The idea that developers and publishers of contemporary games can take meaningful, monetising lessons from the heritage of arcade gaming might sound counterintuitive.
Arcade gaming today is often thought of as a dwindling niche where a handful of players remain devotedly committed to punishingly difficult games that ostracise larger audiences.That model appears to have very little to teach today’s developers and publishers about mass market success. But arcade’s long history and heritage goes back much further, and has encompassed a great many more models and audiences. History is also commonly cyclical and repeated. The trends that guided arcades evolution can be seen once more today.
Past phenomena of popular culture such Space Invaders, Pong and Asteroids still have much to teach us, as does the design evolution of the relationship between arcade monetisation and gameplay, and its efforts to engage and retain players.
It’s also worth bearing in mind that arcade gaming’s legacy is one of permeating so many facets of the modern gaming medium that it remains a present force today, if below the surface of most releases. Beyond introducing foundational game design concepts like scores, lives and the ‘game over’ concept, the roots of the now vast esports and online multiplayer gaming sector can be traced back to the earliest arcade competitions. Numerous genres have had their DNA forged by arcade game designers, and the old arcade marketing line ‘simple to learn; difficult to master’ – commonly attributed to Atari co-founder Nolan Bushnell – is one that will ring true to multiple F2P developers.
With that in mind, let’s consider what can be taken from the broad arcade form in the effort to elevate engagement, retention, monetisation and more.
Arcade games typically have a few moments to convince a new player that they should stop by a cabinet and insert their first coin, as the visitor passes through physical space deciding what to play, often only giving machines a glance. As such, an arcade game needs to communicate quickly and clearly what it is, and how it functions. An arcade game’s unique draw comes from its ability to be understood at a glance.
Looking across the history of the most successful arcade games, grokability (‘understandability’) can be seen as key to their success. The original Pong cabinets carried the engraved instruction ‘avoid missing ball for high score’. It’s a clear, smart distillation of what Pong is in just six words.
Considering that element of arcade games’ relationship with players, we can see the experience of visiting an arcade as akin to browsing an app store or digesting a gameplay or trailer video. When considering how to make your game more grokable – and therefore more likely to engage new players – it can be helpful to imagine the arcade scenario, or better still, look to comparable arcade games from the past that match your game’s genre, and deconstruct their approach to new players.
A quick check on some relevant arcade jargon here. ‘Attract screens’ are what displays on an arcade cabinet when nobody is playing, in an effort to ‘attract’ players that may be browsing the arcade. Attract screens usually scroll through typical gameplay, a game logo screen, maybe a simple cut scene that establishes tone and theme, and – on occasion – a single screen tutorial. They may have a very brief window – such as a passing player’s glance – to attract and engage, meaning they are highly focused on communicating the game with immediacy.
It is the ‘typical gameplay’ element that is most defining and important element of an attract screen. It endeavours to give players a sense of how to play at a glance, and is as such a tool that serves grokability. Analysing genre-relevant attract screens may prove highly helpful with your contemporary game’s grokability. Your video ads, social media gifs, app store landing pages and trailers can each serve grokability and engagement by inheriting the attract screen’s model providing clear, streamlined examples of gameplay and tone. Think of the visitor to your app store page as if they are strolling trough an arcade, glazing at games for a perhaps a moment or two – and model your ‘attract screen’ elements based on that.
Genres Emerge and Refine
As hit arcade games became thoroughly played, arcade visitors often developed a taste for more of the same – yet with increased depth and intricacy. At the same time, technological developments commonly enabled arcade game designers to offer more intricate experiences.
This combination of trends saw individual arcade games evolve into genres. A prime example is the move forward from arguably minimalist experiences like the fixed rail shooter Space Invaders, through to scrolling shooters such as Xevious, that over time progressed to examples carrying wildly complex scoring systems, immense projectile numbers, as seen with cult develop Cave’s later ‘bullet hell’ content such as DoDonPachi SaiDaiOuJou. That evolutionary design allowed the hardcore side of arcade shooting games to emerge – and similar processes can be seen over in the realm of PC, console and mobile gaming.
On PC, for example, a line can be traced from Wolfenstein to Fortnite, via Doom, Quake and Halo. On mobile, it is very easy to track the evolution from Bejewelled to Gardenscapes via Candy Crush Saga.
What can a contemporary game designer take from this game design phenomenon? Consider how some games offer the ‘design space’ for years of evolution and refinement. Consider how your current project can extend an existing design evolution thread by deconstructing what has come before. Or check if your game does take a form to the edge of the current design space – and if it needs to. There may be space for distinguishing improvements, though it is equally worth considering if those are necessary.
