Critical Intel

Critical Intel
Macau Casinos Look More Like Arcades All the Time

Robert Rath | 26 Jun 2014 12:00
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While I'm still playing a random number generator, I feel like there's skill involved. Though it does nothing, I find myself mashing the SPIN button hoping it'll make Ali Baba push harder against the rocks trying to crush him. The illusion's so strong I catch myself feeling like it's my fault when the luck eventually runs out - and it always runs out.

I cash out while I still have winnings to lose. HK$165 isn't a fortune - it's about $21 - but off a HK$20 buy-in it's not too shabby. Still, I feel myself getting that very videogame-like urge to press continue. Though I knew it was beyond my control, I had a disturbing sense I could kill that last thief if I took another crack at it.

Video games share more than a little with slot machines. Old arcade machines weren't always designed with artistic intent or even game balance. Difficulty spikes weren't a test of skill, they were designed to harvest money from your pocket. The "CONTINUE?" message, with its countdown clock, added social pressure to buy in for another round. In this age where social and mobile games offer real money transactions for extra turns or resources, and Dungeon Keeper Mobile can get away with blatantly stacking the deck against the player, some genres are reverting back to arcade strategies. Like kids in a car trip backseat, companies keep seeing how far they can inch across the invisible line that separates games from money-harvesting vehicles. Ali Baba's strategy was to distract the player into thinking they had some say over the result, and to disguise that the odds aren't in their favor. You could arguably say the same for some games where the spinning dials sit buried in code. The reason even video blackjack players prefer to face off against a virtual human is that they feel like they can trust something that that has a face to read. It's a trick -- it's always a trick -- but the question becomes how well the lights and wheels distract you from that. Microtransaction games, arguably, are less honest than their cousins that dwell amid the baccarat tables and cigarette-burned carpets. At least slots show you the dials to communicate your uphill battle against the machine.

On the other hand, there's no denying that playing in an arcade, with your quarter on the line, had a thrill to it. Death is cheap in modern gaming. No matter how sharp the sword or deep the chasm, you can always start again with nothing lost. In the old arcades there was real money at risk. True, only a quarter, but it was still a physical thing you could hold in your hand. It had value. When you dropped it in the coin slot, you were, in essence, gambling on the amount of entertainment you could squeeze out of it - and that made both failure and success more tangible. You were beating the game rather than merely finishing it.

I don't particularly care how many times I died in Skyrim, but I fondly remember beating Star Wars Trilogy Arcade with one continue.

That quarter, in gambling parlance, makes it interesting. And it's that memory that stops me from railing against free-to-play games and microtransactions simply on principle. Microtransactions aren't anything new to the game industry, and though they have potential for abuse, I'd like to make some room for a good developer who wants to re-capture that feeling of battling a game over pocket change.

After all, if the games don't earn their value, the market will punish them like it did when players abandoned arcades for the greater long-term value consoles and PCs delivered.

But as I walked over to collect my winnings, the thought crossed my mind: but at their heart, aren't casinos calibrated to short-circuit logical decisions like that? And haven't games been learning to do the same?

As casinos and video games increasingly share lessons with one another, and both urge us to take just one more try, will it become harder to recognize when it's time to cash out?

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