Saturday, November 21, 2009

Home arcades and the death of a game

In the gambling industry, spokespersons tend to call their business "gaming."  While the euphemism may be an affront to anti-gambling advocates, not only may "gambling" be rightly called "gaming," it may even be said that something may not be called "gaming" unless it is "gambling."  Game theory ensues.

State lotteries hit you with a bit of logic every so often: "You can't win if you don't play."  Of course, if you do the reasonable thing and add the "or lose" in the appropriate place in the sentence, you'll see what a game is.  A game is an activity that if you participate you will either win something or lose something.  There is no real in-between when it comes to games.  The only way to not win and to not lose is to not play.  If you play Monopoly, you will either win or lose.  If you play a tennis match you will either win or lose.  If you put 200 on All the King's Men you will either have to explain to the wife where the money she was saving for her new dress went or you'll be treating her to a fancy dinner during which she'll playfully try to surmise where this new wind-fall came from (heads up: she'll know it was the horses but she won't care).

Also, notice the symmetry between winning and losing.  In a good game, the price of losing is well balanced with the pay-out from winning.  If a game took $20 from a player if he lost, but gave the player a nickel if he won, no one would play it.  And a game designer won't get much business if he specializes in guaranteeing the house loses money.  So while you might say the difference between blackjack and Monopoly is that you don't lose anything when you lose a game of Monopoly, the corollary is that you don't win anything if you win it.

With the shift from video game arcades to home consoles, a novel and very popular type of game was severely compromised--so much so that it is debatable whether video games could correctly be called "games."  In the pre-video game era, the rewards for winning arcade games were tangible--if you won the game, you would either get toys or tickets that could be redeemed for toys.  With the advent of video games, a new game was created--the more you won the game, the more of the game you got to play for free.  (Apparently the game itself was satisfying enough as a toy to pass as a reward--the subject of the upcoming "Versus" post.)  These were the prototypes of the "gated game"--a game that puts up gates for the player to pass through in order to continue.

In a traditional arcade game, the player pays a token to play the game for an arbitrary amount of time, which would usually take the form of "lives" or just a straight-up clock that would count down to zero.  Essentially, the player has paid for a "stage" in the game and attempts to perform some task or series of tasks that will grant him another stage for free.  As long as the player keeps winning, the game keeps spitting out stages.  Once the player loses, however, the game requires another token. 

As we can clearly see, giving the player full access to the whole game for an upfront price severely compromises this type of game.  It's akin to telling a gambler that he can get $100 from the house if he pays the house $100.  There is a special kind of frustration you get from an ailing gamer these days, and I can't help but suspect it comes from the unconscious (or explicitly explicit) knowledge that he is working for something he already paid for.


Remy77077 said...

A link that I felt was especially relevant to this post:

Ferguson said...

Thanks again for the thought-provoking links. This article does tie in nicely with my observations, even if it's a bit more rude about it.