Making games for taxi drivers

I developed a financially unhealthy habit of taking cabs in Shanghai, and have been unable to shake the addiction once in Montreal; even here in Edmonton, I still cab on occasion. Thing is, I love taxi drivers. They meet all sorts of interesting people, and often lead fascinating lives themselves.

Last week, in a moment of weakness, I took a cab home. The cab driver was in his fifties, and spoke in a slow, relaxed voice, smiling easily. And he felt he should pitch me his marketing genius right then and there, in the event that I might have a spare million to throw at him.

It went something like this:

Cab driver: “So, what do you do?”

Me: “I make videogames.”

“Ooooh… You must be making millions!”

“Heh. I wish. If I did, I’d stop working.”

“How do you distribute your games? How do you sell them?”

Definitely not a videogame player, then… I explain to him how videogames are sold: in boxes, on the shelves of stores. But that’s not what he was asking about.

Him: “Thing I don’t get is how you convince people to buy them. With music, it’s easy: you hear a few seconds of a song, and you know if you like it. For movies, you can watch a clip on YouTube. But games? How you sell the game itself?”

Ok, he’s got me there. This is actually a pretty damn good question. I explain to him how there are demos, but they take a long time to download. How some specialty websites become trusted sources of judgement on gameplay, so people look at previews and reviews to judge a game without ever playing it.

Him: “But you see, that’s not for people like me. I don’t want to go to a website, read a review, then buy a game and play it at home. Videogames are for nerds and weirdos!” Haha, ouch! “I can’t sit at home and play games, my wife will yell at me.”

At this point, it’s painfully obvious that this guy is not part of my target audience, as it may be. But I always find the perception of non-gamers to be very interesting, so I listen politely and nod.

“What you need to do is set up your games in bars. Like Pac-Man! Or those old pinball machines.”

This, ultimately, is my taxi driver’s master plan: bring back the arcade to bars. At this point, I thought he was insane, and whenever I try to explain that there are still, in fact, arcade games out there, he talks to me about Pac-Man again.

Except I have this annoying habit of really giving the people I talk to the chance to be heard out, and I try to ask myself, what if they’re right?

What this guy’s point was, he isn’t being reached at all by the videogame market. But he was, once, a long time ago: back in the times of Pac-Man. For all the talks about casual players entering the fray, this guy is the most casual of casuals. He’s never gonna sit at home with a controller to play a 20-hour game, however “accessible” I make it. I don’t think the Wii or the DS cut it either.

So what’s the way to reach this audience with videogames? Thinking about it, he’s already reached, but perhaps he doesn’t know about it. Perhaps he throws the occasional coin into a video-poker machine. Or perhaps he picked up that plastic rifle at the pub and shot a few bucks. (Yes, we have hunter arcade machines in pubs in Edmonton. Not the most un-redneck thing around.)

The truth is, when we talk about videogames, we talk about a very small subset of electronic entertainment, even when we start including casual gaming. We’re talking about home entertainment, distributed for use on the PC or some form of handheld or home console. There’s an entire segment out there that reaches people that never heard of an Xbox. Heck, even the quiz machine at the pub downstairs is a form of electronic entertainment.

The arcade is a dying form, relegated to the dark corners of shopping malls. What happened to it? Most of the games nowadays are less-than-stellar, involving either simple beat-em-up gameplay, or some sort of plastic gun. Is there a way to bring better gameplay to these? And what is “better”? Do better graphics matter? Does it matter than the game does little more than tease you long enough for you to throw a few quarters at it?

I don’t really know. All I know is that videogames are not ubiquitous as music, partly because we have a very specific way of thinking about them, and the hard thinking about alternate means of distribution is left to the video poker and bar quiz machine makers of this world.

As for my taxi driver, maybe he’s the marketing genius he tried to sell himself as. If that’s the case, he’s years ahead of the game. Or years behind.

Or both.

About Daniel Roy

Daniel is a writer, backpack foodie, slow traveler, and endurance runner. He is the author of the upcoming book, "The Way of Slow Travel: A Hands-On Guide to the Best Travel of Your Life."

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