Hi, I’m Dustin Wilcox. I’m a 16-year-old (about a month shy of 17), and arcades just so happen to be the very essence of my existence. Of course, if you’re reading this, that’s probably already very apparent. What kind of sweaty weeaboo teenager shows up every week to write some blog about arcades? What kind of teenager even cares about arcades in the first place?
Though my blog may be small, I believe I occupy a very special niche. I’m the “player’s perspective” in the world of arcades. I voice my opinion strongly, unlike more traditional arcades news outlets like Arcade Heroes, Arcade Belgium, the Stinger Report, and Replay Magazine. There are few voices like mine on the Internet. Few adults spend time talking about arcades with the kind of scrutiny I employ; even fewer teenagers join the conversation.
However, as you may have guessed by the lofty claim in my title, I believe adolescent youth are the key to reviving the arcade industry. If we ever want to hook players—if we ever want to rise up again—we might need to spend less time focusing on the sweaty children and spend more time focusing on the sweaty teenagers.
My argument begins with a rather weak rhetorical technique: an anecdote. As we’ve already established, I am in fact a teenager. I know how we darned kids operate. A lot of us are pretty dumb and have horrid tastes in entertainment. We’re kids, after all. We don’t know what we’re doing. But take a look at my habits and think about how they could be translated into huge success for the arcade industry.
Many of my weekends used to be spent practicing driving with my mom. We’ll ride around for a few hours, and usually, we’ll end the day with a few errands. Oftentimes, this includes buying groceries at the local Wal-Mart Supercenter. These grocery runs give me at least an hour where I’m left to my own devices—and my own disposable income. Now that I can drive on my own, I actually find myself going to the Wal-Mart even more frequently
My trips to the Wal-Mart have become increasingly methodical. As soon as I enter the store, I already know where to go. I stop at the restroom and immediately make my way to a section known as Gameplay.
I whip out a few dollars from my wallet and insert them into the change machine. It’s all-too familiar; it’s all to accomplish one goal. Those quarters are meant for one thing and one thing only: sweet, sweet arcade goodness.
I know not to waste a single credit on claw machines. Though priced cost-effectively, I always intend to get more than 20 seconds of "gameplay" out of my precious cash. I know that, to truly have fun, I have to play a real game. Enter The Fast and the Furious: Super Bikes.
For the few of you who may not have instantly recognized it, The Fast and the Furious: Super Bikes is a 2006 arcade motorcycle racing game developed by Raw Thrills. As the title implies, it’s a spin-off of the once-hugely popular FnF arcade racers. I know they’re good games; I grew up with them, after all. I had already ascertained that any game directed by Eugene Jarvis was worth playing before walking in.
Of course, there’s also an Extreme Hunting 2 cab at the front of the room. At $0.25 per credit for about 6 minutes of gameplay, it’s a heckuva lot cheaper than pumping $0.50 into Super Bikes each time I continue. The funny thing, though, is that I’d much rather play Super Bikes every time. Extreme Hunting 2 is a good game; don’t get me wrong. It’s just never hooked me the way Big Buck Hunter did—or the way Super Bikes hooks me every time I enter Wal-Mart.
So, as if I my path were predestined, I make my way over to the Super Bikes cabinet. I know how this works. I throw my right leg over the seat of the bike and pop in two quarters. The game is familiar—the game is inviting.
The clink of the quarters and the electronic register of the machine combine as I insert my credits. It’s time to press start and enter a world of Raw Thrills-certified fun. I press the start button and enter my PIN. I’ve spent countless hours and goodness knows how much money playing Super Bikes. I top the high-score tables for the total number of games I’ve played and the amount of money I’ve earned. I even have the fastest times on a few tracks. I dominate this machine. I have no qualms with spending more quarters, because I know the end results are worth my time. Zipping through every track, pulling off all the tricks, finding every shortcut, maxing out the upgrades on every bike. Super Bikes is content-rich and engaging enough to eat from this teenager’s wallet like a bowl of cereal. Now that I can drive, the Wal-Mart has become my best friend.
