The Virtual Token; Impossible, Potential, or just Plain Stupid?

Xbox Live Arcade is great. I love that I have a pipeline directly into my living room to download new games and a time machine to take me back to the early consoles and arcades of my youth. But one of the problems that keeps cropping up in reviews and discussions is how easy the old arcade games are with the modern day equivalent of a wooden quarter on a string.

Most recently I was reading a review of Double Dragon and how it takes all of a half hour to beat thanks to unlimited and instantaneous credits. Gone is the desperate groping of pockets for tokens, the mad dash to the change machine and the harrowing run back to make sure no one stole your game. Ok, so those stressful moments may be lost forever to time, but the inner struggle over when to plunk down just one more token could make a comeback.

Now that arcade games are being served up on (or are in the works for) downloadable services like Xbox Live Arcade, the Wii’s Virtual Console, and Sony’s PlayStation Network the debate isn’t over whether to play another credit, it’s whether to play at all. Games range in price from $5 to as much as $15 and even after a free trial it’s tough to decide whether to pay to keep playing. So here’s my idea; the virtual token. I know, it sounds retarded but hear me out.

Instead of paying 800 Microsoft or Wii Points, roughly $8-$10, for an old arcade ROM that may only last a half hour, how would you feel about paying two dollars or less for a download and a few credits? Play it once or twice and then when you get squashed decide if it’s worth paying… one Point to continue. Now that’s what I envisioned as a micropayment!

This would work in the same way that Xbox Live Arcade trial games work now. Once you’re defeated a prompt would take the place of the age-old countdown timer asking if you want to purchase more credits. Like the change machines of old you could buy credits in various quantities. For a single Microsoft or Wii point you could pick up two credits while spending a few more points may net you 10, 20, or more credits back in the game. Suddenly that feeling is back; is it worth it? Do I give up now and look for another game to play or do I buy just one more token and try again?

I admit, it’s all kinds of sleazy. Those intangible Points sure don’t look like the hard earned cash in your bank account, and addiction (or miscommunication) could potentially push some of the more obsessive players into bankruptcy; or at least into overdraft which is like financial quicksand. And who’s to say what a credit is worth or how much one of these pay-to-play games would cost? And if you spend two dollars to “buy” it and another ten to beat it, should you really have to pay again to play it over? Should there be a second option to buy the game from the outset at a higher price with unlimited credits? And if you’re buying credits from Microsoft or Nintendo, how does the game’s publisher get a cut? Obviously, there’s a lot to work out, but from the psychological consumer end I still think it could work.

In the long run I’d probably end up spending much more cash on a much wider variety of games. If I could download any and every arcade game — either for free or for a minimal fee — and just pay for credits I’d probably play every one of them at least a few times.

“Sure, I can’t beat Mortal Kombat II anymore but at least I didn’t spend ten bucks on it,” I’d rationalize with myself before firing another virtual wad of tokens into Konami’s Vigilante, “now, maybe I can finally get that ‘Kill 1,000 enemies’ Achievement!”

What do you think? Am I the only chump who’d go in for tiny payments for potentially tiny amounts of play time? Would it really recapture the value and worth of a token or would it just feel cheap? It worked like a charm in the old arcades but could it prove to be a profitable and popular way to pay-and-play in the fledgling digital distribution channels of today?