game better, but could never make a poor game become a good game. This was the case of many laserdisc games of the mid-80’s. With outstanding cinema level graphics, games thrived on unintuitive button presses and clumsy joystick movements.
Audio Quality: Is audio used appropriately to provide the proper feedback for players? Is it used to create emotion and identify progress? While important to the playing experience, quality of fidelity has alway been an issue in arcades. Competing audio from other games and poor operator adjustments could render an audio package ineffective.
- Action Factor: Early video games used fast action as a tactic to increase the perception of “action per second.” Williams games like Defender and Robotron are classic examples of fast action and very short average playtimes. Game time was a precious commodity because peak playing times and hours of operation were limited. One player playing too long meant the next paying player had to wait.
- Value Per Play: In arcade games, players generally paid for each game played. Therefore it was important to deliver a level of satisfaction at the end of each game. The perception of “I can do it next time” is a strong motivation to continue. For a “continued game,” the perceived value of continuing a game needed to exceed the perceived value of starting over or quitting. Value and satisfaction produce an “entertainment value,” which was achieved through learning, challenge, motivation, achievement, and reward.
High ranking games at the show included Atari/Paperboy and Data East/Karate Champ. Other games like Sente/Hat Trick and Snack ‘n Jaxson also ranked well because of their low capital investment and perceived fast return on investment. System and kit games, strapped to a common hardware had their share of challenges competing against the rapidly improving technology of custom dedicated hardware. Most of these have disappeared into obscurity.