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Criteria Used to Analyze Classic Arcade Video Games

At Nintendo in 1984 I created a list of twelve criteria I thought were key for arcade video games. For our games to engage and retain players, they needed to score high. A similar method could be useful today to focus developers on what matters most.

Jerry Momoda, Blogger

February 25, 2015

9 Min Read

An excerpt from “Methodologies to Analyze Classic Arcade Games”), at jerrymomoda.com

Those within the business understand video games are more than design, coding, artwork and sound. There are people dedicated to game and business analysis, contributing to key business decisions and working with designers to optimize the user experience (UX).

My interest in game analysis began in arcades during the early 80s. While waiting to play I would chat with other players. But mostly I watched. I compared their learning curve to my own. How quickly they learned, where difficulty and frustration occurred, and if rewards were used appropriately. Being able to translate my observations into actionable items, helped me better understand the user experience. By being a voice of the player, I could to help teams make games that would be played over and over again.

In 1982 I met Nintendo of America's VP of Marketing, Ron Judy while playing Donkey Kong. He arranged for me to meet with Mr. Arakawa over a then test game called Donkey Kong Junior. He asked I visit Nintendo the next day and show the company how to play. My demo and game analysis while the company watched earned me a job. Hired on the spot, it remains as one of my best days ever.

The industry was impacted by the “North American Crash of 1983”.  Devastating for the console industry, its effects sent a shiver throughout the coin-operated games business as well. The 1984 AMOA Show revealed the shift from only dedicated games to include "system" and "kit" games. This placed a focus on lower capital investment with a faster "return on investment". Hopes were that game operators would more frequently reinvest capital into new games.

Our competitor’s games often influenced the performance of our own. And while we had no control over them, we could learn from the games they made. Analyzing why certain games are popular has always been interesting to me.

What criteria were common amongst the highest earning games? What criteria were most important? I created a list of twelve I thought were key. Each was scored from low (1) to high (5). With a total score, I could quantify and compare one game against others. Though subjective and far from perfect, I felt it was a step in the right direction.

I used a rating system in my game analysis of 23 games, using the following criteria:

  1. Ease of Learning: “Easy to learn, hard to master” has been a design credo since the early days of video games. Games that can be learned intuitively pose fewer barriers to entry. "Intuitive" doesn't have to mean of low player skill or low ability to learn. Nor is teaching only required for complex games. Effective instructional design makes the complex feel intuitive. In early player observations I saw that Junior's mechanics and goals weren't as intuitive or clear as Donkey Kong's. New players couldn't see the path and suffered confusion and frustration. Though there's a fine line between providing enough instruction and smothering a player, so is there between being taught and discovering things on one's own. The “onboarding” process was, is and will always be key to video game engagement. The most intuitive arcade games require but a few instructions. Those instructions communicate the most information in the fewest words. They explain what to do (mechanics), how to win (stay alive) and how to die (game over). It's a fact most players don't read game instructions before playing. That's just the way it is.

  2. Perception of Goal: Well-communicated short, intermediate and overall goal structures keep players engaged and motivated. Multiple ways to complete a goal create agency and empowerment, depth and reasons for repeat play. And if measurable through points, a possible perfect score. Back then I wasn't aware of what's termed as, "intrinsic" and "extrinsic" motivation. My favorite games used extrinsic motivation (points), but I was intrinsically motivated to achieve maximum points (perfect score) for each level.

  3. Increasing Challenge: Instinctively players lose their motivation for achievement without sufficient challenge. Obviously there is a distinction between too little challenge and overwhelming a player. As much I like the classic Williams Electronics games of the 80's (e.g. Defender, Robotron 2082), they were known to be very difficult games. Their average play times were often less than 90 seconds. To encourage repeat play, I liked to set games for an average playtime of three minutes.

  4. Concentration Required: I believed “concentration” and focus was a component of engagement. The more focused, the better the comprehension, the more engaged players were in a game. However, to the contrary I now believe players can concentrate, without being fully engaged in what they’re playing. Nowadays we often multitask while playing games on our smartphones and tablets. We often watch television and have conversations while playing.

  5. Player Controls: Arcade game controllers ranged from joysticks and buttons to custom controls. Good controls empowered players to best perform the actions required in the game. Both game software and hardware (controller) needed to work in tandem. At Atari, the flight controller in “Star Wars” was perfect because of its straight inline camera. But using the same controller in “Return of the Jedi” was unempowering and problematic because of an isometric camera viewpoint.

