Everything old is old again

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Want to feel really old? It's been 26 years since the sound of "waka-waka-waka" first resounded in an arcade. Yes, 1980 was the year Midway licensed and installed the coin-op version of Namco's "Pac-Man" in the U.S. And 2006 is the year that "Pac-Man" has become one of the most popular downloads on Xbox Live Arcade and GameTap.

Talk about a game with legs.

In fact, while most of the video games industry is marveling over the success of today's casual games -- those small, downloadable games with simple rules that make it easy for a mass audience to begin playing almost immediately -- less-noticed is the fact that a subset of casual games has become hot this last year and is getting hotter. Indeed, here come the retro arcade classics!

But not everyone has overlooked their appeal. Several savvy publishers are creating business models around them, convinced that there's a new and growing audience that will ensure their continuing success.

Take the folks at Atlanta-based GameTap, for instance. The broadband gaming network launched by the Turner Broadcasting System last October was designed specifically to aggregate classic games.

"It was our belief that there's an audience out there who wants to play these games on their PC at any time of day, any day of the week," says Stuart Snyder, GameTap's vp and general manager.

And an audience that is willing to pay a monthly fee of $9.95 to do so. Subscribers get a two-week free trial and then, after committing to a month's membership, can download a small piece of software that gives them access to as many games as they wish. At the moment, GameTap's library consists of 650 games, of which 115 are arcade classics, and more are being added each week.

The core demographic, says Snyder, are 25-to-49-year-olds "who are those people who most appreciate the 'nostalgia factor' associated with the older games, such as 'Galaga,' 'Pac-Man,' 'Frogger,' 'Burger Time' [pictured at right], 'Dig Dug,' and the others that are on this week's Most Played List."

In addition, he adds, a secondary audience is kids who are too young to remember the original games but enjoy them nonetheless because of their simplicity.

"We're finding that they're a great bonding experience for parents who like to play their favorites with their kids who are having fun with them for the first time," says Snyder.

GameTap is adamant about offering the games in untouched, pristine condition, meaning that the original software is being licensed from the games' publishers as-is in order to preserve the exact look-and-feel of the games.

"That's one of the best features of GameTap," explains Snyder.

It's also a very different philosophy from the one at Microsoft's Xbox Live Arcade service where classics are spiffed up and slightly modernized. That involves working with the IP owners to "improve them," says Greg Canessa, group manager of Xbox Live Arcade, which means everything from adding hi-definition graphics to offering multiplayer support.

While Canessa agrees that the "nostalgia factor" is what drives much of the demand for classic games, sometimes nostalgia can negatively affect continuing interest in the titles.

"The problem with nostalgia is that sometimes you have this mental image of how much fun a game was when you played it back in the coin-op days," he says, "but then, nine out of 10 times, when you try it again, it disappoints. You play it for a few minutes and then you're like, okay, I'm kind of sorry I tried it again because I had better memories of it. The truth is the game still kicks butt; it just needs a little updating for the hi-def generation -- maybe tightening up the graphics, maybe adding a background. It's all very subtle and you can even toggle off the upgrades if you want to play the old-school version."

Every Xbox Live Arcade game also includes multiplayer support -- cooperative or competitive -- something that's brand new to most retro games.

"Competing against yourself to get the highest score you can is great," says Canessa, "but being able to compete with your friends and have the winner posted to our leaderboards for all the world to see has created a whole new market for classic games."

The service's entire portfolio of games, which can only be played on the Xbox and next-gen Xbox 360 consoles, is considerably smaller than GameTap's PC offerings. Currently, it includes just 30 games, with plans to increase that to 50 by year-end. Just 10, however, are classic arcade games -- "Gauntlet," "Smash TV," "Robotron," "Joust," "Frogger," "Time Pilot," "Scramble," "Galaga," "Street Fighter II," and, of course, "Pac-Man."

"Our philosophy is to take only the best games -- the ones that have stood the test of time -- and focus on them, work with the IP owners to improve them, and then continue to work with them to market the heck out of them," explains Canessa. For example, Microsoft is partnering with Namco and Pac-Man creator Toru Iwatani to host a worldwide championship around the Xbox Live Arcade version of the game.

"We're going to be taking our worldwide, global high-score leaderboards and creating a whole set of local and regional tournaments," adds Canessa. "Essentially we're going to rank the top 10 Pac-Man players in the world, fly them to New York City, and hold a world championship hosted and refereed by Iwatani-san. You just know this is going to be big."

Unlike GameTap, Xbox Live Arcade has no subscription model; each game is purchased separately. If after an hour or so of free play a gamer wants to buy a game, they click one button on their Xbox and the game is downloaded to their hard drive or memory unit and their account is billed a $5-$15 fee depending on the game. Canessa has found that the conversion rate from try-to-buy is averaging a whopping 24%, considerably higher than the 2% conversion rate throughout the industry for PC casual games. He attributes that to the convenience of the "one-click demo, one-click purchase" process.


