The Return of the Coin-Op?: GameTap and Xbox Live Arcade

Matt Barton's picture

To the average Armchair Arcader, it's a self-evident truth that classic old games like Joust, Galaga, and Frogger are just as fun to play (if not more so) as the latest "AAA Title." The popularity of retrogaming as a whole has recently surged in both the PC and console markets, and more and more people are discovering (or re-discovering) the joys of classic games. However, as any child of the 80s knows, a big part of the thrill associated with retrogaming isn't just the games, but rather the competitive atmosphere of the arcade. In these dimly lit dens of digital delinquency, a generation honed their hand-eye coordination in exhilerating coin-op competition. These deftly-wristed heroes fought for personal glory--specifically, the glory of entering their initials into the high score tables kept by the arcade machines. It's certainly no coincidence that the arcade machines one still finds alongside pool tables and dartboards in smoky taverns are classics like Ms. Pac-Man and Galaga: These games are designed to be played in social environments.

Unfortunately, after mainstream America lost interest and stopped frequenting arcades, games had to adapt to appeal to the isolated gamer. This new generation of gamers stayed at home, wiling away their leisure hours in front of a console or personal computer. The thrill of competition was replaced by more engaging storylines, more complicated gameplay, and greatly extended gaming sessions. Game developers became more fixated on graphics and other aesthetic considerations than the games themselves. The result has been a tendency to rehash old formulas and recycle old engines over and over again--and to significantly narrow the appeal of games to boys and young men, who have the spending money and time to devote to long periods of solo gaming.

Now, thanks to commercial services like GameTap and Xbox Live Arcade, more people than ever before are able to capture that old "arcade experience" in the comfort of their own homes. In this Hot Topic, the editors of Armchair Arcade discuss the impact of these services. We'll discuss the good as well as the bad, keeping an eye on the larger issue of how these services challenge what has hitherto been the mainstay of so many modern retrogamers--MAME and illegally acquired ROMS. Is the return of commercial viabilty for classic games a boon or bane for the hardcore retrogamer?

Critical Stats

GameTap for PCGameTap for PC GameTap. Currently available only in the US for broadband-equipped PCs, GameTap offers players access to over 500 games from several legacy, including plenty of arcade classics like Bubble Bobble and Street Fighter II. Some relatively modern games like Tomb Raider: Angel of Darkness are also available. GameTap offers competitions among its users to recreate the arcade experience. Gamers can play with keyboards and mice, but USB controllers are also supported. GameTap costs $15 a month, and a free trial is available that lasts for two weeks.

Xbox Live ArcadeXbox Live Arcade Xbox Live Arcade. Currently available only for Xbox and Xbox 360 owners, XLA offers dozens of arcade titles. While not nearly as comprehensive as GameTap, XLA occasionally offers "updated" versions of retrogames with new graphics and sounds. Furthermore, some games that were originally one-player are now multi-player, including the much-loved Robotron. Rather than offer players access to all the games for a single fee, Microsoft offers paying members free trials followed by the option to purchase the "full version" of the game with "Microsoft points." Players can purchase these points in a variety of ways. Games end up costing $5 to $15--significantly more than GameTap.

Matt Barton
I tend to view these developments with a mixture of delight and revulsion. On the one hand, it's great to see so many classic games regaining commercial viability. That means that more people than ever will get the chance to play them--and, more importantly, get to play them the way they were intended (with arcade-style competition). If these services are successful, it's a certainty that more money will be whisked in its direction, and even more retrogames will emerge from their crypts. Perhaps they'll also help strengthen and even create new markets for independent developers, who have hitherto had a hard time reaching mainstream audiences.

The downside is that this new "distribution system" poses some risks to the consumer. It's a return to the "arcade days" in more ways than one. It's a question of whether you "own" a game or pay each time you play it. Fast forward a bit to a potential future where there are no "boxed" games to buy at all. Instead, to play any game, you must pay a subscription fee. As long as you pay, you play, but once you stop, the game's over. This is obviously a tremendous boon for the folks who will eventually own all the rights to these games, because then anytime you want to play them, guess who's going to cash in? Right now, publishers only make one-shot sells: The $40 you plunk down to buy the box and CD-ROMs. In the future, publishers might make less money up front (say, only a percentage of the $15 a month they can drain you each month in subscription fees), but it's much better in the long-run because the money will keep flowing. The obvious model to follow here are MMORPGs like World of Warcraft: If you want to play the game you spent $30 for a few months ago, you'll have to pony up for the $15 monthly fee. In just three months, you'll already have spent more on the fee than you did for the game!

