Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

Nine Game Production Lessons Learned from the Arcades

Posted by Rampant Coyote on November 19, 2012

Many game developers of the modern era have begged that the industry transcend its arcade roots. And I cannot disagree with them, as far as they go. The arcade machines were patterned after a different amusement than what games are now (or should be). The old arcade games were designed to maximize quarter revenue, for one thing. And the whole death / three lives (or “tries”) thing was exactly patterned after carnival games where you’d get, say, three rings to toss or three darts to throw at balloons. As much as I love the heritage and love the games, if there’s a place for that kind of design in today’s gaming environment, I’m not involved with it.  Yet many game designers – inspired by the games that were inspired by these arcade systems of the old days – still carry along some vestigial baggage of that era, game elements that serve little purpose (if not actually detrimental) in today’s gaming environment.

HOWEVER – as usual, I believe that there is a lot of value to be mined from the  past. Many of the game developers of the “golden age” of the arcades earned lessons in game design and production the hard way, in an environment that was just as competitive and perhaps even more unforgiving than it is today. The goals may have changed (although in an era where “Free to Play” is such a popular monetization method, there’s perhaps as many similarities as differences), the technology is almost incomparably improved, and the audiences grown more jaded, but a lot of the fundamentals are still there. Humans are still humans, and fun is still fun.

So what can we learn from “golden age” arcade machines? Now, I was only a kid back then, so my perspective is mostly that of the target audience, with a tiny bit of second- or third-hand tales from the development side of things. But here are some things I believe still apply:

#1 – Be Novel

Make no mistake, the arcades (or more particularly, the convenience stores, K-Marts, and other locations where arcade games might share space with bubblegum machines) had their share of clones. I mean, you take the worst cloning of today, and it was twice as bad back then… in some cases in the earliest days and foreign games, out-and-out piracy.  But the most successful games (in the U.S., at least) were the ones that innovated, or at least expanded upon the gameplay mechanics of their predecessors. That’s why Dig Dug became a hit, while nobody remembers even playing one of dozens of Space Invaders clones (“Space Attack“, “Spectral Invaders“, “Space Intruders“,etc…)

Galaxian was a game that did it right. Not content with simply cloning the gameplay of Taito’s hit, they expanded upon it. While it never achieved the success of the original (no other game but Pac-Man pulled that off, to my knowledge), it was a still a major hit. Likewise, it’d be hard to really point out any game released after 1980 that could truly be 100% original in gameplay or presentation – they all borrowed from each other – but the best-selling (and best-remembered) games of the era were always far more than “me, too” products.

Note that novelty alone isn’t enough – it’s simply one (important) ingredient. There were plenty of experimental failures back then, too. But the take-away for game developers should be to add something significantly new to the genre. Or maybe multiple things. Make Q*Bert or Centipede, not Hangly-Man.

#2 – Have Fun Immediately

Arcade game designers had to hook the player in approximately 90 seconds. If they failed, so would the game. This meant the controls couldn’t take too long to learn. In later generations of games, they could build (somewhat) upon skillsets developed by by gamers, but even that presented their own problems — like challenging a player (and keeping the quarter-flow going) that is already skilled at a similar game. (One more reason to be novel… then and now).

Ninety seconds is not a lot of time. In today’s world, new games can be downloaded and tried in that same ninety seconds.  It’s not much more difficult than moving on to a nearby machine at the arcade.

This is an issue with games that have lengthy tutorials. The tutorials had better be pretty fun on their own, or simply adapt to the player’s own progress. This also calls into focus the need for the game to be entertaining with the smallest possible subset of controls – the ones the players will be using right from the get-go.  The designer should never feel like they have to beg a player to “stick with it” for several minutes (or hours) “until it gets fun.” Sure, some games succeed in spite of this (and some genres are really, really hard to get the player into the core gameplay loop within 90 seconds or less), but it’s an important goal.

#3 – Adapt to the Hardware and the Environment

The arcade systems often ran on somewhat proprietary (and always limited) hardware.  They were played in a particular environment. There were a small handful of games that tried to be something they weren’t — to provide a different gameplay experience — and they didn’t do very well at all.  Yes, sometimes experimentation and attempting to push the boundaries fail. I don’t think the designers were (usually) ignorant of the setting limitations… but in some cases, they might have been.

