Are Nintendo playing the arcade game?

My last post recieved a fair bit of internet interest. Unfortunately, it was mostly as predicted and I’ve not read too much substance by way of replies here or at any of the forums that my article found itself linked on. Many of the comments I got back reeked of desperation and, for want of a better phrase, lacked logic. It’s quite a shame as there are two clear instances where I specifically asked folk with such mentalities to steer clear of reading further or making poorly considered comments. Some people have even tried to argue with me that I don’t get the point being made in the article. As you can imagine, I disagree quite strongly with this and find little credibility in the argument that follows such an assumption. I am happy to say that, in some quarters, there has been reasoned and considered responses – these are the exceptions rather than the rule though.

If there’s one thing your typical Nintendo fan loves to quote, it’s history. Hear them wax lyrical about how Halflife 2 owes everything to Goldeneye on the N64. Listen to them talk in wonder about how Nintendo consistently innovate and never copy (Nintendo don’t copy, they re-invent). History is important – it shows us what we might expect from the future, it can highlight trends and serve as both a promise and an omen.

How many of you reading this regularly visit a videogame arcade? If you do visit do you go as frequently as you used to? I suspect the answer is ‘no’ in most cases to both those questions. Arcade games in the 80s and 90s were quite a different scene to what you see today. Most games were standup cabinets and featured games where a skilled player could last over 15 minutes on a single credit. Or course, there were games at home too. During this period monochrome graphics and low resolutions were wowing us in our homes whilst the hi-res, sprite scaling antics of the arcades made it seem worth paying £1 a go for a 3 minute experience.

As the years ticked by consoles like the SNES and Megadrive gave us what felt like ‘arcade perfect’ conversions of titles like Final Fight and Golden Axe. Of course, looking back we can see some quite large differences between home and arcade – but in the day, we felt we were really playing with power.

3D hit the arcades with titles like Virtua Racing and amazed everyone. Then Ridge Racer appeared and just floored people like never before. A year later we were playing it in our home – arcade perfect or thereabouts.

This trend continues but the technology leader has become blurred. Arcade hardware and console hardware have become almost one and the same. The home consoles can easily provide arcade perfect versions of Tekken 5 and such games are designed for arcade and home in tandem.

Whilst videogames in the home have gone from strength to strength arcade games have paid the price. They don’t have the edge that placed them so far above home gaming. Visually they find it an increasingly difficult challenge to compete. Virtua Fighter 5 on Sega’s new Lindbergh hardware looks astounding – but if Xbox 360 images and PlayStation 3 images are to be believed then gamers at home won’t be left behind.

Arcade games have suffered enormously because of this. To compete they model the most succesful games on short-term gameplay. The most succesful arcade games of the last few generations are racing, sports and fighting games. If you’re bad at these games you’ll probably be beaten in under a minute. If you’re good at these games you’ll possibly win them in under 5 minutes. The entire game model is designed to get the punter to pump in more credits – regardless of their skill. No more long games like R-Type style shooters or Wonderboy style platformers.

Additionally, and most tellingly, arcade games have become dependent on novel experiences to differentiate them from the home gamer. You can play Outrun 2 on your Xbox – but the arcade offers a nice car to sit in, pedals and steering wheel. How about 18 Wheeler? You could play it on your PS2 but the arcade difference is the huge, juggernaut sized steering wheel, novelty CB radio and roof-chain to sound your horn. There are but two examples of how arcades compete with the home using novelty and gimmicks.

Arcades compensate for their lack of graphical superiority with home machines by creating novelty experiences with gimmicky controls.

A major exception to this is the fighting game scene. Community and tournaments have kept this scene alive irrespective of any technological advances in graphics or control. However, even this area of arcade gaming has felt the presence of Microsoft’s Xbox Live service. It’s easy to find another human challenger to play Streetfighter 3 with if you have an Xbox. Online play truly enhances the sense of community (although nothing can beat true, in-person, tournament play) and this is one area where home gaming looks set to expand and where arcades don’t really have anywhere to go.

So what’s the point of all this rambling?

It’s a history lesson. Have a look at the arcade industry to see what happens when you stop competingly graphically and start compensating by using novelty controls.

As much as one company will tell us how unimportant technology and graphics are, I look at what’s happened to the arcade industry and feel that someone’s trying to lie to me. Especially when, two generations ago, that same someone released hardware named after the technology it was based on – the Nintendo 64. When you’ve got it, you flaunt it. When you haven’t got it you attempt to discredit it.

