I want to talk about something slightly bigger than just winning at SF today, but something I suspect is of interest to all of us anyway- the status and future of arcades. I was inspired by the remarkably shoddy discussion of same that I had the misfortune to read on Gamespot. Whats most depressing is that this simplistic, lazy, and ultimately worthless piece was the product of a combined effort by the entire editorial staff of one of the popular sites in the gaming world. [editor’s note: Gamespot’s original story can be found at http://www.zdnet.com/gamespot/stories/features/0,12059,2686662,00.html] Is this really the best that can be done? Is the current state of thinking about arcades really this pathetic? No wonder theyre in trouble.
Thats what we agree on: arcades arent doing nearly as well as they once were. The further question is “why?”. Heres where the gamespot think-tank and I part ways. Their claim (re-iterated by essentially all of the authors) is that arcades “cant compete” because their games used to be technologically superior to home systems, but arent anymore. In a nutshell, theyre claiming that people arent willing to pay for what they can get “for free” at home (well ignore for the moment that the cost of a newish console + games is hardly “free”). A lot of arcade-goers have noticed the same thing, and have probably been satisfied by the same explanation. Should you be? My claim is: “no”.
In fact, I think this is a terrible answer. By “terrible” I dont mean simply wrong- instead I mean that its incomplete, lazy, and totally unilluminating. Its an answer that no one who actually cares about the question should be happy with. While its obvious that the development of consoles has affected the arcade industry, its hardly the whole story- or even particularly important. When you look at this from a business perspective (which is the whole point- the failure of arcades is a business phenomenon), ask yourself- does this line of reasoning (“why pay when I can get it at home for free?”), in itself, explain the failure of the business? Since neither Gamespot nor anyone else of whom Im aware offer anything else, they apparently think it does.
Blaming consoles because “they let you play the same thing for free!” goes wrong in at least two serious ways. First, it doesnt explain why the same thing doesnt seem to affect other industries of which EXACTLY the same thing is true. Take for instance the absolute explosion of coffee houses over the last few years. Gamespot reasoning: “Cant people get coffee at home? Virtually everyone has a coffee machine- and theyre cheap, too. Sure, the coffee houses have fancy machines with lots of chrome- but thats essentially just a gimmick, right? Its still coffee. And 3$ a cup?! Who do these coffee places think theyre kidding? No thanks- I think Ill just stay here and drink my perfectly-good coffee in the comfort of my own home!”. Seems “logical” enough, right? So coffee houses then too are doomed? And what about of our precious pubs and taverns! What will become of these community pillars if (as liquor transportation technology continues to advance) were someday able to transport beer into our own homes? Will they be reduced to nostalgic memories as well? The Gamespot editors (and anyone else who wants to single out consoles) owe us an explanation of why these (and MANY other) industries are somehow immune to the problem. The second way merely blaming consoles goes wrong is this: It doesnt explain the history of the arcade business. If youll recall, arcades were in an even more serious recession around 1991, only to be saved almost single-handedly by Street Fighter 2, and the successive wave of fighting games. Despite major advances, consoles of the time were a far cry from real arcade machines. So arcades seem subject to disaster quite apart from home systems co-opting their product. The lack of enthusiasm was coming from somewhere else.
Next: The complaint that the modern arcade is filled with “gimmicky” games with specialized cabinets/interfaces? ALL the old favorites the editorial staff reminisce so fondly about were “guilty” of EXACTLY the same thing theyre criticizing in modern games. From Defenders insane controls, to Trons annoying “dial+trigger stick” all the way up to the six buttons (! remember when that used to be a lot?) on Street Fighter 2 and beyond, arcade games have ALWAYS had specialized, frequently non-interchangable controls, which could often not be replicated at home (much less the games themselves). Suggesting that games today are degenerate merely for committing the same “crime” is- what?- you know the answer by now- thats right!- its dumb. Its thoughtless. Its lazy because it ignores history. Simply crying “gimmick!” as a criticism is ridiculous.
A non-ridiculous criticism would be that these “gimmicky” games are also BAD games. Unfortunately for the Gamespot team, however, many games that have specialized interfaces are still good (obviously SOME suck, but the percentage of gimmicky games that suck seems roughly similar to the percentage of more standard, you-could-play-this-on-a-pad-at-home games that suck (re: most, but not all)). Some are even better than good. Dance Dance Revolution, for instance, is a truly excellent game. Its fun, extremely interactive, challenging, addictive, competitive (or cooperative!), and even healthy, boasting a huge following despite a US “release” so limited that it scarcely deserves the name. Its also the #1 money-maker in most of the arcades that its made it to. These “gimmicky” games arent using the interface as a substitute for an interesting game- the interface is an integral part of the game itself. Ignoring this and dismissing them as “gimmicks” is just more laziness- maybe okay for Senator Lieberman and co., but unacceptable from gaming “professionals”.
