Through the day I’ve been following a popular article that was published by Ars Technica, “Whatever Happened To the American Arcade?“. I was contemplating commenting on it and Kevin Williams then sent me the link as a Stinger Report Newsfeed so that pushed me over the edge to put down some thoughts about it. It’s a nice article that while covering that new documentary about Japanese arcades, also delves a little into what it is that has been different in the Western market. In regards to that particular question, they deal with geographical and demographical differences between the two countries as well as efforts by big Japanese gaming companies to combat the negative image arcades got over time.
As there is more to it than that, I figure that this is a good opportunity to expound upon some points on the market from my own perspective. Just a warning that this has become a much more lengthy article than I intended but I hope it gives you some insight into the Western arcade scene.
I’m not saying this to be critical of the article, but to add to the discussion from what I know since I live and breath this stuff everyday and I hope I can improve the understanding of the market and why it is what it is. I am in the process of writing a book about this subject (that I don’t have a title for yet) and so you can consider this part of my treatise on the subject that believe it or not, I have a lot more to say about. I have been an arcade operator for four years as of this June and I’ve been through a lot to keep my mall arcade afloat amongst varying circumstances in the economy, location, game selection, etc. So I think I have a good idea of the situation from a Western Arcade point-of-view, also having worked in a large arcade about 13 years ago. There are many readers here that are likewise in the operation business in the US, many with more experience than I have that can not only back me up on a few things but probably add to it as well.
I’ve done a little watching of people on Twitter who are responding to the Ars Technica article and several are saying it was “consoles” that have done arcades in here but that doesn’t address one problem – home game consoles also exist in Japan and everywhere else you happen to find arcades. It’s true that if there were no consoles then you would only get your gaming fix from arcades and it would be a different world but such is not the case. There is a very delicate balance to be had between consoles and arcades. I’ve seen console releases completely decimate sales on a game that had been arcade exclusive for a time (particularly with Super Street Fighter IV Arcade) but I’ve also seen console-to-arcade ports do fine, an example I own is Blazing Angels. I understand the sentiment that you can get games at greater depth at home and I participate in that market as well. You are going to play based upon what your pocket book allows you to do and there is a difference of values between the two sectors, although as game console prices, along with accessories and other upgrade requirements have gone up, the gap has closed although its hard to see. But what do you want to play? That answer has changed for me over time, as I have gotten older, I find myself playing arcade style games much more frequently than ever before.
But it’s important to remember that arcade games have shifted in response to changes brought on by consoles. They seek to reproduce a simulator experience that is unique in its own way. Many people forget that a lot of the control schemes you enjoy today with motion/gesture/body recognition/etc. have all been done in arcades in varying degrees, some of them over a decade before they were brought home. It has long served as a playground for innovative new ways to entertain yourself and that opportunity hasn’t changed.
Unfortunately I can’t fit the answer onto a bumper sticker but it boils down to this – its not the mere fact that people can play games at home that has damaged the Western arcade industry – it is the gaming culture itself that has changed over time as well.
I see this unfold frequently as I get to watch people play different games. Some are good at them, others are not. Some people practice at a game until they get good at it, others give up after they screw up once. There are many more people I have observed in the latter group than the former one. Every week I come across machines that people leave behind before their credit was even up because they gave up the moment the game didn’t read their mind and behave exactly the way they expect it to. This seems to happens most often with pinball, which is the least predictable game one can come across in the arcade.
Arcade games are not always easy and in our culture where punishment is light for dying in a game anymore – if you die in Call of Duty you just go back to the last checkpoint that wasn’t far behind and try over and over and over again until you get it right. In the game culture of the 80s, even home console games would only give you so many continues before it pretty much told you to start all over again. That could be frustrating as the games themselves changed into longer operas and it led to password, memory cards and other game saving methods. For the longest time however, if you wanted to see the ending of a game, you had to get good at it. Now, your hand is held and you are told how great you are at everything, here’s a trophy/achievement for finishing level 1. Watering things down to the casual game culture, which does enjoy arcade style games, has hurt things overall because fewer people seek a challenge. Of course this is all my opinion but I’m basing it off what I have observed from a good variety of player behavior over the years. There are still some games out there which deal out healthy doses of virtual punishment and there is a segment of players that they appeal to still. Get rid of the “Everyone’s a Winner all of the time” mentality and I think that people will seek out the challenge of the arcade in greater numbers but that is much easier said than done and I’m not really sure how you would even go about that on a massive scale. I remember playing baseball as a kid and we didn’t win any championship but for some reason they gave us a trophy. It was completely meaningless to me as I already knew that you wanted trophies for actually achieving something. Last I checked, plenty of people still do that and that seems to cross over into interactive entertainment to a degree. I suppose that the adults didn’t want us feeling bad for loosing but in my mind they should have approached it differently. Feeling bad can suck but its part of life and if you’re allowed to, you can take that negative experience and use it as fuel to do better next time. Being shielded from it just makes it that much worse when you have to perform in the real world and fail because you were unprepared anyways.
