Wednesday, February 15, 2006

What is an arcade?

The Game Dev Club at WPI is thinking about starting a project to put an "arcade-game-like device" in at WPI. It's all just fuzzy notions at the moment, but I thought the idea was fascinating, because despite its simplicity, the social ramifications you're aiming for are staggeringly complex and strikingly delicate.

My, how pretentious am I tonight? Sorry, I'm in an academic mood...

The basic idea of an arcade is not to have games for people to play. It's to have games for people to revolve around while they socialize and spend time together. This is why nearly all arcades also have food joints and often pool tables. They're really about socializing. With a time tax.

The idea of an arcade is to immerse everyone in a world where they have an excuse to hang out.

Therefore, "an arcade machine" is worthless. Two arcade machines, on the other hand, is valuable. You see, there's a certain minimum of people you need to catalyze (fun word! Use it in the next four hours for bonus points!) "socializing". And that number is extremely specific: five.

Five. It takes five people, no less, to turn a tight-knit group of friends hanging out into a social event. Five gives it not only the level of conversational churn it needs, but also the slack it needs to live through temporary disruptions such as "going to the bathroom" and "getting a bite to eat". Also, five people has strong gravity, especially at a college. If you have five people, you have a robust group. So you need to aim at gathering groups of five or more people. Meaning two arcade machines. Four players.

More than two would be aiming too high, as many arcades have discovered to their changrin. If you have too many machines for too low a population, you end up with a very low population distribution. No groups of five. If you were going to get a lot of people coming through, you could support three, five, fifteen arcade cabinets. But WPI won't see that kind of joy.

The purpose of the arcade games is to give people a reason to be together, and placing too many of them at the gathering point simply gives them a reason to stay apart. Any social gathering should have at least one idling player! Not all people should be playing at all times. Hence "social".

Of course, "real" arcades have a big problem in that their game cabinets are almost always a single game. One game is rarely fascinating enough to hold people's attention for weeks, unless it is about horse racing or golf. So arcades get lots of games and constantly buy new ones. When they do, they simply stick the old games in the back. In honesty, they'd probably be better off mothballing them altogether and running with between ten and thirty systems (depending on the number of clients they have). They could then unmothball the old systems for "retro night" or "Teenage Mutant Ninja Thursday".

The GDC at WPI has the advantage that its machines will be general-purpose consoles, able to play multiple games. This means it doesn't have to constantly buy new machines: it can simply change the game selection. In fact, it could have a headliner game or two, and then a random game from the backlist chosen each day. "Hey, look, today it's joust!" Talk about a reason to come back every day! So long as you have at least twenty games, that's gonna keep people coming back!

Of course, your game selection is critical. Not only in terms of how many games you have, but also in terms of what your primary games play like.

First, as to number: you don't want too many games. Or, if you do have too many games, you want a "random select" option. The way I would do it was explained above, but the basic idea is that you don't want the players to have more than seven choices as to games they will play.

But people get tired of playing the same game over and over, especially when there's nothing to bring them back. Animal Crossing knew this, and so should the GDC. Therefore, the console should change what's available every day. This does require a rather big backlog of games, but they can be shitty old games run on an emulator. Joust. Ms Pac Man. Altered Beast. Or their readily available public clones, if the legality doesn't work out.

Now, which games you choose as your primaries is also a hard question. There are two things that bring people back to your game: to master it and to keep up with it. For the first kind, the game is required to be competitive multiplayer. Like Street Fighter or a racing game. For the second kind, the game is required to change as time passes, and keep track of each player's data over time, giving them a reason to come back. There's an excellent horse racing game which does both of these: it's competitive and it changes over time.

The ideal game for the second kind of player would be something like Animal Crossing, where you live in a "super neighborhood" with everyone else who plays the game. Of course, given the resources of the GDC, it's more likely they won't be able to find a suitable "changing over time" game. But they can certainly find a suitable "competitive w/ high score table" game, and the arcade's selection can, itself, change over time.

Money is a sticky issue. Money really does an exquisite job of making players hang around the machines without playing them. Despite its self-centered origins, charging cash extends the longevity of a game - and an arcade - immensely. This is why I think "time cards" are a liability to an arcade. Charging by the hour sounds like a great idea - simplifies everything. Except it destroys the social aspect of the poor expert standing around making comments and begging a quarter.

It doesn't have to be much money, or even real money, but if the WPI arcade games don't charge, say, a quarter... they're not going to last long. Someone will play them into oblivion and then leave them behind forever.

A game which changes over time - like, say, Animal Crossing - could be free. Because you can't "play it all out" in one or two sittings. But games like Street Fighter or Zombie House need to charge money. They need people to have a reason to stop, and they need people to notice other people playing their favorite game that they would only play if they had more cash.

WPI currently has two vastly underused arcade cabinets in one of its social areas. However, the games are not competitive and do not change over time. Unsurprisingly, neither is very popular.

It's a complex problem, and has some sticky ramifications. Can you get away with charging a quarter as the Game Dev Club of WPI? Or are there rules requiring it to be free? If you do charge money, you have to buy a mechanical system for registering quarters and keeping them safe from the many eager lockpickers.

It would be a fun IQP. Wow, I would have loved that project, back when I was in college.


David Ludwig said...

Ever been to Funspot? If not, here are some of the highlights:

* Most games are a token apiece, the others are usually two tokens to start and one more to continue.

* With an Internet available coupon, 175 tokens can be had for $20, or between 11 and 12 cents a pop. Among Darren, Brad, and myself, we were about to stretch $20 apiece for 8+ hours with very little effort (other than the effort expended finding ways to spend tokens.)

* A huge selection of games. The Funspot website lists the place as being the 2nd largest arcade in the country. Whether that is in terms of size or in terms of machines, they don't say, but the place is huge, as arcades go.

As for a real, honest-to-goodness machine, there does seem to be a ready supply of honest-to-goodness arcade cabinets out there. New cabinets built to accomodate PC hardware can be bought for under a grand. Alternatively, there is no dearth of information on modifying older cabinets.

Now if you could get said machine to work with Daka swipe cards (I'm assuming they still exist)...

Craig Perko said...

Until the last line, I thought you were an ad spammer!

The point is, Funspot isn't an acceptable model for GDC's arcade, and it probably isn't even an efficient model for Funspot arcades.

And it should be pretty easy to wire a game to accept DAKA cards. However, that would completely defeat the purpose of requiring cash (in addition to being illegal). In this case, the idea isn't to make money. It's to keep players from playing too much.

David Ludwig said...

The point isn't to wire up an arcade in the same manner as Funspot. That'd just be silly, unless you can find the space and a diligent enough maintenance crew.

Anyways, my points are that:
* inexpensive is good.
* a plentiful selection of games isn't always bad.
* the form factor of an arcade machine might be a good thing for a student-run arcade.

Craig Perko said...

Your points are good. :)