A lot of explanations for the decline of arcades simply overlook the very obvious. Remember back to the heyday of arcades… Remember who ran them? Almost universally, they seemed to be run by remarkably unpleasant troll-like men, who (apart from their overwhelming greed) were distinguished primarily by the fact that they didnt like games, and they didnt like the people who played them. A lot of them came from the vending machines business, and most of them seemed like they wished theyd never left. Their new arcade “businesses” typically consisted of renting a dank hole someplace, often in shady neighborhoods, and then just cramming the games in there. Voila! Instant money. Some arcades noticed that they could continue to rake in the cash without even doing things like bothering to repair obviously broken machines (the vast majority of arcade employees are completely incapable of even the simplest of repairs). Better still, they could be openly hostile to their customers! Should it really be such a surprise to see a lot of “businesses” like this fail? Especially when you consider that as their clientele ages, they become less interested in being openly and needlessly abused? Can you imagine a restaurant with the same kind of service? Should we blame its failure on advances in refrigerators and improved home-cooking? Please. A lot of arcades fail because theyre badly run by non-geniuses out for a quick buck, who neither like nor remotely understand their product. Duh.
Contrast this with, for instance, Southern Hills Golf Lands operator, John Bailon. He runs a premier arcade with a steady business, home to some of the greatest players in the country. He does such shocking things as (gasp!) talking to the players. He finds out what games appeal to them, then gets those games. He performs routine maintenance on games, sometimes replacing parts even before theyve broken (standard operating procedure just about anywhere else, but unheard of in arcades). He also runs simple promotions like tournaments, that encourage people to come in a little more than they might otherwise. And hes a success. Maybe people in LA just dont know about consoles or something, right?
Arcades have also completely failed to promote themselves. In “the good ole days”, it seemed as though the games needed no advertisement. They were so irresistible that people would go anywhere to play them. This is no longer true, but arcades continue to act as if it were. Theres been essentially NO effort at promotion whatsoever, despite their diminishing profits. To this day, about the most advanced marketing technique you see from an arcade has been some kind of pathetic “special” deal on tokens. Even today, sickeningly enough, tournament organizers in some locations actually have to hunt for arcades even willing to host them. Operators are so resistant to the idea of change, much less doing ANY extra work, that theyre happy to pass on the chance to generate easily 10x their ordinary business. I mean, think about it- you see ads for EVERYTHING. But do you ever see ads for arcades? I havent. Ever. For that matter, do you see ads for arcade games? Nope. The only people who see those, are the arcade operators themselves. Apparently Capcom/Namco/Konami, etc, seem to think that once theyve sold the machines to the arcades, their job is done. In one (very short-sighted) sense, this is true. However, in a market as crowded as the one today, you cant simply expect a game to sell itself. The companies seem to realize this as far as console games are concerned (even where the “console game” is an EXACT PORT of the arcade version), yet nothing seems to be spent on their arcade counterparts. Apparently that job falls to the operator alone, and the operators simply arent doing it.
The early success of videogames seems to have bred some incredibly bad industry habits in arcade operators. The initial arcade craze was powered by games that people played compulsively, against the computer. For the most part, these tended to be relatively simple. It wasnt graphics that made these games popular- it was a more basic cleverness behind them. This, however, plays directly into the hands of consoles. If you want to obsess over some puzzle game, you dont need anyone else around to do it, and you also dont need a very sophisticated piece of hardware. This is part of what I suspect was behind the initial decline in arcade revenues, and should have been a lesson learned. Competition (in fighters like SF2) revived the industry, because you couldnt get that by yourself, or even at home (and you still cant, with at least a lot of popular titles- theres still no national network in place in the US, internet speeds simply arent good enough for a lot of games, and all of this still omits the face-to-face factor, which can be a lot of the fun). However, success again spawned a still larger number of games, and constant imitation of successful titles. Both of these things make sustained, focused competition that saved the arcades difficult to maintain. With everyone taking a small slice of the player base, theres less people to push things to the next level on any particular game. With a market as crowded as todays, operators can hope for that lucrative intense competition in two ways. They can wait until a game comes along thats so magical, so involving, that people everywhere cant stay away. Good luck on that front. The other way is with some damn promotion. Does anyone remember Capcoms “Saturday Night Slammasters”? Probably not. It was a strange wrestling game/fighter hybrid, featuring none of wrestlings actual celebrities, and while moderately interesting, was nothing to get very excited about. What was something to get excited about was the fact that Capcom sponsored a national tournament for the game, which brought players out in droves. Without question, the cost for the entire promotion was less than the cost of a few simple print ads, yet it drove the players in many areas into a complete frenzy over an otherwise unexceptional game (the success of the national Tekken Tag tournament was another more recent example). There seems to be absolutely no reason the same thing cant work again, and especially because no one else is doing it.
