The morals of a goat, the artistic integrity of a slot machine.

I remember many a school lunchtime misspent down at the local arcade. A friend and I would sneak out past the school prefects who stood on guard at the gate, and make the long walk down to our local electronically-chanting neon Mecca; through back streets and alleys we wended our way, thus avoiding any teachers or police officers who would want to enquire as to why a couple of youths were in that part of town on a school day. I remember the entrance, it was dark and seemingly impenetrable, and the first time we stood before it – like two adventurers stood before the gaping hollow of the dragon’s lair – we almost didn’t venture inside. Scared perhaps, that it wasn’t an arcade at all but the mouth of some strange creature set to look like all the other shop fronts, to tempt young men inside with the mimicking chime of arcade games and slot machines, before gobbling them up in one swift violent movement, then slowly settling itself back in place ready for the next unwary school kid with pocket money to spend. Of course we didn’t have pocket money to spend, but we did have our lunch money. We had come to the conclusion very quickly that we didn’t need food, we felt that we could subsist purely on the thrill of mortal combat, the challenge of a street fight, the engagement of afterburners to outrun our enemies. The siren song of the machines inside was too much for our little Odyssian expedition, our fears were quickly washed away as we were swept inside and into that whirling maelstrom of noise and smoke and strobing light.

It was a good time, for the most part, but it was always over too soon. Ten pence went a long way in those days, enough to get you three or four credits on the slightly older machines, where now you’d be lucky to get one credit for a pound coin. With our eighty pence of lunch money you’d think that we could have lasted there forevermore, trapped unwittingly on a digital Aeaea, feasting on the delights of the den of pixelated pleasure. Little did we understand at the time, however, that arcades were a business and thus had a vested interest in you spending as much with them as they could possibly convince you to part with. It is a treacherous situation when you pay money to play a game where the profiteer can set all the rules. Many of the games we played would have a wall, a point at which it was almost impossible to pass without feeding an inordinate number of coins in to fuel your character’s lives and thus allow you to play on, just that little bit further.

Just that little bit further. Oh perfidious phrase! How you have visited misery on so many of those arcade gamers who would follow your promise of glory; yet what triumphant jubilation and what gleeful satisfaction you have rained upon those few lucky enough to overcome your challenge and win through.

My concern is such: MMOs seem to be making a shift towards the philosophy of the arcade, but where previously we had coins, we now have micro-transactions: virtual game currency linked to real world currency by a piece of plastic card. When we ran out of credits in the old arcades it was time to crawl around on the floor looking for dropped and forgotten coins, to rummage around in the return trays of the change machines and the game machines, before finally resigning ourselves to the fact that we had no more electronic lives left and beginning the long walk back to school. Such physical limitations are not so readily present in our Internet enabled world of electronic commercial transactions, and it’s all available without so much as having to step foot outside the front door of your home. What’s more, if ever the phrase ‘just that little bit further’ wished for a home where it reigned supreme, king of all it surveyed, untouchable and godlike in its power over the majority of its minions, it wishes no more, for it has found its throne and it observes with lofty indifference its subjects toiling daily all across the captivating land of MMO.

‘A coin for a life’, that was the agreement in the days of the arcade; a simple one-for-one transaction, a deal with the devil of temptation no doubt, but one where you could at least see the terms of the contract clearly. But now the contract has changed: that coin is no longer equivalent to a single coin in the real world, it is now ‘coin’ plural, or a ‘gold’, a ‘credit’, a ‘point’; furthermore it buys you much less than a life, a little more health perhaps, more mana or energy or other potion of wondrous invention to boost your character’s dwindling fuel. But wait! It can also buy you improvements to your character, better weapons and better armour. Even better companions. There are now a myriad number of options to help you carry yourself over that wall and on to the next, it is no longer the binary choice of “Continue: Yes/No?”, no longer continue to play, but continue to play better.

‘Just that little bit further’ teases you, seduces you, wraps itself around your body and whispers in your ear:

“You can have it all: you can go further and faster and higher than any other. All it will take is a little more coin.”

