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

Kyle Orland | 14 Aug 2007 12:20
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At first, Brian said he "never" played those games, then he admitted he sometimes played "when I'm waiting for someone." After about five minutes, he finally owned up to a minor addiction to Conquest, a surprisingly complex contest of board control involving jumping and cloning adjacent octopuses on a hex-field. A challenge was quickly issued and accepted, and while the match itself wasn't very interesting (owing mostly to our very different states of inebriation), the camaraderie we built over the game reminded me of similarly quick friendships forged over Street Fighter or DDR in old-school arcades.

Granted, any game is gonna seem interesting at a bar with lots of alcohol and little else to do. Could these touchscreen games succeed in massive location-based entertainment complexes, where they might have to compete with go karts, laser tag and flashy upright cabinets? Some think they could.

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"When a family comes in, it's nice to have games for all ages," says Jon W. Brady, Vice President of Brady Distributing and Chairman of the American Amusement Machine Association. "You have to find the content that will keep not only kids happy, but also mom and dad. Our biggest challenge is just convincing a location that they need a countertop product." The touchscreen's appeal to women is also a big selling point. "What you'll notice more in a location that has a countertop, you'll see a female warm up to that a lot quicker than she would a normal videogame," he says.

Younger teens show the least interest in the touchscreen games, but Merit is also working on this problem. In 2005, the MegaTouch Ion Elite Edge kept the touchscreen but added a miniature joystick and two action buttons to the front of the unit. Games for the unit include a penguin-based Frogger clone, a basic 3-D racer (complete with first-person view option) and an R-Type style space shooter. "With almost 200 games currently on our system, we thought we could reach out to another segment of players who really wanted to play these action games, especially as the classic arcade games became harder to find elsewhere," Higbie says.

Merit says there's been a strong response to the joystick, but not everyone agrees. "The joystick games haven't been received as well as they would have liked," Brady said, "but I really think there's some content there that's needed." So what's next for these titans of the bar gaming scene? Online gaming is a key growth area, Higbie says, and Merit would like to expand beyond its 10,000 or so connected machines to allow more players to compete in head-to-head competitions and online high-score tournaments. "Tournaments really drive gameplay," Brady says. "Patrons really like to compete, to have your name on that leaderboard, being king of the location or the region as the case may be. That's just human nature."

Kyle Orland is a videogame freelancer and co-author of The Videogame Style Guide and Reference Manual. He's written for a variety of print and online outlets, as chronicled on his workblog.

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