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Which games will go the way of Pinball machines? November 27, 2009

Posted by jeremyliew in economics, game design, game mechanics.

It is interesting to note that while MMOGs, time management games and real time strategy games have made the jump to social games, First person shooters have not. Why not?  I find the current generation of FPS very hard to pick up, and that may be part of the problem.

The Cheaptalk blog has an interesting post on an economists view about why pinball peaked and died out. He blames it on the transferability of skill from one pinball machine to another, combined with adaptive technology. This caused the market for pinball machines to bifurcate to experts and newbies, with most effort going towards building games for experts.

Pinball attracted a different crowd than video games like Defender (my new pal designed Defender and Stargate too,) and this is the fundamental theorem of pinball economics.  Pinball skill is transferrable.  If you can pass, stall, nudge, and aim on one machine you can do it on any machine.  This is both a blessing and a curse for pinball developers.  The blessing is that pinball players were a captive market. The curse was that to keep the pinball players interested the games had to get more and more intricate and challenging.

Pinball developers struggled with this problem as pinball was slowly losing to video games.  Video games competed by adding levels of play with increasing difficulty.  Any new player could quickly get chops on a new game because the low levels were easy.  This ensured that new players were drawn in easily, but still they were continually challenged because the higher levels got harder and harder.  By contrast, the physical nature of pinball, its main attraction to hardcore players, meant that there was no way to have it both ways.

Eventually, to keep the pinballers playing, the games became so advanced that entry-level players faced an impossible barrier.  High-schoolers in 1986 were either dropouts or professionals in 1992 and without inflow of new players that year essentially marked the end of pinball.

What game genres have similar characteristics? First Person Shooters come to mind. This challenge is magnified in a mutliplayer environment – it’s not fun to get fragged within seconds of starting a game. It’s the same experience that a new paintball player gets if they wander onto an average paintball course today – most players are now experts.

I highly recommend reading the article if you’re involved in the games and social games industry. I suspect that there is a risk that the competition for players in some popular social games genres may take us in a similar direction if we are not careful.

What other genres of games do readers think may be at risk in the same way?