Like a lot of us, Chris Wong (aka “cmutt”) has loved games since he was a kid. Hes also been a long-time fan of the SF series, and a good friend to its community, traveling to play in tournaments, always seeking out the best players from around the country. Recently, however, he took his life-long passion to another level. On October 28, 2001, he opened his own arcade: the “Stargate”, in Houston, TX. Chris let pick his brain about what life looks like from the other side of the redemption counter. Here he is in his own words. So without further ado…
Seth: In a time when arcades are facing an uphill battle, why did you open one? Has this always been a dream of yours? What’s your story, anyway- who is Chris Wong =) ?
Wong: Let me start by giving you a little bit of background history first. I grew up during the video game boom, with games like asteroids, pac-man, defender, space invaders, etc. my older cousin was a big part of my introduction and life in video games. He is a computer programmer now, and even back when we were young he was heavily into computers and video games. He took me to all of the arcades around houston all of the time. So I basically grew up in the arcades.
when I graduated from high school in 1988 I was already pipe-dreaming about having my own arcade. I started thinking about my own arcade seriously around 9 to 10 years ago. The industry was very different back then, as i’m sure you recall. The home systems did not dominate the market and the arcades back then were still what i’d call “player conscious”. in that I mean that they were still run by gaming companies, with gaming minded people, and with gamers in mind.
At the time, fighting games were not my main interest. I was just into video games in general. of course once Street Fighter 2 came out I got pretty heavy into it. By 1993 I was giving the idea much more serious consideration. I got a job working at the time-out arcade in Sharpstown Mall in southwest Houston. I already had a lot of general electronics knowledge from working on stereo systems and from my cousin when he would crack home video game systems. (sshhhh!) so I had somewhat of a working knowledge on video game repairs. I got the job so I could learn about the business aspects of an arcade and gain further knowledge on video game repair and maintenance.
within the year and a half that I worked there I learned much more about the state of the arcade industry than I did about the business operation aspects. This turned out to be very crucial because the state of arcades was dwindling down and they were becoming mediocre. Time-out was a national corporation owned originally by Sega. They were bought out by the Edison-Brothers corporation. Edison-Brosthers was a very large company that handeld mostly retail clothing and other mall-based shops. What the hell did they know about the arcade industry? as it turned out… nothing.
They immediately fired most of the Sega brass and the regional managers, and replaced them with their own corporate heads. Without making this too long winded, suffice it to say that they ruined the company. their lack of knowledge or interest in the gaming industry alienated them and handicapped them from what video arcades were all about. They were in it for the money potential and nothing more.
Anyway, so I knew back then that mom-and-pop arcades just weren’t making it anymore. Large corporate arcades were the only arcades that could make it to the mass market. Retail leasing was much too expensive for the small operator, and the games were becoming much too expensive and risky for small businesses as well. When I crunched the numbers the projections and outcomes just didn’t bode well. So I simply decided that it was too risky and costly a venture for a small business. I went on with my life.
Every year or so since then I would come back to the idea and start downsizing my original plans and ideas, and every time it was still the same conclusion… still too costly and risky.
By this time it was 1995 and the industry was completely different. Home consoles were taking over, arcade games were becoming redundant, and the general arcade scene was severely lacking in terms of crowds. I still played street fighter at the university of houston, although I wasn’t a hardcore player back then. Hell, it was still no-throws here in houston at that time, and this was street fighter alpha 2! How lame. I know i’m probably giving you WAY more info. than you need, but i’m just trying to give you the whole picture. i’m sure you’ll edit this as needed. =) (editor’s note: yeah right!)
Anyway, every time I recalculated and re-examined the idea, it always came down to the same thing. It was just way too costly and risky a venture. So I went on with life as usual and fell out of street fighter for a while. I still played at home on my arcade cabinet with ST and SFA2, but that was pretty much by myself and just for practice.
Street fighter was pretty much dead here in houston for a few years. Until… I can’t remember which year it was, but SF3-new generation came out and I was playing at a mall here in southwest Houston. A local player told me that he had been challenged by some guys from pasadena, that they were supposedly pretty good. Holy shit! Street Fighter players?! My adrenaline and excitement were keyed up. I had to find out about this place and these players.
