#Where is the Modern Arcade?
Quickly after their invention, the space of playing videogames transformed from computer to public space. Players gathered to cheer on their friends, compete against rivals and impress the locals. Even the act of spectatorship was a physical engagement as observers walk from one cabinet to another, watching the latest computer-mediated action unfold.
But things have changed. Modern arcades have practically disappeared from Western culture, largely replaced by cellphone games. Play is no longer a public spectacle but a private undertaking. Spectatorship is limited to looking over the seat on the bus or post-play when comparing high scores.
Supply and demand happened. Videogame cabinets were expensive to build and expensive to maintain. As such, they were low in number compared to today’s videogame offerings. The announcement of a new arcade game was a huge change – a single new game might take up double digit %s of a local arcade’s offerings.
With the rise of console gaming, arcades began slowly dying off. Gameplay shifted from participating in a public space into living rooms powered by television sets. No longer restricted by the requirement of dextrous difficulty demanded by arcade owners, videogames explored plot & less time-constrained gameplay.
Knowledge began circulating in a more decentralized fashion through personal networks instead of at a common meeting ground. With the advent of videogame walkthroughs in magazines and internet guides, players were able to complete games more efficiently. As handheld devices and now cellphones ship equipped with the ability to play games, knowledge networks have expanded to entire forums and websites devoted to the art and science of playing games well. Unlike many of their arcade predecessors, most of these mobile games are for one person only. A shared experience has shifted into a personal escape from the world at large, securely hidden inside of a pocket-sized screen.
Arcade games had a potentially infinite cost to the player. A currency deposit bought a few chances to play the game. Failure could be redeemed with more currency, but with the knowledge that the game difficulty would continue to increase and the game might end again soon. Deciding to play was an expenditure of resources - players, typically young and with limited disposable income - had to ration their currency to enjoy their time playing. Fun games were played more. Unfun games were removed from the arcades to be replaced with more potent earners.
Social pressure & recognition motivated spending currency to play. Arcades typically were filled not with one but many people. Friends could cheer & jeer while their friends strived for excellence in a popular game. After an accomplished performance, players could enter their initials into a high-score screen. These screens were not, for many years, networked; the champion who rose to the top was someone local, possibly someone other players knew. This made achievement and rising from the bottom to replace a champion very personal.
The pleasure of playing in a public space lost out to console games as they explored new kinds of gameplay at a much more economic offer - a one time fee for the console and one time fees for games and the players received unlimited gameplay for a limited amount of money.
Games were still expensive to produce, and had to achieve some level of quality to become accepted enough to keep the developers & publisher in business. Now with increased ubiquity of programming knowledge & tools, just about anyone can make a game and many have. The internet at large and walled gardens of Android Play & iPhone App stores are full of titles.
Many cellphone games are free – absurdly so, in my opinion. With a dramatically increased supply, players can afford to be picky about what they spend money on with millions of games available in their phone as opposed to half a dozen in their arcade. Even with freemium models that allow for larger spends, many developers publish games for free just trying to build a fanbase or – to the chagrin of those trying to earn a living – just for fun, with no intention of earning income.
Not all is without hope for the modern arcade, however. Games designed with social interaction as part of their core mechanics are reintroducing players to each other as a core part of their gameplay. Media sharing and game replays has introduced a wider spectatorship audience and given them digital space to banter about game replays from across the globe. Some game designers are producing games designed to be played in a public space and the modern “barcade” is bringing back the classic arcade.
Examples of games designed around social interaction include King of Thieves and Clash of Clans. Both of these games revolve around players competing their skills & in-game resources against other players. Levels & battlefields are created and fought against asynchronously. Players can co-operate with their social networks to view and assist their real-life friends with in-game challenges. This brings to mind the arcade phenomenon of convincing your friend to join you in a co-op game to add extra firepower to your endeavours.
Real time strategy games and first person shooter games often come with replays built in. The popular Starcraft 2 has tournaments that are resolved by the competing players uploading replay files. Spectators can download these replays and watch on their own time, then comment in a public domain on the tournament sites.
Tools like Kamcord allows players to record their cellphone gameplay and share across social networks. Players can browse Kamcord’s library, discovering other games they may have never heard of. This is a modern analog of reviewing video footage of the entire world playing an arcade game and sharing sequences they found worthy.
Modern barcades are making a resurgence, combining old and new arcade games with the modern social sphere of bars. They enjoy modest success in niche markets across the West, though their age limit does hinder the younger players who typically populated arcades of past from participating in this refound group activity.
How can game developers recover the social experience from their game design? In addition to instances of the modern arcade discussed above, there is room for innovation.
Choice Chamber is a procedurally generated platformer playable by 1 or 2 players. The catch is that each game connects to a spectator chat. Spectactors can vote on powerups to introduce to the game, modifications to the enemies and other variations. The spectators are an integral part of the game design and thus, gameplay!
Perhaps in the future designers will continue to innovate like King of Thieves and Choice Chamber have. One possibility of this evolution is playing with an experienced “Mentor” in a given level. As the learner demonstrates skill, the “Mentor” and the player could have abilities unlocked, furthering their potential in the game.
Games have moved from social spaces to our pockets but with dozens of years in the evolution of game design and technological advances, I believe the new arcades will be even more amazing than before.