Monday, 28 April 2014

Lament for the Arcade

Nothing makes me feel like a fossilized old nerd like modern video games. I just can't play most of them. It's not that I don't want to, I just don't have the time (or want to devote the time) required.

I grew up in the arcade era with Pac-Man, Q-Bert, Defender, Karateka, etc. I owned and played on a Coleco Adam, Commodore 64 (then a 128), and migrated to IBM PC games through the 386. One consistent theme ran through all those games that I call "Arcadability."

Arcadability is how easy a game is to learn to play; if you only had a $0.25 and 15 minutes can you figure out the basics of the game and still have fun? This Arcadability factor could still be found on the Nintendo Wii and the Sony Playstations 1 and 2. There were quite a few games that you could just pickup and play and not have to devote hours upon hours in mastering.

The first games to lose their Arcadability were the sports games. I started to notice a pattern where I could quickly master the Beginner level of almost any sports game. Very quickly I was beating the computer with absurd, unrealistic scores. For instance take hockey. I could regularly beat the computer 24-1 in three 5 minute periods. Gets a little boring. Up the level from Beginner to Intermediate, and the computer smokes me 15-0. So I went from bored to frustrated. I wanted to be to increase the challenge of the game, not be dominated by it. Now? I can't even beat the computer at the beginner level. This really hit home when I tried MLB 2012 The Show. When it was my turn up to bat, I couldn't hit a damned pitch. I searched online and found a few forums that recommended you devote hours to batting practice before playing your first game. What. The. Fuck. I don't want to be a pro baseball player! I just want to be entertained and distracted for an hour or two.

Serious gamers wanted more in-depth games. They wanted more realism, to be the coach and the player. They wanted big involved worlds with mystery that they could immerse themselves into for hours at a time. Me? I lost that desire a long time ago. I only have a few hours per month (not per week, per month) where I'm playing console based games. But the video game market now largely caters to the hardcore gamer. And I started to think that I was in a market segment that game developers didn't care about.

And then the Flash Game and the tablet based game phenomena happened. Here were a ton of games that you could download and have an arcade like experience. Angry Birds, Plants Vs. Zombies, Bejeweled, etc. all found a huge untapped market. Arcadability does sell. But now they want in-game purchases to suck your wallet dry. But that's another topic...

I still enjoy playing on a console based system. It's just a better overall experience. If developers repackaged and upgraded some of my favourite PS2 games like SSX Tricky, Splashdown, ATV Off-road fury, etc. for the PS3 (or even the PS4) I would buy them. These games were fun, easy to learn, and relatively easy to master. They also allowed multiple players to share one screen...

Aside: God I hate the online gaming phenomenon. Why? Because mutli-player games have evolved to only allow you to play online against others. There's four of us in this house that want to play each other, but we can't, because we only own one console hooked up to one television. To play against each other, we need four consoles, four televisions, and four copies of every game. That's frigging ridiculous. I spent several evenings with my friends crowded around a Sony PS2 and a 27" CRT divided into 4 little boxes so that we could play each  other. And we had a blast. I now have a larger LCD High Def screen and I can only play by myself. What the hell? Why did split screen gaming die? It was a major reason the Nintendo Wii was so popular with families, which included adults. I was looking forward to having this experience with my kids, but it just doesn't exist anymore!

Console game developers are not writing for me anymore. I'm not sure why not. Sure the hardcore gamers are a huge part of the market, but I have dollars to spend too. I just can't believe that my money is worth nothing to game development shops.

Bring back the arcadability factor, and you'll have a customer. But ignore that? Well then I guess you just don't want my money.


Ken Breadner said...

Does it surprise you that I could have written this word for word, minus some of your specifics? I had an Atari 2600, a TRS-80 Color Computer (16K), an Atari 800XL (64K) and then nothing for gaming was, for my late teens and early twenties, in an actual arcade, wherein I lost entirely too much money. Pinball, S.T.U.N. Runner (my God, I loved that game), Outrun...all fantastic game experiences that, as you note, took seconds to learn and minutes to master (for values of "master" that assured value for your quarter).
When I finally got back into home consoles, I found that something had changed. Gone was the nice grippable arcade style joystick, replaced by a little twig surrounded by dozens of little buttons. That's when I realized: Games aren't games any more, they're freaking operating systems,
As for the online play, again, it's like being in an echo chamber. It's more fun by far to be in the same room battling it out...but oh, how inconvenient. (Of course, since Parks Canada is putting wifi hotspots in a bunch of parks, soon you'll be able to play in your tent the way Nature intended....ugh.)

sinned34 said...

I too grew up in the arcade. Classics like Pac-man, Defender, up through the years to Rampage, Wonder Boy In Monster Land, Xenophobe, and Mortal Kombat. When games started being $1 per play, I stopped going to the arcade.
At home I went through a number of computers (VIC20, x86, AT, 386, P2 400, AMD Athlon, etc) and consoles (Intellivision, Colecovision, Atari 2600, NES, Genesis, PS1, PS2, PS3).
In the early days of gaming, arcade and console games were almost all about playability. Pick it up quickly and go for 5-10 mins per game. Computer games offered a lot more variability, including big time sinks. I've loved all kinds of games, like attack helicopter simulators, sports games, RPGs, FPS, MMORPGs, survival horror, etc. Pretty much everything except racing games.
The types of simple arcade games are still out there, you just need to know where to look to find them. Check out indie titles on PC or the Playstation or Microsoft network.
The big sellers like The Last Of Us or twitch and shoot king Modern Warfare aren't for everyone, but there's something for any taste out there.