This is marketing. Marketing isn’t truth.

I don’t agree that graphics are everything. But I don’t agree that graphics aren’t important. If history tells us one thing it’s that, like it or not, graphics and visual technology are very very important indeed. They are far more significant than any reliance on novel controls. This has brought a thriving arcade industry to it’s knees. An industry that asks you to pay £1 for a game. What will it do to a company asking you for thirty times that much for a game?

9 Responses

  1. frasier December 16, 2005 / 3:49 pm

    Excellent article Koffdrop, as normal. I have nothing to add, except I am not so certain about graphics being extremely important, in a direct sense at least. This has nothing to do with my view of Nintendo or any company, more that I do not think that graphics sell games consoles, directly at least. I believe this because:

    The general public have bought the PS2 over the Xbox and the Gamecube, which are more powerful than it. This, of course is hardly conclusive end of the arguement, as a counter arguement could just as easily generated: you could point out the Dreamcast did not sell as well as the PS2, and that was the weaker console. But was this the major reason for the failure of Sega’s last console? I do n0t think so. Sega, as we all well know, did far more wrong than just make a slightly weaker console. There console did not sell because of its abilities, or, in this case lack of them, it did not sell because it was unpopular, and the reasons for this lack of popularity were, in my, and I believe most other opinions, mostly unrelated to the consoles graphically capibilities. In fact I have discovered something for myself: graphics are not the way to sell a console, they are a way of selling games. I have only just realised this fact, but I do believe in it. People always state that the masses love graphics, that they would buy a console because of these graphics. But I do not think this is true. It is the games that people buy because of the graphics, not the consoles ability at producing them. Most gamers of a “casual nature” will buy the games console of the moment, and the games on it that appeal to them and have good graphics. The console of the moment is not in the postion it is in because of graphical abilities or otherwise. What sells a games console is not the graphics at all. It is a complex mix of marketing, looks, market potential, and the games it has. This mix is far too complex is far too uninteresting to bother to descrive to you, and, most likely, you already know what it is, as most of the general rules are known, even though hardly anyone bothers to discuss them. Common sense is a good thing. But here is a formula that is in relation to what sells a console on the games front:

    The console must have:

    Games that appeal to the mass market AND are exclusive to that console AND are in number on that console.

    This simple rule is easy to state but hard to obtain, evidently. But the point is a games console does not sell because of graphics.

    I do not underestimate graphics, however, they are, indirectly the thing that sells the console in that the graphical hardware is a very important item to attract gamers, and also, and more importantly, get those important games with mass market appeal onto the market.

    As well as this, graphics will affect sales of games consoles directly as well. They are often something that will attract the punter to the console, and then they can be drawn in by other features, and mass market games. Often the console’s graphics can sell the console entirely, although, in the majority of cases, I do not believe this to be true.

    Anyway, this is my opinion on the matter.

  2. Richard Tan December 17, 2005 / 8:25 am

    To start off, it’s a great article. Interestingly, Nintendo might actually be playing the arcade game, but I would have to predict that it won’t suffer the same fate as the arcade business has. The company’s been focusing on creating new experiences for the player that the other consoles cannot offer. However, this method seems to surprisingly be working. For example, even though the Nintendo DS is graphically inferior to the PSP, Nintendo’s been able to sell more of them compared to the PSP worldwide for a variety of reasons, which include pricing, games, and/or innovation.

    You mention that, “Arcades compensate for their lack of graphical superiority with home machines by creating novelty experiences with gimmicky controls.” I totally agree with this statement for the most part, but the current state of the arcade business seems to be attributed to more than just this aspect. For example, frasier stated:

    The console must have:

    Games that appeal to the mass market AND are exclusive to that console AND are in number on that console.

    So far, many mainstream and popular games have been exclusive to home consoles or the PC, while the arcades are left with games that are not quite as popular or as exclusive. I will add that arcade games lack the varying genres that the consoles can provide, such as RPGs and simulation games.

    Arcades are relatively expensive compared to console games. $1 might only last a person 5 minutes, but one $50 game can last a person dozens of hours without continuous fees (y’know, besides electricity).

    Arcades have never been convenient, so the home consoles provided a solution to this, and online gaming further expanded on the convenience of gaming with other players.

