The unexpected pleasures of playing a game from the top down

This article is a collaboration with iQ by Intel.

There’s a bar near my house where I’m a regular. The bouncer recognizes me; the owner knows my name. I don’t think I have a problem, I’m just protective of a Galaga high score and I’m not above sustaining off water while I do so. The place has a row of free arcade machines along the back.

They recently added a machine that made me squeal with delight. Taking the spot where the jukebox was, with two chairs on either ends, is a vintage, cocktail cabinet Missile Command, with a silver sticker logo and faux-wood panel sides. A cocktail arcade cabinet takes the traditional, upright arcade game and plops it on its back. Two opponents don’t stand side-by-side, they sit across from each other, like chess competitors, as the screen flips to change between turns. It leaves the flanks open for spectatorship, which is good in Missile Command’s case, because everyone should be afforded the chance to watch the seizure-insensitive game over screen. These are called cocktail cabinets because the glass covering the screen is handy for holding a glass.

There’s an untapped potential for flat-screen gaming 

Most arcade games, and videogames in general, are played head-on, faces forward. Every now and again a game somewhat defiantly seeks otherwise, suggesting that players could, instead, look down and around on their games. Pinball and air-hockey always perform this way, though that’s not a case of innovative game design so much as it is gravity existing. While it seems like a simple gesture, just a break in the norm, it certainly completely changes the sort of ways you can participate in the game as player and audience.

It may not seem like it, but a screen facing up or forward completely manipulates how people interact with the spectacle. Think of the difference between a band playing a mainstage and a busker performing in the middle of a square. One will gather a crowd that benefits front and center, one gets a 360 degree bubble wrapping around it. Though it’s not as if either method works for any scenario. A band worries enough directing energy towards one angle, while breakdancers would suffer from closing off valuable gazes. It’s no different with games, which also must shift to accommodate different orientations. It’s worth thinking about how this works, especially as tablets and all-in-one devices make the prospect of upward-facing multiplayer games a prospect again.

During a party put on by the videogame events group Wild Rumpus, for example, a game called TETHER was outfitted in an upward open box low to the floor. In it, four players are monstrous eye-balls, entangled in a chain, each one trying to nab colour-coordinated points to win, simultaneously trying to pull others away from their collectibles. The game wasn’t made specifically to be presented this way, but it worked great. The game is a bird’s eye, four-way derby, so it can compensate for players hovering around at any angle. It also has the strange effect of cocooning itself within an audience, like a circle hiding a fun secret. We’ve never really considered how strange it is that we always play the various top-down games on an upturned device.

There’s an untapped potential for flat-screen gaming, a way to play that doesn’t favour a specific angle. Not only room to experiment with new perspectives, but to even double-back and see what can be done better. Dungeon crawlers that venture along like a Dungeons and Dragons board. Pinball machines that don’t hiccup on particular camera angles. The Lenovo Horizon tablet, as it happens, is already capable to play air-hockey with real physical paddles.

Tablets already create a shortcut to this sort of experience, since traditional gaming devices—whether console or PC—don’t lend themselves to being laid flat across a table. All-in-ones, with their large screens, perfect to gather around, are particularly suited for multiplayer.

I’ve played Missile Command on a traditionally standing cabinet, but what’s thrilling about the norm? Games should seek to explore, especially a concept that’s so simple it’s been hiding literally under our noses for decades.