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Meet Facebook Games' Ancestor: Coin-Op Arcades

Many in the gaming community sneer at social games claiming reasons such as "it's all for the money." Yet many of these same gamers' childhood favorites were designed similarly. This article looks at the similarities and try to find the real reasons.

This article originally ran on game design site The Game Prodigy.  Visit for more resources on game design.

Game designs built to keep players addicted.  Perfectly tuned difficulty to compel them to cough up more real-world cash.  Giving lavish rewards within the first 30 seconds to psychologically hook players.  Showing activity of friends and other players to keep competitive juices flowing.

Can you guess what genre of games I’m talking about?

If you live in the present, which I assume you do, then you would probably think that I’m talking about Facebook games.  The platform has taken the world by storm and now with over 200 million people playing them every month, more humans are interacting with games than ever before.  In fact, there are more people playing games on Facebook than on every current generation console combined.

This movement hasn’t come without its critics, however.  Many game developers, particularly those who grew up in the console generation and are well accustomed to their 3 hour play sessions and 50-hour intensive titles, absolutely despise social games. Some of us just don’t understand it.  Why would someone spend extra money on a virtual horse that doesn’t do anything except animate?  It makes no sense.

As a former social game designer as well as retro game enthusiast, I will not stand for such cursory dismissal of an entire genre.  This is a topic I care deeply about.  So at the risk of being a little too combative, it pleases me to write an analysis of the family tree of today’s Facebook games, all the way back to the titles that introduced many of today’s game development generation to games in the first place: Coin-Op Arcade Games.

That’s right.  All of the game design aspects mentioned at the top of this article apply to coin-op games as well.  Donkey Kong, Pac-Man, Millipede, you name it.  But don’t take my word for it.  Let’s look at the facts.

Financially-Driven Game Design

Photo: goodrob13

Ian Bogost, a Georgia Tech professor who I respect a great deal, was quoted in the SF Weekly article “FarmVillains” saying that Zynga’s games are “like strip-mining. They don’t really care about the longevity of the form or the experience. … That sort of attitude is the sort of thing you usually hear about from oil companies or pharmaceuticals. You don’t really hear about it in arts and entertainment.”

This quote echoes how I think a lot of game developers feel, that Facebook games are all driven by financial incentive.  That they aren’t built for player to have fun, they are crafted and tuned in order to maximize profit.  When the designers sit down with their whiteboards to talk about the new homesteads players can purchase, they aren’t discussing what features they think would be fun.  They are discussing what features they think will generate revenue.  And this is wrong.  It’s a conversation that makes a lot of us developers uncomfortable.

But these kinds of revenue-combined-with-game-design discussions weren’t unique to just Facebook games.  Coin-Op Arcades had them too.  If you created a game that was too difficult, then players would put in their quarter, lose, and quit playing.  But if you made it too easy, then they would keep playing for hours, edging out other kids who had their own quarters to spend.  Thus, the trick, and the pattern learned by some of the beloved games of that generation, was to make a game that got you hooked and made you think you could do better on the second go around.

Many games only allowed players to start and restart with each quarter.  But other coin op games, like Raiden Fighters or Metal Slug, allowed players to go further in the game by using more quarters, plunking them in literally for extra lives.  You could get there by skill or by paying…not unlike many Facebook games today.  And the actual design of the game had a direct effect on the amount of revenue the company would make, whether they would stay in business, and whether they would make another game in the franchise.

Make the second tank boss too easy?  You’ve just missed out on a lot of quarters and a lot of revenue from players purchasing more lives.

So the idea of financially-driven game design is not new.  It has its roots in Coin-Op games and other models that I won’t get into here.  What’s different then is not that the games have a financial incentive, because even console titles have a financial incentive.  The difference is in the process, that the business model is “mixed up with” the game design model.  For a good 15 years or so, from the first Nintendo Entertainment System to the Playstation 3, the game industry was able to exist with developers in one room and business people in the other room.  The developers would just focus on the “fun”, with no other thought than delivering a great play experience.  Meanwhile down the hall, the marketers and MBA’s would try and figure out how to sell the thing, negotiating with retailers, getting their distribution in order, and haggling prices to undercut competitors.

All of that business stuff, the money matters, isn’t particularly something that many of us game developers are really interested in.  So it’s understandable that many of us are a bit shocked when are suddenly asked to incorporate the business model into the actual design of the game.  In Facebook games, this happens all the time.  But my point is that it’s not unique to Facebook.  It was true in the 80′s as well.

This main similarity, game design model and business model in one, drives a lot of the other similarities as well.