    Although several signs can point to Nintendo’s lack of success in the next generation, aren’t there signs that it could be a success? You mentioned, “I don’t agree that graphics are everything. But I don’t agree that graphics aren’t important. If history tells us one thing it’s that, like it or not, graphics and visual technology are very very important indeed. They are far more significant than any reliance on novel controls.” I have to agree that graphics and visual technology are very important, but it seems that they are only important to the extent of how it affects gameplay overall. For example, as the 2D world became more defined, sprites became more recognizable to help a player to progress through the game. As there was a transition into 3D, a whole new field of gaming was introduced, to the extent that cinematics and gaming were becoming more intertwined. As the models became more defined in our current generations, the environments became much more interactive and characters became more intimate (like MGS to MGS2 for interactivity and OoT to WW for character intimacy with facial expressions). However, what changes to gameplay will the next generation of graphics provide? Analysts have predicted that gamers will become more complacent with current generation graphics because of the lack of gameplay changes. Additionally, high definition graphics require high definition TVs. Overall, the product quality to price ratio will be very low if a person currently invests in graphics, whereas Nintendo plans to optimize this ratio to provide an enjoyable experience without having to butcher your wallet.

    If Nintendo has succeeded in anything, it is definitely refining the controller. Without them, the implementation of the cross direction pad, shoulder buttons, the analog stick, and the rumble feature may have even been nonexistent today. If there’s something to trust about Nintendo, it’s the ability to create a quality next generation controller.

    Overall, Nintendo does not seem to be playing the arcade game. They may want to innovate, but they’re not sacrificing the affordability, convenience, and variety of games that the arcade business sacrifices. Although Nintendo may seem to sacrifice graphics as well, some people speculate that this is not so, as Nintendo has recently patented new displacement mapping technology to be placed into the Revolution. According to wikipedia.org under the term ‘Nintendo Revolution’:

    A recent patent filed at the US Patent Office, number 6,971,957, describes how Nintendo aims to utilise Displacement Mapping techniques to cut down on the processing power required to generated high quality models. Displacement Mapping is a technique where a high-quality mesh physically transforms (displaces) a lower-quality object. Using the technique, a displacement map can be placed over a mesh of only a few hundred polygons and still look as comparable to a model consisting over thousands, even millions, of polygons. What this means in effect is that by using displacement mapping, Revolution games could look as good as Xbox 360/PlayStation3 titles without the need for high-powered processors such as CELL.

    I’m still placing faith in Nintendo since I’m happy with my Gamecube, GBA, and DS games. As long as Nintendo can make quality games that people will enjoy, it’ll be successful.

    (BTW, no offense, I’m just typing what I think)

  3. Retroid December 18, 2005 / 8:45 pm

    You know, based on the way you look at it you could say you’re paying £30 for an arcade machine. Of course you didn’t mean it that way.

  4. DFB December 19, 2005 / 12:06 pm

    I enjoyed that, more for your complaints about the death of the arcade as opposed to it maybe being an anallogy/comparison for something else.

    I’l be brief on the arcade matter as i fear its not your intention to discuss it, but i can see no way of the arcade ever recovering from its present slump. The ratio of time/technollogy advancement in this day and age in comparrison to the 80/90’s for that particular medium is far below that of the home console. And i doubt its not all financial and marketings fault.

    Still, there’s always the sweet smelling donut shop next door to waste some loose change.

  5. PrivateRyan December 19, 2005 / 3:10 pm

    “A major exception to this is the fighting game scene. Community and tournaments have kept this scene alive irrespective of any technological advances in graphics or control. However, even this area of arcade gaming has felt the presence of Microsoft’s Xbox Live service. It’s easy to find another human challenger to play Streetfighter 3 with if you have an Xbox. Online play truly enhances the sense of community (although nothing can beat true, in-person, tournament play) and this is one area where home gaming looks set to expand and where arcades don’t really have anywhere to go.”

    In some ways, that’s true, but it’s also important not to over-estimate the effect Xbox Live is having on fighting games. In many ways, the fighting game genre is the most immune to the ‘Xbox Live effect’ because of lag. Fighting games are more dependent on timing than any other genre and one single frame of lag is enough to throw timing off – our broadband structure isn’t strong enough to support fighting games yet (and the reason why, comparitively speaking when put up against the FPS genre, so few of the big hitters actually are online).

    Lag is the the reason so many arcade players aren’t online. Guys like Daigo Umehara, Justin Wong, Ricky Ortiz, KO, all the top players are arcade only. I remember going to the Neo Empire tournament for 3rd Strike and talking to CIV (the best 3S player in the UK, who ended up winning the tournament). I asked where his stick was. I might as well have asked him where his third arm is. “Stick? I don’t use stick! I play in the arcade.” He never even plays on console, let alone on Xbox Live. That’s not exactly a unique attitude amongst the top players either.