  6. Randomness, Variety: I shouldn't have used these two terms in tandem because they are distinctly different. "Random" simply is the absence of a pattern. It's used to reduce predictability and keep players on their toes. In Donkey Kong, barrels drop down the ladders with some degree of randomness. Being unpredictable, players had to take chances. "Variety" is used to provide depth in game design. For example, Donkey Kong is comprised of four different stages. But if it only had one stage, players would have become bored playing the same level over and over again.

  7. Skill vs. Luck: Skill fuels competition because performance is measurable. Players prize their skill far more than value their luck. Skill games provide a feeling of empowerment and control. With skill and a platform to display it, it's like the carrot of retention.

  8. New, Unique Factor: Original game themes attracted crowds, got people talking and literally drove them to arcades. Better technology, innovations in controllers, impressive graphics were like shiny new toys. It was easier to be original then because classic arcade games were at the dawn of creation. Good games of less originality were often viewed as “been there, done that” and often flew under the radar. Though the natural instinct is to follow up a hit game with a sequel, they were usually far less successful than the original.

  9. Graphics Quality: Improvements in technology were most noticeable through higher resolution graphics and larger monitors. Appealing graphics drew people in to get a better look. Good game play without equally good graphics could cause a game to become a "sleeper". Good graphics made a good game better, but could never make a poor game become a good game. This was the case of many laserdisc games of the mid-80's. With outstanding cinema level graphics, games thrived on unintuitive button presses and clumsy joystick movements.

  10. Audio Quality: Is audio used appropriately to provide the proper feedback for players? Is it used to create emotion and identify progress? While important to the playing experience, quality of fidelity has always been an issue in arcades. Competing audio from other games and poor operator adjustments could render a games audio package ineffective.

  11. Action Factor: Early video games used fast action as a tactic to increase the perception of "action per second". Williams’s games like Defender and Robotron are classic examples of fast action and very short average playtimes. Game time was a precious commodity because peak playing times and hours of operation were limited. One player playing too long meant the next paying player had to wait.

  12. Value Per Play: In arcade games, players generally paid for each game played. Therefore it was important to deliver a level of satisfaction at the end of each game. The perception of "I can do it next time" is a strong motivation to continue. For a "continued game", the perceived value of continuing a game needed to exceed the perceived value of starting over or quitting. Value and satisfaction produce an "entertainment value", which was achieved through learning, challenge, motivation, achievement and reward.

High-ranking games at this 1984 show included Atari/Paperboy and Data East/Karate Champ. Other games like Sente/Hat Trick and Snack 'n Jaxson also ranked well because of their low capital investment and perceived fast return on investment. System and kit games, strapped to a common hardware had their share of challenges competing against the rapidly improving technology of custom dedicated hardware. Most of these have disappeared into obscurity.

Fast Forward...

The motivation for this post came after reviewing some of my work from thirty years ago. Far from perfect, I realize there is room for improvement. For starters, I could have modified my list of criteria and weighted some more/less than others. However, I believe that it can serve as a framework for arcade and mobile games today.

As a further caveat, these methods were based on my experiences from 1982 - 1985. Without prior experience in a new industry, still thought of nothing more than a passing fad, it really was the "wild west". I analyzed what I felt was important with the tools that I had.

Today game analysis involves analytics, with access to more data than anyone could ever want. User research and gamification make games out to be more science than art.  Criteria I refer to as "easy to learn", "perception of goal", "concentration required", "randomness & variety" now fall into the categories of engagement and retention.

Perform your own game analysis. Analyze your own game against similar games today and yesteryear. How do they measure up? Define your own key metrics and the criteria you deem necessary for a successful game. Each genre will have different metrics.

Or use such a tool as a means to identify what’s important for success. Then use it to help keep a game on track. Working on a game for months (or longer), yet being able to stand back and view as only one of thousands of choices isn’t easy.

It’s the rare indie who can objectively view their game through the fresh eyes of a consumer. This is a worthwhile check-in that should occur through multiple points during iteration.

This is the second half from my post titled “Methodologies to Analyze Classic Arcade Games.” It was written for Game Analysis, at jerrymomoda.com. The first part describes methods I used to analyze classic arcade games. Japanese development teams used the information to understand American players and make better games. I hope you find it interesting.

As an advocate of engagement, if you're reading this...mission accomplished! I'd love to hear your comments.

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