Guilty Pleasures

Guilty Pleasures
One Button, One Scotch, One Beer

L.B. Jeffries | 16 Dec 2008 12:56
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In 1972, when Nolan Bushnell and Al Alcorn finished making Pong, they faced the dilemma of how to test it on a crowd. They settled on a hole-in-the-wall bar called Andy Capp's Tavern in Sunnyvale, California, stacking the game on top of two empty wine barrels next to a few pinball machines and a jukebox. It was a huge hit from the very beginning, but it had a curious trait. As the bar owner explained to Alcorn in a phone call, people would come to the bar just to play Pong. They wouldn't buy anything else. Why didn't patrons continue to drink while they played?

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It's simple enough: When you're drunk, your physical and mental faculties are impaired. That reduces your reaction time, coordination and overall capacity to play the game well. The issue persists today. You can't expect to go on Xbox Live after knocking down a couple of pints and still keep up with a sober player. Guitar Hero can rapidly become an exercise in frustration if you've been nipping too much of Tennessee's finest. Complex game designs and controllers become completely counterintuitive once you forfeit the motor skills needed to operate heavy machinery. Yet numerous bars are still filled with arcade games, and certain console titles often take center stage at cocktail parties. People love to mix their booze with fun activities that keep the conversation going. What, then, are the elements of a game designed to be played by the inebriated?

Let's start with our target audience. They're not going to be able to focus for extended periods of time, so you need something that only demands brief bursts of coordination followed by plenty of downtime. That's key, because they're going to need a chance to sip from their drink. Hopefully they're not drinking alone, so downtime also gives them a chance to shift their attention back to the conversation, or, failing that, give them the opportunity to start one. Finally, their reflexes are generally going to be utter crap. People don't like to lose, particularly when they're drunk, so we need to plan for that as well. Our target player wants something that enhances the drinking experience without overriding it.

What do those criteria produce? The obvious places to start are bowling and golf games. Since players are drunk, you can't really expect them to handle multiple buttons. Or even a joystick, if it's a Friday after happy hour. Enter the ball controller. With one delightfully uncoordinated spin, you can launch a golf ball, throw a strike or arc a Frisbee. It's hard to refer to any particular game in this instance because there are so many variations and knock-offs, but we've all seen them before: You spin the ball, then kick back to watch 15 to 20 seconds of instant replays - plenty of time to take a sip or two.

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