"The Future of Gaming"
The Game at the End of the Bar

Kyle Orland | 14 Aug 2007 12:20
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"When I was a kid, I used to love to go to the arcade to play Defender and Robotron," says Colin Higbie, Director of Marketing for Merit Entertainment, which controls the lion's share of the touchscreen countertop market. "But would I go there today when I can play Knights of the Old Republic at home on a giant screen with Surround Sound? No. But if I'm at a bar, I'll throw a few dollars in the pool table, the jukebox or a Megatouch for a game of Photo Hunt or Dodge Bull."

Since 1977, Merit has been focused on producing casual games for the bar and restaurant market. In 1981, they introduced Pit Boss, a six-in-one casino game and the first countertop arcade unit. In 1994, they introduced their first touchscreen game, the Super Touch 30. During its career, Merit has fended off challenges from many competitors, including Midway, whose now-defunct TouchMaster arcade game series was recently revived as a Nintendo DS game. Merit currently holds 70 to 85 percent of the coin-operated touchscreen market, with much of the remainder belonging to up-and-comer JVL Entertainment and its iTouch line.

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Higbie says Merit's success has come from their simple game design mantra. "We ... love games that we can play with one hand, while drinking a beer with the other." On that score, Merit's games succeed with flying colors. Not one of the dozens of games available on a single Megatouch unit requires more than one finger to play masterfully, and most have rules that can be summed up in a sentence or two. "As players, many of us love some of the more complex games, World of Warcraft, Oblivion and so on," he says, "but as developers, we have a real talent for writing very simple games that play out well in just a few minutes of play."

Some might call it a real talent for appropriation. Like many casual PC games, most Megatouch games can trace their lineage back to real-world analogues or classic hits like Breakout and Bejeweled. The "Strategy" selection on the Merit Megatouch Aurora, for instance, contains highly innovative titles like Battle Command (Battleship), Big Time Roller (Yahtzee) and Backjammin' (you get three guesses).

What Merit's games lack in originality, though, they make up for in execution. "They've consistently developed good software that has wide player appeal," RePlay's White says. "What they've been able to do over time is develop games that are easy to play but have a compelling hook that kind of keeps you coming back." These simple hooks, when combined with plenty of alcohol for lubrication, can lead to a deep connection between player and machine. "If you go into a bar and you talk to somebody, people won't say, 'I like to play the Megatouch,'" White says. "They'll say, 'I like to play the blah blah blah, [a specific game on the unit]. They really come to identify with the software."

Indeed, on a recent research crawl of Laurel, MD area bars (during which I found five Megatouch machines and two JVL iTouch units), I ran into Brian, who was already on his sixth beer. Brian sat next to me in the middle of a particularly close Megatouch air hockey battle and promptly started cheering me on against my buxom computer-controlled opponent.

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