Arcade games kick started the gaming industry in the 1970s, bringing an ever-expanding variety of titles to bars, restaurants, and bowling alleys around the world. Over the next two decades, they introduced millions of people to video games for the first time and allowed children to spend countless hours on arcade cabinets where they could spend small fortunes of quarters and dimes. Yet, despite the enjoyment they brought to so many people, the abiding memory of them is that old arcade games were insanely difficult.
While many people might think that this is because games were simply harder back in the good old days, the truth is that they were made that way for very specific reasons. After all, the ultimate goal of any developer was to get as much money from players as possible.
So if you have ever wondered why arcade games from the '80s were impossible to beat, sit back and read on to find out the design secrets that were made to steal all your quarters.
Much like the current business model used by mobile games, arcade titles from the 1980s were built around the idea of delivering small amounts of content to players. This effectively meant that a financially successful game would be one that would make users pay to get access to new content. Players would only be able to get access to a certain amount of the overall experience if they didn’t keep coughing up coins – with designers using a variety of different techniques to achieve this goal.
One of the core design concepts in any arcade machine is that the manufacturer has to be able to control how long most players will spend on a machine per turn. It would be of no use if a single quarter would allow a player to continue playing for a long time as that significantly reduces the amount of money that a machine can make. Instead, they want users to only play for a small amount of time before they have to insert more coins to keep playing. To that end, many machines would come with adjusters so that operators could change the speed and health of enemies.
The easiest way to limit the amount of time a user could keep playing for in a single turn was to make games more difficult. The harder a title was, the less chance a player would have of staying alive for a significant amount of time. Designers had to strike a careful balance between making a game challenging enough that it couldn’t be completed within a single life but not too frustrating that it put off new players.
Sometimes they wouldn’t get this right and would have to release new games that were harder. This was the case with Atari, who developed sequels to their classic game Asteroids because experienced players were able to stay on the game without dying for hours at a time.
Early developers such as Atari and Namco quickly realized that what drove players to keep coming back to their favorite games wasn’t the desire to beat the game. Instead, most players wanted the thrill of beating a high score. This would allow them to input their name on the leader board and demonstrate that they were the best in the local area. In a world where the paying customer was more interested in accumulating the most points rather than seeing the ending to a game, it meant that designers had the incentive to make titles that would ensure users kept inserting coins to have one more go at topping the leader board.