Bear in mind that iterating on an evolving genre should only be done with good reason – for example, to improve grokability or to add retaining strategic depth. Again – the example of the evolution of the 2D shooter is helpful here. After icons like Space Invaders and Asteroids set the convention and proved the potential, different developers took the form in subtly distinct directions – with most hits in the genre bringing or emphasising something distinct. R-Type and Gradius expanded the appeal by adding lashings of atmosphere, narrative and grand set-piece boss battles – offering something to those who wanted a little more than purebred twitch gaming. Pioneering works like Batsugun introduced the pace of bullet hell, appealing to a growing hardcore demographic across the general gaming landscape, before Cave and Raizing took the form and added tremendous scoring depth, again widening the form’s appeal while taking it to distinct places.
Retention Matters Most
One coin getting placed into an arcade cabinet by a new player is just the start. Meaningful arcade success came from getting a player to revisit a title over and again – a formative example of the value of retention in games.
And as the arcade user base began to initially dwindle, the value of retaining remaining players skyrocketed. As a result, arcade design had to keep moving to explore new means of retention. Ultimately, the pay-per-play monetisation model and arcade game design became increasingly deeply intertwined.
Early on, the novel experience of simply playing an arcade game that one enjoyed was enough to retain. Gradually, though, core arcade players’ motivation to assert mastery and get value for money focused on what was achievable with a single coin. Raising the level of challenge, therefore, let game designers retain that audience. But serving that group alone limited arcade’s potential audience.
Designers, then, started working to offer depth and breadth – all in an attempt to extend retention to appeal to as many player demographics as possible. Games started to rely not just on skill progression, but pattern learning, branching paths, different characters with unique strategies. All of which meant that arcade games became increasingly about learning and exploration to keep players coming back.
Later games, such as Street Fighter II, increased the emphasis on the likes of narrative endings, which had in fact been explored as early as 1983 by the arcade title Crystal Castles. An increased focus on progressing through a narrative to a conclusion meant that players had a clear goal to reach: completing the game. But it was highscores that became social proof for competency against an ever increasing yardstick; other players. In some of the purest arcade genres, score remains that leading point of social status within a game’s community.
Eventually plug in player cards – in a form much like that of a bank card – were introduced to track scores and save games. In the case of some games released for both SNK’s Neo Geo arcade and home systems, players could even use such cards to transfer save data between both platforms.
Today, the same evolution can be seen in PC, console and mobile games. Acquiring players is difficult, so keeping them is ever more important. And there the same rules apply:
Give your players something to work towards as a means to retain their interest and investment. Today score alone has less relevance across all gaming forms as the likes of narrative adventures have become more popular – genres where score can be deemed irrelevant or incompatible. As such, today social status for gamers often comes from completing games over pursuing score. Equally, emphasising score in many modern games can serve to highlight skill discrepancies, which may lead to churn of a large proportion of your audience made up of mid-skilled and casual players who could feel demeaned by low scoreboard placements. There are, of course, genres where score is a primary or secondary mechanic – do not remove score for the sake of it.
But while game completion does now offer social proof as players compare their ability and experience, it can be viewed as very limited, especially as a means to retain and monetise. Beyond adding additional content that gives players a new conclusion to pursue, there are few ways to harness game completion as a means to harness players’ appetite for comparison. However, cosmetics or economic rewards through systems like battle passes now serve a purpose comparable to arcade scoring, by indicating a player’s dedication and skill in the virtual, rather than real, social space..
Other design approaches can also be taken that innovate on the concept of game completion. Consider how arcade games often ‘loop’. After the player has completed the game – getting the satisfaction of ‘beating’ it – it begins anew from the start with harder difficulty or new mechanical dynamics. Even some early arcade games lopped indefinitely, extending retention and coins invested. A pure arcade looping system may not be appropriate for modern games. But you may be able to use a narrative and conclusion to retain a large sweep of players motivated by completion, before offering much more additional content to retain a significant audience for considerably longer.
Angry Birds 2’s daily challenges, for example, present a time-limited bundle of existing levels and a boss battle, offering sizable rewards to those that overcome the challenge. It can be understood to be something like a ‘looping’ of existing content, retaining while recycling created content.
The Best Games are Social
As much as being a place to play video games, arcades offer a social space to hang out. Long before the barcade concept, they provided many visitors with an equivalent to a bar – games set the theme, but conversation and interaction defined much of the experience. Anyone who has been a regular at an individual arcade will know that more time spent in such a destination is often spent socialising than actually playing.
But of equal importance was the arcade’s capacity to offer a ready-made live audience. Playing with spectators standing behind you – and overcoming how nerve wracking that can be – is part of the arcade experience. Like much of the esports and online multiplayer gaming world, in arcades playing and spectating are frequently inseparable.
Today MMORPGs like World of Warcraft serve a very similar function in virtual spaces. They can be truly social spaces where other players are also the audience that drives you to improve your performance or status. It’s a phenomenon explored in the fascinating academic paper ‘Alone together?’: exploring the social dynamics of massively multiplayer online games’, which has a great deal to teach today’s game makers.
