The American arcade industry is dying.
Sure, there are still some signs of life in the huge, multifaceted family entertainment centers like Dave & Busters, and your local mini-golf course or bowling alley might have a few antiquated games, but the conventional wisdom today maintains that the real action in American gaming can be found inside the home.
But what if I told you there was an arcade revolution going on right under your nose? What if I told you manufacturers were putting out svelte, flatscreen machines with dozens of games, flashing LED exteriors and 3-D graphics? What if I told you the top manufacturer of these machines currently has 250,000 units on the market, rivaling the imprint of mega-selling classics like Pac-Man and Donkey Kong in their heyday, and brings in over a billion dollars a year?
What if I told you there was probably one in your neighborhood?
The arcade isn't dying. You just have to change your idea of what an arcade is.
To see what I mean, head down to your nearest bar. Sit down, order a drink and steal a glance over to the end of the bar. More than likely, there'll be some sort of countertop touch screen unit sitting there with a name like Megatouch or iTouch emblazoned on the side. You may even remember sticking a dollar in one a few years back, when you had nothing better to do.
But these machines have plenty of devoted players that stick in more than just an errant dollar. Some sit there alone, feeding dollar after dollar into the machine and tapping at a simple card game in an effort to beat the high score of a stranger from across the country. Some will gather around the unit on Friday night with three or four of their closest friends, yelling out the answers to trivia questions that would be simple if they weren't so drunk. Some hunch over the screen distractedly, killing time with a quick jigsaw puzzle as they chat with a co-worker and wash away the memory of the workday.
This is the future of the arcade; beer-soaked, primarily social and extremely casual.
How did it come to this? "The arcadegot too complicated," says Steve White, editor of coin-op industry magazine RePlay. "Designers were designing for themselves, for other designers, for top-end players. ... They forgot that the vast majority of game players have and always will be casual players."
White sees today's touchscreen games partly as an attempt to capture the essence that made arcade games popular in the first place. "Look back at the glory days of video," he says. "Pac-Man, Donkey Kong, Space Invaders ... they're all pretty simple games to play, but hard to master. I think you see that tradition living on in some of the software in the touchscreen games today."