If you’re confused by the purpose of this anecdote, allow me to explain. Super Bikes is by no means a perfect game. The rubberbanding AI is obscene, and the graphics churned out by the internal Dell PC pale in comparison to what SEGA was doing with Lindbergh at the time. However, Super Bikes does a lot right. It’s so perfectly simple, yet there are hours of depth lying just beyond the surface. It’s the kind of game that a teenager like myself can learn on an intimate level. Teenagers like myself have this perfect balance of free time and disposable income that makes them a perfect target demographic for arcade games such as this.
While extreme simplicity has become the way of the arcade industry, I think we need to step back and reevaluate this stance. As I’ve said, teenagers are the ones with the time and money. Many of them have jobs and can drive themselves about. They have the freedom, the sheer lack of real responsibility, to spend hours learning arcade games. Yet despite this truth, most modern arcade games completely ignore the adolescent demographic.
It becomes a real problem when most teenagers dismiss arcade games as dumb ticket stuff. Though there are lots of good video arcade games out there, they are overshadowed by the flood of kiddie junk cluttering the industry. These types of games don’t appeal to adolescents. Teenagers spend time with their games and learn them inside and out. That’s why fighting games were so big back in the 90’s. That’s why Dance Dance Revolution and other rhythm games were so popular in the early-2000s. It’s the reason first-person shooters are so popular now. Teenaged gamers have the time and money to perfect gaming.
Of course, anecdotes are often never enough. So what recent arcade games have managed to capture the hearts of gamers like Super Bikes captured me? There is, at the very least, Killer Queen Arcade. The BumbleBear-developed title released in 2015 and has since spread to over 30 locations. It’s a 10-player team-based game that requires intense skill and strategy. You certainly don’t beat it by running around and slapping the buttons. And though it may not be penetrating the teenage demographic (yet), I believe Killer Queen Arcade still offers a similar lesson to be learned. Deep gameplay and community-building can sometimes have a greater payoff than quick, shallow experiences.
And as always, Japanese arcades provide us with more good examples to follow. Think of the arcade community in Japan: the dedication of the players, the depth of the games. It’s not uncommon for teenagers in Japan to spend hours and hours learning their favorite arcade games. The communities around rhythm games like DanceRush Stardom and battle arena games like Starwing Paradox are perfect examples of this. If we in the U.S. tried to emulate this, perhaps we could create a similar arcade culture. (Speaking of Japanese arcade culture, I highly recommend checking out the Arcade Tokyo blog. It provides a lot of creative, insightful, photo-based storytelling about Japanese arcades.)
To me, shallow arcade games sort of miss the mark. There’s nothing wrong with targeting kids—nothing at all. And I’ve plenty of fun with quick “thrill-ride” arcade games. (You can’t deny how fun they are.) But will these children remember their arcade gaming experience for years to come? Or will they hop onto the next flashy mobile gaming trend once they leave the Dave and Buster’s and forget the name of the game they just played? Teenagers connect with their games. If developers can craft deep, skill-based arcade gaming experiences for the modern era, I think we can strike a gold mine.
None of this is to say that we need to start churning out arcade first-person shooters (though that might not be a bad idea). Instead, it’s too suggest that we reconsider the way things are heading. Perhaps churning out kiddie ticket redemption games isn’t the way to ensure longevity for the arcade industry; perhaps deeper experiences will win the day. (Luckily for us, Exa-Arcadia may be at the forefront of deeper arcade gaming experiences later this year.)
But hey, I’m just one teenager—and most of my peers don’t care a lick about arcade games. However, if can shift the way we develop content for the arcade industry and modify the way we market it, I think success is very possible.
Keep in mind that, though I am one, there are lots of other people like me in the world. Kids with driver’s licenses, too much free time, and $5.00 in their pockets. Nailing our demographic would be like hitting a home run.
Thanks for reading, kiddos. As always, you know where you can find the player’s perspective on the arcade industry. Keep it real.
Wait, what am I saying? Teenagers are finicky people. Don’t bother targeting us at all.