Gamers today complain about $60 console titles or free-to-play extravaganzas that wind up costing an arm and a leg, but there was a time when gaming was really expensive: 1982.
Sure, those were the days when games cost a quarter to play, but according to the guys who were behind some of those hit games, consumers were paying a lot of money.
"Those games were the most expensive ever to play," said Mark Cerny at today's DICE panel, "A Renaissance of Gaming." "You paid 25 cents for a few minutes. The expectation today is that games are free or they cost $60 for many hours of play."
Cerny began his career at Atari in 1982, and wrote hit game Marble Madness. Most recently, he was lead architect of PlayStation 4 and director of Knack. He was speaking at DICE on a panel with Eugene Jarvis, creator of Williams' seminal arcade hit Defender, which he said lasted just over 30 seconds per play when it was first tested.
The early days of arcades are viewed today as a golden era of creative freedom and business derring-do. But Cerny said that the economics of arcade design were tough, demanding that games were designed to be played short and often.
He said that an arcade machine buyer would expect 20,000 plays from each machine before it could reasonably be deemed profitable. Games that lasted more than two and a half minutes in testing were judged way too long and likely to turn a loss.
"It might look today just like indie development, with one programmer working on a game," he said. "But the financial commitment was huge. We had to go through a brutal approval process."
Much of the investment went into expensive hardware, with each arcade game built to a custom design, right down to the screen and even the wiring. "It was a million dollar project," he said.
But he added that he misses the open field available to game designers in those days. "There are hundreds of thousands of games on the App Store today. Then, you could make a game and have maybe two or three direct competitors."