Of course, there are other perks. Ostensibly, when you pay $15 a month to play World of Warcraft (or the games on GameTap), you're also paying to help maintain the game. That covers everything from chasing out the vandals, cheaters, and potty mouths to adding new features and providing support. Furthermore, it costs the company money to keep up all its servers, and the subscription fees will help keep everything running smoothly.

Ultimately, for the consumer it comes down to a question of convenience and how much he or she is willing to pay for it. Locating old "ROMs" and getting them running on modern equipment can be a difficult, and perhaps even dangerous, activity. Most sites I've seen willing to distribute ROMs and the like illegally are also the most likely to infect your computer with spyware and cater to the very worst sort of advertisers (online casinos, porn, and so on). Furthermore, there's always the risk, no matter how slight, that you'll be sued by the copyright holders. As you probably know, "right and wrong" tend to be of little issue in these cases; win or lose, you'll always lose (the costs of defending yourself are likely to rise far above the cost to settle out of court). So far, most of the attention has been on music and movie traders, but once it's shown clearly to copyright holders that these old games are still commercially viable, it'll come to "abandonware" as well. In other words, you might try to view the $15 monthly fee as paying the local mafia for "protection." If the analogy seems far fetched, remember that part of the appeal of the mafia is that they "get things done," i.e., if you have a problem, it's much easier to go to the local mafia boss than a state official.

At any rate, it seems obvious to me that services like GameTap and Xbox Live Arcade are here to stay. The convenience and low costs (for now) are compelling. Indeed, these services are rapidly expanding, and pretty soon we're likely to see a price war--at least among the PC crowd. If GameTap proves itself in the market (or even if it doesn't), there will be plenty of knock-offs. Microsoft has the advantage with its Live Arcade, as long as it can keep a lockdown on competing services hoping to offer the same service for less. What we're probably looking at is a different "Live Arcade" service for each console, including the PS3 and the Wii, which will all try to out-compete the others. Here, Nintendo will have powerful leverage in the form of its extensive NES and SNES software library, particularly in its first-party offerings. I doubt we'll be seeing, for instance, Super Mario Bros. 3 on Xbox Live Arcade.

In the end, then, I see GameTap and Xbox Live Arcade as an inevitable development. The truth is, games like Frogger and Super Mario Bros. are damnably fun to play, and they have the tremendous advantage of being able to draw the entire family (even grandma and grandpa) into the fun. The side effect will likely be the drawing of many more lawyers' attention to the "abandonware" scene, as more and more copyright holders emerge from the woodwork to try to hock their old games on these new distribution systems. Likewise, collecting games will become much more difficult (if not impossible) as companies transform the market from a product model (i.e., buying discs) to a subscription model.

Mark Vergeer
Oh yes the coin up is returning, or at least 'the feeling' is! The Xbox Live Arcade service just brings back this competitive simple-game-highscore-thing that I knew from my childhood (being an old geezer from 1970). Even the narrative rich and complex Xbox 360 games have well defined achievements for players to compare their ‘ scores’ and progress. From what I’ve heard Microsoft has a ton of retro-games up their sleeve and the ones that are out there today are of very high quality in my opinion well worth the money. So the arcade is actually coming back in ours homes. Throw away that Mame cabinet I say ;)

My experiences with the two systems? Well, as a European I haven’t been able to check out the Gametap service because access to non-US citizens seems to be prohibited. Sadly, I have yet to receive an answer on my written inquiry (21st of July 2006) after the reasons why only the US is included in this on-line service. I am quite certain that there is a viable market for such a service in other parts of the world. Similar services like Microsoft Live or Steam are available all over the world – so why can’t Gametap be?

From what I’ve read on the Gametap-website it’s a very clean and easy to use online-service making a wide variety of older games for a diverse range of original platforms available on PC through a single user interface.

I have been able to experience Xbox Live Arcade and in my opinion it is an amazing service. This shiny white M$ console just gives me the same thrill as the Dreamcast did in its day. For some weird reason there are a lot of parallels between the two machines, but the DC's online capabilities just fade in comparison to the X360's and its future is hopefully a lot brighter than that of the DC.

