Four decades after the birth of the coin-operated arcade video game -- Galaxy Game, 1971 -- the first with 1080p HD display is finally here. No, it's not Pac-Man or Galaxian or Pong or Donkey Kong or Golden Tee or any of the "Golden Age" games founded in the 70s and 80s.
It is Big Buck HD, the latest version of the hunting game that launched in 2000. Found mostly in bars, Big Buck has a cult following, and now, with 1080p HD graphics, the series is a pioneer. It is also on the cutting edge with not only online play at the arcade/bar but also social media functionality built into the game. The display, though, is the 'wow' factor.
"There are even home games for Xbox and stuff that aren't even full 1080p," says Dave Snipes, an executive for Play Mechanix, the game's developer. "Some of them are 720, and they're called high definition, but they're not."
During a demonstration at Aspen Social Club in New York, that point was accentuated by showing Big Buck HD on a 55-inch monitor. It was part of the game's 100-unit test run with a full rollout scheduled for the end of July.
Although Big Buck Hunter, published by Raw Thrills, may not be a household name, the series has been a financial success in an arcade game industry deemed by many to be on the decline. The franchise has sold more than 36,000 Big Buck Hunter game units since 2000. That figure includes 18,000 units sold in the technological generation before Big Buck HD, which dates back to 2006.
Online connectivity has been a part of Big Buck Hunter since 2008, but Big Buck HD is the first to integrate Facebook and Twitter into the experience. The game allows players to check in at gaming sites, share achievements and awards, and compare scores with friends via Facebook and Twitter.
"It's basically that everybody nowadays has a Facebook account and a lot of people have Twitter accounts," Snipes says. "We've noticed, a lot of people, especially the younger generation, just really want to be connected wherever they're at, so we wanted to integrate that into our game so players, when they're playing the game, can still be connected to their whole entire network."
While Big Buck Hunter progresses, Snipes admits the arcade gaming industry may not be on the rise as a whole. This does not mean he has fear. "Yeah, the arcade industry has fallen. Pac-Man, Defender and that 80s market was huge," Snipes says. "Now, you've got iPhones and texting, and it's harder to grab someone's attention. We work hard to grab your attention from across the bar. It's certainly been a downswing in the industry, but we don't see that with our game. We continue to make the best around possible."
According to George Petro, Play Mechanix president and one of the creators of the original Big Buck Hunter, the vision for a 1080p HD Big Buck Hunter Game connected to social media had been developing for a number of years. In 2008, while Facebook and Twitter were still on the brink of success, Play Mechanix's online connectivity featured a social feature, which allowed players to share scores and accomplishments within its own network. Since 2008, Facebook and Twitter have both made more than enough of an impression to be included in Big Buck HD.
"In that time, those particular services kind of got really huge," Petro said in a phone interview about the two social media sites. "We were all ready doing the social media stuff with Big Buck Hunter on a kind of small scale. Facebook sort of fit right. It just kind of took the place of that."
Big Buck HD's online connectivity also allows players to participate in "Showdown Mode" against friends and other players located around the world. Scores are still shown on one's Big Buck HD profile, as well as Facebook and Twitter.
In terms of the graphics, Petro attributes the 1080p HD idea to both the previous technological generation of Big Buck Hunter and another Play Mechanix game, Terminator Salvation, developed in 2010. "We knew from that game the high-res graphics looked really good, although that game was 720p," he said of Terminator Salvation. "We felt we could make the leap to 1080p during that time because we spent a lot of time with the graphics and everything. It was a design goal from the beginning."
Petro's hope for the product is durability. Play Mechanix aimed to create a product that could maintain a fresh look for an extended time. "We were trying to make sure it lasts for several years," Petro says. He believes with the 1080p HD graphics and the addition of social media, Big Buck Hunter has caught up with the times and the long developmental period will be worth the work.
For the first time, the featured event in the Big Buck Hunter community, the World Championships, will be played in 1080p HD. The fifth annual competition will be held in New York City in November after the first four were in Chicago. The winner will take home a $15,000 grand prize.
Snipes says New Yorkers, despite not being your average hunters, are the second-most interested group of people in the series behind Minnesotans. (Think Fisherman's Quest in "How I Met Your Mother.")
Alex Derhohannesian, the 2010 world champion in Big Buck Safari, is a 32-year-old music producer from Louisville who was introduced to the game after moving to New York in 2006. Derhohannesian has a hypothesis as to why Big Buck Hunter games have prevailed against veteran competition.
"Action-wise, Pac-Man's been the same. It never changes," he says. "Golden Tee, that was pretty popular, but same thing. I think this has probably gotten more popular than that in recent years because there's more you can do with this game. Think of anything you can shoot with a gun fictionally or virtually and throw it up on the screen with some pretty cool animation. They switch it up a lot. I think that keeps it new and fresh. They keep coming out with better versions every year, so it keeps it fun and interesting."
Derhohannesian insists one does not have to be an avid hunter or gamer to become attracted to Big Buck Hunter. He thinks players are introduced to the game indirectly. "Most people just stumble upon the game when they're at a bar with their friends and eventually realize that it's the greatest bar sports game you can ever find in the world," he says. "It's definitely about the sexiest thing I ever did see."
