Fading lights: the rise and fall of video game arcades

Is the arcade parlour dead or just pining for the fjords?

The Playtime chain once boasted 12 sites in Australia. It is now down to two, after selling a pair of its Sydney branches to AMF Bowling. Similarly, Timezone, which used to be everywhere you turned, has dramatically dropped in numbers.

A man who can vouch for the decline of video game arcades is Wisconsin Concordia University communications professor, Dr Mark J. Wolf. He has written numerous books on the video games industry as well as its cultural impact.

“Arcades continued, but redemptive games that give players tickets to win prizes displaced arcade video games somewhat in the 1990s... Arcades are still looking for the special unique experience home systems cannot do,” Wolf said. “But home systems are evolving very quickly with peripherals, controllers, cameras and online capabilities so it’s hard to see how arcades will be able to stay ahead of them.

“If they don’t find out how, they may lose their role or have it reduced even further.”

Dr Wolf tipped changing gaming technology and player expectations as the main reasons for the decline of the arcade and the growth of home gaming.

“There’s always been an economic fact hampering arcade games: keep the players turning over,” he said. “You can have short bursts of intense action but nothing as contemplative and immersive as you have at home, where it is better for games to last longer, since they are already paid for.”

Juan Uribe owns and runs Timezone in Surfer’s Paradise, one of the most successful outlets of the arcade gaming franchise. The place grew from a 500 square-feet shop to a goliath 5000 square-feet facility containing a laser skirmish maze, a putt putt golf course and a bumper car rink.

It spurns the term ‘arcade parlour’, preferring to be called a ‘family entertainment centre’.

While Uribe recognises home gaming as conducive to the decline of arcades, he is unperturbed by it. “We don’t consider [home gaming] as an enemy for the industry,” Uribe said. “It’s a little bit like when videos were introduced and cinemas feared it would go out of business. The human race needs interaction; which is what we offer.”

Wolf is pessimistic, however. “The social aspect of the arcade can be found online though it is not quite the same, of course,” he said. “But are younger players even looking for this kind of social setting?”

Turning over a new leaf

Gone are the days where cabinet games like King of Fighters, Metal Slug and Raiden lined arcades; cartridge games are so yesterday.

Arcades are keen for reinvention, which means distancing themselves from the types of games that put them on the map.

“For us, traditional video games have been confined to just a few,” Uribe said. “We have over 450 games and only one is what you will call a traditional game [Tekken 6].”

This directly relates to arcades’ active shift from attracting predominantly younger, male gaming enthusiasts to casual family groups. With most gamers more interested in obsessing over the latest console release or PC game, amusement machines have exploded in numbers. Skill testers, basketball hoop-shooting games and a variety of ticket redemption machines all require less practice than the average video game and they now dominate arcade parlours.

Instead of a bunch of lanky teenage guys flanking a King of Fighters 97 cabinet grinding away at the joysticks , you now have a nuclear family guffawing around a Deal or No Deal machine.

Oh, how times have changed.

Location, location, location

An arcade parlour’s survival also seems to hinge on being complementary to other entertainment facilities. “The future for arcades is really next to cinemas and shopping centres; a bit more upmarket than those older places and catering to families,” Hankin said. “That is where it is going and has been going on for a few years now.”

Standalone arcade parlors outside the confines of a shopping complex or cinema are indeed rare. Some of them have been reduced to a cordoned-off corner without as much as an attendant.

Even with the change of direction, arcades are not drawing the crowds they used to.

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Spandas Lui

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