DigiPen #2 – Arcade Observations

I guess this is where we post our essays online for everyone else to read. Mine’s a little long and forgive me if I don’t take time to add the pictures in as well. – Leonard


Arcades were once the Mecca of bored teenagers. The bright lights, the promise of exciting action, the cacophony of bleeps, bloops and fanfares engendered a digital warzone that tickles the fancy of burgeoning machismo. It was a haven for game-play and it was where boys flocked to.

Now, apart from a few, they stand as desolate relics of videogame’s history; a mausoleum of machines that once stood proud and loud. It’s a victim of the rapid advancement of technology, of computers becoming smaller and more powerful. First came the LAN centres[1], then came the consoles and HDTVs; arcades were doomed to irrelevancy in the eyes of video gamers, unless they introduced something drastic.

Alright, that’s all a little bit dramatic, but there’s a certain truth that with the availability of awesome games across a wide variety of platforms, Arcades are essentially a niche form of video games, where once they were the promised land of milk and hadokens.

What changed was the advancement of video game technology. Arcades used to be places where players gets to show off their awesome skills, pwning n00bs who dare to saunter up and carelessly throwing their quarters[2] in the slot. Now with the advent of decent matchmaking systems on the Internet, who needs to venture forth from your den of iniquity to challenge unknown strangers?

Game play changed as well. Rail shooters, common in arcades, gave way to the frantic first person firefights you can have at home or at LAN shops. Games at home became more complex, more demanding of your attention and more of a value proposition for the time and money spent. “Seriously, 2 dollars for a game that I’ll lose in 10 minutes, and I have to pay more to play? I’ll just quick-load this bit again, thanks.”

So, like any beast in a desperate struggle for its own survival, it evolved. Where claw games were once relegated for girls and petty amusement between bouts of streetfightering, now they are the main draw. Arcades have adopted a sort of casino mentality, where the token doesn’t guarantee you a few minutes of video-gaming pleasure, it entices you to perhaps get more than what you pay for. These are the machines that see the most action, while the rows and rows of fighting game machines sit almost empty.

Arcades can provide games with unique interactions. It started with whack-a-mole, and all the other carnival variants that made its way into the arcade’s hall. These became driving games, rail shooters and fishing games and morphed into full motion simulations, starting with Ferrari’s racing car, to flight sims, and eventually a Gundam Pod. They were expensive, but they could be found in an arcade in all their ostentatious glory, standing front and centre to attract gamers. They were big and they were expensive; 2 dollars a games. Kids may not be wise with their spending habits, but they have limited resources.

So Arcade offered different games with different types of interactions. The appeal of sangokushi taisen 3 can almost be attributed to the way the player shuffles the cards around on the board, like a general commanding his army on a war table. Rhythm games were born in the arcade, starting with dance dance revolutions, though even these moved into the average home with Guitar Hero and Rock Band. Similarly, once popular date fodder games like Bishi Bashi became Wario Party on a Wii.

Yet for all the unique interactions and game play an arcade can provide, it can’t pack the teenage crowd in like they use to. There are plenty of reasons not to go to an arcade today, “It’s expensive, I can play cooler games at home, it’s loud, dark and full of unsavoury characters, and I’m lazy.

Arcades can do two things much better than home consoles and personal computers. One, it provides a physical space where gamers can interact with one another, a common area where friends without rec rooms can gather, and two, it makes everything bigger.

The first was key in the arcade’s original popularity, but has since fallen out of favour. Social interaction now is through Web 2.0 and its ilk, gamers gather less physically than they do in online groups, forums and guilds. It’s all well and good, but often lacks the real human connection of physically communicating with another person.

For example, just the other day, I witnessed a dishevelled sack of a man take a bright eyed, eager foreigner under his wing in Sangokushi Taisen 3.[3]In an excitable smattering of dialect, mandarin and halting English, he tried to explain to the white guy about how to play the game. There was a translator of course, but it was still oddly strange to see these two specimens, in where they can perhaps find no other common ground, communicate with one another. If anything, it’s an indication that game play can transcend language and become a form of cross language communication. A physical space helps this. Imagine if the elder Chinese guy had to communicate to the white guy over the internet.

It’s a reminder that games can come with a strong social binding force, a concept that arcade games seem to lack. They should take a look at board games. A surge of board game cafes, and the continued popularity of board games in the west can indicate that people are more than willing to play games with one another, no matter the technology.

Take this fancy fishing game here for example. It’s essentially single player and takes its game design cues more from redemptiongames and gambling than actual player interaction. Yet it isn’t hard to imagine this guy of playing board, perhaps with touch screen, playing Settlers of Catan, or Zombies.[4] Or even a specifically arcade designed game, where players can drop in and out, play a few rounds and leave, interacting with strangers across the table and perhaps even chat with them after. All the interpersonal fun of board games combined with the computational power of video-games. Axis and Allies need not be tedious no longer.

And it can be big. Take a game, project into unto a huge screen, and let it be an audience event. Perhaps it won’t work for a more staid strategically brain teaser like Catan, but imagine if Sengokushi Taisen 3 was played like a board game, its battle rendered Dynasty Warrior style on a screen while players take turn shuffling cards around a digital board. Now, you’re in control of a Ridley Scott[5] battle scene, with all the drama, furore and fun that entails, and you can get an audience to cheer you on. It’s an experience that’s definitely unlikely to happen at home.

Computer games at home are likely to evolve further. Game design is fast becoming a discipline that encompasses all possibilities of players interacting with systems. See Kinect. While games on consoles and computers are growing deeper, more meaningful and easier to acquire, arcades games will be left in the dust if they offer little that the average gamer can’t get at home. And they offer it for a much higher long-term price system.[6] At that point, those cabinets become a coffin.

Stray Notes:

–          Of course, this entire observation is from a Singaporean perspective. I understand that in America, arcade games evolved from Carnival games and the video gaming part of them came later, with streetfighter and mortal Kombat essentially leading their revivals. My memory only stretches back to the late 80s and we never had carnivals in Singapore.
–          Conversely, we had a huge surge of LAN shops in the 90s that is pretty much dead around these parts but going on strong in Korea and China. It’s part of why how the arcade changed here, and the reason can be boiled down to 3 games: Counterstrike, Starcraft. And DOTA.
–          Sengokushi Taisen 3 really does seem like a complicated RTS made unique by its user-interaction and CCG elements. It’s a curious type of game-play innovation, I wonder if there’s a chance for a more computer / console type variant.
–          Man those rail shooters never evolved much did they? They just incorporate bigger and bigger guns and dumber and dumber set pieces.

[1] In Asia at least.
[2] We didn’t have quarters either. Games started at 20 cents, then became 50 cents a token.
[3] A game with its own strange inner circle cabalistic like society, almost mimicking initiation ceremonies with the way new players get viable decks to play the game with.
[4] Microsoft Surface is in development. The nuances of UI can be discussed in depth later, but the main idea is that Arcades can incorporate surface to be a hybrid of a Settler’s Café and Virtualand arcade zone.
[5] Or John Woo, if you are so inclined.
[6] Arcades: The original microtransactions system.


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