Seth: Hi John. Been meaning to get around to this for forever, but as perhaps you can tell from the state of my article writing, there’s a bit of a backlog. Heh. Wizard told me you’d be willing to do an interview, so if this comes as spam, please blame him (good general policy). There will be a few more questions, but I’d like for you to take this in whatever direction you might like, so they may follow up things you say here, etc. Also, feel free to just interject something if you feel like my questions miss entirely something you’d like to talk about.
Please identify yourself.
John: John Bailon…born 10-15-65 in Stanton, CA…just down the street from you know where…I started working at Southern Hills Golfland in May of 1983 starting out as a cashier and later getting promoted to assistant manager. I was later promoted to a corporate position of Arcade Division Manager overseeing all of Golfland’s arcades until I left the company in Feburary this year to work for Pacific Theatres’ business operations/coin-op division. My main focus right now is the recently opened Winnetka Fun Zone in Chatsworth, California which is turning into a profitable blueprint for future locations for Pacific Theatres. My nick of SHGLboss was actually created by John Choi in passing during a tournament and it pretty much stuck. I’d have to credit the start of the use the acronym of “SHGL” to Cho Chang, one of my key employees when we started building momentum in the arcade world.
Seth:How did you get mixed up in this business in the first place?
John: I started hanging out at SHGL in the early seventies. Way back then the arcade consisted of mostly electromechanical games and pinballs with stuff priced at 10 cents a game or 3 games for 25 cents. The “original” arcade at that time was the “party room” where the pinballs and tables were. The arcade as we came to know it was expanded in the mid seventies.
I was more fascinated by pinball at that time. Video games were too bland for me at that time. I would usually go to SHGL with a couple of dimes or quarters, rack up free games on different pinballs and then sell them to other players…I got to be pretty good and I’d usually go home with more money than I started out with. I continued hanging out there until I was hired after graduating from high school in 1983. So up to its closure in December 2002 I guess it’s safe to say that I had been hanging out and working there for over 30 years. I’ve seen and learned quite a bit over that span which seems ungodly to me now that I’m realizing the actual numbers…I never meant for it to be a career job but I enjoyed the industry, the people, the customers, and the games so much that it put my other career choices and college degree into secondary importance. Luckily, it all worked out even though I never really received any formal education or training for business or arcade service/maintenance…I picked it all up as time went on. I worked briefly for Atari Games and Midway as their southern California service area tech for the Rush the Rock Wavenet project.
Seth: What do you think distinguished you from other arcade operators? Was it a conscious choice to be different?
John: It just came hand in hand with trying to create the best possible einvironment with the best possible games. I probably would not try as hard if I was a hard nosed business person…but I’m a player too so I try to put out what I would hope other players would like to see.
Seth: As a manager, what’s your attitude toward players? What do you find most frustrating about them?
John: I am still a player and set high standards for how a game should look, play, and even feel. There were a lot of subtle features on the game conversions that I built at SHGL, such as joystick/button spacing (not too close together), individual player spacing on a control panel (notice how you never were tight shoulder to shoulder with the other player?), strategic placement of the moves decal strips (enough said), the use of Q-sound amplifier boards, the use of the high quality controls, keeping an adequate number of comfortable stools available, etc. I’m always monitoring several player message boards to see if there are any standout complaints that can be addressed, or if there are any mistakes that need to be corrected. I always keep an open mind to any comments, negative or positive.
Frustrating? Nothing really. About the only thing that got me frustrated were the Dance Dance Revolution tournaments and the complaints over decidely subjective judging. With fighting game tournaments that was not an issue since decisions were cut and dried wins or losses. Some players may have bitched publicly in the past about their tournament draws and the like but we always tried to correct that with subsequent tournaments.
Seth:What got you interested in tournaments, promotions, etc. (as opposed to sitting on your butt and letting the business die, which seems to be the modus operandi of most operators)?
John: Well, at a time when game development started slowing down, we decided to make do with what was already out there. We felt that there was enough player following and competitive interest to warrant tournaments. What we did not expect was the interest level to rise so quickly and having a national attraction level, but I owe a lot of credit to SRK for that.
As for the other operators, I think that they bought too much into the idea that getting a new game and plugging it in would instantly generate untold riches for them. While that may have been true in the Champion Edition days (remember how some locations would have 4-10 units?) as time progressed and hits were few they seemed to forget about customer satisfaction to keep them coming back. I have always felt that if I can’t control the quality or quantity or timing of incoming titles at least I have control over the environment and made it a major point that everything worked and looked as if it was brand new as much as possible. It’s sad to go to other locations and see the neglect; it’s even worse when you try to point it out and get met with apathy and disdain.
Seth: What was behind the decision to close SHGL?
John: It all boils down to $$$. SHGL was still profitable at that time but operating expenses were rising at a faster pace than incoming revenue. The closure of the movie theaters next door didn’t help. The property along Beach Blvd. is in high demand; an attractive offer was made to the company and they decided to pull out. IMHO, I believe that Golfland is starting to focus more at improving the highly profitable larger locations (Camelot, Mesa, Roseville, the Arizona waterparks) since their profit margins are considerably higher due to the increased volume of business traffic. I was starting less attention paid to the smaller locations in the chain. I would not be surprised at all if more of those smaller locations were eventually closed and sold, especially if more capital was needed to fund improvements or new attractions at the bigger parks. Property in northern California is especially pricey right now.
Seth: What do you feel is the legacy of SHGL (to players, to yourself, as an example to other arcades, etc.)?
