Are the arcades really dead?

Posted by Lord Publius |

I came across a great article on The Verge about arcades. It details a broad overview of Arcade history, from the birth of Pinball in the 1930's right up to their current, lamentable state. 'Lamentable' in this case means that stand-alone arcades are rare and the only places you typically see arcade games now is at Barcades and 'family fun centers' like Dave & Buster's. The article's authors and everyone interviewed also seem to think that arcades are dead... All but one. And that one guy is someone I'd listen to since he definitely knows what he's talking about...

"Everyone seems to agree on one thing: the arcade is dead, and most people are okay with that. No one I’ve asked gives me a different answer. The economics aren’t there any more, the community support never was, and, of course, gaming companies make a killing in the home — almost none are even producing cabinets anymore. So it’s not surprising that everyone nods their head when I ask if the arcade is really dead. "Can it come back?" "No," they shake their heads. Only one person gives a different answer, and it’s Nolan Bushnell. "Absolutely, it can come back," he says, his eyes lighting up. "Creativity will bring anything back. There’s so much technology out there which can’t be packaged in the home environment," he adds. He’s animated, and adamant that our culture has "lost something," in the disappearance of all the "informal clubhouses" as he calls them, public hangout spots for young people. Bushnell is in the minority with such a prediction, but if anyone can bet against such odds and win, it’s probably him."

I agree with Atari founder Nolan Bushnell. Arcades will come back someday because they offer something that home consoles don't: a unique social experience.

Yes, home consoles can offer something of a social experience with your friend sitting on the couch next to you or online deathmatches. However, that's not really all that social. You probably don't know that guy in Japan that you frequently play against online in some first-person shooter. (And why would you want to socialize with someone that teabags your dead avatar every single time he frags you?) You already socialize with your real-life friends even when they aren't sitting on the couch with you playing games. For good social experiences, nothing beats actually being in a public place, meeting new people face-to-face.

So, how can arcades come back to prominence? By doing what Nolan said, giving people a gaming experience they can't get at home with technology that isn't available to consumers in the general public. That, more than anything else, will give them a reason to actually go to the arcade.

And that leads to the next obvious question: What is that experience?

Star Trek PinballA few years ago, I would have said good-quality virtual reality could do the trick. However, thanks to Oculus Rift and PlayStationVR, you'll be able to get that in your home soon too. It may not be cheap but, it will be available. Same can be said for pinball tables. You can buy them for your home but, they are NOT cheap.

The prices for new machines that I looked at online were between $6,000 and $8,000... which is why I don't currently own my own pinball table. So, that is still ONE truly timeless way the arcades will always be able to offer me something I can't get at home. Despite pinball's recent renaissance, even that isn't quite enough for a major industry turnaround. The machines are expensive to buy and maintain, thanks to the myriad moving electronic/mechanical parts. Unlike arcade video games, repairs on pinball tables are never as simple as swapping out a defective board, monitor or joystick.

After BurnerAfter pondering the issue for a while, I think I've come up with a potential (and technically feasible) solution: motion cabinets. For those who are not children of the 1980's, a motion cabinet was an arcade game that had a seat/cockpit that would move around while you were inside playing the game. The best-known example that I can remember would be the 1987 SEGA classic After Burner. The seat in the cockpit version of the game rotated horizontally and the cockpit rotated vertically, which added a lot to the gaming experience. It made the game feel more like you were really flying an F-14 Tomcat and not just playing a game. The stereo speakers at head level made for some amazing surround sound too. Still can't conceptualize what I'm talking about? Then, look at the scene in Terminator 2: Judgment Day that showed John Connor in an arcade. One of the games he plays is the cockpit version of After Burner. (And the Atari classic Missile Command too.)

Star Wars Battle PodI thought about After Burner after playing a new flight simulator game in a barcade called Star Wars Battle Pod. The game's concept was pretty cool but, the game itself could have been better. Not having a seat that moved around just made it more difficult on me. I had a hard time focusing because I was moving my eyes around everywhere to keep track of the action. It was also expensive. ($1 per play) Worst of all, it didn't give me more than a split-second to fire the torpedoes into the Death Star's thermal exhaust port. Honestly Namco, I am disappointed in you. I know you can do better. Hell, Atari did when they made this exact same game back in 1983. What happened, Namco?

Anyway, modern games with motion cabinets could be just the thing to bring arcades back to prominence. I sincerely doubt that anyone is going to find a way to bring that into the home. Well, except maybe a millionaire's mansion...

In addition to good motion cabinets and more pinball tables, other things I think arcades could do to bring in more customers include the following:

  • An interesting arcade racing game that doesn't cost a dollar per play and is not based on some crappy Fast and Furious movie.
  • Fighting games that have easy-to-learn controls (Amazing that no one has thought of that yet for arcades. Nintendo did it with Super Smash Bros....)
  • More Skeeball. LOTS more Skeeball.
  • Redemption games that actually pay out once in a while. That would include claw machines that don't always drop the toy prize right before the claw gets over the retrieval bin. (Those things are such a rip off...)

...and that's all I can think of right now.

Also, with regards to the article complaining that most arcade machines are all in bars and family fun centers now, I say 'So what?' Before the Golden Age of Arcades in the 1970's and 1980's, almost all arcade games were in those kinds of places. The only other places were Pinball Arcades (where video arcade games got their first foothold in the market), traveling circuses and amusement parks. Don't begrudge barcades and family fun centers for being the primary market of these machines. They've always been part of the market and have often kept it alive during hard times, like they seem to be now.

However, the hard times won't last forever. The Media can call them a menace to society and a 'threat to today's youth' from here to the end of eternity. Not only will that not stop them, it might actually make kids and teenagers want to go to the arcade even more. It certainly would have made my childhood self rather curious. As so many legendary Rock groups, comic book publishers and toy companies can tell you, scaring the parents is usually a fantastic way of selling something to kids.KISS Pinball

Arcades have had their ups and downs like any other business but, they will come back. Like the killer in a series of R-rated slasher flicks, they ALWAYS defy the laws of nature (or anything else that even remotely resembles common sense) and come back... Which is a good thing because I'd love to start a barcade and am currently making plans to open one someday.

To quote the legendary H.P. Lovecraft story "The Call of Cthulhu"...

"That is not dead which can eternal lie, and with strange eons even death may die."