Instant Gratification and Addiction

In Facebook games, the well developed ones anyway, players Level Up to Level 2 usually in under three minutes.  They are receiving XP and Coins even before that.  They load the game, and BAM, magical stuff is popping out of everywhere.  Chopping trees yields stars and hearts in Frontierville.  Clicking cities gives higher Population score in City of Wonder.  And before you know it, you’re hit with a massive “Congratulations!  Level 2!” screen.

Arcade Coin-Op games were almost identical design-wise.  Once the player dropped that 25¢, then the fun flew off at 60 mph.  They would quickly get familiar with the controls, and within seconds start racking up points.  Grabbing a cherry or chomping down on a pellet would immediately award the player with 10 points, 100 points, 1,000 points.  Within a minute they were in the tens of thousands and gaining more every second.  The beeps and bloops keep going, and they player feels absolutely great about what they’ve accomplished.

The design intent in all of these games is the same: get the player to feel that they are accomplishing something as soon as possible so that they are hooked on the experience.  Whether it’s clicking “Do Job” in Mafia Wars or jumping over barrel #1 in Donkey Kong, the player feels good and knows they are on their way to a high score.

Friendly Competition

What’s more fun than playing a game?  Playing a game with friends, of course!  Friendship, rivals, and real world competition makes games exciting and fun.  Tournaments, guilds, and Thursday night poker games bring people together to enjoy something they all share in common.  Thus, it makes sense that friends and other people would work their way into games as a mechanism for deeper player engagement.

We’re all familiar with the viral features of Facebook games, whether we like it or not.  ”Share Coins and XP with your friends!”  ”A lost ox has wandered onto your Farm.  Will you help it find a home?”  ”In order to build the shop, you need to get 5 bolts from your friends.”  Non-players hate them, which is why Facebook revamped their distribution policy to only have game feeds show up for people who are also playing the game.  But players love them; they are re-engaged, and they love hearing about what their friends are doing in a game they also love.  Who wouldn’t want to jump back into a game after hearing “James just robbed your Factory!  Get him back now!”

In Coin-Op games there was a similar, though less technologically advanced feature: High Score Leaderboards.  After each game, on almost every title, players had the opportunity to enter their initials and be displayed as the High Score.  They could then see how they stacked up against other players from that arcade.  JDC?  Ah, I hate that guy!  He has 1,444,000 points!  I can never seem to top his score!

Again, each of these features were designed to keep people coming back to the game.  Like Facebook, they provided a sense of community, which was a powerful way to build fun around the game, not just inside a single play session.  And their intent was twofold: to keep people spending more quarters, and also to help people enjoy the game more and provide a sense of challenge.

So Why the Backlash?

Facebook games are similar to our beloved Coin-Op Arcade games in many ways.  My point here is that many of the so-called “evils” of Facebook games are not unique to this generation.  They have a long history, a history driven by business, a history driven by creating fun player experiences, and a history that has created many wonderful childhood memories for millions.

So why the backlash?  Why are we all picking on Facebook games?  The outcry reminds me of another outcry that has happened in the game industry in the last few years: The Wii.  When the Wii came out, you could log on to any gaming forming and almost feel the gamer community convulsing with disgust.  Wii Sports?  Give me a break. These games that my mom and grandma like?  They aren’t real games.  They’re just garbage.

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

Susan Douglas, critically acclaimed feminist author of Where the Girls Are discusses similar phenomena in the mass media.  Outcries like this, like the outcry towards Facebook games, towards the Wii, often happen when successful products are made for people other than the usual crowd.  When games are made for women instead of men.  When games are made for older non-gamers instead of young players.  When things are made that some people just…don’t get.  And when the status-quo people don’t understand it, and it’s sucking away millions of dollars, they get upset.

And so while there are many similarities between Coin-Op games and Facebook games as we’ve pointed out, the biggest difference is the demographic.  Many Facebook games just aren’t made for core gamers.  Halo was made for them.  Sorority Life wasn’t made for them.  And so while in looking for reasons to explain why these games are worse, we come up with things like “they’re just driven by money”, or “they’re built to get players addicted,” ignoring the fact that many of the games that we grew up on had the same attributes except one: they were our kind of game.

Games For Everyone, But Not Every Game For You

We are rapidly entering into a world where everyone plays games.  And I do mean everyone.  And that’s going to mean that just as there aren’t TV shows that every single person likes, there are going to be games that are for some people and not for others.  And while those differences may be frustrating, may make us ask questions and criticize and pick apart, the end result is going to be that for some games, we just don’t like them.

But if it gets the world to play games, games that they enjoy but I may not understand, then that’s fine by me.

This article originally ran on game design site The Game Prodigy.  Visit for more resources on game design.

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