Quarters and Loot Boxes

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When you were young, someone cradled a controller in your palms and wrapped their hands around yours, showing you how to hold it. Their thumbs over your own, they lifted your hands up to eye level so you could see the TV screen and controller at the same time. “When you press this button, he jumps! When you press this one he moves.”

You spent your early childhood days running in the fields, picking up sticks and pretending they were swords, hiding in the tall grass from imagined beasts. After it got dark you picked up the controller and slew them.

Your legs firmly beneath you now, you entered the arcade with the four quarters that your dad had slid into your palm. “I’ll be back in 15 minutes,” he said, tussling your hair and giving you a gentle push into the dim, black-carpeted cave at the mall. You stood in front of rows upon rows of arcade machines, their demos flashing across the screens, blinking letters imploring you to insert coin.

You ran your thumb across the smooth surface of the quarter as you slowly walked up and down the aisles, wondering where you should start. Teenagers crowded around some of the machines, their pockets jangled with change, their broad shoulders blocking your view.

Finally, Bubble Bobble drew you in, colorful and inviting with its jaunty, bouncy soundtrack and little dinosaurs jumping on bubbles. You slipped your quarter into the slot and flexed your hand, feeling the lightness of it as the coin tumbled through the metal innards and landed with a satisfying clatter somewhere deep inside.

You played the game not knowing the controls or the goal, but you understood moving and jumping well enough to survive for a minute. The first time you tried to jump on an enemy like you would at home, you lost a life. It taught you through your failures as it ate your quarters.

The game-over screen appeared again and you jammed your hand into your pocket and found it empty. You still had five minutes to kill, so after fruitlessly checking a few coin slots, you stood behind a teenage boy on your tiptoes, catching the occasional glimpse of a fireball shooting across the screen.

From then on you got four quarters every Friday and your dad promised there was more where that came from, but only if you did extra chores. Eventually you earned enough to rent a game for your Nintendo at home, and the math took on a whole new meaning. Three bucks on Friday is twelve quarters at the arcade, which usually means thirty minutes or less. Renting a game is all weekend; it’s practically cheating. You got one new game every year at Christmas. That was four months' worth of allowance in a single shot.

The sword in the tall grass was slowly forgotten. Arcades were given up as bad business.

In your 20’s, time was in endless supply while more money was always just around the corner. You found your stride, worked full-time and got on with being an adult.

It wasn’t everything you thought it would be. Your grandparents died. You lost a friend in a car accident. You fell behind on rent. Games seemed to grow up right alongside you, offering longer and deeper companionship as adult concerns piled up. Ten bucks a month wasn’t so bad; if you’d still thought in quarters you’d have been over the moon.

Time marched on, and you got married. After busy workdays you sat at your desk and blearily scrolled through your Steam games library, wondering when you might find the time for them. This arcade seemed endless; it would take an airport hangar to house arcade cabinets for each one. You could walk among them as if your pockets overflowed with quarters, and all the teens with their broad shoulders were gone.

Unlike the old arcade games, these ones wanted to give you everything – not all at once, but they found a way to feed their own quarters into you. They didn’t want to discourage; they wanted you to win. "No matter how tough it gets out there," they seemed to say, "you could win here. Take all the time you need."

You blink, rubbing your eyes and waking up from your daydream. It’s Saturday morning. You’re staring at the store page inside the game you bought for 240 quarters (if you still counted that way) and an orc merchant stares back at you. Grim and wizened, he seems old as far as orcs go. He rubs his hands together with nary a smile and stares vaguely in the direction of the gold chests on the side of the screen. He twitches anxiously, seeming to feel the passage of time even more distinctly than you do. “We’re brothers in arms,” his eyes seem to say, “both holding on by the skin of our teeth, eh? Feed me some gold and we can get on with it.”

With inflation, one golden chest will cost about a week's worth of allowance. Your younger self runs the math. What's the upshot of a couple orcs and a weapon? How many minutes of game-time are we talking here?

You realize the math has changed. Now it's about saving time, not extending it. Instead of another thirty minutes of fun, chests offer the same promise you felt sliding a quarter across the counter at the mom and pop store for a plain, brown goodie bag. You had no idea what you were going to get, and that was the whole point. The moment when you plucked the staple out of the thin paper and opened the bag was everything. Eating the candy was almost secondary.

You glance away from the screen and see the neighbour kids playing at the edge of the yard. Shouting wordlessly, they wave sticks at each other and dive into the tall grass to hide. You wonder how they’ll learn about the preciousness of time now that a quarter is so unnecessary and games just want to give and give until you can’t imagine doing anything else.

Games and their designers grew up with us, after all, and they’ve always known the score. Time is the real currency; we’d all pay and pay if we thought we could truly have more.

Leaving the orc merchant, you gulp down the rest of your coffee and step outside into the morning sunlight. The kids recognize you and sink further into the grass, giggling. You smile. It’s easy to forget the warm feeling of the sun on your skin, the smell of weeds and dirt when you’re low to the ground and hiding from beasts both real and imagined.

You roar and charge into the long grass, the children scatter like the wind.

Comments

Can I be the first to vote for a Graham Rowat reading of this one?