John: It’s been quite flattering to see how some standards that we set forth at SHGL are now common practice at other arcades. The use of 360 joysticks, competition buttons, video capture boards for direct feed video or overhead monitors, etc. were virtually unheard of until we started taking the fighting game genre to higher player standard level. The same thing goes for some of the tournament rules that evolved over the years.
It’s been especially gratifying when people recognize me at trade shows like E3 or just on the street and say hi or point me out to other people. I’m still around, I’m just not doing it for Golfland anymore.
Seth: Do you have a favorite SHGL memory?
John: Just the sadness of that final night on December 17th, 2002. I opened up that day and changed the front sign message board that morning bearing the bad news. I decided to close up that final night and pulling into that full parking lot for people coming for the last time was one of the hardest and saddest things that I can ever did in my life and will never forget. I’d like to take this opportunity thank those who stopped me that night and offered comfort and thanks…it was really gratifying that they felt compelled to drive from all over Cali just for that night. It was tough trying not to break down that night…
In terms of happier moments though, watching the growth and popularity of Street Fighter ranks way up there. We had the original deluxe Street Fighter with those ungodly rubber punch and kick pads that “measured” the push strength of the player to dictate the character attack. That evolved into the jab, short, fierce that have all come to know and love when Capcom decided to produce the game in a smaller and more practical cabinet. Street Fighter II soon followed and the income numbers and player interest saw a marked increase forcing us to buy multiple units for the first time to handle demand. This was also about the time that we started seeing board thefts in the industry.
And then the magic of Champion Edition Street Fighter II: When they first hit, the very first units hit us, Pacman arcade in Pasadena, and Beach and Warner arcade in Huntington Beach. I’ll never forget the people showing up early to play and waiting literally hours for their turn. We started out with 2 units and ended up with 6 that summer.
Also, the years that E3 was in town: it was great seeing so many players from around the world stop in just to see what SHGL was all about. Once they got over the relatively small size of the location and understood the level of player talent they came away pretty impressed.
Seth: You are known for connections that get you all the newest games. What’s your secret? Can I be your friend?
John: All of that came over a lot of campaigning with the major manufacturers and local distributors: both needed to see how certain new games would earn in a prominent traditional arcade environment in the southern California area. At that time, test areas were usually in Chicago and northern California area in close proximity to the manufacturer factories for monitoring purposes. I was able to create relationships with many marketing and sales departments and convinced them to test with us in exchange for reliable collection reports and player feedback reports, something that would aid them immensely in selling more product. Even though there are only a handful of companies left, I still know a lot of key industry veterans since most have moved to those remaining companies.
And yes, you too can be my friend.
Seth: What are your plans for your current operation?
John: Well, I hope to take Pacific Theatres to the same national recognition level that Golfland has or once had. We’ve already seen our first major location, the Winnetka Fun Zone, host the US debut of SVC Chaos for SNK, as well as the California debut for Terminator 3 pinball. There is a lot of room for growth within Pacific Theatres for both stand alone game rooms and rooms built into the theatre lobbies—I felt kind of tapped out in my final days with Golfland that Golfland really no longer had any room for growth along those lines Since I moved to Pacific Theatres, many manufacturers have already approached us for more upcoming tests (since there are so many desireable theatre locations) so stay tuned.
Seth: How do you feel about the state of arcades in this country today?
John: Well, the “mom and pop” locations are virtually extinct now since the basic business model is no longer profitable. High costs and slow return on investment on new equipment, competition from the consumer industry, lan party PC cafes, diversified locations offering redemption games have all but phased out the traditional video game arcade. If done correctly, new locations can still be profitable but there are many development factors that need to be addressed before being built. I firmly believe that there is still a market out there that is desirous of a competitive social environment that arcades provide. The fact that online gaming is succeeding on different levels shows that people still like to to interact; arcades need to take advantage of that social interaction desire.
If anything, I’m kind of concerned that there has been no major long lasting fighting game release in the past few years. SRK has definitely helped the longevity of the last few Capcom titles but how long before the players get burned out? Guilty Gear is moderately successful despite low US distribution/availability, SCII and TK4 only lasted for their national tournaments, and now SvC is getting railed on for its apparent deficiencies.
As for actual new upcoming games:
Capcom: I’m not sure what to think about their future development plans. They are committed mainly to the consumer market now and I get mixed vibes when talking to my sources there about upcoming coin-op product.
Namco: They have the Tekken and Soul Calibur series that can still be continued profitably.
SNK: They’re getting more aggressive with further development of their fighting game titles (SVC, KoF, and now Samurai Showdown). People may dismiss the depth and graphics quality but you have to give them props for still trying…it’s a step in the right direction.
Sega: Virtua Fighter…I wish that they would try to change it up a bit to make it more palatable to US players…it’s too quick and technical. The growing acceptance of memory cards (Initial D and the upcoming F-Zero) for the US market is a good thing now so don’t be surprised if it is implemented to a fighting game.
Sammy: Guilty Gear is their only notable license but don’t be surprised if they make a power play for another company and/or a recognizable license to use for their Atomiswave coin-op hardware.
Midway: waiting on coin-op ports of existing product. A lot of ex-Midway designers are developing games on their own and pitching the ideas to manufacturers though.
Konami: Their last fighting game title was Fighting Bujutsu…I don’t know if they would explore going down that fighting game road again but they might seeing how their music game line is fading.
An interesting trend that is developing from the consumer sector now though is that some companies are looking for more R&D capital (with the competition of many titles in development it’s hard for a company to “spread the wealth”) so they are looking to ports or tie-ins to coin-op products to help with capital as well as marketing assistance. I’m hoping that this is the start of a heathly trend that could start a resurgence in existing (or hopefully new) arcades.