Let’s keep in mind that this culture change has affected arcades on more than one level. No I don’t completely care for the fact that the modern arcade industry is primarily dominated by racing/light-gun/dancing games but the reality is that people haven’t wanted to dump their money into other kinds of concepts for the most part. There are some exceptions here and there and that doesn’t mean that the right concept can’t come along and change the dynamic of what people prefer but in a tight economy safe concepts do well. Of course I will champion what we do get as there still can be great ideas that come to light even when in the safe category. But if we want to see a greater variety of video games on the arcade market, they have to make money otherwise they are very expensive and risky paperweights. Right now consumers spend most of their money in this business on instant prize redemption machines that you often find at malls. As such, those are the machines you are going to see more off until they are replaced by some other neat concept. I often read a criticism that Western arcades are terrible because they offer nothing but redemption. I’m no big fan of redemption but its a fact that in most cases it has made a lot more money than video and as such, that is what operators spend most of their money on.
At this point I would like to share with you some thoughts by ECM, he’s been in the game business for a long time which includes game journalism for a magazine you might have heard of called Gamefan. I shared with him some of my article and he brought up some points about gamer segments as well as the event behind the arcade:
“The one thing that struck me, that I really hadn’t considered before, is that arcade gamers and console gamers are almost two completely separate species now. Whereas, upon a time (up until, say the mid-90s or so–basically at the advent of PS1/SS/N64), you had one, fairly monolithic, block of gamers but, reading this, it suddenly crystallizes for me that arcade gamers (if you can even call most of them gamers, in any meaningful sense) aren’t the same people playing God of War or COD. Only fighting games really have a little bit of crossover, but arcades, these days, seem to be places people go to as Disney World writ small.
In other words, it isn’t maybe so much about particular genres or games, it’s that arcades are a mini-event, like going out to dinner or a movie. And the people most likely to hit an arcade are not going to be the jaded, ‘hardcore’, teens-and-20-somethings because they’ve ‘seen it all’, so to speak. This, at least in part, probably explains the general success of D&B’s and Chuck E.
Cheese. It’s an event to hit one those places-: you have the ‘event’ setting–kid-oriented and adult-oriented–plus the games, which sort of set them apart from Applebee’s or McDonalds.”
To stop there for a moment, I have heard this idea expressed by more than one arcade developer before. At the time I was objecting to an increase in the number of console-to-arcade ports but it was impressed upon me that fewer people seek out the arcade for the latest game on the market and has become something where the thought-process is: “I’m out of the house, this looks cool as its a little different then what I have at home so I will play it”. Suffice it to say, I’ve come around to understanding that angle of the business. For now, the idea is to give people a big bang for their buck of their out-of-home experience. If they want to make coming back to the arcade frequently a weekly or daily event then that is great and it can happen. But often the idea in the current Western market is to capture whatever is out there of people who are already out and about.
Back to ECM:
“I guess the point (if there is one) that I’m trying to make, is that you are indeed correct that Japanese arcade culture is *nothing* like Western arcade culture. Like, at all. (It’s probably even fair to say that even in the glory days of the 80s and 90s that they weren’t very similar.) But the problem that nobody seems to attack is that the console gamer is no longer the arcade gamer and, in many cases, vice-versa. They simply do not appeal to the same audiences.
(Remember, again: console gaming, by and large, is dominated by a hellishly niche audience that just happens to buy *tons* of games. That audience is not even remotely catered to–even in Japan–by amusement manufacturers anymore. So what you end up with is only maybe 50%, best-case, of a classic arcade crowd. This is *exactly* why I visit arcades so infrequently: I’m one of those game dorks that sees little reason to go if they aren’t at least offering certain genres that, upon a time, were run-of-the-mill. And I’m not arguing they should since, even if they did, it’s an uphill battle in a small market to sell those that don’t go on the idea that arcades are hip and cool
again for the first time.)
I think it would be *extremely* interesting to see if the ‘event’ gamer (those that hit Chuck E. Cheese and D&B) what consoles they have at home. I’d almost guarantee that, in most cases, most of them have a Wii but may not actually have an HD box. (This is also, in part, because, as far as forms of entertainment go, arcades are reasonably cheap thrills next to things like the arm-breaking extortion of going to the movies, just like the Wii. Plus they both offer novel experiences, something that HD consoles are, generally, sorely lacking since they cater to males in their 20s ahead of *everyone* else.)”