When you were young, someone cradled a controller in your palms and wrapped their hands around yours, showing you how to hold it. Their thumbs over your own, they lifted your hands up to eye level so you could see the TV screen and controller at the same time. “When you press this button, he jumps! When you press this one he moves."

Ouch. I remember seeing my first Pac-Man game in some nameless pizza parlor on vacation, probably the summer of 1980 or 81. It was a wonder of the modern age. My brother and I taught my parents to play, I think. Funny - I was as old then as my son is now.

The math is certainly different for today's kids.

As a kid, I was in that "one new game per year, at Christmas" boat, or close to it.

My own kids have access to my adult collection of games -- that is, hundreds of 'em. And as mentioned, today's games want to keep you engaged, not kick you to a Game Over screen.

Very few are old enough to remember the Age of Purity. It was an age of big blurry phosphate pixels, vector lines drawn between impossibly bright points, and early stand-up cabinets with beer holders bolted right on the side. In these days "Arcade" as a term carried a weight with it that it would soon lose. The dim and noise-filled shadows of the Arcade seemed to resemble more closely the aspect of an arena, or a prizefighter's ring, or a carnival hammer swing game--something steeped in the concepts of challenge and skill, success or defeat, empowerment earned.

This was when the four quarters could last you a while, as your time on Centipede or Defender or Ms. Pac-Man herself was solely determined by (aside from a couple of unseen dip switch settings) your skill. Replete with rules and scores, these amazing electronic innovations seemed to fill a missing space between puzzles and sports, and were soon surrounded by sporty accessories such as competitions and leagues. Analogous to shooting golf or climbing a mountain, a sense of accomplishment and distinction arose out of games treasured for their ability to provide a fair and meticulously designed set of gameplay loops providing increasing challenge. King of Kong is only possible because actually beating Donkey Kong is impossible, functionally. Multiplayer games like Warlords and Pong itself hewed to the same sense of purity: the only advantage one player has in Pong is if another has spilled beer into the opponent's paddle.

But before the Nintendo Entertainment System turned four quarters into a weekly three dollar rental for you, the Age of Purity ended for me. The hunger rose logically along with the industry's growth, the value per quarter dropped, and "Insert Coin to Continue" debuted. Four quarters went from a possible half hour to a few minutes if you were lucky. Games reached less for unique new mechanics and a seeming intention to create the new Chess or the new Backgammon, and reached more for rich media and spectacle and design to keep you continuing on to see "the ending." The fairness in game design took a dive as numerous unfair deaths, properly managed into continues, became the first revenue-motivated "pain point" in modern game design.

Me, I stopped eating lunch. That lunch money secretly became quarters at the end of the week. Dad wasn't interested in feeding the game industry's hunger, so my own hunger grew instead, and the "pain point" proved personal. Still, it was Space Ace and Street Fighter II that mostly ate my lunch. Even at a tender young age I was suspicious of such aptly named quarter-munchers as Gauntlet.

After that, I feel my recollection of history dovetails nicely back into your story: into the huge value gamers received when taking those experiences home, and the subsequent death of arcades (which just might seem a bit more deserved in my recollection).

I may be able to look over and see neighbor kids, younger kids, playing outside, drawing with chalk on the sidewalk and seeming very innocent and non-electronic, from my limited visual sample. But I can also tip an ear upstairs and hear my grown kids competing and coordinating and laughing as they play Overwatch, or PUBG, in the same house and yet also across distant wires that make up the new Arcade, the new Arena. It seems these kids have found some of the Purity I remember... insist on it, in fact. I see games suffer again and again for continually trying to challenge their sticking point: fairness in gameplay, regardless of how many coins are inserted.

When "Insert Coin to Continue" debuted, there was no outrage: everyone just wanted more! More games, more graphics, more levels, more dudes, more innovation. Perhaps it is because we had so gorged ourselves on bells and whistles throughout the birth of this industry and art form that our kids seem more immune to them. Or perhaps all the time we have spent on grinds or replaying levels or sussing out arcane puzzles has left us with a bit of time regret--susceptible to a deal allowing us to skip a bit of tedious gameplay in order to set the game down after "the ending" faster, and go see if those neighbor kids want to play.

To that end, we must remember that playing with orcs these days is fundamentally no different than playing with Donkey Kong in the Age of Purity: "the ending" comes when you say it does.

Sarcophagus wrote:

Can I be the first to vote for a Graham Rowat reading of this one?

Funny, I was coming here to post "am I the only one who had Graham's voice (and pacing) in his head while reading this?"

It definitely seems suited to him.

Though this describes a very different childhood relationship with video & arcade games from the one that I experienced, I thoroughly enjoyed being transported to an alternate version of history; the temporal/monetary thesis translates perfectly, regardless. Thanks for the good read, Shawn!

Hrdina wrote:
Sarcophagus wrote:

Can I be the first to vote for a Graham Rowat reading of this one?

Funny, I was coming here to post "am I the only one who had Graham's voice (and pacing) in his head while reading this?"

It definitely seems suited to him.

Yep me three...
Tnx Shawn for this sunday morning with fresh brewed coffee reading.