Insert Coin: The Slow Revival

Last week, we discussed how arcades fell by the wayside in North America. In summary: cheap family entertainment “all-in-one” mega-churches dominated and conquered the midwest arcade family fun center scene. The ever-increasing size of cabinets made shipping costs prohibitive. And the constant drive for new tech over compelling gameplay wrecked the industry over the rest of the continent. As a result, arcades fell out of favor with business owners and became labeled as another retro culture dominated by the rise of cheap portable home entertainment.

In reality, the kind of casual pick-up-and-play titles that once dominated coin-op culture simply transported to the mobile industry. The games are the same, but the delivery method is different. While the arcade industry continued to focus on new, ever-more expensive amusement rides and retro reissues, the iOS and Android markets became saturated with all sorts of modern concepts that would have thrived in the arcade environment a decade ago. This move towards cheap mobile casual gaming should have been the wake-up call for the arcade industry. The business didn’t need to compete with home console graphics to be relevant — it just needed to provide addictive and approachable fun. There is no reason in the world why Pac-Man Championship Edition shouldn’t have been an arcade release, as well as dozens of other Xbox Live, Steam, iOS, and Wii releases from over the years. The simple belief is that arcades are just dead in the West and nobody wants to take the initiative to restart the industry.

Greed has also been a factor. Event today, there are plenty of traditional arcade titles that could thrive in the American marketplace, but you’ll never see them break into the mainstream due to ignorant business decisions. You can find the occasional Super Street Fighter IV cabinet in middle America, but 80% of them are pirate copies running on a bootleg Windows XP machine through a home-built Viewlex replica cabinet. Why so? Probably because Capcom wants $12,000 for a basic 1-player model, and won’t offer a dual control panel version. You want a two player model? You buy two cabs and link them together, Japanese style. American arcades (the few that are left, anyway) cannot afford this, so they pirate. It’s lost revenue due to simple publisher greed, pure and simple. Yet Capcom will blame the operators for not jumping at their overpriced product that is technically illegal to import without an American localization but gets through because nobody really cares about Japanese arcade game imports anymore since the business is supposedly so dead over here. Even the most basic single player racing cabs cost upwards of $8,000 now, which is bonkers when most run on hardware not much more powerful that the basic console platforms we’re playing on today.

It’s mistakenly believed that kids have no use for arcades or even understand their appeal in today’s world, but nothing could be further from the truth. When kids see arcade machines in the wild, there’s a certain kind of amazement in their eyes. Gaming has become so personalized and segmented with user accounts, mobile phones, and various individualized interfaces that seeing an arcade machine in the wild is like seeing a public water fountain… minus the germs. (Usually — Pete) There’s a communal aspect to it that supercedes the generational gap and draws people in. You don’t need it, but you want it. But more importantly, seeing an arcade machine in the wild is just… cool.

When Disney was reading over Rich Moore’s pitch for what became the movie Wreck-It Ralph, the studio heads originally believed that children wouldn’t understand the concept of arcades, being from a bygone era. Not only did children “get it,” they also longed for it. There’s a difference between playing Sonic All-Stars Racing at home, and playing it in an arcade. Suddenly this game you’re so familiar with becomes an event with onlookers and people cheering for you or trolling each other. It’s a dynamic, lively atmosphere that Xbox Live cannot replicate, and even today’s generation of players that didn’t grow up with arcades understand that. Wreck-It Ralph helped convey that to a young generation of kids totally removed from the culture, and managed to set the all-time opening weekend record for a Walt Disney Animation Studios film in spite of stiff weekend competition and Hurricane Sandy knocking out electricity for a good chunk of the east coast’s moviegoing population.

Formats come and go, but entire forms of entertainment only die due to mismanagement. When old media fail, people always blame the new forms of entertainment that have been absorbed into the cultural fold, but it’s usually not the new media that caused the downfall — rather, the poor management that brought down the previous medium. Recorded music didn’t kill live entertainment. Home video didn’t kill movie theaters. People are social creatures by nature and enjoy the communal sharing of an opening night premiere, or singing their favorite song in unison with a crowd of people who know the lyrics by heart. By that logic, social gaming shouldn’t be limited to an imaginary virtual space populated by avatars and Miis. People enjoy playing together. All the arcade industry needs to do is reach out with compelling, simple, addictive games accompanied by cheap but capable hardware and find all those young players longing to experience that magical arcade environment they saw laid out before them in that charming little Disney film about the bad guy who decided he didn’t want to be bad anymore. Arcades are not dead… they’re just waiting to be reborn in a modern form.

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Insert Coin is Games Are Evil’s weekly exploration of arcade culture and classic arcade games, hosted by our own Lucas DeWoody. You can follow Lucas on Twitter here.

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