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17 Sep 2013

Lessons Mobile Devs Can Learn From Coin-Op Games

There is a fascinating read over at Gamasutra that is a reprint from the Oct. 1996 issue of Game Developer Magazine, in which developers Jeff Brown and James Plamondon detail the ‘Four Laws of Coin-Op.’ For those that have been around the industry for a while, you may remember that 1996 was around the time in which Daytona USA was making waves on the arcade scene, and Mortal Kombat was only a few years old. Although the arcade industry has been dwindling since home consoles became affordable, there are still lessons one can learn from developing coin-op games in relation to developing mobile games. Take a few of the rules laid out in the Brown/Plamondon interview to heart, and use them as reminders to focus on what truly makes mobile games (and games as a whole) great.


Simplicity and Intuitively

If a player must read the instructions for playing your mobile game, then you may want to reconsider going back to the drawing board. It’s the same principle behind a coin-op game: nobody wants to read the instructions before playing; rather, they want to walk up to the machine and begin playing immediately. The same is true about someone finding your game in an app store: the player wants to begin playing the game the moment it installs onto their mobile device, and if the game proves to be overly complicated for the wrong reasons (e.g. the game is difficult to control, the goals are not clearly defined, etc.), it is going to frustrate the player.

There has always been a careful balance between games being challenging and complicated. It’s a balancing act that is hard to master. From Pac-Man to Galaga to Cut the Rope to Angry Birds, the bestselling coin-op and mobile games alike clearly showcase how a game operates within seconds of first play, yet the game takes ages to master and complete to perfection.


The Feeling of Losing

When a player loses, they need to feel as if they lost for a reason. Coin-op games such as Space Invaders demonstrate this perfectly, in that players know they lost because they did not shoot the alien enemies flying to the bottom of the screen quickly enough. When Aaron San Filippo of Race the Sun and I were talking last week in an interview, we began discussing the outstanding FTL: Faster Than Light (if you haven’t played this yet, stop what you’re doing, buy it, and play it the next chance you get) and the many things that can cause you to lose. If you are unfamiliar with the game, you die; a lot! The game takes dozens of hours to complete, yet if your ship is destroyed? You have to start your journey all over again. It seems frustrating, but every time I die, even if I have played for six or more hours, I gladly return and start the game all over again. Those six hours lost do not feel as if they were ‘six hours lost.’ Why?

For one, the game is a blast to play, but secondly, it’s because I learn from my mistakes and use them in future attempts to complete the game. Each time I die, I know that I died because of my mistakes, to which I then think about how I can avoid that same mistakes and continue playing the game. Again, those six hours I lost? They were not lost because I learned new things about the game during those six hours – even if I realize it during my next playthrough or a few months later. I also never believe the game beat me; only that I made a mistake that caused me to lose. It’s an important feeling players must feel each time they lose, and it will keep them coming back for more.


Strong Feedback is Key

In the same way a coin-op racer allows players to feel the vibration of a steering wheel as they are racing down a racetrack while simultaneously hearing the engines of other race cars passing by them, so too must you abide by these rules. These are ‘feedback’ rules, and every action in your game must deliver a feedback that appeals to three senses: sight (the player sees they are in a race), touch (the feedback of the steering wheel), and sound (the sounds of the race cars around them).

Here’s another example. If a player is tasked with popping an array of bubbles in-game, they must be able to ‘touch’ the bubbles with their fingers, ‘view’ the bubbles as they pop, and ‘hear’ the bubbles pop as well. Actions must deliver a sensation with each of these three senses at all times, and while it seems like a simple rule, it’s enough to keep players coming back for more.


Rhythm and Pace

A game needs to continuously deliver challenges at a fast pace. Of course, these challenges can be mental or physical, and sometimes they can be both. The challenges of coin-op games have traditionally been physical due to the fast-paced nature of coin-op design: players want fast-paced challenges that test their hand-eye coordination skills rather than standing and solving puzzles. It’s just the ‘nature of the beast’ if you will, yet with mobile games, indie designers have more freedom in exercising this rule.

Whether you want to develop a fast-paced action title or a slow-paced adventure game, the fact remains that you must continuously deliver challenges to the player. Whether this is in the form of testing a player’s reflexes or challenging them to solve puzzles, players must always feel engaged. Not overly engaged mind you (you do not want to throw many challenges at the player at once), but enough where the player will want to stick around to see what other challenges wait for them.


Reward Multiple Play Sessions

Coin-op games reward players that want to play the game multiple times by giving them a reason to return. This is referred to as ‘depth,’ and offering depth is as simple as giving players the option to unlock new abilities and characters in a game or by giving them alternate choices to make in-game. For example, by achieving ‘A,’ you could unlock a host of options that allow you to achieve ‘A’ in a completely different way. One of the best examples of this are the Mega Man games, in that by defeating the various bosses in the game, you can earn their special abilities and use them against other bosses in the game. It adds a variety of new dynamics to each boss battle, and it’s enough to keep players coming back for more even after they beat the game (plus, the gameplay mechanics in most Mega Man games are top-notch to boot).

Allowing players to find alternate paths is another excellent way to reward players. The most obvious example of this is the Mass Effect series, which allows players to choose alternate dialogue options with other characters, which can change the outcome of many different subplots. These options give players the desire to play through these games again to see what the different outcomes might be, and while it may sound simple, it works.

The formula for depth is simple: allow players to enjoy themselves the first time they play, give them a reason to come back for more, and reward them for sticking with your game.

In a sense, this formula nicely sums up developing mobile games for your audience, but it can be expanded a bit: entice your players, challenge them, yet allow them to know that every time they play your game, they are getting better. Ensure the game is simple to approach yet difficult to master, and reward those that continue to play your game in the future. It’s a set of rules coin-op games have followed for decades, and for indie mobile developers, these rules will ensure that you have a solid, straightforward vision when developing your game.

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