Likewise, straight-up ports of games from console, PC, or iPhone onto other platforms usually do poorly, for the same reasons. There’s been a bit more of a convergence in the PC and TV-based console space, which has made conversion easier, but games must still be adapted to the hardware and environment.  If you are making a web-based game, you’ll need to consider a number of use factors that are different from, say, an iPhone game. Likewise, there will be technological limitations as well. Controls are a huge deal – the touch screen and tilt sensor is vastly different from a gamepad, which is in turn vastly different from a mouse and keyboard.  Playing on a big screen is different from playing on a little screen, even if the pixel resolution is similar. Playing on the bus on the way to work is very different from playing in your living room or on your computer in a web-browser when the boss isn’t looking.

Designers or publishers ignore these differences at their peril.

#4 – Attract Mode Should Be Attractive

In order to draw attention in a crowded room, arcade games had to use vibrant “attract mode” sequences. In the modern world, we can rely on game trailers and and the like, but the focus must still be on how a game can attract attention to itself. The attract mode was specific to the arcades – the game was there, turned on, running, in a crowd. Today, the possibilities for about everything BUT that are wide.  How many different ways can a game attract attention to itself? Or work with the player to draw attention? Some clever ideas – like posting updates on social media – have gotten overused to the point that they are almost useless, but that may simply mean that they need a brighter, more interesting “attract mode.”

The point of the attract mode was to advertise the fun – to show the player how much fun he or she would be having after they put the quarter in. They also provided an easy-to-understand demonstration of gameplay so the player could follow the modeled behavior – learning by example without putting in a quarter. Kinda like “Let’s Play” videos, maybe?

#5 – Being Good and Fast is Better than Being Perfect

As I recall, the market rewarded those who could get a good product to market quickly.  It was all about being able to get a game “good enough” in time for the big Amusements Operators Show or whatnot.  Some things have changed in this respect: For example, in a hit-driven console world, the big numbers tend to go to the biggest, baddest, most produced titles. However, none of these games have the “return on investment” of Minecraft (or many other indie titles), which was originally released in a freebie alpha form.

#6 – Nothing Beats Real Gameplay Feedback, as Soon as Possible

As I have heard, arcade game development at places like Atari tended to attract lots of play (and feedback) from other employees, which was invaluable to the developers. “Beta” systems were placed in test arcades, where actual players could be observed. There’s really nothing quite as effective as directly watching someone else play your game, seeing where they are struggling.  Every time you feel the need to explain something or apologize for something, you know you’ve got a problem.  Getting feedback early and often on your game is critical.

#7 – Do More With Less

With a few exceptions *cough*Defender*cough*, more successful arcade machines made the most of simple gameplay mechanics and simple controls.  They replaced breadth with depth. Yes, I prefer games with lots of breadth, personally, but the further you go in this direction, the more niche your game becomes. The fighting games that rules the arcades in the mid-90’s were this principle in action, where a few button presses could result in a dizzying array of moves. Too dizzying for my tastes, actually… which is why I was never very good at them (let this be another lesson…) But there was a nice middle ground in there where some excellent games managed to turn a few commands plus context plus mechanics into pure fun. Designers would do well strive for this goal.

#8 – Adapt to Change

The arcade market changed a lot during the era that it was significant.  The games and companies that survived (and are still producing coin-op games today) were able to adapt to those changes, and come up with inventive ways to make the arcade experience exciting and fun in spite of no longer having a technological advantage over consoles. It’s been a while, but I remember Dance Dance Revolution variants kicking butt and drawing crowds long after the ‘death’ of the arcades.

#9 – A Saturated Market Leads to the Doom of the Low-End

The arcade crash of the early 80s in the U.S. hurt everybody, but there was nothing fair about it.  The weaker games and manufacturers  – the ones simply cashing in on the “fad” – were the hardest hit. The same thing happens every time a bubble bursts and a market matures. If all you are doing is cashing in on the fad, your days are numbered.


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