Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Asteroids for the Internet Age

A long time ago, in an age nearly forgotten, teenagers cashed in large bills for pocketfuls of quarters, and dedicated themselves to hours of chasing high scores and challenging each other to impromptu tests of skill in Space Invaders. Space Invaders turned to Street Fighter. And while the past two sentences have been a gross oversimplification of the history of arcade culture, this much is true: it's 2009, and arcades have all but died out.

In the span of a few generations of home consoles and PC hardware, gaming audiences and game designers alike discovered the joys of saved progress, 40-hour campaign modes, and separate multiplayer modes for 2-4 players. Recently, however, the design philosophies behind some of the greatest arcade gaming experiences of the past have been making a comeback in the last few years. I'm not the first person to notice, but this never felt so real and so obvious to me until this week.

Aegis Wing is a free download on Xbox Live Arcade, and is a very old-school-inspired side-scrolling shooter. This game has 6 levels but encourages re-plays in multiplayer and on multiple difficulty settings. Upon beating the game in 2-player mode on Normal difficulty, I'm rewarded with the "Hero" Achievement, but this leads me to the discovery of Achievements still far out of my reach: Achievements for doubling my current high score, or for beating the game on Insane difficulty. The last time I listened to a game when it told me to "try again on a harder difficulty" was in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles IV: Turtles in Time. I have to say I was surprised how effective the tactic was. Needless to say, I will be spending my week losing lives in Aegis Wing while I chase Achievements.

In the arcades of yore, High Score tables let you show off your accomplishments to your peers. However, back then, your victory was tied to a mere set of initials. Today, my Achievements and Gamerscore are tied to my Gamertag which links to this web site, my e-mail address, and all of the other games I've played. I take my place in global leaderboards, and the game informs me of my current rank when compared with all of my other friends who have played it. My Facebook profile automatically posts an update whenever I gain an Achievement, expanding the circulation of information beyond those already interested in the game. In other words, it's really easy for me to show off, and it's really easy for me to get competitive.

Gamasutra recently published an interview with Gareth Davis, Platform Manager at Facebook, which covered a lot of ground (and is well worth the read!). Most interesting to me is a concept I've had a lot of exposure to over the past few weeks, the notion that "social gaming" can be applied to any game to make it more valuable an experience for the player. Those leaderboards, achievements, and Facebook updates make games goal-oriented, competitive, and social, even when playing them alone. I normally wouldn't think twice about my end-of-level score, but every time I sign into Facebook, Aegis Wing taunts me with the possibility of beating my own best - or one of my friends'.

The fascinating thing is that despite the fact that this is all the result of "social gaming," I haven't once mentioned an actual interaction with other people as a result of these updates. Naturally, these interactions exist - I played the game in two-player mode, and my Xbox leaderboards inform me that I have two Xbox Live friends with this game with scores for me to beat - but they aren't necessary for the experience to feel worthwhile. It's enough just for the Xbox to pull up an Achievements Comparison list, or for my Facebook to remind me of the remaining challenges to be faced, and I end up perceiving my gaming experience as being more valuable and entertaining than it would have been without these features.

I suppose this all just sounds like I'm finally experiencing the kind of Achievements-addiction that every Xbox owner started feeling a few years ago, so I apologize for being so late to the game. I feel this is all noteworthy, though, because I didn't originally hold high hopes for Aegis Wing, a game I downloaded because a friend told me it was free. Yet somehow this game has managed to make me feel like a kid in an arcade again.

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