Arcade games as a business model
March 26, 2011
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As an afterthought to my previous post: Arcade games are determined mainly by their underlying business model.
Usually a game is sold to the player. How long or how often he will play it is of no concern to the designers, as long as he feels he got his money’s worth. Online games are a bit different. They make money primarily through monthly fees, so the player must keep playing it for the game to be profitable. But online games are relatively new, and their predecessors, the BBS door games, were never more than a niche.
Arcade games are among the oldest forms of games, they were never a niche, and their business model is completely different. They are sold to publicans and amusement hall proprietors who want the games to make them money. They must be designed in a way to keep the player inserting quarters.
The predominant system here is inherited from pinball machines, in part because arcade machines were often manufactured by pinball companies and in part because it is a tried and true system.
A pinball player gets a number of balls for his first coin. He can keep on playing as long as he keeps his ball in the game. He can score points with skillful play, and if he amasses enough points, he will get a free ball. A really good player might play for hours on his first coin, but he has to be really good. Arcade machines replaced balls with lives and changed little else about the system.
Of course, the designer has to keep a careful balance. If the game is to easy, players will not lose enough lifes and not insert enough coins. If it is too difficult, they might get frustrated and play elsewhere. This and nothing else is what defines an arcade game.
It is interesting that this system of lives and points was so pervasive, got so much accepted as part of the gameplay and not a business model, that many pure home platform games feature it as well. Even Wolfenstein 3D still has it, though it has a system of savegames as well, and lives thus don’t even make much gameplay sense.