Electronic Design

Arcade Games Adapt To Outmaneuver Their Console Competition

The game cabinet sat against the wall of the restaurant, quietly beckoning the crowd. I had never noticed it before, but with 10 minutes to burn before the rest of my party arrived, it fit the bill.

After a few rounds of Big Buck Hunter, the polished game experience grabbed me. Like a great pop song, the hooks came early and often, nurturing the urge to keep playing one minute more. With my toy gun in hand, I started to think I might be a pretty good forest commando. Fresh game is healthy, right?

The gaming system connected to my TV hasn’t gotten much use lately. Its huge games are too involved to play in small chunks of free time throughout the day. Games on my phone always feel claustrophobic. Yet with 10 minutes to spare at the restaurant, I had become a hunting enthusiast.

Raw Thrills is the company behind Big Buck Hunter. When I met Raw Thrills CTO Andy Eloff at a Dell OEM CTO Summit, we discussed the technology that enables the arcade industry. Like phones, thermostats, and televisions, arcade games have come a long way since the decade of Pac-Man fever and now exist as part of a technology-filled ecosystem (see the figure).

Arcade games like Super Bikes 2 (shown) and the Big Buck Hunter series from Raw Thrills utilize technology that far exceeds their joystick-enabled ancestors, incorporating features that encourage gamers to leave their home consoles behind and hit the arcade.

JN: How has the technology in arcade games evolved since their emergence more than 40 years ago?

AE: Let me start by saying that one thing has stayed the same: arcade games have to stay differentiated from the home console market. To remain differentiated, arcade games incorporate technologies that are not yet mainstream in the console market. Eventually, the market catches up. The costs decrease for today’s technology, and it becomes mainstream—a part of every console. Then the cycle repeats.

JN: Can you provide an example?

AE: In the late 70s, the 8-bit microprocessor was made into custom graphics hardware. This enabled Sega and others to have better graphics in the arcade. Nintendo worked to catch up with these new graphical capabilities, and they used the same hardware they developed for their arcade machines in their home console systems.

JN: So the battle between consoles and arcade machines started in graphics?

AE: That’s right. 3D polygonal graphics emerged in the 90s, and it created a chasm. Companies such as Nvidia and ATI saw the opportunity to design special hardware that made 3D graphics widely available to the PC market, and today very high-powered GPUs are extremely inexpensive.

But at the same time, networking was emerging, and the arcade game manufacturers saw the opportunity to create a social experience. With networked systems and lobbies, gamers could now play against other people.

Arcade systems are about addressing the needs of a gamer in a particular situation in the best possible way. If there is a big visual gap between expectations and reality, then we’ll develop better visuals. But the gap might be social. It might be with the audio. It could be the game play itself.

JN: So it’s not about a single technology trend at any given moment?

AE: The space is highly innovative so we are watching many technologies at once. We created Raw Thrills because we saw the opportunity in creating an immersive experience unlike anything you could find at home or on your phone. Our customers don’t think of them as games. They think of them as simulators. For example, one of our racing games has bucket seats, gas and brake pedals, and a 42-in. screen that feels like a windshield.

JN: You’ve talked about specific technologies that you incorporate into your designs. How do you learn about the product once it’s out in the field? Do you collect any data from your systems?

AE: Focus groups are limited because they are a tiny simulation of reality. If you are trying to measure something nuanced like experience, you have a large measurement loss.

At Raw Thrills, we prefer to set the games on location and observe how they are played remotely. Did the player continue to play? Did they have an enjoyable experience? Did we maximize the good times?

An arcade machine earns money one game at a time. By charting enjoyment during the game play, we can eliminate bad plays that lead to lower replay. You don’t want to make someone feel bad at your game.

JN: If you had 10 extra engineers, what would you ask them to work on?

AE: I’d have them create a fully immersive 3D experience. Everyone is heading in that direction, and it’s long been considered science fiction. I want the Holodeck from Star Trek.

JN: I can’t wait to see what you have up your sleeve next. Thank you for your time, Andy.

AE: The pleasure is mine.

Full disclosure: Raw Thrills is a Dell OEM Solutions customer.

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