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A Horse of a Different Color

Kyle Orland | 26 Jul 2005 08:03
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Heather Dubé knows horse racing inside and out. In her short career she has done it all: picking out sires and dams to produce winning foals; working her horses through a specialized training regimen; and selecting carefully controlled diets to maximize her steeds' potential. Heather even serves as the jockey, utilizing an early whipping strategy that she says "leaves them in the dust in the end."

Heather's latest horse, a chestnut-colored thoroughbred named Crypto's Fate, has gotten most of Heather's attention recently, and has quickly become her favorite. Crypto's Fate has only won six of his 33 races, but Heather has plenty of time to improve her skills. After all, she's only been training horses for two days. She's 13 years old.

The game that has turned Heather into a horse owner, trainer and jockey overnight is Sega's Derby Owners Club (DOC). The massive machine she plays sits along a dark sidewall of Jillian's arcade/restaurant/dance club/Japanese hibachi megacenter at Arundel Mills Mall in Anne Arundel, Md. The game is set far apart from the arcade's lines of beeping ticket- redemption games, auto-racing simulations and shoot-'em-ups in both location and subject matter.

If you haven't been to one of the mega-arcades that are the only locations large enough to house a full DOC setup, you are missing out on a unique experience. The DOC arrangement is made up of eight individual 19-inch screens, comfortably spaced in two rows of four. Each screen faces up at a 45-degree angle for players seated in attached, padded, doublewide stools. On these individual units, first-time players can create a new horse to race and returning jockeys can insert a thin, magnetized card containing the data of a horse from a previous session. Each player then trains their horses in one of 10 exercises, and feeds it a good meal in an effort to maintain good health and a good relationship. Happy horses will whinny and gallop appreciatively - unhappy horses might kick over the feeding trough.

Then it's off to the races, where the action transfers to two 50-inch widescreen monitors hanging above and in front of the eight individual units. An animated bugler sounds the call and the horses are off, with an excitable announcer calling the positions and screaming things like "Go, baby, go!" in the background. Players use large, brightly lit "whip" and "hold" buttons on their units to control the speed of their horses. A sliding scale on each screen shows the whip's effectiveness, which goes down with each strike but increases with time, according to the horse's stamina. When the race is over, players are awarded virtual prize money and get the opportunity to give the horse encouragement or derision, based on its performance on the track.

The game then asks players to pay another $1 to $2 (depending on the arcade) for another race, which they often do. "It's not uncommon for players to remain on the game for over eight hours, in some cases taking their lunch and dinner right at the game," said Peter Gustafson, Sega Entertainment USA's director of sales and marketing, in a press release announcing the game's 2002 US release. "In fact, one of the most loyal players, a man in his early 50s, owns a stable of over forty horses. He keeps track of [them] on an excel spreadsheet. I'm not familiar of [sic] any other video game that elicits this kind of passion."

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