In another of his occasional guest features for Arcade Heroes – industry specialist Kevin Williams takes time to look back at the amusement scene of 1983, and understand how far the trade has come over the past 40 years. Note that when the term video is used in our industry, it’s not always talking about games with a video display (since you can have redemption or gambling machines use those), but specifically video games designed for amusement. In Japan it’s even more specific to joystick-controlled games, so they’ll often separate out “video” from say “rhythm games.” Anyways, let Kevin take it from here (with some editing on my part):
Kevin Williams: The amusement scene is at a point in its history where we see a perfusion of anniversaries of momentous endeavours. 1982 and 1983 were years that saw major industrial upheavals, but also great innovations which brought about the creation of iconic properties and genres of games. Forty years later, the amusement industry needs to be both reflective on what has past, and proactive in the new place it holds in the social entertainment revolution. In this special feature we try and take stock of these developments.
The similarities between 1983 and our modern moment are fascinating. In July 1983, Nintendo of America (NOA) launched a game called Mario Bros. to the arcade market. Designed by Shigeryu Miyamoto and influenced by Williams’ Joust, this brought over the Jumpman character from Donkey Kong, gave him the name of Mario along with a brother called Luigi. Instead of carpenters, they were now plumbers. This title fed off of the install base of existing Nintendo arcade releases such as Donkey Kong Jr. and Popeye, being sold either as a conversion kit for those games or as a new dedicated model. The images below show Nintendo of America’s Redmond, WA, factory floor and the demand behind Mario Bros. – giving scale to the vast production process success:.
Source: Jim Riordan
Source: Jim Riordan
40 years later, the Mario Bros. shocked the entertainment industry with the launch of Super Mario Bros.: The Movie. Having made $1.35 billion at the world-wide box office, this became both the most successful video game and animated film in history. This incredible achievement not only erased the bad memory of the 1993 live-action Super Mario Bros. film, it underlines the value of legacy game properties in modern entertainment.
Nintendo themselves are a massive entertainment conglomeration, ploughing a brand-new course on the back of the foundation that Mario built. The corporation’s collaboration with Universal Studios, in opening first the Japanese and now American interpretations of their ‘Super Nintendo World’ theme park gates has seen incredible success, captivating a new generation of park goers as the traditionally strong Disney has floundered this summer. The park benefits from the inclusion of interactivity and strong branding, fed from the console and retro amusement recognition factor. This has proven so successful that Nintendo is rumored to be developing their own special mini location-based entertainment venues, emulating much that has been seen from LEGO and their popular ‘LEGO Discovery Centers’.
The fusion of games, attractions and merchandising into a public retail venue is nothing new but as other corporations with a strong movie and video game heritage see Nintendo’s success, they are also looking at establishing a physical, social entertainment presence for their brands. This is also supported by the success of smaller concepts such as “Retro Arcades” and “BeerCade” style venues where golden-era video amusement placed into social entertainment space vampires off Gen-Xer nostalgia and the retro fascination of the younger generation.
1983 wasn’t just a good year for Nintendo, rival NAMCO would also have plenty to celebrate. Having focused on licensing through Atari and Midway up to this point, the record cashbox and hardware sales led them to begin releasing titles under their own name out West. They would keep some licensing relationships going, such as launching Pole Position II under the Atari banner this year, while eschewing licenses for new concepts like Mappy, a Pac-man sequel called Pac- & Pal, and original titles like Phozon and Libble Rabble (designed by Toru Iwatani of Pac-Man fame). Nothing that NAMCO would make this year could match both the operator and player hunger for Pole Position II though. The game had been one of the latest video amusement releases to be fielded in an upright, but also a cockpit cabinet – though the quality would differ between the Japanese and American styling. NAMCO would even go as far as to create a very special version of their hit amusement piece with Pole Position: Wide.
A footnote lost to many in history, it was created as an exhibition attraction, and as a path finder towards other interested operators wanting a full simulator version of the game. The setup comprised an improved driving position and a “wide” projected screen layout, all within its own giant enclosure. This special version of the game seemed to harken back to NAMCO’s early attraction roots in its concept, particularly with the electro-mechanical F-1 they had developed back in 1976. A vast cabinet game like Pole Position: Wide would not be seen again from them until their Galaxian 3 days, as we covered in our previous feature on the explosion of Deluxe Cabinet applications in the scene.