Ultimately, arcade audiences create a social dynamic around performance, encouraging players to make more frequent visits and improve their ability – all with a view to further astonishing or growing their audience. Again, it’s another example of arcade engagement and retention – all the time a player is improving their ability for social status, they are putting money into a game. Social praise and kudos acts as a reward for the performance – and can be replicated in contemporary online games. Consider systems that allow not just spectating and clip sharing, but also the ability for other players to ‘like’, reward or gift those they watch.
The takeaway from arcade convention is that game studios and publishers can today use audience and spectating to amplify status drivers – drivers that can aid engagement and retention, lifting monetisation. Integrating that into social elements, meanwhile, will allow your game to harness the benefits arcades themselves bring, over arcade titles individually.
Play Gating and Loss Aversion Are Fundamentals
The most conventional arcade monetisation model is the ‘credit’. That is, a player inserts a coin of a set value in return for one credit. That credit will likely offer a player one try at a game with a small number of lives. Once those lives (and any extra earned through play) are lost, the game is over, and the player is offered the chance to restart or ‘continue’.
While beating a game without a continue is a focus for some hardcore arcade players, continues offer a very early example of a loss aversion mechanic. Loss aversion is a powerful psychological phenomena where players are typically very keen to avoid having things they have earned taken away from them. Loss aversion as a monetising strategy provides a chance to spend money to avoid losing the likes of progress and gained items. In the case of arcade games players can insert a coin to continue. Often score is taken away at that point, but not progress.
Over in the world of modern games, players can wait or pay to gain extra lives – or more turns in genres like match-3. Consider that in the contemporary gaming audience players are less resilient to being ‘threatened’ with having to start again if they do not choose to pay more. As a result the approach has evolved to be a much less blunt instrument. However, the same principles of the arcade continue to apply to loss avoidance mechanics today.
Simply put, your players will want to play, and will want to avoid losing either game time or collected items. As such they’re willing to pay for both.
Data and Testing Is Essential
While we think of data analysis application to games as a design aid being a relatively new invention, arcade and pinball tables have long had sophisticated bookkeeping and gameplay adjustment options tucked away in their service menus – sometimes even only accessible via physical ‘DIP switches’ housed on arcade circuitry.
Accessing these allowed individual arcade’s operators to see how much a game was generating, how long players were playing for, and what other behaviours were being demonstrated. Operators could then adjust parameters, such as lives, difficulty level, cost per play, and even the likes of at what score benchmark extra lives were awarded. As such, an arcade game could be tailored through the likes of A/B testing, before being optimised for its location and visiting audience. To this day new arcade releases also get a ‘loc test’ (location test), where pre-release versions are placed in a small number of public sites to gather both play data and feedback from players. The conventional mobile game soft launch – where a game is released early to limited countries for testing purposes – serves a very similar purpose as a loc test, and should always be considered as a fundamental of your launch and refinement strategy.
Today we can see how the tradition continues as game developers constantly monitor, test, refine and update many releases. Now, you may not need us to tell you to test and iterate, though that’s certainly something we recommend as part of the prototyping process and beyond. But one thing is clear – testing and adjusting games has been fundamental for decades, and the process was arguably forged in the arcades. If you are already doing it, you are already continuing an arcade tradition. And if you aren’t, you really should be.
Conclusion: Arcade is Never a Constant
Arcade has undergone many transformations, starting with the evolution of early interactive coin-operated mechanical devices that spun out of state fair midways and carnival games at the turn of the 20th century. Those had become electromechanical machines by the 1950s and 1960s. Soon after came solid state technology and the arrival of games with a screen in the 1970s. Decades later, as public interest in traditional gaming arcades waned, the likes of claw machines and redemption systems offered a new experience with a new monetisation model that involved spending money to play games to earn tickets to trade for prizes. Now there has been a boom in barcades – and arguably many of the on-site VR entertainment spaces that saw a pre-pandemic rise also continue the same evolutionary heritage.
Almost every form of videogame has enjoyed a comparable ride of rising, falling, evolving and diversifying. Nothing is static as genres merge, stall or return. External factors affecting player tastes and interest in games change, as demonstrated by the pandemic’s impact on the public’s relationship with the medium. Technology brings in new forms, and even the constant movement around studios growing, launching, merging or waning changes the medium.
This kind of change is expected, but today’s games don’t have the 120-year legacy of coin-operated amusements. So look to that heritage – the rolling journey of arcades’ constant birth, death, renaissance and evolution, and remember that everything changes and that little is constant. Game makers and publishers must both lead the changes and ride the trends. Just don’t expect anything in games to stay the same.
And even if your modern games feel a world away from arcade genres and culture, we strongly recommend looking for comparable arcade releases and monetisation models – even if that means turning to redemption or looking back to electromechanicals. Apply the deconstruction process – which we’ve made all the easier with our recent guide to getting that right.
And if you have the opportunity, spend some time playing games in a current arcade – because there’s a lot to be learned by being present in that kind of gaming space.
All that considered, we’re off to play some more DoDonPachi. Because learning from arcade games is a great excuse to keep playing them.