Thoughts: arcade machines

I didn’t forget about this blog, I promise. The last few months have been kinda busy, my mind always away, and I had to put some projects/ideas/things on a hold. Anyhow, today I feel like sharing some thoughts with the internet again.

Last week I was on a ferry, going from Sardinia to continental Italy. After sailing, I went to the bar area for a drink. It was already past midnight, the decks empty and silent. On my way back I noticed a small room full of nice, old-fashioned, good-looking cabinets. Needless to say I immediately went in for a game or two, almost literally starving for that unique kind of experience. Plus, the sea was rough, chances to sleep zero.


(I’m not the best photographer out there)

My weapon of choice was SEGA’s The House of the Dead, a 1996 first person shooter on rails. At first I had some troubles in understanding the essential interface, but after grasping the gameplay main mechanics the experience was a piece of cake: sweet, satisfying, and implicitly asking for more. Luckily enough, my empty wallet functioned as a deterrent to play all night. It was then, while looking in the deep abyss of brokeness, that an epiphany hit me like a punch in the teeth: cabinet games were designed for failure.

Now, allow me to express the concept on a more professional way. I realized that their design (not just The House of the Dead, but also those I used to play in the past) has some flaws, probably intentionally crafted to allow the players to constantly fail, hence encouraging them to put more money in the machine. Let’s take the mentioned shooter as an example: firstly, the user gets no introduction to the interface, nor to the gameplay mechanics. The tutorial consists in a quick “shoot the targets” hint while two or three zombies are already coming at you by close distance. And that’s all. You have to learn fast or spend lots of coins.

Then, there is the huge lack of precision in the machines’ response to human interaction. I understand these arcades are as old as I am, most likely, and probably their problems are the inevitable result of old technology, but that could be just a good excuse for developing games intended for easy profit. It seemed to me a precise design choice, aimed to make the game more difficult. Not “difficult” as in “get good bro”, like some trending titles nowadays (and most of yesterday’s console games); it looks a deliberate nonchalance that says “not our fault, try again!”. Enhanced by the fast countdown that encourages the player to continue in 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, (quick, insert another coin) 5, 4, 3, (c’mon you don’t want to lose your progress) 2, (well done mate, let’s go).

To be honest, I understand the needs behind this kind of design. Arcade games are strongly related to slot machines (Huhtamo, 2005), chance games, and therefore addiction. Their objective is apparently to entertain, which they do, but they also serve(d) as money-makers.


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