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Awakening the Arcade

The arcade has drifted off into history. In its slumber, much of the face-to-face socializing has faded as well. Have today's video games lost this social ambiance?

I joined Atari Coin-Op in 1982 during the height of its reign and spent 14 years learning at this great university. My job was to create music and audio for arcade games. I also managed the audio group. Besides learning to squeeze everything you could from the hardware of those days, what I learned behind the scenes will stay with me the rest of my life.

Much has been written about video games and I'm no historian. But, I do want to explain what Nolan Bushnell, and others at Atari like Rick Moncrief, Dave Ralston, John Salwitz and Ed Logg (among many, many other great video game makers) understood to be fundamental to great games and which seems to be lost today. To be successful, an arcade game must include three important ingredients:

  • It must promote a Social atmosphere
  • It must provide Novelty
  • It must be Fun

Video games must encourage socializing. For instance: cabinets that allow a boy to show off to his girlfriend - or games that include competitive head-to-head play (like Indy 800 or Gaunlet's 4 player cabinet) help bring people together.

It must include some form of novelty. The arcade business was highly competitive and game companies understood that there was just so many quarters in a players' pocket. Providing novelty helped pull players to your game and away from your competitors. All kinds of ideas were employed - unique, cool controllers (like Paperboy's bicycle handles, or Street Fighter's unique buttons); amazing graphics; "add a quarter to continue game" concept; and cool music, voice and sound effects.

It must be Fun! This sounds simple, but it is oh so hard to accomplish. Believe it or not, some teams are so busy they just miss this! And, despite what some game executives believe, you can't schedule when it'll be fun.

Games like Space Invaders, Asteroids, Tempest, Pacman, and Marble Madness, all capitalized on the essence of this magic formula. In those days, the coinbox was king and you understood within a week's test if you had a hit by checking how many quarters dropped in the box. Today's arcade is dismal, but I was happy to learn that Nolan is gearing up to resuscitate it. Check out the Wired article: The Player for more. It's a good read about revitalizing an important social institution.

What is important in past video games that is missing today?

Would you visit Nolan's new venture?


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Comments (2)
Read More Entries by Brad Fuller.


BradFuller said:

Greasy fingers and touchscreen menus.
> Seems like a wonderfully noble concept, but don't you think the game

> industry has evolved the way it has based on consumer demand?

Much has been written about the decline of coin-op. My personal opinion is that it's a combination of the technical advances of home platforms, investments into the home business (Nintendo, Sega and later Sony) and coin-op makers running scared.

Interestingly, the decline paralleled coin-op makers' fears - and progressed slowly. I know first-hand about the massive cuts into the fundamentals at several coin-op companies. At Atari hardware budgets decreased yearly - little at first, then cuts increased as time went on until there was NO hardware group that created new technologies.

That's cutting into the foundation of a fundamental coin-op rule: Novelty. Some decision makers at Atari believed that technologies were pretty much equal among all coin-op makers. Money should be invested into differentiating gameplay alone. They understood the other two rules but felt Novelty was not as equally important.

A few examples:

At one point, Atari wanted to use Atari Corp's jaguar chip set (and did) against fierce arguments (recall that Atari Corp was not associated with Atari.) One side believed that graphic hardware advances were becoming common and capabilities were pretty much equal among average capability graphic chipsets. They felt someone else should be burdened with the investment and battle. The other side questioned "how can we differentiate our games if we use the same graphics technology as everyone else? Especially if the players are leaving the arcade and moving to home games? They'll look the same."

The mechanical engineering group declined significantly as well. Cabinets became standardized and any special controller was frowned upon.
An example: The Hard Drivin' leader created forced-feedback steering. Atari thought that it was too expensive to include in the product. He held his ground (which became a dragged out, bloody battle) and the game finally shipped with forced-feedback. He was correct, of course, and the game is a milestone in coin-op history. The novelty aspects were important to its success and to becoming a hit. The forced-feedback patent also proved lucrative as well (one of his arguments in the beginning).

iocomposer said:

Greasy fingers and touchscreen menus.
Seems like a wonderfully noble concept, but don't you think the game industry has evolved the way it has based on consumer demand? It's not as though game developers are the only ones to blame for anti-social gaming. It seems like the ship is a little far off shore to get everyone back to the island. You never know though, my kids love Chuck E. Cheese. If they have better food at this new place, I'd probably be more enthusiastic to take them.

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