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How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers?
Arcade-style video games are on the way out, or so analysts and CEOs would have us believe – Hollywood-style spectacles are what gamers want in a full-priced boxed product. Last year saw the release of two big budget arcade racers – Split/Second and Blur – both of which struggled for sales despite healthy reviews, ultimately resulting in the closure of the two British developers that created them (Disney's Black Rock Studio and Activision's Bizarre Creations). This year we've had an arcade shooter in the form of Codemasters' Bodycount; a title that received a poor reception from critics and floundered in the charts. Again, this resulted in Codies closing the Guildford studio that made the game while publicly stating that investment will be focused on its core racing game IPs in future. Sticking with arcade shooters, another Bizarre Creations gem (in this site's humble opinion), The Club received a lukewarm reception from critics in 2008 before dropping like an anvil on the sales charts. And then, of course, there's the might of EA's annualised Need For Speed series, the latest instalment of which (NFS: The Run) failed to even make it into the top 10 of the UK charts in its debut week last month (the first time this has happened with an NFS game in recorded history).
I could go on using examples like the pitiful state of affairs with Namco's Time Crisis games this generation, or how the publisher's Ridge Racer series failed to even be visually impressive with its latest iteration on Nintendo's 3DS (when a Ridge Racer launch game looks rough, arcade racers are truly lost). And we, the consumers, are to blame – not, perhaps, for the crappy visuals of Ridge Racer 3D or the stunted attempt at publicity that Activision made with Blur, but ultimately our lack of interest and general malaise towards contemporary arcade design styles has led to their now inevitable demise at retail. It's a crying shame in this writer's humble opinion, because in an era when first-person shooters have become little more than a penis extension and action/adventure titles are often more concerned with emulating Hollywood than anything else, arcade gaming has a purity to it that's lost on the blockbusters. It acts as a kind of antidote that reminds us exactly why we fell in love with video games in the first place: gameplay.
One bright light amongst this gloom has been the resurgence of fighting games, where Capcom's Street Fighter IV has led the way and incoming Namco team-ups on Street Fighter X Tekken/Tekken X Street Fighter promise to keep up the pace of this reinvigoration. Other than that though, it appears the roots of coin-op gaming – that had remained so sturdy on consoles as arcade cabinets disappeared from the corners of our shopping centres in the late 90s – are now finally starting to rot from their base. Video game arcades are these days maligned to sleepy seaside piers, airport terminals, and depressing motorway service stations here in the UK where they host severely aged games at the old costing of 50p per play despite marked inflation and tax increases all around them (almost as if they're in some kind of tragic time bubble). The genre of console games that have so successfully imitated and expanded in their wake over the last decade now appear doomed to a similar fate.
Or do they? As arcade gaming has fallen off the boxed product cliff edge, mobile phone apps have risen to prominence. Entirely by coincidence, the original arcade selling point is back in style: gaming for less than a pound or dollar. This market strategy of pursuing high yields of individual payments at low prices once again grips the game industry, and not just with gaming apps either. So-called 'micro-transaction', 'free-to-play', or 'freemium' games, which can now be found everywhere from Valve's Steam service to Facebook, offer the highest rate of growth in any sector. The opportunity to play a game without charge but with the option to fast-track your progress, customise avatars, or unlock more content with relatively small payments is evidently a very popular one, from FIFA Ultimate Team to Battlestar Galactica Online, Team Fortress 2 and The Smurfs' Village. As opposed to the traditional arcade experience, where you stuck another 50 pence piece into the cabinet because you ran out of lives and wanted to complete the game, now gamers pull another 50p out of their bank accounts to speed-up the grind of unlocking items or to bolster their gameplay experience. Both models revolve around the idea of small payments on a regular basis to further your progress in the game, but don't take our word for it – Philip Reisberger, the Chief Games Officer at Bigpoint Games (which runs free-to-play titles like Battlestar Galactica Online and Battlefield Heroes) recently spoke with TVG and offered these comments on the matter:
“I see quite a lot of similarities between the arcade model, where you pay little instalments and decide whether you want to continue paying or not, and the free-to-play model. I think these two models are a lot more similar and have a lot more in common than the retail up-front model or even the regular subscription model.”
“It's not buying a box, putting it on the shelf and playing it, but it's really the time you want to spend – like going to the movies – the time you want to dedicate to spend on it and pay for it,” Reisberger added. “I think the idea of games as a service behind that – that's what these two models really share.”
Call me old fashioned but, when it comes to comparisons of arcade and free-to-play, I know which style I prefer. Having been schooled on 8-bit consoles, my tolerance for punishment is considerably higher than it is for reward; I'd much prefer to die hundreds of times than grind away to unlock a virtual hat for my troubles. Quite why modern video games insist on rewarding their users every five seconds just for playing the game is beyond me anyway – it's just so... needy. Perhaps there's a third way, then, and in the highly unlikely event that any game executives happen to be reading this, here's an idea for free...
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