    The fighting game genre is based on competitiveness, professionalism through practice and yes, a fair degree of snobbery. Lag muddies those waters to the point where Xbox Live isn’t really seen as a viable alternative… yet (wait for broadband speeds to eliminate lag, then we’ll re-evaluate the scenario). In any case, from my experience of talking to players in arcades and such like, most people are using Live to train for the arcades rather than vice-versa.

    So why have arcades declined? Mainly because of what you said – people can get the arcade experience at home. Obviously, fighting games are technology resistant to a certain degree, so this is where arcade mis-management has to take the fair share of the blame for the decline. The buttons in the Trocadero are almost always broken, which puts players travelling from Newcastle/Nottingham/Birmingham off (also note: the many ‘technicians’ wandering the Troc don’t know how to fix them). Virtua Fighter 4: Final Tuned never arrived on these shores, driving a few players from that community away from arcades. Other games such as Capcom vs SNK 2, Capcom Fighting Jam, various KOFs, Marvel vs Capcom 2 have either yet to arrive here or lasted a few months before being replaced by Virtua Insert Generic Sport Here. And London players (let’s not kind ourselves, the only thing the UK has resembling an arcade scene is in London) resent being forced to pay £1 a pop for Tekken 5. Arcade mis-management strikes again!

    Perfect example: the management in the Troc decided they wanted to get back in touch with players, with the ‘real’ fans. They ask what game we want. Capcom vs SNK 2, we reply. And off they go. A few weeks later, a brand new cabinet was sitting in the Troc! A brand new Capcom vs SNK 1 cabinet, that is. After a few hissy fits and bruised egos clashed, the Trocadero management decide to try again. This time, they bring in SNK vs Capcom and get huffy when told it’s still the wrong game! It’s beyond a joke.

    Another example: in New York, Virtua Fighter players actually got together to buy their own Final Tuned cabinet, which they then put in the local Chinatown Fair arcade. Why? Because the arcade owner refused to believe people who play it, and so didn’t bring it again. And when he saw that people did play it, he demanded a hefty whack of the profits. The VF players refused and took the cabinet away, losing out on the ‘meeting point’ nature of the arcade, while the arcade owner never bothered replacing it and drove potential costumers away. It’s a lose lose situation (and CTF is arguably one of the few remaining ‘fighting game’ arcades in the US).

    Over in Japan, you have guys like KSK – 26, enters tournaments, usually places well, owns his own arcade (and just opened another, IIRC). And he has Kokujin, the best Dudley player in the world, working for him! Arcades owned and ran by real gamers, not opportunists looking to try and turn a few quid before moving on. Also in Japan, arcades such as More are dime a dozen and it’s not looked down on for gamers to walk in and just start… well, playing. It’s still part of their culture. It’s still about gaming.

    Over here, arcade games have tried to evolve into a family friendly experience and failed because 1) our culture, especially the family entertainment realm, still isn’t that accepting of videogames let alone arcade 2) they can get similar experiences at home and 3) it’s just too damn expensive at the arcade. I think that in many ways, Dance Dance Revolution and its ilk are the worst thing that could have happened in the arcades – they sent out the wrong signal and sent most (if not all, come to think of it) clueless arcade owners down the wrong road.

    Me? I rarely go these days. Can’t be arsed with Trocadero (broken cabs, no air conditioning, too expensive), can’t be arsed with local arcade (games all suck, no-one around to play). Occassionally I’ll give Time Crisis 3 the old whirl and smile as I still remember exactly when to duck as another red enemy pops up onscreen but that’s more to do with my own personal tribute to what arcades could (and should) have been rather than what they are now.

  6. DFB December 19, 2005 / 3:22 pm

    When i read Koff’s and Ryans(among others) writing it always reminds me why i chose to make a living with my hands.(sparky). Keep it up guys.

  7. Koffdrop December 19, 2005 / 6:14 pm

    I’ve little to add to these responses other than to say thanks for the time and effort in both reading and writing that the commentators have put into their responses.

    Nice one 🙂

  8. Samor December 22, 2005 / 4:26 pm

    Koff, I read your article yesterday, and then came across this one today:

    here

    I think you might like it 😉

  9. Koffdrop December 22, 2005 / 5:55 pm

    Thanks Samor!

    Yes, that was an entertaining article – although anything featured there is being given a negative slant so I don’t really think it’s being totally fair on the items it covers.

    Good ol’ Next Generation 🙂

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