The original "Spy Hunter" game, left, and Midway's new adaptation


Should retro gamers find that they can't get their fill on PC and console download services like GameTap and Xbox Live Arcade, they needn't worry. Publishers like Chicago-based Midway Games are creating stand-alone titles that are "inspired by" -- and, therefore, are just reminiscent of -- beloved classics. For instance, Midway's just-released "SpyHunter: Nowhere To Run" is based on the successful 1983 driving game "Spy Hunter." But purists will surely notice that the star of the new game is former wrestler and now action hero Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, that he can now leave his virtual car and perform head butts and body slams, and that his vehicle can convert into a motorcycle or speedboat. As Midway says, "it's taking the franchise to a whole new level."

Regardless how closely the current retro games mirror the originals, the publisher benefits from brand awareness -- there's no need to explain to consumers what the game is about; in most cases they've heard of it and may have even played it in one version or another.

For that reason, toy makers like Hong Kong-based Techno Source USA have jumped onto the classics bandwagon and unveiled two new retro gaming systems, the "Intellivision 10" and the "Activision 10." Gamers who need a retro fix don't even need an Internet connection; for $15 they can plug one of two self-contained controllers into their TV, each of which contains 10 classic games, and have instant access to titles like "Kaboom!" and "Barnstorming."

"For many manufacturers who were already working with popular new gaming platforms -- like the Internet and cell phones which require fairly simple programs -- retro games are a perfect fit," says Eric Levin, executive VP at Techno Source. "The games were already written, had proven gameplay, and featured tiny programs by today's standards."

Another platform that's well-suited for gamers-on-the-go are dedicated handhelds, like the VG Pockets by Vernon, Calif.-based Performance Designed Products. The $30 Tablet model comes pre-loaded with 25 games, including "Frogger," while the $40 Caplet model features 35 games such as "Space Invaders," "Bust-A-Move" and "BurgerTime."

"Retro gaming takes us back to games that are just plain fun," says Paul Chen, vp of content and licensing, "and they don't require a 50-page manual to figure out how to pass level one."

But nostalgia, fun, and simplicity aren't all that are attracting consumers to these games of yesteryear.

Andrew Phelps is an assistant professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York, its director of game design and development, and a man who takes a strong interest in gaming trends. He sees the popularity of these classics as a backlash of sorts against the more mainstream triple-A video games that are longer, more elaborate and more expensive.

"Those games require a tremendous amount of time and energy to get the most out of them," says Phelps. "For instance, when you play 'Grand Theft Auto' or 'The Sims,' the experience takes a while. But retro games are faster, you get to the next level in a minute or two, and the feedback is practically instantaneous. While the more intricate, AAA games are fine for some people on some occasions, other people, especially non-hardcore gamers, just want some immediate, short-term fun. And what better way to do that than play a game that you remember enjoying years ago?"

Casual games are, of course, another alternative for mainstream gamers, but Phelps observes that those newer, more graphically rich titles are generally more sophisticated in their play style.

"By today's standards, the logic of retro games isn't hard to understand and their intricacy is pretty simple in comparison to the other downloadable games that are available," he says. "All in all, the classics were great engineered pieces of entertainment at the time and their design has held up 25 years later. It's still fun to play 'Pac-Man' because it's just as challenging today as it was then."

And, like casual games, there is an addictive quality to retro games that, says, Phelps, some scientists claim are physiological in nature: "We're talking about some dopamine systems in the brain and adrenaline rushes that make people want to continue playing because the game excites them. Also, some personalities are strongly affected by goal-oriented behavior. I mean, how many times have you stayed up past midnight just to see if you can get to the next level in a game?"

But whether the mass-market will stay addicted to retro games or this is a short-term fad depends on who you ask. The folks at GameTap and Xbox Live Arcade say they're here to stay, but Phelps isn't so sure.

"My hunch is that we're talking about something that's cyclical," he says. "People will get tired of them for a while, come back to them again, and then stop for a while. Of course, that depends on which games you classify as retro which, it seems to me, is an expanding universe. In a few years, 'Tetris' will be considered a retro classic ... and then perhaps 'Bejeweled' and 'Zuma.' Twenty years from now, there'll be some old folks who grew up with 'Bejeweled' and they'll look back and go, 'Oh, man, remember playing "Bejeweled"? That was so cool!"

Paul "The Game Master" Hyman was the editor-in-chief of CMP Media's GamePower. He's covered the games industry for over a dozen years. His columns for The Reporter run exclusively on the Web site.
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