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iOS In-App Purchases Recall the Golden Era of the Arcade

In-app purchases in the App Store, though somewhat of a controversy at the moment, are definitely a hit with mobile gamers and developers alike. But if you think feeding a game money for a shot at reaching the next level or getting an extra life is a new phenomenon, you’re forgetting the early glory days of gaming, when the arcade ruled supreme.
In 1972 Nolan Bushnell helped Atari mass produce what was essentially one of the first successful coin-operated video games: Pong.  This was soon followed by Taito’s Space Invaders, Namco’s Pac-Man, and of course our introduction to Mario in Nintendo’sDonkey Kong.  These games became the cornerstone of the video arcade industry that reached a peak of 13,000 locations in the early 1980s.  As console games for the home began to match the quality of arcade games, the game industry shifted away from malls, restaurants and bars, and into private arcades in people’s homes. We moved away from a pay-to-play model that involved feeding a machine quarters, and toward a pay once, own forever gaming paradigm.

Pay-to-Play, But Not an Online Arcade

There have certainly been alternative pay-to-play revenue opportunities in gaming since the arcade. Massively Multiplayer Online Gaming (MMOG) got its commercial start in the mid 1980s, with Kelton Flinn’s Island of Kesmai on CompuServe. This was followed by Don Daglow’s Neverwinter Nights on AOL, Origin System’s Ultima Online, Sony’s Everquest and of course Blizzard’s World of Warcraft .  While these are individually successful examples of pay-to-play revenue opportunities for game developers, each game has its own relationship with a consumer in the form of a registered credit card.  Not quite the same as going to an arcade that utilized a token-based system as a common currency with which to play many different games.

Gaming Options, High Scores and a Common Currency

To bring back a truly similar nostalgic feel of an arcade, new games would need to be introduced regularly, gamers would need a communal way to compete for high scores, and these privately owned game rooms would need to charge one common currency for all types of gameplay.  The modern equivalent of that type of common currency is an iTunes account. And the common place to compare high scores in your social network of gamers is Game Center.  With all of the ingredients of an old school arcade, it’s no wonder in-app purchases are bringing back the continuous pay-to-play nature of arcade games as well.

Tell Tale Signs of Pay-to-Play’s Success in Apple’s App Store

The signs of this renaissance are not hard to spot. Freemium games and cheap paid apps that charge for in-app upgrades are the new token-devouring arcade cabinets. This is certainly true of Smurf’s VillageTexas Poker, and my new personal favorite Army of Darkness.  How many times have you paid for gold, berries, or chips in a game just to advance to the next level?  The arcade style of gaming is back in force, this time it is in the hands of millions of privately owned pocket arcades.