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Nickel And Diming The Experience -- Or Why The Arcade Scene Died

In this piece I look at why in my opinion the arcade market died -- and I'm not being vindictive because I ran out of quarters.

Josh Bycer, Blogger

September 25, 2009

8 Min Read

Well I'm back from my Vegas vacation and while I didn't come home a millionaire I did managed to come back in the black. Oddly enough the entire time there I had The Twilight Zone episode "The Fever" running in the back of my mind.

While there is a great article waiting to be typed up about the gaming vs the games industry, this article is about something else I experienced while in Vegas. During my down time I stopped in a few arcades and it was like stepping into a museum.

As someone who spends their time analyzing game design, looking at the arcades made me realized why things went so wrong and what could have been done. For this article I'm going to take apart the arcade genre and then show how it could have been put back together.

Too much of the same: Walking around the arcades the majority of the games I saw fell into 2 categories: Shooter, and Fighter. This was odd to me as I remember the beatemup genre to be a popular genre back in the heyday. The variety is definitely lacking compared to the console market, how many shooter games can you play before you get bored?

When Dance Dance Revolution came out a few years ago, it provided a much needed shot of adrenaline to the market which I hoped would get things going again. There are so many more games that could fit into the arcade scene which I will be talking about later on in the article.

Seeing (too much) green: Next issue is a simple one, the money required to play in the arcade. Now this isn't an issue about the economy and such but one about the lack of a standard rate for playing games in the arcade. In my time I've seen arcade games go from 25 cents to even two dollars a play and I can say with complete certainty that the quality of the games was not a factor here.

During my trip I saw the same game in two different arcades; one charged 50 cents to play it the other $1. The reason why this was so detrimental to me was that it made me question even playing any arcade game in the place as I could probably find it cheaper somewhere else. If arcade games could have a set price similar to the console and PC market, this kind of problem wouldn't happen.

Appetizer game design: As I've no doubt mentioned in countless entries, gameplay and game design are my main focus when it comes to games and that is why I've always had a hard time spending my time in an arcade. The entire nature of the arcade business is to get your money and delivering excellent gameplay is unfortunately on the back of the creator's minds.

I've played arcade machines since the early 90s and I can say at least in the US, which in terms of gameplay complexity I've seen Snes titles that offered deeper gameplay then most arcade titles. There are a few exceptions to this rule here; many more in Japan but finding them is like finding a diamond in the rough.

The problem is the tightrope that designers had to cross when designing an arcade game, make it too complex and long and people will just stand and play the game until they finish and not make much money. If the game is too simple and too much about quarter crunching, then people will get tired fast and the money will stop rolling in. That kind of mentality is also a great stepping stone to my last problem with the arcade market.

Stuck in the 90s: Simply put, the mentality of what the arcade market should be never advanced past the 90s, compared to the console and pc markets that have changed drastically over the years. The arcade market was successful in the early 90s when consoles were still behind tech wise to the cabinets.

That all changed around the time of the Dreamcast and PS2 when consoles could either come close or match the arcades in terms of graphics. Game design has also improved over leaps and bounds since the 90s, proving that you don't need incredibly frustrating games to make a sale. In order to combat these changes the arcade publishers did... absolutely nothing, well except for raising the prices to play a game. It is a shame that the arcade market has declined (or maybe even died at this point) as I have a few ideas that could have helped it continue.

Do something new: Instead of releasing the same games over and over again the arcade market should have played towards its main strength, being able to create a game that financially or physically won't work in the home market. DDR was such a great hit at the time because the setup wasn't done before in the home market and being able to set up multiplayer with it in the arcade was a great idea.

Imagine if in the arcade there was a complete set of instruments for Rock Band and it cost 50 cents a person to play a set list of songs or create your own. Gun Games had a great start with this idea, like Sniper Scope and Time Crisis. Two years ago while in Vegas I played this excellent gun game from Sega that allowed the player to control their movement and do special moves as well.

That kind of thinking is what I wanted to see in arcades, let me play a game that I could not play at all from my house. To be honest I'm surprised that a game similar to Steel Battalion was never released in the arcade or at least in any that I could find.

One is the loneliest number: To put it simply if you are going to an arcade to play a game by yourself, you're doing it wrong. While I both understand and agree that there are plenty of great arcade games designed for single player, the arcade market should have been co-op or competitive heaven. Going back to my previous point the arcade scene should have been on the fore front of designing new interesting ways for gamers to play together, which leads me perfectly enough to my next point.

Going online: The fact that arcade games never took advantage of the online revolution was a shame as it could have given the arcade a whole new life. The basic use could be simply having an online high score list as well as the local giving players the #1 spot to shoot for. The more obvious reason of course would be providing online games to play, which I admit that in the last few years with the arcade's decline wouldn't be feasible at this point to do.

No matter how optimistic I may have sounded in this post, I do feel that arcades in their current form are finished, at least in the US. Consoles that now provide online multiplayer and LAN centers that offer gamers a place to go to play games leaves the arcade scene stuck in time. At this point it would take a phoenix rising from the ashes restructuring similar to what Nintendo managed to do with the NES to the home market all those years ago to revive the market in my opinion. It is in some sense a shame that the place that made the industry so popular a few decades ago has shriveled up.

I leave you with 2 of my finest moments in the arcade. First was about 14 or so years ago: I was at an arcade minding my own business when a man came up to me and told me that he had to leave but had so many tokens left. So he decided to give me all the tokens he had left, then another man who saw that came over and did the same thing. Then 1 or two others came over and I had easily over 60 tokens left, unfortunately my father saw this and didn't want hang there for me to finish took them away. Deep down I still hold some "gamer anger" towards him for doing that :)

Next moment came a few years later, Twin Galaxies that record high score world records came to my town to look for anyone to break a record or two. I managed to get the #1 high score on an arcade game (Captain America and The Avengers) and a pinball game (Star Trek I think, but I'm not sure). Last I checked I was still #1 in the world, but it has been a few years since I looked.


P.S I know that I didn't mention the fighting genre in a positive light. The reason is that I wanted to focus on the parts of the arcade industry that are still stuck in the arcade. The fighting genre has made a successful transition to the home market and is still thriving.

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Josh Bycer


For more than seven years, I have been researching and contributing to the field of game design. These contributions range from QA for professional game productions to writing articles for sites like Gamasutra and Quarter To Three. 

With my site Game-Wisdom our goal is to create a centralized source of critical thinking about the game industry for everyone from enthusiasts, game makers and casual fans; to examine the art and science of games. I also do video plays and analysis on my Youtube channel. I have interviewed over 500 members of the game industry around the world, and I'm a two-time author on game design with "20 Essential Games to Study" and "Game Design Deep Dive Platformers."

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