Pasadena is a little bit ouside of the general houston area, but not too much. It was about 45 minutes from me. I went there and found this place called the Wizard. It was a little hole-in-the-wall dive out in the middle of nowhere. I spotted the sf3 cabinet and I went to check out the players. I saw a couple of guys playing and then one of the players parried Dudley’s machine gun blow. 5 hits! I was stunned. After all, I hadn’t seen anyone parry more than fireballs up to that point. I knew I was in the right place, my element. I was home.
The reason I needed to tell you all of this is because the Wizard was the catalyst for my arcade. I found a place where the hardcore players were. It was run my a single, hardworking older man. It had all of the best fighting games as well as a few other good games as well. Most of all, the place was working; the place was in business and doing ok. That showed me that it could be done, but only on a very, very small scale. I also became friends with what we now call the Houston crew. Jumpsuit Jesse, Mike Zavar, Javier Moreno, Adrian Ross, and various others. We became very close and we sparked up the Street Fighter juices for one another. We started attending national tourneys and we grew into a small community.
I still thought about my arcade idea and I began revamping it into more of a fighting game theme, following the idea that I needed to keep it very low key, with low overhead, and minimal startup costs. I just kept it in my mind. I still considered it to be a pipe dream though. Two important factors pushed me forward though.
First, arcades in houston never maintained their controls. not even the wizard. we simply had no alternative but to play at each others homes, and that was severely limiting. arcades didn’t have all of the good games, their controls sucked, and we could not control tournaments.
Second, I wanted to try to obtain my dream. I had to try, because I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life wondering, what if? Plus, I wasn’t doing anything else more substancial as far as work goes, so I just decided to risk failure and my finances. This is what I wanted to do for so long, so I had to give it a shot.
so with that bit of history, on to the questions:
The arcade is called The Stargate, and it’s located at 2117 Chenevert suite B, Houston,TX. 77003. The reason for the name is because Stargate has dual meanings for me. It was my favorite game when I was young, and because my original idea for my arcade was a past and present arcade, with both old and new games. thus, the time warp, or stargate.
It’s not a very big place but I have to keep it small initially. It’s about 850 square ft.
I serve various canned sodas and drinks, bottled water, and chips and candy. I try to keep it pretty simple snack wise. I don’t have a tv screen setup as of yet, but i’d like to do that soon. that way people could watch tv or whatever various tourney videos I decide to put on. the extra frills will all come in time hopefully (Editors note: Chris has a very large collection of tournament videos- a real history lesson for any of his customers)
The featured games are 2 CVS2’s, 2 MVC2’s, 3rd Strike, ST, TK4, 2 Puzzle Fighters, DDR 2nd/3rd mix combo, and 2 swap cabinets which I rotate various other games in and out of. Currently everything from A3, A2, A1, vampire savior, killer instinct 1, mortal kombat 2, marvel super heroes (japan version), gem fighter, 2nd impact, TTT, and any other boards that I may get a hold of later. and hopefully soon a neo geo cab with some oldies but goodies installed.
Seth: What do you feel is the major thing that players misunderstand about arcades/arcade operators? How has your perspective shifted since you became involved in the business instead of just playing?
Wong: That’s a good question. The biggest thing I see that players misunderstand is the fact that arcades are a business. What I mean is that there are costs that relate to everything. It’s not always as simple as it seems. Players sometimes think that things are just as simple as “if you want it, get it. or just do it.” It’s rarely as simple as that though.
Another misconception is the amount of revenue that players seem to think games generate. Because of my background and from my own research i’ve known that each video game has a limited amount of revenue it can generate. Players sometimes inflate the numbers far beyond what the real reality is. For instance: take CVS2. Let’s say it’s .25 cents per game. How much does it make per day? Well, many people see the game for a few hours while it is busy, so they assume it’s played constantly from open to close. They don’t realize that the game may sit for hours and hours not being played at all.
Also, people don’t really look at the numbers closely enough to see the real picture. They may think a game makes $30-$40 per hour or something, when that’s a physical impossibility. If an average cvs2 match takes 4 minutes, then that’s around 15 matches that can be played in an hour. 15 quarters is $3.75, so if it’s .50 cents per game that’s $7.50 per hour. See what I mean? of course these numbers can be slightly higher but I just wanted to show the point. and of course some games can make more than others, but you get my drift.
