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5 lessons game devs can learn from the continued success of pachinko

5 lessons game devs can learn from the continued success of pachinko
October 11, 2016 | By John Szczepaniak

October 11, 2016 | By John Szczepaniak
More: Indie, Business/Marketing

Most people who are follow videogames will have some awareness of pachinko. It's a Galapagos-style evolution of Corinthian Bagatelle that's sometimes referred to as "Japanese pinball". 

Pachinko players launch tiny steel balls in the hope that they'll land in certain spots that earn the player even more steel balls. For you programmers, a crude analogy might be binary: the balls descend over a series of brass pins, and in each instance travel either left or right, essentially reducing the process to a series of ones and zeros, and culminating in a final numerical value depending on which path was taken. Basically, you want balls in the winning holes, so as to win more balls and keep the game going or cash out. 

There's a gambling element to pachinko in Japan, but it's mainly viewed as a form of escapism or "neighborhood leisure" accessible to adults everywhere, often in parlors or arcades close to home.

The universal access makes it comparable to videogames of all formats. But pachinko generates considerably more money than games in relation to cost of production. Despite recent declines in market size, it still accounts for around 4% of Japan's GDP, and in 2012 was 28% of the roughly $823 billion leisure market. This in spite of its shrinking number of users in Japan compared to games.

There should be no confusion as to why many big game publishers in Japan, like Konami and Sega/Sammy also produce pachinko. It also shouldn't be a surprise why many popular game franchises get their own branded pachinko machines. There has been a concerted effort to transition gamers to the considerably more profitable pachinko machines. 

A trailer for an adult-oriented erotic pachinko port of the Castlevania franchise

Pachinko may seem like a specifically Japanese and specifically arcade-based phenomenon. But you need look no further than Peggle to see the influence it's had. And there are lessons that all game developers can take from the success of pachinko.

Here are some key reasons that pachinko is so popular and lucrative, assembled with input from Professors Keiji Amano and Geoffrey Rockwell, who I met at Replaying Japan 2016, and whose research into pachinko proved fascinating and invaluable.

1) Constant audiovisual stimulation

High doses of immediate sensory stimulation generates high sales for numerous titles, from rhythm & music games to "juicy" F2P mobile games full of crushed candies and tinkling powerup sounds. But those genres have nothing on pachinko. You might not fully appreciate this unless you've actually sat inside a busy parlor, but pachinko is intensely hypnotic.

It immediately entrances you with the spectacle of cascading balls at your machine, alongside the cumulative duvet of sound coming from everyone else's. The sound of millions of balls creates a cognitive cocoon, zoning you out from the real world - which makes it appealing to the overworked salaryman wanting to switch off after work. You've seen similar entrancement on crowded public transport: the player with massive headphones so absorbed by his flashing LCD that fellow commuters fade away.

2) Simple, universal controls

There is basically one universal style of control for pachinko. A player finds their own natural rhythm and feels constantly engaged, even while their other hand is occupied with a cigarette or beverage. How it works: turning a handle which regulates the rate and speed of balls fired, which in turn governs the pins they hit and where they ultimately land. It's extremely easy, intuitive, and requires only one hand - the holy grail for those seeking simplicity when devising controls.

But unlike one button solutions in games (Canabalt, Flappy Bird, etc.), the analogue controls in pachinko provide a constant sensation of player agency. It's similar to the analogue accelerator in driving games, except you cannot screw up. Even a drunk pachinko player who momentarily induces too little or too much speed while aiming will probably only lose a few balls before smoothly adjusting their stream towards the target.

3) Variation is thematic, not mechanical

If you have a successful template, then reiterating with popular licenses allows greater access to different market groups. The rules of pachinko, like pinball, largely stay the same; what changes is the theme. Pachinko developers make heavy use of licensed content. As Professor Amano explained: "For the manufacturer it's easier to use existing and well-known characters than creating a new concept from scratch. By licensing existing characters copyright holders can make money from old content, and those tie-in machines attract youngsters because it's familiar. Now, at least 80% of the pachinko machines are tie-in machines."

Which explains why game developers are creating their own pachinko machines using popular game IP - it attracts younger players, offsetting an ageing and therefore shrinking core of pachinko players. To put it in another context, that's also why Balloon Kid was reskinned with Hello Kitty.

4) Reiteration lowers costs and development time

Sammy's pachinko factory in Kawagoe Japan

Long-term reuse of pre-existing templates is a significant money saver and money maker. According to Professor Rockwell, pachinko machines enjoy no more than 18 months of use before being recycled. Turnover is high, and older machines are almost impossible to find. Professor Amano adds that although development of an entirely new pachinko project can be expensive, with manufacturer Kyoraku Sangyo boasting as many as 100 staff for a new title, subcontracting parts of games and multiple later reiterations all bring costs down.

Essentially, most aspects are already standardized - the pins, lights, LCD screens, control mechanism, etc. - requiring only cosmetic changes and new positioning. This is comparable to the use of pre-made game engines, such as Unreal, and also the yearly reiterations of titles such as FIFA.

5) Small but reliable payments

Pachinko is priced in a way that offers hours of entertainment without big expectations of a big return. In a way it's not dissimilar to old arcade games, or those modern freemium games which encourage regular small payments instead of large payments from "whales." The popularity of pachinko in Japan should not be dismissed as being the result of gambling. Hundreds of balls are rented (typically 4c for one), can be increased through play, and then exchanged for "prizes" - some of which can then be sold in adjacent buildings for cash.

But while a single $10 chip in Vegas remains so, the value of a 4 cent ball is only worth around 65% of that value in prizes. As Professor Geoffrey Rockwell puts it, "This is why the odds in the pachinko game itself can be quite good; once you buy balls, you have already accepted an entertainment exchange loss." Although there are "pachi-pros", pachinko is really about spectacle and entertainment, relieving stress, and switching off one's mind outside of work

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