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Q&A: Betson's Cravens On The Future Of U.S. Arcades

What's the U.S. arcade game biz like today? According to distributor Betson's senior marketing manager Ryan Cravens, it's not so shabby, thanks to companies like Robotron creator Eugene Jarvis' Raw Thrills - we also got insight on a new networked a

Brandon Sheffield, Contributor

April 23, 2007

7 Min Read

Betson is one of the largest distributors of arcade games in the U.S., as the distribution arm of H. Betti Industries, and is currently distributing games from Eugene Jarvis’ arcade developer Raw Thrills, among others. After the recent releases of The Fast and the Furious: Drift and Big Buck Hunter Pro, we spoke with Betson senior marketing manager Ryan Cravens about the current state of the arcade industry, its future, and the legacy of his father Bill Cravens, who passed away on March 29. How big is the arcade game business now in terms of dollars? Ryan Cravens: The AAMA estimates that our industry is about 6 billion. That includes coin drop, as well as the selling of the actual games. How has the shape of the industry changed over the last ten years? How many distributors and developers working in the industry now, versus back then? RC: In the last ten years, there has been a lot of consolidation. There are fewer distributors, but the companies that are currently in business have much bigger footprints. There are also fewer developers as of now, but more companies are popping up with designers that are new to the industry, or veterans coming back into the fray. People are seeing what Eugene Jarvis and George Petro (both Midway veterans) have done with Raw Thrills and Play Mechanix. These companies are doing very well and they do not need to have 20 million dollar budgets and studios spread across the globe to achieve success. What do you think it would take for arcades to make a resurgence to where they were in the 90s? RC: The arcade is making a resurgence (now), and the number of games that are currently being sold is getting back to those (1990s) levels. However, these games are not going to the neighborhood arcades anymore. The stand-alone arcades are going away, and they’re being replaced by large FECs (Family Entertainment Centers like Incredible Pizza), bowling centers (like Brunswick Zone, much more than just bowling lanes), movie theaters, indoor water parks and other multi-use entertainment centers for families. The arcades that are inside these beasts are often the size of the neighborhood arcades that we used to frequent as youngsters. For this current trend of getting more arcade games into the wild, we are going to have to continue to bring good product to the masses. Raw Thrills very quickly became a big name in the American arcade business. How did this come to pass, and how did Betson manage to get the games in so many locations, when arcades seem wary of new product? RC: Raw is made up of some very smart people, including Eugene Jarvis, and they figured out that people like to play good games. All of the games that Raw Thrills has come out with (Target: Terror Gold, The Fast and the Furious, The Fast and the Furious: Super Bikes, Big Buck Hunter Pro, and The Fast and the Furious: Drift) are all very simple games that anyone can pick up and play - call it the Wii effect. Once you become proficient at the games, you soon learn that they have many layers, and can become as challenging as you make them. Take The Fast and the Furious: Drift. It’s a straight-ahead racer that has some similarities to the Cruis’n series at first glance. As you play it a few more times, you discover that there are many shortcuts and secrets as well as the different goals like Drift Chains, Air Time, Damage Bonus. To the casual gamer, they will be happy as pie to cross the finish line, but for gamers like myself, I will not be happy until I get the Drift Chain up to 100 on each course. In what areas of the U.S. are arcade games the most popular? Are they generally placed in arcades, or other establishments? RC: This is going to sound like a smart-ass answer, but you find the concentration of games in heavily populated areas. Chicago is a hub more than most places because it is the center of the arcade industry. Most companies are based out of here (Raw Thrills, Stern Pinball, Sega, Namco and White Rabbit), so most bars have games and you do see a lot of big centers like I mentioned above in the greater Chicago-land area. Why do you think we've seen a drop-off of game-based amusement machines in pizza parlors and the like? RC: This trend has certainly turned around, but the reason why you saw the dip is because our industry was not making too many great titles. The boom in the 90’s could be attributed to the rise of the fighting games, but the market became flooded with them. Golden Tee Golf 3D came around and inserted itself as the king of the bars after that, but that series has run its course. The Raw Thrills games are not only good, but they came out at a time when there weren’t too many great titles to compete with. What percentage of your sales now are games, versus UFO and redemption machines, or pinball. RC: We sell about 70% video games to 30% everything else. Jukeboxes, redemption games and pinball. Can you share a bit about your father's legacy, and how his name got into the Street Fighter arcade game? RC: My father’s story is a very long one. He got into the industry selling Wurlitzer Jukeboxes and he never got out. He was very passionate about the people that make up our business, and was determined to make sure that arcade games would not go away. Since he Joined in the 60s, he saw many booms and busts, and he was always at the right time during the booms. He helped sell one of the first Pong machines and helped Nolan Bushnell find some key people to help out with Chuck E. Cheese. He spent a few years with Nintendo before they went pure consumer and that landed him at Capcom. He introduced Street Fighter, Bionic Comando, Ghosts and Goblins, Final Fight, and many others. Not many folks know this, but Final Fight was supposed to be Street Fighter II in the US. He made them change the name, and one of his last decisions at Capcom was to release (the real) Street Fighter II for the U.S. market. He would go back to Osaka (Capcom headquarters) often, and the designers (especially Street Fighter director Yoshiki Okamoto) really enjoyed his sense of humor. To honor him, they put his image and name in the background of the UK Stage (aka the Birdie stage) of Street Fighter. Probably the most important thing he did was bring Golden Tee 3D to market. This was a time in our industry where games were really falling off. Incredible Technologies was in bad financial shape and they needed someone to sell the game for them and everyone turned them down - everyone. My father had been involved in a lawsuit against IT a couple of years before and they approached him as a last resort. When everyone else said “A golf game? No thanks,” my father turned to my brother and said, “We are going to sell three thousand of these!” My brother and everyone else said he was nuts. He was, they sold about 10,000 or so in the first year. How did you and your brother get into the industry? RC: We had no choice, we were born in to it. My brother operated games at a young age and my first job was at my family arcade at age 13. When you spend your childhood surrounded by video games, you will not want to do anything else. My dad shared his love of the arcade business with us, and it stuck. What do you expect the arcade industry will look within the next five years? RC: All of the games will come in freeze dried packages, and all of the games will allow you to hover! Actually, you will see more connectivity and the use of newer technology which will shrink the arcade cabinets as we know them. Many people forget that arcade games have been online for nearly a decade, and they are the only games that have offered consistent money tournaments. Raw Thrills/Play Mechanix is working on an online platform that will debut at the end of the summer, and it will be revolutionary for the arcade industry.

About the Author(s)

Brandon Sheffield


Brandon Sheffield is creative director of Necrosoft Games, former editor of Game Developer magazine and gamasutra.com, and advisor for GDC, DICE, and other conferences. He frequently participates in game charity bundles and events.

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