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Quarter gobblers are broken on XBLA [update 2]

Vladimir Cole

Joystiq reader "epobirs" disagreed with our comment earlier today that Xbox Live Arcade title Gauntlet is broken. We'd like to dig into the issue a little more, because we feel that developers are missing a major opportunity to resurrect the true arcade experience.

Games like Gauntlet were designed for an era in which expensive game cabinets were purchased by small businessmen who hoped that the large up-front purchase would be paid for (and them some) by teens plunking quarter after quarter into the machines in order to keep playing. Game designers therefore had to make sure (1) that the average player would die frequently; (2) that the game was fun enough to convince the average player to drop another quarter in the slot.

Gauntlet, released in 1985 (at the height of the arcade craze) was a masterpiece of the form. It greedily gobbled quarters from addicted gamers who were enthralled by the game's tight design. What made the game so fun was the fact that your money was always at stake. A mistake meant that you had to reach into your pocket and insert more money. There was a constant tension between performance and pocketbook, and this tension made the game.

Every non coin-operated release of Gauntlet since then has missed the point. The Xbox Live Arcade version, for instance, allows players to hit a button on the Xbox 360 controller in order to simulate putting a quarter in the machine. Of course, a button press costs nothing, and so the essential tension is lost. The game loses a fundamental game play mechanism by replacing quarter insertion with button pressing.

What we'd love to see is a release of Gauntlet for Xbox Live Arcade (or for a competing service) that's free (or very cheap) to "purchase" but that costs $.25 per health increase (equivalent to 20 MS Points). The developer that brings back this core game play mechanism will claim the title of "most authentic arcade experience."

We're certain that are some great arcade titles slated for release in 2007. They'd be better if they stayed true to the arcade experience.

Counterpoints raised by readers:

  • "Looks like someone didn't actually read the help file. Gauntlet isn't broken. For the purposes of determining your score for any High Score table, your in-game score is divided by how many quarters you inserted (ie how many times you hit Y) into the game. So, yes, you can slam 100 quarters in there and become "invincible"
    but good luck getting any sort of decent high score unless you break a million+ points." -- oobey

Good point, but most folks aren't playing Gauntlet for a place on the Xbox Live Arcade leaderboard. It's a secondary goal, if anything. Invicibility mode breaks a much more primary game play mechanism.

  • "There have been numerous releases of Gauntlet since the NES days with the exact same infinite quarters feature, along with numerous similarly structured arcade game adaptations. People appear able to restrain themselves and choose how they want to play." -- epobirs

If Gauntlet had been released to the arcade with an invincibility button, you can bet it'd have been declared "broken." A fundamental design decision made by the game's designers has been undermined through this awful mechanism. For the first time, MS Points and Nintendo Points allow a return to the arcade model because they make microtransactions economical to support. It's time to toss this broken mechanism and return to "true" arcade play

[Update 1: new reader comments responded to, below.]

  • "Hmm....Let's fleece the Gauntlet players" -- EihBeir

Nobody's advocating a fleecing. As noted above, we encouraged a price reduction on the game. In the arcade days, you didn't have to plop down $8.00 to play an arcade game. You put in $.25. The first play -- and every play thereafter -- cost $.25. Players who are very good at Gauntlet might end up paying less for the game than players who are new to it, which would be a return to the arcade pecking order, yet another game play element lost by the transition to up-front game purchases.

  • "The free download: pay as you play concept sounds pretty good. It might return a lot of the thrill to the arcade games. But I doubt it would make any money.I've downloaded 5 or 6 XBLA retro titles. Each one was about $5 I believe. I don't think I have played any of them more than 10 times. ($2.50 on the pay per play method) And I doubt that I am an exception here." -- Noodle

Valid point. It's possible that your interest tailed off quickly precisely because the game play had been gutted. There's no excitement in playing some of these arcade titles when your quarter isn't at stake. Gauntlet is positively boring with its invincibility mode.

  • "Hey, while we're at it, doesn't Street Fighter II have a quarter mode? Better charge people to use that too." -- EihBeir

Why not? It'd make online matches much more meaningful. I still remember the thrill of sitting on a Street Fighter II cabinet for an hour at a time, undefeated against all challengers. I also remember the agony of defeat when a challenger did manage to defeat me. I put my quarter up on the machine immediately to request a rematch. It was fun because the stakes were higher.

  • "The whole point of owning a console is so you DON\'T constantly put money in, like an arcade game." -- Tim

Consoles defeated arcade gaming. But they've failed to capture the essence of the arcade because microtransactions of the arcade type were never possible on a console until now. The console business model (upfront purchases of "entire" games) doesn't have to be replicated. Why get stuck on the console business model? Does anybody really believe that paying an average of $50 per game makes sense when most gamers never finish the games they buy? Pay-per-play eliminates the waste of paying for content you never reach.

  • "Can you imagine the public rage at not being able to buy the full game?" - TravistyOJ

Nobody's forcing a pay-to-play business model on anybody. What if you were offered the option of purchasing an arcade game for $10 or paying 20 MS points per play. Which would you choose? What if you were offered this choice every time you fired up the game?

[Update 2: more responses below.]

  • "People are already pissed off enough about Microtransactions without crap like this. It's 2006 (soon to be '07), Cole. Nobody wants to pay like they did back when to play the original Gauntlet anymore." -- The H

The point is that Gauntlet was designed for an era of pay-to-play. The game is hurt by the clumsy translation to an up-front model. I'm arguing that publishers who want to offer an accurate and true version of Gauntlet must replicate the quarter mechanism because this is how the game's designers designed the game to be played.

  • "I honestly think its a great idea. As the owner of 5 arcade machines, and countless games for it, I know what it feels just to be able to hit the little trigger to gain a credit. Even with the authentic cabinets, its still not the same as having $10 and trying to hit up all the machines." -- Borman

Though Borman's one of the lucky few who've managed to own actual arcade cabinets, I'd wager that he's not the only owner of arcade games to feel the same hollow victory associated with "free play." Arcade games were not designed for limitless play.

  • "The pay to play idea could work but only if it tracked how much you paid, and when you've paid so much (say 120% of the up front price) that the game is considered purchased." -- KineticOnline

Great idea in the spirit of the post. We've got a broken game play mechanism. How can it be fixed?

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