Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

Game Dev Quote of the Week: Playing For Quarters Edition

Posted by Rampant Coyote on February 7, 2014

ms_pac_man_cabinetI love digging out the old quotes about video games from the 80s and 90s. So much has changed, and so much seems quaint in retrospect, but the fundamental truths are usually still there once you strip out the technology and assumptions of the era. This one comes from the 1996 Computer Game Developers’ Conference (before it changed its name to GDC).

“The difference between home and coin-op games is simple, but it is critical to understand, because it overshadows everything else there is to say about this subject. It won’t really matter how many polygons your hardware can generate, how much (or little) blood you splash, how beautiful your cabinet packaging is, nor how much you spend on advertising– the bottom line always comes down to fun. (Coupled with proper tuning, of course.) In the home game world, many purchases are the result of advertising which leads the consumer to believe the game will be fun to play. In coin-op, where only extensive repeat play can justify the game’s existence, the appeal of the game must speak for itself. When a home game is sale is made, the customer hands over $50, whether or not s/he ends up enjoying the game. When a coin-op sale is made the customer puts up 50 cents. If s/he didn’t have fun, that’s all the money you are going to get from him / her. Operators will not, cannot, buy games which earn this poorly. And news on how games earn always gets around in this business.

“And what’s more, the customer must begin having fun immediately, without consulting any rules – sensing what to do intuitively. He cannot be made to feel intimidated or frustrated, and must want to pay to continue after playing for only 2 or 3 minutes. The challenge offered by the game must increase as the player’s skill increases, constantly balancing on the fine edge between frustrating him by killing him too quickly, and allowing him to live too long on a¬† credit, which will reduce the game’s earning power. It is challenging, expensive, and extremely risky, but also potentially rewarding beyond measure to be a coin-op video game developer.” — Jeff S. Brown, CGDC, 1996

To be honest, I really don’t know Mr. Brown’s credentials. He seemed knowledgeable about the business, though. I don’t know if he realized just how badly the coin-op arcade game business was drying up (although he did mention how 7-Eleven had recently announced it would no longer have arcade machines in their stores).

But aside from being a snapshot of history, there are some pieces that are still very true – particularly in markets where the “race to the bottom” in terms of pricing has now become a wasteland of free games begging for small change once you play them. But even above that fray, there’s still a lot less emphasis on up-front purchases. I think this situation may have some parallels to the old coin-op industry, except you have an even tougher time getting noticed. The same may apply to those of us doing the traditional demo / full version model.

Even the whole “living too long on a credit” idea, sadly, has a parallel in the “pay to win” side of the game monetization fence. I think the arcade games handled it a bit more honestly, but that’s just me.

The key points I pulled out, though, may sometimes be difficult to apply to certain genres (like RPGs), but still entirely valid goals for a designer to pursue:

1. Players need to be able to play without reading instructions. (*sigh*)

2. Players need to start having fun immediately – at least by the time 2-3 minutes have elapsed

3. Prevent players from feeling frustrated  or intimidated by the game.

4. Make a game that keeps a player entertained and challenged for every minute of play, so that if it *were* a coin-op, people wouldn’t ever want to quit pumping quarters into it. While it’s okay to have logical break-points where the player can save their game and come back tomorrow, designers should endeavor to keep the minute-by-minute gameplay fun, challenging, and varied.


Filed Under: Quote of the Week - Comments: 6 Comments to Read

  • Greg Squire said,

    Yep that’s still good advice for today. However there’s always some successful game out there that seems to break one or more of the traditional rules. A recent example is Flappy Bird on mobile. It’s an incredibly hard game (so it breaks #3 above) but somehow it’s gotten a large following and tons of people hooked on it. (see http://www.latimes.com/business/technology/la-fi-tn-flappy-bird-50000-daily-20140206,0,4148069.story#axzz2sexTJcfp). So these are more guidelines and good advice than hard and fast rules.

  • McTeddy said,

    I love the sigh on rule #1.

  • ShadowTiger said,

    Those goals don’t seem that great for the types of games I like to play (4x TBS / cRPGs) as you suggested. I do feel like mobile games are very similar to arcade games though the spending model isn’t exactly 25 cents every 2-3 minutes any more.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    I don’t know that they are achievable goals, but I don’t know that they are incompatible, either. I certainly think these kinds of games (I love TBS & cRPGs too, obviously) don’t lend themselves as easily to these concepts, but I think we can make strides in those directions, *without* turning the genres into “action games with RPG elements” as so many AAA RPGs seem to be these days.

    Why shouldn’t every minute of an RPG be fun? Why should they feel intimidated when they start a massive 4x TBS? They do. *I* do, and I love the genre (which is why I tend to play the same games for YEARS rather than playing a bunch of new ones).

    I think in part, one of the problems we’ve had has been the use of tutorials. As a general rule, tutorials are not fun. We have to climb this wall of tutorials in order to get to the fun part, rather than being eased gently into the game. So it’s like, “Hey, yay, we did away with the need for a manual! Aren’t you happy you don’t need to read it? Instead, you need to attend a class for 30-60 minutes before you are allowed to play.”

  • ShadowTiger said,

    I have gotten into some more complex games like Dominions 4 by watching people play them on youtube. For me that is a fun way to learn a game and decide if I want to buy it at the same time. I don’t think you can assume everyone will do that especially for an old-school type of game.

    Games should be fun most of the time, and my favorite games definitely follow that rule. They also have no tutorials or very brief and simple messages to get you started. (Master of Magic, Baldur’s Gate, etc). Then again, I learned how to play those games by watching my father and brother play them when I was little, and then later by reading walkthroughs and FAQs online. I also love reading manuals.

    I guess its hard to design games for people who are completely different than you, but I totally get that you don’t want long tutorials, especially walls of text.

    I guess the basic structure that RTS games like Warcraft and Command and Conquer use where they just ease you in with a few mechanics and slowly expand, while not holding you hostage from the gameplay or story, is the best way to go.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    Interesting thought… going back to the arcade games, I recall you often improved the most when you took turns and watched other people play. I make fun of my daughters watching “let’s play” videos – I call it, “watching someone else have fun.” But maybe there’s really something to that.