I also have an original Xbox, but I must admid I’ve only gone online with my new X360. The X360's Live system is very easy to use, but the point system does make the exact cost of extra content or a full downloadable game a little vague. And then there’s the fact that the amount of time you play, when you play, your scores and achievements are all ranked on the web. At first I was quite hesitant about this level of information that is automatically shared on the web - George Orwell’s novel 1984 echoing in my mind – but it is very possible to not share your scores and skills and still be online. It’s just tremendous fun competing with friends and trying to improve their high-scores or defend your own top ranking scores. Sharing the same game – being able to talk to one another – in a cooperative or a competitive mode without the hassle of setting up drivers, installing new software and tweaking the hardware is a freeing experience from my sometimes cumbersome PC gaming exercises. I very much like talking to my friends on Live - but I just don't like to chat with strangers. But perhaps this will grow on me as I am planning on getting the massive MUD-like Test Drive Unlimited.

The other day the strangest thing happened, my mom spotted my shiny new X360 sitting underneath my TV-set and she wanted to see a demonstration. After that I had to install Zuma the PC version on my mom’s computer and my girlfriend has sort of taken over my X360 making more miles on it than I have. It’s those puzzle games in Live Arcade that draws them in like crazy. Check out my gamercard on XLA of you want.

Postscript
Alas, here's another piece intended for Issue #8 that we never got around to finishing. You'll have to bear in mind that Mark and I were writing last summer, and a great deal of new stuff has happened in the meantime. Still, I thought it better to release this article late and unfinished rather than never!

Comments

dragon57
dragon57's picture
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Joined: 05/18/2006
Bill, I agree, the home

Bill,
I agree, the home arcade market is exploding (good for us!). I intend to build my own cab and customize it such that something like GameTap can still be used on it without problems. I want as much flexibility as I can get and I think I can achieve it without a lot of trouble (other than creating a lot of sawdust which will cause the wife to frown).

After the upcoming holidays I will start planning out my arcade at home diary. I don't intend on putting all the gory details online like a lot of builders do, but I may put up bits and pieces. Time will tell. I anticipate the building experience to be as exciting as the actual play time which comes after everything is together and working. To steal/mangle a classic movie phrase, "I love the smell of sawdust in the morning". :)

Bill Loguidice
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Joined: 12/31/1969
It's almost like the classic

It's almost like the classic arcade has been recreated in the home, Dragon. The arcade-at-home sub-industry is amazing, with a plethora of options, from do-it-yourself stuff to complete turn-key solutions to everything in between. I DO highly recommend GameTap (whose price even dropped and hundreds more games added since that preliminary article was written), but not necessarily as the primary option in an arcade cabinet such as I have. Bottom line, the more custom your configuration, be it arcade controls, arcade monitor, etc., the less something like GameTap is a good primary option over something like a self-configured MAME32 setup (since GameTap purposely limits certain configuration options). At the same time, even with the somewhat slow initial start-up and the need to download games before first play, it's infinitely easier just having all these various emulators in the one service. This is of course in addition to all the neat games that have online features enabled, either hotseat or simultaneous, that never had that option before (like classic arcade games). As it is, I still spend most of my time in MAME32 (I have yet to install Daphne and Visual Pinball), with mostly jumping into GameTap to play Sega and other console games. I haven't bothered much yet with watching videos on the thing, though it works reasonably well, if not full screen. Obviously, as previously stated, I can only play Sam and Max on my primary PC (due to a conflict with my cab), which is another advantage to GameTap, in that you don't have to configure each and every system you have as you would with individual emulators - I know I have no time to configure both my arcade machine and PC - besides the fact that it would be redundant.

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Bill Loguidice, Managing Director
Armchair Arcade, Inc.
(A PC Magazine Top 100 Website)
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dragon57
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Joined: 05/18/2006
This is an excellent

This is an excellent post.

The main reason I just bought a 360 was XLA. I have never experienced Xbox Live on either the Xbox or 360, but I feel certain I will love the experience. I am also thinking of trying GameTap. Bill's recent post about it has stirred my interest in the service. Similar to him, I want to configure an arcade cab and run GameTap on that as I really miss the true arcade experience. I pushed many a quarter into arcade games back in the day and want to relive that experience again or at least as close as I can get to it.

I just can't see the classic arcade returning. A couple of the local malls installed huge arcades about four years ago. They were a big hit for a while, then they had to close up shop because the kids got caught up in the latest consoles and never came back.

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