Gameworks and Co. have succeeded not simply because they have games you just cant play at home (“gimmick” games)- they succeed because they create an exciting environment where people can be together, and enjoy themselves. Quite apart from the games, just take a look at the place: its nice. Its comfortable. Its not dangerous. Theres a reasonably competent, courteous staff. People can be around each other, and the games. Whats most amazing about Gameworks is that it has succeeded even WITHOUT even being particularly concerned about catering to the historical core gaming demographic of teens and guys in their early 20s. Instead, they targeting instead older adults and their kids, creating a new market. They seem to have realized the very obvious fact that people like going out to interesting places, to be around (physically) other people, and to interact. Theyre willing to use almost anything as an excuse to do so. Games happen to be one such excuse- and apparently a good one (thats part of why fighting games were the smash they were- youre beating someone down directly- not judged by something as inert and impersonal as a score, but by outwitting the person themselves. Its not “which of us is better able to beat this simplistic CPU?”, but “which of us is able to beat the other person one on one, directly?”. Scoring doesnt matter- the game doesnt even record your margin of victory- flawless victory or down and dirty- a win was a win). The experience of the game itself is, for a lot of an arcades patrons, pretty secondary. Before I became a Street Fighter addict, I liked to go to the arcade just because it was the arcade. It was fun. Sure, all my favorites were there, but it was the magic of the place at large, and the people there that were a major draw. The editors tip-toe around this point, but cant seem to zero in on the obvious. Whether theyre remembering the old social aspect of arcades, or discussing the mystery of people still paying 10$ a ticket to see a movie when you could rent it on DVD, they still manage to brilliantly overlook the simple fact that people like going out to be near other people (its bizarre, but true- despite all the annoyances that come with seeing a movie in public, its still a lot of fun, and a more profitable as a business than ever). Arcades are an ideal venue to capitalize on this fact.
Even apart from Gameworks, you can see that people still crave the interaction of the arcade experience. Case in point? This site. In many ways, its a forum for top and aspiring players to know about each other, and to have their own love for the game affirmed by the fact that there are others who take it (and play it) seriously. Everyone has a good time, but we work at these games. It fosters an environment of excellence, and since tournaments are the furnace that shape top play, thats what you get. All of the discussion, etc, culminates in major tournaments. And there are uncountably many more, and better attended tournaments this year than there have ever been since the height of SF2s popularity. When you factor in the incredible level of information-sharing and understanding of the games (movies, tactics, technical and strategy articles, etc.) now as compared to then, its never been better. What prompted this renaissance? Some mind-bogglingly great new game? Hardly. With the exception of MVC2, recent Capcom fighters have been relatively minor advances at best, or even literal steps backwards (CVS). Not the stuff that generates activity like weve seen this year. Its the experience of real tournament interaction and play itself thats exciting. Its so exciting to the true fans and players that theyre willing to go cross-country- even across oceans- to play each other. Directly. In the spirit of that OG arcade competition. And they have a great time doing it (as evidenced by the fact that virtually everyone who starts going to tournaments, KEEPS going to tournaments- theyre infectiously great).
The real greatness of this experience is precisely what sets me off when I see limp-wristed stuff like the Gamespot article. Though they obviously dont understand them, these guys at least seem to remember the magic (they all wax nostalgic about the good ole days- some even claim to still like arcades!). However, theyre precisely the ones whove abandoned it (one admits he hasnt even been to an arcade in years). Theyve turned away from arcades, preferring to stare into their own navels (er, consoles). Not only does this encourage the (in many ways undeserved) image of videogames as anti-social, it also actually puts another nail in the coffin of the arcades they claim to love. Theyre doing this by helping to perpetuate a cycle: Given the amount of coverage they get in the American gaming press (the Japanese press does not have this problem, their arcades and tournaments get plenty of attention, and (curiously?)- their arcades have always been far more popular), it seems safe to assume that no ones at the arcades anymore- theyre all home on consoles, screwing around with secret codes, etc. Since no ones at the arcade, theres no reason to go, and so on. The truth is, however, that there ARE people at these arcades- some of the best players in the world, in fact. But instead of investigating, the gaming press sees fit to jam their pages with the coolest new code for an alternate costume color, and the latest rumors about Overhyped Letdown IX, which will be in development for the next three years (“Tips and Tricks” being the notable exception, and their excellent arcade tournament section seems to grow every month). Is that really what loving games is all about? Its easy to understand how these guys could overlook the action. It gets a little easier when you dont leave home. At home, you see, you can avoid getting that whipping your feeble skills deserve. You can continue to believe youre good merely because you can “beat” a game (on max difficulty even!), or do a bunch of combos, or even unlock some special modes! It makes me sad that people so intimately involved with games as these editors could be so confused, and willfully oblivious to what truly playing is all about.
So do I mean then that increased publicity is the solution to all of the woes facing todays arcades? Hardly. But it IS a way for the Gamespot editors to stop contributing to the problem theyre complaining about, and to encourage the revival they claim to want. Simple-mindedness like “umm… consoles are just too good!” doesnt help anything- the pretty game may draw them in, but the atmosphere- the competition- is what can keep them coming back, and thats not available only via gimmicks, or games for kids and lightweights. Stick to your s33krit l33t c0d3z, boys