Two of Derhohannesian's top competitors are Carley Szweda, a Trader Joe's employee and student, and Thomas Szemere, a Trader Joe's manager, of New Brunswick, New Jersey. Szweda and Szemere, who have been dating for four years, recall their accidental introduction to Big Buck Hunter.
"We were actually in Massachusetts visiting his sister in Greenfield, and there was nothing else to do there," says Szweda, who finished second in the first-ever Ladies' tournament and 44th for both genders at the 2011 World Championships. "There was a machine at one of the bars and we started playing, and I just fell in love. We've been playing pretty consistently now for a year and a half."
Szemere remembers things a bit differently. "She didn't like it at first," he says. "Then we just kind of turned into a personal competition." Szemere qualified for the 2011 World Championships, but endured an early exit.
Both Szweda and Szemere expect the new 1080p HD version of Big Buck to expand the game's population. "Oh, it's huge," Szweda says of the graphics. "I still talk to people who have never heard of Big Buck Hunter, so I think this will definitely make it more well-known."
Szweda and Szemere also have another message to put across: Big Buck players are not all violent hunters. They are just people who happen to be intrigued by a video game that involves shooting. ""We both love animals and we'd never kill one," Szemere says. "Never."
On the topic of animals, the gameplay of Big Buck HD is fairly simple. A standard stage features an animal, which may be a deer, moose, elk, wildebeest or other animal. In a period of a few seconds, three males (bucks, bulls, etc.), travel across the screen in a North American forest or an African safari location. The object of the game is to hunt the males, who have horns/antlers, using a virtual plastic gun without shooting females (does, cows, etc.). If a female is shot, the player's turn is over. "Dangerous Animals" such as lions are also available to be hunted for trophies, and bonus levels contain other creatures, some fictitious.
Big Buck HD is not just about spending 25 cents for a little virtual hunting fun. The ability to win money is part of the game. Players have to ability to enter their scores into add-on tourneys for a $1.00 fee. Depending on where scores end up, cash prizes may be won. Winnings are sent directly to a player's account, where he or she can have the money backed by a credit card or debit card. This is one way Big Buck Hunter hopes to draw gamers away from their Xboxes and into the bars.
"One thing they can't get at home is winning cash prizes, so you can come out here and get that same exact home experience except you're in a bar, drinking a beer, hanging out with friends, so there's a big social aspect to that, and you have the potential of winning money," Snipes says. "Right there, that tops anything you can do in the home market."
As of right now, the plans for Big Buck HD online play includes only connectivity in bars and public places. Players cannot buy their own unit to battle online competition and win prizes in their basements. This stems from Big Buck Hunter's relationship with bars.
"One of our jobs as a coin-operated game manufacturer is to get people out to the bar because then the bar's happy because people are buying beers and buying food, and the operator of the game is happy because people are putting money in," Snipes said. "If we give them that experience at home, they're just going to stay home and do it, so that's the one thing you can't get at home: playing this game online. That's where we stand right now."
Derhohannesian agrees with this idea, but not just for financial reasons. As a player, he feels part of the game is playing it in bars and other social environments. He fears social media may be bringing the game down a different path. "I think I'd like to keep Buck Hunter in the bar, as opposed to at home or in the office when on Facebook or other social media," he says. "Keep it in the bar."
At the Play Mechanix office in Glen Ellyn, Ill., this has been Petro's vision all along: Targeting a social scene. He points to this as the way Big Buck Hunter has remained a player as an arcade game in a video game industry dominated by home systems.
"The Big Buck franchise in particular is targeted towards an age between 22 and 35," Petro says. "People are away from home, out of college, and they're kind of done being at home in their basement playing Xbox or PlayStation. This is a time when young people want to be out socializing, having a good time, and Big Buck Hunter kind of plays right into that social experience."
It's a social experience that extends to celebrity-athletes who are fans of the game. Motorsports competitor, stunt performer and television star Travis Pastrana (at right) finished eighth in the Big Buck Hunter Pro and 10th in Big Buck Safari competitions in 2010 and 11th at the 2011 World Championships. Snowboarder Scotty Lago, the halfpipe bronze medalist at the 2010 Olympics, also participated in the 2011 World Championships, and Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher and Blackhawks center Dave Bolland are among the notable enthusiasts.
"We think it's kind of a testament to how the game has become a part of popular culture," Petro says. "As designers, that's our goal, right? As designers of products like that, who doesn't want to be part of one that becomes part of popular culture?"
Big Buck Hunter has also been used in film and television scenes.
Petro admits the 100-unit test has led Play Mechanix to develop one change to Big Buck Hunter HD. Originally, the developer intended buyers to provide their own LCD, LED or plasma monitor. Due to response times between monitors and the Big Buck HD game not always matching up correctly, Play Mechanix has determined a universal monitor connected with the game is necessary.
Although the Big Buck Hunter series has added themed pinball machines, slots, iOS Game and a Nintendo Wii version in its first decade, an 1080p HD game featuring social media integration suggests arcade technology has officially caught up with the times.
Well, actually that is not entirely true.
Some arcade games do not need to change their technology. Snipes can name one game in particular that is not affected by technology and does well in the modern technological world: Cranes.
"We do cranes and they do well," he says. "Kids still always want to put a quarter in and try to win."
No 1080p HD graphics can change that.