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Casually Speaking: The death of the arcade and the birth of the MMO


Long before there were home consoles or Flash-based and downloadable games accessible via the Internet, the only place to get your gaming fix was the venerable video arcade. For those of our readers who may be too young to remember the arcade boom of the 1980s, these were spacious, sometimes dimly-lit buildings filled with games housed in large cabinets; some later games were contained in sit-down, glass-topped tables. These spaces were home to the grand, seminal casual games that have become enshrined within gamers' memories as the first great games of our time. Titles like Space Invaders, Asteroids, Pac Man, Joust, Dig Dug, etc., and the gameplay they embodied, have been the basis for all games that have followed since.

However, as home console systems became available, and their game libraries grew both in size and complexity, the once-ubiquitous video arcades dwindled in number from thousands country-wide to perhaps tens per state, and even that figure might be optimistic. With the focus of electronic entertainment switching to the home, gamers also left the arcades en masse, in favor of playing at home alone, or at best, with one or two friends who didn't have a system of their own. These players might not have known it then, but soon they would subconsciously realize that they were missing something integral to the gaming experience that wouldn't return for years.

Whether shouting at each other over a heated dust-up in Street Fighter 2, or crowding around a friend as they approached an assumed-unbeatable high score in Gyruss, players could always enjoy an easy cameraderie in the video arcade. Many lasting friendships blossomed between turns at one machine or another, and friendly rivalries were maintained and relished in those heady days. There was always an unspoken feeling of kinship among those present, a recognition of one another as hobbyists whose parents neither understood nor condoned their pastimes.

It would not be a stretch to liken the scene as somewhat equivalent to joining a club, complete with charter and rules -- for example, to put a quarter under the bezel of the game cabinet's screen meant that you were next in line to play -- or, perhaps more accurate, a speakeasy, with its frequently smoky ambiance and uninhibited, boisterous clientele. There even came to be notable personages attending any particular arcade -- known adepts and high-score wizards whose facile command of the joystick won them the admiration and respect of their peers. In this rarefied atmosphere, a gamer could feel welcome, ready to both teach and be taught, in a world uniquely adjusted to her desires.

At the same time, the rise of the home game system was set to change the landscape of gaming forever. Certainly, the early Atari 2600, the Magnavox Odyssey, and the Mattel Intellivision were no match for arcade games, either visually or in complexity of gameplay, but they were (after the initial purchase of console and games) free to play; no quarters needed. Parents may not have known what they were unleashing in their homes, but at least their children were where they could be seen, and not out all day and night in those strange temples of video enslavement, with heaven knows who.

From the gamer standpoint, there was a kind of thrill to being able to have an entire game all to oneself, to play as often or as long as one wished, and sitting in the comfort of one's own room, with drink and snacks readily available. The games may not, at first, have had graphics equal to what an arcade game could offer, but this changed fairly quickly once the Nintendo Entertainment System, the Sega Genesis, and the Sony Playstation arrived on the scene, the latter appearing in 1994. The decline of the video arcade had begun in earnest.

While early console games merely reiterated gameplay found in arcades -- early bestselling titles were ports of established games -- developers came to understand that there was an opportunity for longer-form gaming at hand. Games no longer had to employ the casual motif, commonly known as 'easy to pick up; difficult to master'. Games could now be fairly involved affairs, stretching out over days, even weeks before the endgame was achieved. Multi-stage combat with sometimes elaborate mechanics were produced, along with narratives that at times rivaled any soap opera with their winding plots. For the first time, gamers could invest some serious attention to gameplay ... but that attention came at the cost of sociability.

In the arcade, it was easy to make acquaintances based on someone's performance on a game one might have found nearly impossible to beat. Or a challenge could be tossed to a player that seemed to afford an easy conquest. Either way, one's social circle would expand. Not so with console games that were frequently played alone. At best, one played with a few friends, but these were already part of a trusted group; there was no need to venture outside the comfort zone.

There must have been some lingering desire for human interaction however, for even as enemy AI evolved into more challenging methodologies, the advent of the multiplayer game reintroduced the concept of the shared gaming experience to a new generation of players, many of whom grew up knowing only a single-player experience. Games like the Nintendo 64's GoldenEye and the Mario Kart series are prime examples of the power of having friends over to play against. Yet the sophistication of home computer systems grew and grew alongside the evolution of home console systems, eventually offering something consoles were unable to provide for many years: the ability to play against people over a distance.

Having their roots in the multi-user dungeon (or MUD) games played over the Internet, the genre of games later to be known as massively multiplayer online games, or MMOGs, were the apotheosis of the idea that only other humans can offer truly challenging gameplay. There was also a social component previously unattainable with consoles, as text and voice chat technologies became more robust, allowing gamers to meet new people and develop strong ties over combat without once ever meeting each other in the flesh. At the time of this writing, thanks to the widespread availability of broadband Internet access, even consoles are now able to offer MMO features to gamers.

Clearly, people have a need to play together, regardless of location or game type. The arcades of yesterday brought gaming to a type of hobbyist who might otherwise not have developed a social life, putting others of like mind in contact with each other. Like any evolving system, there were bound to be some hitches and burps along the way, the social growth of gameplay taking a momentary step backward as technologies advanced. But as noted game developer Raph Koster has famously said, "The entire video game industry's history thus far has been an aberration. It has been a mutant monster only made possible by unconnected computers. People always play games together." The growing popularity of the MMOG appears to bring some truth to his words, but the single-player casual game will never completely disappear, even as the venerable video arcade will never completely vanish. People do have a need to play together, but they also have a need for personal triumph on a personal scale.

At the beginning of the era of the modern video game stood the classic casual games of our time -- what you might think of as the grandfathers of the MMOG. Without those initial, simple games to spark the imaginations and creativity of generations of gamers we may never have developed the gigantic industry that we currently enjoy. We may never have realized the sleeping potential of mind-to-mind combat, a phenomenon that enriches both sides of a match. And finally, without casual games, we may never have discovered how much fun it can be to open ourselves to sheer possibility, creating new worlds that in turn recreate ourselves.

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