Jump forward to today and the big, dedicated attraction is still a major force of interest – fueled by mixed-use leisure entertainment (MULE) venues who need to entertain a larger audience and ensure a longer dwell time in their gathering spaces. Much of the technical innovation that is catering to these demands seems to be coming from outside the amusement trade in the form of VR, MXR and immersive attractions, offering large multiplayer platforms deployed as mini-attractions or ‘Super Deluxe’ cabinets filling in those needs.
The trade of 1983 would not be surprised by these developments – the writing was on the wall even then that a multiple entertainment offering was the future. In 1979, the ‘PizzaTime Theatre’ concept had been acquired by ATARI (helmed at the time by Nolan Bushnell) – but by 1983, the resulting ‘Chuck E. Cheese’s Pizza Time Theatre’ would start the Chapter 11 bankruptcy process. Many years of trial and tribulation would mark its years forward, that b-word rearing its ugly head again in 2020. But upon exiting that process, Chuck E. Cheeses has seen massive growth across their remaining 600+ operations, reinvesting in its entertainment brand as it competes in an ever turbulent market.
Source: Pizza Time Theatre
Where once 1983 marked the growth of the Japanese video amusement factory as they established supremacy in a diminished Western market, 2023 sees the Japanese factories decimated in a post-pandemic landscape. Of the names one would remember from ’83, only NAMCO in the form of BANDAI NAMCO Amusements still maintains whole ownership from Japan while operating out West (the story on Sega Amusements can be found here). In the Home Islands, the amusement scene has mainly reverted to Crane Gaming (UFO Catchers) and Capsule Vending installations; Hardly any Japanese video amusement product makes Western landfall unless it comes via Round1 USA. Chinese developers have not encountered the same effect as of yet, although none of them has had quite the presence on the Western scene over the years. As it stands, the influential AM studios of the 1980’s and 1990’s, have been totally superseded by their consumer game divisions.
Scenes like this have become common all across Asia, as venues lean hard on prize redemption
Amusement innovation in the West is seen more through frictionless payment infrastructure, social media promotion and marketing, and the connectivity of the systems to centralized operation. The physical cashbox has been replaced with smart card pay-to-play technology for most operators, driving up revenues as more data is collected on player preferences, so that locations can quickly adapt to changing tastes.
While looking at all the similarities between the previous decades of success in amusement and today, there is one stark aspect that could prove to be an omen.
1983 is also marked as being the year of the great ‘Video Game Crash.’ After saturating the market with success after success, too much bloat accompanied the hype in both the amusement and home digital gaming trades, and ’83 saw fallout that would change the course of the industry. The year prior had seen a sea of ‘shovelware:’ poor quality titles flooding home game consoles, attempting to capture that arcade look and feel yet falling enormously short of those goals as the real desire was to get a quick cash grab off of the home gaming fad. This was exacerbated by major companies like ATARI, who had put out a substandard Pac-Man port to their Atari 2600 game console in 1981, only to seemingly spit in the faces of players by yet again bungling a major IP with the highly hyped E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, a game that would go down in legend (unsold copies of that and some other over-produced games being dumped in a New Mexico landfill to avoid taxes and purge inventory).
Source: National Museum of American History
While console gaming took a massive hit from the collapse, amusement would continue to try and find its footing. The typical setup at the time saw operators leasing new equipment for short periods generate valuable cashboxes, then the distributor would lease the game to the next operator down the food chain. This “move boxes” mentality coupled with weak cogs like laserdiscs (see our previous feature – “The Tech That Nearly Killed the Arcade Industry!”)
Both ATARI and Midway would stumble the most, but successes – particularly from Japanese-owned dev houses – would continue to pour in from the surviving coin-op manufacturers. Conversion kits gained in popularity as operators had no lack of game cabinets but little appetite for bringing on more; This trend would also lead to the JAMMA wiring standard that would roll out in 1986, leasing a longer lifespan to video games through the 90s.
