Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Is it "Game Over" for arcades?

This post was originally posted on chron.com


Today, I turned 36 - yay - and each year, I reflect on what I have learned, what mistakes I made, what I miss and what I have to look forward to. As a gamer, I think about my Commodore 64 - my Commodore Vic-20 and the computer mags that had games I could code myself. I remember watching a friendgirl play the devil out of "Super Mario Bros." And then, I think about the video games "Rastan," "Yie Ar Kung Fu" and "Contra" at arcades and said "One day, I'll own these games."

Fast-forward 20-some years later. All of the games mentioned - "Yie Ar Kung Fu," "Contra" and "Rastan" are either on Xbox LIVE, PSN or soon to be - and are small enough to fit on an SD card. The Commodore Vic-20 and C-64 are ancient - my iPod Touch has more memory than a couple hundred of those machines. And sadly, arcades are going the way of the dodo.

As a child of the '80s, I remember frequenting the arcade at Edgewater Mall in Biloxi, Miss. Any mall in any town was my *home,* as long as it had an arcade. I even remember a small arcade area in a laundromat/tire shop in my old neighborhood in North Gulfport. The store owner, Mr. Lee, had two games - "Donkey Kong" and "Galaga." I remember my friends would go there with two quarters and play for hours. It was an awesome experience. I'd get some Jungle Juice red drink and camp out with my other friends until it was our turn. I had a blast just watching them.

Now, with the evolution of the gaming console, arcades are having a tougher time attracting gamers away from LIVE, PSN and HD graphics. I went to the Memorial City Mall arcade and gawked at the prices. $1 to play a game? Inflation is one thing - highway robbery is another. And the games I did want to play were smelly, soiled or both. My son ran around - he didn't have to worry about hitting anyone because we were the only customers in the arcade.

I can think of several experiences at arcades that I had back in the day that my son will never experience. Maybe it is "Game Over" for arcades. But wait - just like an extra continue that just came out of nowhere, arcades don't have to go quietly into the night.

Here are 4 suggestions for arcades to adopt for their survival.

1. Don't shun home consoles - embrace them.
Buying an arcade game for your home is cool but expensive. Unless you will jizz in your pants over a game, you will likely grow tired of it. Consoles offer HD graphics in the comfort of your home. Arcades should sell of their unprofitable machines - and use those funds to turn into a gaming center - set up "Guitar Hero" and "Rock Band" areas - and give gamers 2 songs to perform. Have a worker operate the area - so folks that bomb will get booted. Or ask the game makers to make arcade versions of their hit games. Also, feature tournaments and offer parties too. Allow gamers to rent the areas - for LAN parties and the like - to generate revenue while you sit back and collect the cash. Keep some of your arcade machines - let the console gamers see and remember how cool arcades are.

2. The social experience. I can fondly remember going to Keesler AFB's Youth Center and trying to holler at the girls. The youth center was a place where kids of all ages could come and hang out. There was no alcohol, no profanity and no fighting. You could, however, mingle with the opposite sex, your friends from school and just kick it. It was free - I am sure Air Force tax dollars paid for it - and the food was low cost. The center offered several activities for military brats and their friends, and had a way cool arcade. For me, the arcade may have been the draw, but the social aspect is what kept me there. Facebook, Myspace and texting are cool to connect with people, but often keep us in our own little worlds. Arcades don't offer the social aspect anymore. When the school bell rings, children get on their cellphones and text away about the events of the day, what they are doing this weekend, what games they will be rockin' (ok, terrible, terrible plug). But back in the old times, when a cellphone was used by the uber wealthy and the military, kids used to hang out and socialize. Look at any teen movie from the 1980s and an arcade was featured. "Wargames," "The Last Starfighter," "Karate Kid" all had arcades in them.

Arcades, you have to make teens want to hang out there. Clean up the places - act like you care and want them there. Be the place where their parents call when they didn't come home. Be their refuge - their escape - when their days aren't fun.

3. Lower the prices. Yeah, some teens are working, but it makes no sense to charge outrageous prices to play a game. If you are charging $2 to play a game that costs $50 with unlimited plays at home, there's a problem. I know the economy is tough, but think about it. We are all hurting. At least give teens (and adults) a chance to have a couple minutes of fun without charging them an arm and a leg. Yes, you may lose some money, but in the end, you'll likely gain more customers and have more respect.

Last, but not least ... 4. Offer gamers an experience they can't get at home. I point to an old establishment - movie theaters. Yes, the movies. Even with illegal downloads and the like, movies are still thriving. What do movie theaters offer that folks can't get from illegal downloads or renting from Blockbuster and Netflix? The experience. I love the endless buckets of salty popcorn, the toasty hot dogs, the stiff soda pops, the huge Junior Mint boxes - the comfortable seats - the hella huge screen. There's more than enough reasons for folks to leave the comfort of their homes to battle crowds, pay $10 a ticket to see a flick. And we won't talk about how expensive getting your eat on can be.

However, what does an arcade offer that you can't get at home? If you have the cash, you can buy a nice 1080P plasma or LCD, your PS3, 360 with HDMI or an HD projector and get an experience that even most arcades can't offer. So, what should arcades do? Go all out - offer food - an experience - gamers can't get at home. Offer free wifi - while they are waiting to play your games, they can text or surf the Web. Make it a fun place to hang - and memories that will last a lifetime.

There are several other areas that I can think of, but the most important message is - listen to gamers. Ask them what they want. If you can make it happen, do it.

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