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Justin Webb: My Excuse

Column By Justin Webb on June 02, 2010

My column was late this week. It should have been ready on Monday. Sorry! What’s my excuse? Well, the dog didn’t eat my notes, and I didn’t have in-laws over for Memorial Day -- it’s actually way better than that. On Monday I went to Funspot.

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When I say “went”, it makes it sound like I just went to the mall. Instead, this was more of a pilgrimage, a reverent journey to pay homage at the mecca of video gaming. You see, one of the benefits to living in Bostonis that it is very close to New Hampshire. And one of the really cool things about living near New Hampshire(apart from the whole no-sales-tax thing) is that it means you live near Funspot. And Funspot is AWESOME.

“What is Funspot?” some of you may be asking.


Funspot is the biggest video-game arcade in the world.

It houses the American Classic Arcade Museum, which is home to 275 classic arcade games. It’s the arcade featured in King of Kong, and the place where Billy Mitchell played the first ever perfect game of Pac-Man. It is my Sistine Chapel, my Shangri-la. So, while my American friends and co-workers were barbecuing or watching parades (or whatever it is Americans do on Memorial Day), I was stuffing quarters into video games and having flashbacks of my misspent youth.

If you are in your late thirties (like me), there are probably two pivotal moments that will have shaped your life and prodded you onto the road to becoming a gamer. The first is Star Wars. Being born in the early 70s means that you are exactly the right age to have had your mind blown in a darkened cinema in the summer of ‘77. The second is Space Invaders. I still remember the moment I first clapped eyes on a Space Invaders cabinet in a fish and chip shop in 1978. Several 10p pieces later and I was hooked. Hooked for life. Then came Galaxians, Galaga, Pac-Man, V2000, Colecovision, Sinclair Spectrum, Commodore 64, etc.

So, for me, going to Funspot is a huge deal. I get to play all the games I played as a kid without having to muck around with MAME. I get to play them as they were intended – on a stand-alone cabinet and not on a sofa in front of a TV. And I get to play them in a big dark room that resonates with the sounds of two-hundred sets of unique electronic bleeps and bloops; the clack-clack of silver balls ricocheting off of bumpers; and that unmistakable sound of a quarter passing through the coin slot and then clattering into the bowels of the cabinet beneath. The sensory overload is exquisite. As a designer, it’s also really interesting to see which games have stood the test of time … and which haven’t.

All nostalgia aside, many haven’t. Time has moved on, and the difficulty curves that we were once perfectly fine with are now brutal and unforgiving. Video games are really hard! Or I now suck. Probably both. I can now only last about 30 seconds on Defender – too many buttons. It’s like flying a Space Shuttle. Battlezone and Tempest kicked my ass too.

However, most of the classics still play exceptionally well, and give a real sense of achievement when you clear the board. Mr Do! (my favorite arcade game ever), Ms. Pacman, and Dig Dug are still charming and accessible, but not ridiculously hard like many other games of the era. I found that, even after 25 years, I still retained a lot of the necessary pattern recognition and muscle memory from my youth to get pretty deep. I could still get really far on some devilishly difficult games too, like Joust and Elevator Action. However, I couldn’t remember any of the moves on Dragon’s Lair or Space Ace.

Many of these old games are still awesome, and have great iconic interfaces. For example, the controller on Star Wars is still amazing. In my opinion, it’s the best arcade interface ever. And the wacky joystick-and-paddle on Tron is still a blast to play with, even if some of the game modes are a bit weird. The ratcheting rotary joysticks on Ikari Warriors (and its clones) still give an experience that is virtually irreproducible on today’s consoles, and it’s still surprisingly fun.

What is also interesting is to see the progression and methods these games employed to keep players paying. The early games were simple. One quarter = three lives. When you run out of lives, you’re done. Then came “continues”, where you could pay to extend your game by another three lives. Then came games like Gauntlet, where the player wasn’t paying a quarter to buy lives, but was directly buying hit points instead … and could insert quarters to buy more HP at any time. The overall scheme is the same – stick quarters into the machine to play  (or keep playing) – but the mechanisms to keep players paying adapted and evolved, in part due to the rise of the consoles.

This got me thinking about the paradoxical F2P discussions I see in the forums. Our entire industry evolved from arcade games, where players paid to experience content, and paid more to prolong that experience. (Many early MUDs and online games also used similar models, whereby players paid for time on those games.) Why do so many people have an intrinsic problem with microtransactions in F2P or freemium games? The rage on the forums is palpable. There’s a sense of entitlement coupled with a suspicious feeling of being swindled, with a side-order of indignation at “that guy with all the money”. Am I talking about someone complaining about F2P on the forums or am I describing the social politics of a video-game arcade in the mid-80s? It could be either. And, why do so many people react as if this kind of monetization is anything new? It isn’t. Publishers have been after your “quarters” since the dawn of the medium.

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