6 thoughts on “The morals of a goat, the artistic integrity of a slot machine.

  1. Brian 'Psychochild' Green

    Now that you’ve got the nostalgia out of your system, let’s look at this from a business point of view. What did arcade games offer? They offered the chance to play a game without the cost of owning it, especially before the advent of modern consoles. Buying a Pac-man machine was costly in terms of money and storage space. But, for just a bit of money you could play a game and experience the fun.

    Arcades took that promise and made it larger. At an arcade you could spend money in one location and play a wide variety of games. You might also run into other people who had a similar interest in games, or who you could watch and learn tips to help your own playing. But, the true beauty of the arcade was choice. If I didn’t like Mortal Kombat but preferred Street Fighter, a good arcade would probably have both. The pizza place I went to with only a few machines might have had only one or the other.

    What about continues? It was essentially a time-saving device for people. Instead of having to slog your way through the same first several levels in order to get to the challenging/interesting point, you could throw in another quarter to stay at that point and get a few more tries. The trick is that it was a limited time offer: do you want to continue right now or start over later? (I’m sure that some people will say that people paying to continue shows that people will pay to skip part of the arcade game’s content, thus showing that arcade games suck. Right?)

    I rarely paid to continue on my limited allowances, because I figured it out. One game I really enjoyed was the old Robocop game. I figured out that on one quarter I could play for about 15 minutes, since the game showed how long you had played if you got a high score. But, if I threw a coin in to continue, I only got to play for maybe 3-5 minutes. For the value over time, starting a new game was better, even if I was only visiting the same old content. But, if I wanted to actually save the president, I could feed my quarters into the machine in a frenzy.

    The parallels to microtransactions are obvious, but I don’t think they’re quite as sinister as you make them out to be. Some people don’t want to go back and do things again. They want to focus on the parts of the game that they enjoy, and they’re willing to pay for it. That’s great, because it allows people who are willing to budget their money to play a great game for a lot less than they might otherwise. Looking at retail prices, the first month of WoW with access to everything comes to about $80 if you don’t abuse a refer-a-friend setup. That same $80 gets you a lot of stuff in a microtransaction-based game on top of the $15/month you might pay if you want to play past the first month. That’s a lot of “continues”.

    I’m sure the arcade owners loved the people who continued all the time compared to me spending a buck an hour to occupy the Robocop machine. But, we all got to enjoy games anyway, and everyone had fun.

  2. Brian 'Psychochild' Green

    Heh, Tesh reminds me of something from the arcade. Know what machine I avoided like the plague? The PlayChoice-10. This machine gave you a set amount of time per quarter (the ones I remember gave you 5 minutes, I think). You had a choice of 10 NES games. Now, you could play any game during that 5 minutes, but at the end of your time the game would freeze and ask for another quarter. Go play a console game and imagine how irritating it would be to have to put in a quarter every 5 minutes.

    As Tesh points out, just replace “$0.25/5 mins” with “$15/month” (bulk discount, I guess) and the annoyance remains.

  3. pjharvey

    just replace “$0.25/5 mins” with “$15/month” (bulk discount, I guess) and the annoyance remains.

    Or, if you scale it differently, £1 to play an arcade machine for a whole day suddenly looks like a bargain. You can take toilet breaks, go for lunch, play outside, and all the while continue to come back and play the game you’ve picked to play that day.

    Likewise, if a micro-transaction MMORPG asked me to pay 50 pence per day of play, letting me choose my own level of subscription service, I may not see it as good a deal, as it might stop me from grabbing ten minutes before I go out for an evening, or half-an-hour when I get back from a night out, instead concentrating my time for when I have at least a couple of hours to dedicate. I see this as the equivalent of a coin for five minutes. If I’m paying for the day, I’ll want to use that time wisely.

    A full-month subscription service, on the other hand, may ask for more money ahead of time but then gives me the freedom to use that time as I please. It is all about how the time and money scale with each other, with respect to personal commitment to both commodities.

    I don’t think there is a ‘correct’ payment method, more that people will prefer one over the other depending on their play styles and available time.

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