Musing by Design

Yo, so traveling back home really wiped me out. Also, did you know that the mountains are colder than the plains? I objectively understood this but, somewhere in the Texas panhandle, the heat went to my brain. Anyway, while in Colorado, I mentioned I went to an arcade in Manitou. It was so odd because you are in the middle of any other old folks’ shopping tourist trap when you hear buzzers and laughter. There was a huge arcade tucked away from the main drag. I think there were four indoor areas and then machines just lining the street under awnings.


Besides the immediate panic about the screens getting damaged in the sunlight (“Hello, my name is Dan and I’m a digital archivist….”. “Hello Dan…”), it was like a dream. They had dollar, fifty-cent, quarter, dime, nickel, and even penny games to try out. We went in with only like $6.00 in quarters and pennies and still made an hour of it. Not only playing but also just looking at the machines. The ones from the 20’s were really cool. They were all wood and metal parts. It made me think of it as an analog version of the Internet Archive’s arcade.

This gave me a lot to think about. For one, I learned remembered that I am pretty bad at pinball. For two, it reminded me that most pinball machines were designed without a clear sense of what to do for the player. I mean, it makes sense. You have to spend a lot of money to design, make, ship, and house a pinball machine. You can’t have people beating in a week and becoming bored of it. However, I feel like these older games just didn’t care. They were for sucking down quarters, not necessarily being great gaming devices.

For three, there was an old Donkey Kong in the back of one building. I tried it for old times’ sake. I swear the joystick must have been botched. Every time I tried to jump a barrel, Jump Man would go still and fall into it instead of leaping over it. I mean–I’m terrible at Donkey Kong but I can at least get to stage two without much effort. This got me thinking about controls, though. A few machines over, there was a hunting game that was ancient. The ducks came into view on literal sticks. The only problem was that there was no way to know if you hit anything. There was no feedback from the controls, board, or screen to let you know you were doing it right.

Lastly, I found GORF.


GORF feels like a precursor to Galaga. Ships fly toward you shooting lasers while you dart back-in-forth trying to shoot them. There is only enough memory for you to fire one shot at a time which is in itself took some getting use to. There are other little changes like an energy barrier that temporarily falls while you are shooting and different missions that change up the play style. Also, there is a weird digitized voice that tells you when the game starts and ends (which is a little unnerving since it sounds like HAL).

It was fun. It was everything right with arcade classics like Donkey Kong or Ms. Pacman. It gave clear direct instructions. Made your objectives stand out. Then proceeded to lovingly murder stomp you out of your quarters. This was what I feel like game designers learned with the likes pinball and some of the penny machines–games need some sort of feedback about what is expected. I wouldn’t say GORF is some kind of awesome forgotten gem (it actually got some poor reviews when it came out). I’d say, instead, that it did several things correctly and that it show signs of the evolution of game designs.

Take a more modern title like Skyrim. The second you are out of the tutorial, you can pretty much go anywhere within the game. There isn’t a lose condition tied to playing exactly the way they designed the game. Sure you can die (and often if you play loose and squishy like me) but not outright lose. When you are on a mission, they lay out the major objectives for you line by line. They even give you a waypoint and allow you to fast travel close to where you need to be. All those features may not be 100% perfect or executed the best way possible, but it’s a far cry better than ‘try to not let the ball fall into the hole behind the paddles’.

Other games go out of their way to help you learn to play. Skull Girls, for example, does a great job of teaching new players the ropes. I never really liked fighting games till I ran through its tutorial. Finding more to a game genre that wasn’t just button mashing opened whole new worlds up to me. I loved discovering how to play well. Learning the moves and counter-moves.

Old games had this as well but it was through discovery (read as sucking down more quarters). Games, like Defender, had little secrets hidden away that you’d learn from repeated plays or from magazines or from chat on the playground. It was a ‘hidden knowledge’ that you gained from time and time again of repetition. For me, though, how to play a game shouldn’t be the secret. Mastering the game should be the secret. If you have to call a hotline to learn how to get E.T. out of a hole in the ground, your design might need some work.

It makes me think of Bartle’s Taxonomy. Every gamer will respond to four major game elements in a video game; exploration, socialization, achieving, and killing. Which of those elements you plan to design for will reward players looking for that experience. Some games touch on several of those elements and some don’t. How your players interact with those elements decides the quality of their experience. For me, games like pinball are for achievers or killers to the exclusion of socializers and explorers. Which is probably why they aren’t my thing. The social aspect of pinball comes from those around the machine. The only exploration was from accidently scoring hits to the right bumpers. However, achievers and killers can turn their goals on beating the machine. They can strive to make the best flapper hits. They want to beat the high score. I want to find out what happens when I get the ball into that little canopy in the back or see how long it’ll let me cradle the ball against the flapper (long enough for the people behind me to clear their throats loudly).

So, while it was cool, the arcade reminded me what kind of games I want to make. It reshowed me the elements I like and want to show the world.

The flashing lights of the arcades, its siren songs of game demos, and the soft roar of the crowds milling around to play were exhilarating. It rekindled some of the fire I have for games and reminded me where I fell in love with them in the first place (probably cursing out a broken Time Crisis controller in the back of a Cici’s Pizza). The experience also reminded me why things change. Sure, foosball is a good game but there is just something magical about Rocket League. Yes, Berzerk is a barrel of laughs but there is something so satisfying about going deeper to another floor in Dungeons of Dredmor.

I guess what I am saying is, old games are great but we’ve learned so much from making new games. It was a blast to play around in Manitou (everyone, yes you there, go play in Manitou right meow). I’m going to play plan another trip at some point (with more small change). Till then, I’ll cut my teeth on more from the Arcade Archive. Trying to learn more about what I can do to make my designs better by building on the past.

Thanks for reading! Now,


and be awesome!














2 thoughts on “Musing by Design

  1. There is a coin op museum in fisherman’s wharf in San Francisco. Several of the machines put on a show when you drop a quarter instead of being interactive. Worth checking out at some point.

    1. Oh yeah! I need to make it out that way sometime. They had a few porn nickelodeons that were pretty special. We didn’t have nickels though, sadly.

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