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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?


1. Danc - November 27, 2009

This is another case study that supports the genre life cycle theory. Basically it states that game genres are similar to product categories and just like product categories they evolve in a predictable fashion over time. For game, the primary variable involve game mechanics: their creation, player mastery, and standardization.

Here’s a short introduction:

The question is not ‘which genres will this trend occur in’? The genre lifecycle plays out across all genres. It is an inevitable aspect our business.

Instead, it helps to look at a particular genre and identify its current stage and the stage that it will be in by the time that your game hits the market. These can help answer questions about how much to invest in IP vs. Graphics vs. Gameplay vs. Marketing.

Also since mechanics are the key differentiator between genres, you’ll often see sub-genres split off when the base level of controls change. The popular press sees console FPS and PC FPS as the same genre, but the core skills necessary to move and aim are quite different, despite the similarities in visuals and tactical play. This has an impact on the stage of the genre life cycle. FPS on the console are a mature stage genre. FPS games on the console are solidly in the Decline stage. FPS on the iPhone and Social networks are still in the Intro stage. Each stage requires different dev and marketing tactics despite the fact that in all cases you are making a ‘FPS’.

It’s a great model that I use constantly when culling game concepts.

take care

2. Brian 'Psychochild' Green - November 27, 2009

We probably won’t see another situation like pinball machines in games. One of the main problems with pinball is that it’s a large physical item. Compare this to games where I can visit an internet site and be playing a handful of games in the span of a few minutes. Also, as the article points out a good game will ease newbies into a game (but let an experienced person blow through the introduction fast).

I think some gameplay genres might be marginalized, however, and those are likely to be games with a physical component, like dexterity or reaction times. As you pointed out, we already see this with FPSes where the reaction time requirements and aiming precision of the elite is amazing. It can be hard for a new player to compete with the elite. This is exacerbated by the fact that online play can put people of different skill abilities together.

Another genre that fits the physical requirements is shmups (shoot-em-ups or scrolling shooters for the less hard-core). A lot of these games can be bewildering for new players. On the bright side, we’ve seen some innovative games from hobbyist developers, especially out of Japan.

There are a few other genres that might fall prey to this, but I don’t think we’ll see an extinction type setup like we did for pinball. I think that independents are likely to keep any popular genres alive, possibly for a resurgence later.

3. aaron - November 28, 2009

I don’t think FPS games will go out of fad completely. There will always be a market place for these games. But definitely, the onus is on the game developer to create better player skill-rating/matching algorithms so that novice players aren’t getting fragged within seconds of playing a new FPS. interesting tie in to pinball games tho

4. uberVU - social comments - November 28, 2009

Social comments and analytics for this post…

This post was mentioned on Twitter by dealhorizon: #Venture Blogs: Jeremy Liew published Which games will go the way of Pinball machines? @ http://bit.ly/4RZWPI/

5. Laurent - November 28, 2009

I tend to agree. FPS is tough especially in Online play. Everyone is an expert. Its just too difficult to play. As a 35 year old man who is an ethusiast for FPS I find it impossible to play online. I get so excited when I get 1 kill. But when the games are over you notice L33TKizors has killed 50 players to your 1. You wonder how they do it.

I do think FPS has a long way to go before it reaches the world of pinball.
For one thing, the new interfaces (Wii, Natal) could change the game.
Pinball was fixed and has no way to change. It has flippers, and a slopped deck. That’s all. There is nothing else that can be done.
FPS due to it being virtual can change. I would love to see some innovation it in with the new input devices

6. Morgan Lean - November 29, 2009

In my opnion its also the fact that FPS is skilll based, and MMO generation don’t really have skills except for social skills. The games they grew up with are not about being the best at the twitch game but at the meta game. You don’t need reflexes in the biggest mmo’s.

You don’t need reflexes in the faceburg games.

7. Death of a Genre - November 30, 2009

[…] Which games will go the way of pinball machines? […]

8. Jeremy - December 7, 2009

The genres are in danger of being obsolete only if they don’t continue to innovate. FPS are working hard to match player’s skill levels up.

This would effectively even the playing fields no?

9. izdelava spletnih strani - December 9, 2009

Man i really miss the true pinball experience. This new ones are so d… digital.

10. kostenlose Rollenspiele - December 9, 2009

That’s the point. In Germany big companies like Bipoint and Co. dominate the MMOG market. For single persons there is no place to grow up.

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