The laserdisc fiasco had also taught valuable lessons to everyone in the business, operators in particular being left much savvier. The appearance of more deluxe cabinets was nice, but they needed to prove their worth before finding a buyer, with successes like STAR WARS from ATARI providing a last big hurrah from the vector monitor tech. As with today, the amusement trade turned to big IP to draw an audience, and nothing was bigger at the time than the Lucasfilm epic sci-fi property. ATARI would go on to woo George Lucas with his own specially modified deluxe cabinet; But that would not ultimately win over an operator frustrated by a busted monitor, something that vectors were prone to do.
Observing the decades past since 1983, and the current state of the digital entertainment landscape, and you would be forgiven for seeing storm clouds once again forming on the horizon.
Following the Global Health crisis, a plethora of major technology companies have seen considerable layoffs (some christening this period the “Tech-Job Apocalypse”). The consumer video game industry has not been immune to these upheavals – with Microsoft’s’ 10,000 layoffs hitting their game studios like 343 Industries hard, while Meta was hit harder, seeing some 20,000 departures that affected studios like Ready At Dawn and Downpour Interactive. Many others have been hit as the consumer games scene restructures after years of growth, excess and horrifically expensive, failed gambles.
Where does this leave the amusement scene? Are we vulnerable?
As a shadow of its former self, amusement is not the lynchpin of the Out-of-Home entertainment market but is still an influential player. Where mall arcades defined the 1983 amusement landscape, and route operations ruled the streets, the modern market is a diverse sector, split between amusement venues, street operations, FEC’s and LBE chains. FEC’s have become the dominant player at the table, especially in the States, offering mixed entertainment in mini-theme park settings. The Redemption and Videmption categories remain massive revenue drivers for every genre of operator.
All that considered, the market is seeing major fracture lines.
As times change, so do business practices, hence the necessity for amusement distributors to do more than just “move boxes” if they wish to remain relevant. These companies help drive new FEC development, offering options in financing and “turn key solutions” such as designing layouts and machine installation – helpful as more as many new-generation amusement operators seek to buy directly, removing the interference of third parties in the machines they buy.
The appearance of VR technology in the amusement sector has grown continuously in adoption, with all the major manufacturers offering some form of VR platform, directly or through third party affiliations. These attractions have become proven revenue drivers, with more dedicated entertainment venues offering these systems. Another change in audience habits has been the growth of Social Entertainment, mixing food & beverage with a dedicated and gamified attraction in place. These can include boutique bowling, mini-golf, darts(both traditional and Augmented), axe throwing and much much more. These cocktail and gaming (“Kidult”) spaces have seen increased investments in the efforts to attract older audiences who may have been around in ’83 – and their kids.
Source: Elev8 Fun Tampa
Far from being dormant, FEC and amusement operation has enjoyed growth following the privations of social isolationism. It has been a period of mergers and acquisitions, as the cost-of-living impacts, staffing shortages and a need for reinvestment required a shuffling of the decks. Recently major acquisitions of chains have taken place, from Dave & Buster’s buying Main Event, or Five Star Parks & Attractions acquiring operators such as Scene 75. These are only the appetizers to major changes in the market.
2023, rather than another period of crash, feels about to be a period of eruption, as amusement in its social entertainment guise, either raises to the challenge or is consumed by hungry corporations!
About the Author – Kevin Williams is a widely-respected specialist on entertainment and technology assisting international clients in developing immersive and interactive entertainment technology and facilities. Kevin is Co-Founder and Research & Development Director for Spider Entertainment, a global leader in Out-of-Home Entertainment for retail destinations and beyond. Along with advisory positions with other entrants into the market he is founder and publisher of the Stinger Report, “a-must-read” e-zine for those working or investing in the amusement, attractions, and entertainment industry. Kevin is a prolific writer and provides regular news columns for main trade publications. He also travels the globe as a keynote speaker, moderator and panelist at numerous industry conferences and events. Author of “The Out-of-Home Immersive Entertainment Frontier: Expanding Interactive Boundaries in Leisure Facilities”, the only book on this aspect of the market, the second edition is scheduled for a 2023 release.
Kevin can be reached at email@example.com.