(Thanks to ECM for his contribution here).
Likewise I would be interested in having that knowledge. It’s something I contemplate often and I make an assumption on when I watch people shake their guns to reload when the game is telling them in text and voice to shoot off-screen to reload instead. They are being trained to play games in a certain way that is different from the past and they are a different crowd then the hardcore gamer.
There is another part of the gaming culture is to blame and that would be the media that pushes what’s hot in games. Take a good look at some of the top gaming sites on the net: IGN or Gamespot are easy examples. They happily list all of the gaming categories they focus on, it’s a hold over from the game magazine days that would list on the cover which consoles they review to attract buyers. Notice that they do not have an Arcade section on those websites (which speaking of classic 90s game magazines was not always the case, many did have sections dedicated to arcade games that were eventually dropped). Just because the big guys never cover arcade news doesn’t mean that there is no development in arcades to speak of – this blog is a testament to that – but they choose not to cover that side of the industry unless it has some sort of console connection to it. What their reasons are for that, I do not know, I can only surmise that it has to do with no arcade companies advertise with those sites, and they can’t give away free copies of arcade cabinets for reviewers to have. I have written arcade articles for Hardcore Gamer Magazine when that was around and they were open to it but I got the sense that it was because they just liked games no matter what platform they are. Kevin Williams who contributes to this site all of the time has recently been creating content for EDGE Magazine but it sounds like it was not without some trouble. But anything else I have seen, such as GameInformer remains detached and un-informed about what goes on in the arcade industry. There is no media hype for any arcade game unless some really big movie or console license is attached to it and even then you might get one article about the game and they are done.
There are dozens of arcade games being worked on right now but this industry does not reveal what they are working on months in advance usually. They keep it under wraps until it’s pretty much ready to go, and that doesn’t work for the modern hype model. There are reasons they do that, which can be frustrating to the 24/7 news junkie but they are often necessary.
Recently it was unveiled that there was a new Big Buck Hunter game. That is arguably one of the highest profile arcade games out there in terms of units sold but how many mainstream game sites even acknowledged the existence of the game? If a high-profile modern arcade game has a hard time catching some attention, how much more something that hasn’t made a name for itself yet? Lack of coverage = lack of interest in the general public. The narrative for arcades is thus weak and not really positive. The most recent arcade opening most people probably heard about in the mainstream was the re-opening of Chinatown Fair. I don’t mean to knock CTF but that is not the only place in the US that has opened up recently, there have been numerous others that have done so this past year but you wouldn’t know it from a game magazine or or mainstream game site as they choose to ignore any others that have come along.
Of course this can be laid at the feet of our own industry to a degree, don’t get me wrong. Manufacturers are responsible for marketing their own products, operators responsible for marketing their own stores. But marketing takes money and there are certain realities to be dealt with there. I haven’t been able to spend a ton of money marketing my location as I have bills to pay that have to come first. Manufacturers generally are accustomed to marketing to operators and not so much the end player, which is something that has been “just the way it is” since the Golden Age. There have been improvements on both sides with the internet but we still have a way to go. Trade shows as put on by the AMOA or AAMA are nice but for the most part only arcade industry professionals bother with those. This is why I have stated in the past that more should be done to promote arcades at E3 when the gaming world is paying close attention to what is going on. There are arcade-related E3 events here and there and I would gladly setup an Arcade Heroes booth there but that’s another thing that takes money.
The point on this part is that what marketing there is for Western Arcades has been minimal and this has lead to the notion that they are dead. “No one ever reports about new arcade locations or new games so it must not be happening”. We live in a society where there is news coming out 24/7. If you don’t hear about something new in a category for a while, then you can easily slide into believing that nothing is happening there.
I do what I can through this site but our reach is much more limited unfortunately. If you have followed us for a while then you know that we do what we can to share recent game news as well as recent location news. I want to see the narrative shift on arcades but it is something that will take time and work. You can certainly help by sharing stories you find interesting through different social media channels and we will continue to work on those where we can.
A point I should get to is that Western Arcades have not disappeared to the level that they are accused of doing. Here’s one of my favorite links to use, the Aurcade Locations List. That is an incomplete list of locations in the US that is currently up to 1131 locations – incomplete as they rely on user submissions but it’s still an impressive list. Yes, not every location is stocked with every game you want and there are some places that don’t take care of their machines. Those places will eventually go out of business and perhaps will be replaced by someone else who wants to offer a service where the games work. That’s how the market works – some do it better than others and those that do typically thrive. At the end of the day if we want arcades to thrive, its up to us consumers to support our local arcades and make that happen. Play the games, spread the word, everyone benefits.