About Arcades (and Console Video Gaming)

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Last summer, I set out to complete a project that has been on my TODO list for quite some time.    To construct a game room in the unfinished storage space beneath our house. (Kinda like a basement but not exactly- not-technically a basement since it on ground level)

Pictured above is the result as of today, though the room is constantly changing with different games trading / coming and going.  

Along the way I learned a ton about "The Arcade Business" which really sheds light on those near and dear memories of loitering as a kid at the Aracde in Greentree Mall in Clarksville, IN after the movies or as a teenager hanging out at Alladin's Castle in Cordova Mall in Pensacola, Florida.

I got reminded of my lessons recently, visiting the Arcade at The Magic Kingdom at the exit of Space Mountain and the Arcade on the Cruise Ship; with my daughter.   I like to visit these arcades to shop for future machine purchases and take in the sights and sounds. (Central Florida auctions are the source from which alot of games come to me, through various delears.)

Jena - she's in it for the claw machines.   She loves those stupid things and the cheap chinese-made toys they miserly dispense.

Some facts on the arcade business you may not have known.

That Golden Tee or Mortal Kombat machine you fed quarters into at the gas station was most likely owned by "An Operator".   The Operator would strike a deal with the business owner to put a machine or two on-location in exchange for a split of the take from the machine.  

A side-note-to-this-side-note, this is one of the first businesses that Warren Buffet engaged in, though his were "weighing machines" (scales) in barber shops and filling stations around town.

Operators are seldom game enthusiasts.  It is a business.   Some are technically savvy while others employ the use of some very bright technicians for repairs / upgrades.  The engineers are usually soldering-iron wielding electro-mechanical experts.   They are soldering on boards, removing capacitors and transformers and replacing them (often on-site) .  They can diagnose and fix a motherboard, a monitor.   A dying art in our disposable culture.

The machines would come from one of a small handful of manufacturers.  (Midway, Konami, Namco, Data East, Bally to name a few)   The machines themselves are really basically very big PC's.  A monitor, a marquee flourescent light, a motherboard, some speakers and a control panel filled with buttons.  Because of their size it was very common for a single machine to have multiple lifes as different games.    For instance, that Mortal Kombat machine, may have been Mortal Kombat 1, 2, 3 or any number of other games made by Midway with a similar button layout or cabinet wiring.   Just swap a board, the marquee and some art.  Bang, new game.

Now, here is the big one that you may not realize, though it seems obvious.  These are vending machines with games in them, not games with quarter slots.  The difference is the entire machine is built for the sake of the operator, not the player.   Sure, they want a game the player will play but the game's purpose from birth was to make the operator money.

As such, the games give the operators controls over things that will influence the capability to sap players for quarters post-haste.     Some examples:

My Midway Offroad Thunder behind Mario Kart:    It has a menu option to pick the percentage in which a player is allowed to score first place (and thus a free game).    So, in addition to difficulty, if this percentage is set to 10% then no matter how good of a driver you are you will only place 1st 10% of the time over aggregate.   Racing games make it easy to cheat the player.    It's easy enough to have a car pass you on the last lap, right before the finish line, etc.

My Mario Kart: Has numerous difficulty settings as well as a "pay anyway" option.  So, even if you win 1st place, it expects additional credits to continue racing but at a discount (at the operator's perogative)

 Fighting games are desigend for head-to-head play so as to keep competitors feeding quarters into a machine.   They are also designed to emphasize streaks over score, win/loose streaks equate to more quarters dumped into the machine on a 1-to-1 ratio.

Shooting games are built to be impossibly hard if you intend to complete the game.   We had a House of the Dead 4 for awhile.  It would take two players around $9 in quarters (on .25c plays) to beat the game completely, regardless of your marksman skills.     

Skill cranes are evil.  Little Jena loves these things but they are truely built with the operator in mind.   In addition to "packing tightly" the toys, the claw itself is almost always configurable.  How many inches the claw will close and how many ounces of pressure the claw will hold closed.   Less tight claws drop toys and generally get more plays.   

(I'm annoyed because Jena spent $25 in The Disney Dream's Arcade to get a .50c toy.   Their operators should be more generous, it's Disney for Pete's sake.)

This profit-over-playability focus wasn't always the case.   In the early days of Pacman, Tron, Frogger, Centipede, you would certainly pay to play but the gameplay was foremost in the game creators goals.   These games were built by small companies (relative to today) by game designers and engineers who were most likely a little more like Flynn from The Tron Movie than Bill Gates from Pirates of Silicon Valley.    (And probably on enough cocaine to smother a polar bear.)  EDIT: LSD.