Anyway, the point that i’m trying to make is that because of this misconception of revenue, many players may believe that the decision process is much easier than it really is. This is based on the small privately owned arcade concept of course. large arcades with mall traffic have a much different profit margin.
Yes, I definitely think that my perspective has changed a great deal. it’s one thing to analyze and do projections, but it’s another thing to be going through it. Also, something that’s been really strange for me is being “the owner”. I can’t describe how awkward it’s been to have all of these players, who are my friends, spending money in my place. Whenever they put quarters into the machines, or when they buy snacks from me, or when they ask me for change it’s a very weird feeling. especially when so many of us have been having home get togethers for so long. It just feels strange to be accepting their money, but it’s part of the business and i’m slowly getting used to it.
Seth: What are some of your favorite games? Why?
Wong: ST- because it’s ST. need I say more?
A2- for me, it was just a more fun game than the other alpha games.
2nd impact and 3rd strike- I just really like the 3 series. I feel that they really changed the street fighter engine with that series, even though it does have some flaws.
HF- it was just a good, fun street fighter game. and it was during SF’s prime years.
CVS2- seems like a pretty damn good game right now. for me, it’s the most interesting and fun SF game that’s come out in a long time.
Of course, I do like home console gaming too. I’m a baseball and golf game fan. I like some of the new stuff too, like metal gear, rogue leader, etc.
Sorry, i’m not into the tekken series or versus series. I guess i’m just too much of an “old schooler”.
Seth: What do you think distinguishes your arcade from most? What would you like to see it become, and what are your plans for getting it there?
Wong: Well, in all honesty, I believe it’s my love for the game. video games are a part of my life and I enjoy being around them. that distinguishes my attitude and intention from other arcades. I’m a player, and I consider this a players arcade. the single most important thing i’m concerned with is “perfect controls”. I want this place to have the ultimate in game controls, and I ensure that they are always in perfect working order. Always. When something goes wrong, I address it immediately. As a player I know that nothing is more important than working controls, nothing. A pro tennis player cannot play a match with a raquet that has broken strings. Same goes for SF players. We need working sticks and buttons, and i’m here to make sure we’ve got them. As far as i’m concerned, I think that for fighting games there is nothing more important for an arcade than working controls. Size of arcade, fanciness, ammenities, etc., etc… those are all just extras. As a fighter, I know that i’ll play in a tent if their controls are better than an arcade.
Large companies and major arcades don’t care about the business or the gamers. They are only interested in revenue and profit. They don’t care about anything but the numbers. I want the players to be happy and love this place. I put my heart and soul into it and my life is affected by it’s success or lack of success.
Seth: This is an excellent point- the sorry conditions of many arcades are sadly predictable when you consider the fact that a lot of arcades are corporately owned, hiring minimum wage employees for whom game maintenance is just “extra work”. Even supposing their negligence got them fired (can you even imagine a mall-based arcade worker being fired for that?!), their next job is as close as the nearest McDonalds… theyre just not making enough to care if they dont already have the love. In Japan, of course, though I doubt their employees are making much more (relatively), the employees are all technically proficient, and will swap out buttons or even sticks on request. They seem constantly in motion, even polishing machines when theyve got nothing better to do! Those guys have the love. Something akin to record store geeks over here- if youre working there, youre there because you love it.
Wong: As for what i’d like to see the stargate become and my plans… well, to be perfectly honest I haven’t really had the time to give that too much thought. I’ve been so preoccupied with just making sure it does well enough to make ends meet that I haven’t looked towards the future too much. I know that’s a very valid question but I can only give a very general answer at this time. My hopes all of this time have just been that the arcade would be able to survive, so I almost feel guilty about hoping for more. What i’d like is for the place to do well enough that I can eventually move into a larger facility, Put in more games and start catering to a broader market. Sort of become like other large arcades but with my own mentality and integrity. I’d like to hire my closest friends and comrades to work with me, and then if that does well enough, branch out to other locations. that sounds like another pipedream to me though.
As for the plans on getting to that point? well, i’m taking it one step at a time.