A couple of semi-related stories here.
UPDATE: I had this in a draft but for some reason my browser ate it and posted an earlier draft. Sorry about that. Tom Keil who worked for various companies in the arcade industry including Atari Games and most recently Sega Amusements has passed away. Here is a link at Sega with more details.
Next is a link shared by The Stinger Report, where Polygon.com has an article on a new Atari-centric acquisition by the Strong Museum of Play. The cache of papers and items such as floppy disks were donated by well-known collector Scott Evans, who was fortunate to be in the right place and time back when Midway shut the Atari Games division down back in 2003. He was able to save a lot of material, including source code, test reports, memos, etc. from the Golden Age days of Atari’s arcade operations until the end and has donated that to the Museum, which we have mentioned a few times here on AH. Among the donation includes fascinating reports on how certain games tested on the market to source code and designs of unreleased games. The picture below was posted by the Museum that shows a design for an unreleased arcade title that might have been called Speeder Bike had it been released – the two designs borrowed from the speeder sequences seen in Star Wars VI: The Return of the Jedi. Perhaps that was an early version of the Return of the Jedi game that they ultimately released. Also in the cache was source code to Ed Logg’s unreleased Maze Invaders, the ROM of which is available for MAME per the video below.
For the other story is something sent my way by Adam Coate, where Gamasutra has reposted an old article from a 1997 copy of Game Developer Magazine (which is now defunct) where Nolan Bushnell shared his thoughts on the decline of the arcade industry from where it was in the Golden Age and how it could reach a status above where the good times had landed ($20 billion annually instead of $18b). Some of it applies today so let’s discuss.
Being written 17 years ago, it came from a time when society was just beginning to enjoy the benefits of online access and it pre-dates the smartphone craze but there are some things he mentions that still could apply to today’s industry. Sadly, it is only now beginning to dabble more with online features, Bushnell was suggesting that a system akin to Taito’s NESiCAxLIVE would be needed to provide fresh and varied content over the internet. It would allow for seasonal content which is what the movie industry uses to generate revenue. As we have discussed on AH before, such a system coupled with exclusive releases creates a draw for consumer dollars but it is not the single magic bullet needed to build things up. Either way it seems that no one is interested in bringing such a system to North America anytime soon, the impression is that the risk outweighs the reward.
Bushnell mentions something interesting: “Rather than developing games only for young males, we must reach out to many different audiences.” He suggests targeting businesspeople and patrons of bars or coffee shops but I think it also should apply to women as well. I’m surprised he doesn’t mention that, given his own stories about games like Pong bringing people together. This comment was probably a swipe at 1-on-1 fighting games which were beginning to wear out due to idea overcloning. Those games in particular interest the guys much more than they interest the ladies; but the same could be said of light-gun games. When I hosted a few big fighter tournaments at my arcade, various girlfriends of the tournament players sat around looking at their smartphones instead of participating; that is where I knew I needed to get more games that appealed to that demographic so I adjusted accordingly. In terms of new games, there isn’t a whole lot to choose from that fits the appeal, so you have to go with older stuff. But the catch and risk there is that when something is old, it isn’t cool anymore to a younger crowd so they aren’t really interested in a 30 year game their parents probably enjoyed. I operate a number of classic games but they are primarily played by adults over 30, not by teenagers.
Back in the Golden Age days, there were a lot of games which appealed to both sexes and covered a variety of tastes, which is something that Nolan was advocating and something I agree with as I have tried to offer a variety of games in my venue. Games like Pac-Man/Ms. Pac-Man, Centipede, Frogger, Donkey Kong had a very broad appeal but again, at this point those IPs are old and will not make a ton of money for a location, unless it is a reboot with a twist, like Pac-Man Battle Royale. I am reminded by famous game maker Jeff Minter’s lamentation over how his Xbox 360 game Space Giraffe was thrashed in sales by a Frogger reboot. Sure SG was a technically advanced game but it was narrowly appealing. The Tempest concept that SG was based on was always a little abstract which harms audience appeal, whereas Frogger didn’t have that issue going against it from the get-go. Konami could probably make a killing off of a new Frogger arcade game but that probably isn’t happening anytime soon. Either way, it is still a challenge to offer variety in your location when you are looking at newer content. That is a point I think I have raised previously – if you visit a distributor website that specializes in just new product, imagine putting together a list of games from what they offer that spans a wide area of tastes. I think people would be surprised at how narrow a lot of the video-only selection still is. That is also why I tend to rail against just having 3 types of games in video (light-gun, racing, rhythm). They have their place but there are other concepts that could work and reach a broader appeal. Funny enough, pinball seems to be something that grabs a lot of appeal from all sides and ages. It only seems to limit itself by the license/theme.
Moving on, it is also interesting how Bushnell made a point of high earning bartop games like Megatouch, which recently announced that they were getting out of the business. At the time of the article, he used Megatouch as a counterpoint to how the rules the industry was basing their assumptions on were wrong since those bartops could outearn popular titles like Mortal Kombat. Things have evolved since and bartops don’t have that power in most places thanks in good part to competition from smart/tabletphones. Megatouch didn’t adapt fast enough and provide enough of a reason to play one over the phone game. Megatouch needed not just exclusive but good content that didn’t feel like a web Flash game in terms of quality. And speaking of mobile games, we now have various companies converting those games into big arcade titles. This market creates a different dynamic that game makers are still adapting to. But while you have one side constantly proclaiming that it is The Only Future, I think it’s in the process of creating a big bubble. It reminds me in part of the promises of VR – in that instance the hype was that it would transport you into the virtual world but the hardware wasn’t up to the task. The promise of mobile is that it is an every-game platform that can handle any type of title and thus fit the needs of everyone but that is not the case, as companies like Capcom are finding out. It’s not an invincible market although it will certainly be there for a long time to come. Much like arcades are still around as are the games. But arcade game design only is a hit when done the right way. It’s the same thing for mobile, hence the loads of shovelware you can find on any smartphone marketplace.
He closes with “The customers are there. There’s no shortage of talent to develop entertainment for them. But we’ve got to challenge ourselves to invent new rules and jump-start this next wave of location-based entertainment.” That still applies today. I was visiting a mixer the other week put on by a new Betson location that opened up in my neck-of-the-woods and I spoke with a sales guy that could hardly believe that I run a profitable video-only arcade. It’s something I wish everyone that proclaims “arcades are dead” could see, just seeing how busy things can get on a weekend here. If there was zero appeal in the idea then that shouldn’t happen.
Well enough of my ranting, what are your thoughts?