They hobbled code and hardware together as best they could do bring to life something that had never really before been done.    What do you compare Pac-Man to?

...This is likely why the early classics remain nostalgic to most of us.   They were built for playability and creativity without the input of an army full of corporate psycologists trying to "get you hooked."  

As the 90's rolled on and arcades started to decline the games were more targeted at sapping your handful of quarters than insuring a pleasant experience.    That isn't to say they weren't fun but you shouldn't beat yourself up if you can't get to that 12th level boss on a single quarter.   You weren't supposed to be able to, by design.

Into the late 90's, a quarter no longer bought a postage stamp nor a single play of a premium game.   Operators engaged in a race-to-the-top in per-game charges. This problem originated at the manufacturers, who were struggling.    Consoles were eating their market share and machines started to get expensive.  The cost was passed to the arcade consumer.

A standard cabinet two player machine with a 25" monitor averaged about $2000
A standard sit-down driving machine with a 25" monitor averaged about $5000
    -- As did light gun games and other specialty machines, including Pinball

The prices you paid at an arcade jumped from .25 to as much as $2.50 per play.

People stopped coming.  Arcades went out of business or only thrived in touristy settings or as a side-attraction to something else. (Dave & Busters, Chuck-E-Cheese, Movie Theater Arcades)

Arcade gamnig went from a free spirited garage-startup developed cash cows in the 80s to huge conglomerate companies with millions of dollars in overhead swimming upstream against the rising tide of home-console ownership.   Cue the layoffs and supplier bankrupcies..

Contrast the 80's drug-fueled development to a more modern Bungie Studios (as of 5 years ago) working on Halo titles.     They actually measured capillary response of testers, ostensibly attached to some Doc Emmit Brown-inspired machine, as they played through Halo levels.   An attempt to measure the physiological responses to certain scenarios.

Halo, Call of Duty and other modern titles are engineered from the ground up to be addictive, especially in the multi-player modes.   They do this by withholding weapons, achievements and abilities until later levels with a good-bit of social interactive peer pressure added on top.  

Today, the console market leans you to online play, where sales become organic as friends need multiple copies to play versus one-another and Microsoft's X-Box Live charges a $50/year premium just to connect to their services.

Points and DLC, Leaderboards and In-game chat drive multiplayer experiences while game developers increasingly phone-in their campaign/single player experiences focusing on the more lucrative multiplayer audiences.

With the announcement of xBox One and PS4, I imagine we'll be in for more of the same in console gaming.   Bigger graphics, better sound(slightly), more online crap to accompany the game, more multiplayer.

(Which admittedly kind of annoys this 34 year old slow-fingered button masher who is tired of being matched with jobless agile-fingered smack-talking tweens who spend their summers perfecting their Kill to-Death ratios on casual gamers like me.)

And.. if you are really worried about the NSA reading your emails, don't think too hard on that Kinect sensor or Playstation Move Camera.   It's only a high-resolution infrared camera designed with the specific purpose to one day allow Microsoft or Sony to target ads based on the people in the room. (Oh, look, Dad's in the chair, Jr is on the floor playing, mom's in the corner reading and Spot is chewing on a bone near the couch, cue a Dog-bone ad..)    I'm sure the NSA wouldn't find any value at all in that military-grade infrared scan of your evening activities.

As for arcades?  The Verge wrote a great article here and essentially declares them as dead.  I'm not conviced but I see their point and I'm obviously a hold-out, being an enthusiast.

Today, just about any arcade game you can think of can be picked up from an Auction for  $300-$600, dealers selling to homeowners and collectors for $400-$800.  Pinballs are usually a bit more, coming in at $1800 to $3000 for something really collectible.   

Only one pinball manufacturer remains and most arcade mfgs are on death's doorstep, minimally staffed and only selling to one of a handful of suppliers left.

Those annoying redemption games (collect tickets for crappy chinese toys dipped in lead paint)  are king.

I think, we humans have a tendency to know when we are being rolled and that these too will fail over time.  

The unfettered nostalgia of sitting at a pizza parlor and playing pacman on a cocktail table or in a poorly lit arcade stacking your quarters up there, "I got next play" will likely live on in new ways.   Bar-cades, come-to-your-house birthday party in-a-covered-trailer bouncy castle/clown types or gimmicks like Dave-N-Busters will keep it up for another generation.

I know my four year old loves to grab his little Mario wallet full of quarters and run downstairs to play.    He doesn't quite understand "free play" but hey - neither did the Arcade Industry as a whole.  ;)