During my trip to Gatlinburg in April, I kept my eyes peeled for arcade games everywhere I went. After all, Gatlinburg is one of the most tourist-y cities in Tennessee; arcades were bound to be somewhere. (Including a prerelease version of Raw Thrills's Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.) And yes, there were, in fact, plenty of arcades. There were game rooms all over: in the hotel, at mini-golfing and go-karting facilities, in restaurants. It could have been a dream come true.
Here was the problem.
Though the vast majority of the large dedicated arcades were filled to the brim with the newest, most exciting video games, the smaller game rooms were decidedly lacking in compelling content. Instead of featuring, say, The Walking Dead and few Cruis’n Blast cabs, they showcased 20-second cash traps. Video was entirely absent from the Gatlinburg game rooms. Merchandisers were top dog in this domain.
But some of you may be asking: What are merchandisers? My heavily biased answer would be kiddie slot machines, but of course, it’s not quite like that. Merchandisers are prize-distributing “skill games”. They most commonly take the form of crane games (or claw machines, depending on your preferred phrasing), though there is the occasional novelty concept, like Key Master or Stacker. By most standards, they aren’t real games at all—hence why their widespread popularity in the arcade industry is so deeply troubling.
Many people much older and wiser and I have told me that this was not always the case. Years ago, street venues looked much different. Video arcade games were everywhere—stores, movie theaters, restaurants, dentists' offices, wherever. And though we may still have plenty of street venues now, the landscape looks a lot different. These areas that were once havens of video arcade goodness are now, like I said, home to nothing but cheap, worthless merchandisers.
This, children, is why merchandisers are ruining the arcade industry.
But how did this problem start?
To understand this dilemma, we have to examine what the current street venue looks like. Take, for instance, the numerous Namco “Gameplay” installations at Wal-Mart Supercenters across the country (and where I happen to get my arcade fill quite often). They’re small spaces—almost cozily so—and there aren’t too many games. As to be expected, most are merchandisers. Small, cheap machines. Just a few claw machines and maybe a Stacker. It’s nothing exciting, but it works perfectly for this type of venue.
The few actual video games you can find in Gameplay are similar in their physical size and cost-effectiveness. Games like The Fast and the Furious, F&F: Super Bikes, Arctic Thunder, Extreme Hunting 2, and the like. They all predate 2007, and they all fit incredibly well in a space as compact as Gameplay. And this is the standard for most street venues: an overwhelming claw machine majority and a few video games from the late-90’s and early-2000s.
So why don’t we see more new video games in street locations? Why are merchandisers so much more abundant?
I’m very conviced that this problem is an industry-wide one that has only come to light in recent years. As large FECs like Dave and Buster’s and Chuck-E-Cheese’s have become de facto arcade venues, game developers have had less reason to target small street venues. Big, expensive games have become the norm at the expense of the arcade scene as a whole.
If you don’t believe me, lets look back at a few video arcade games from the past decade or so. In 2007, The Fast and the Furious: DRIFT was perhaps the most popular racing game on the market. (It is, after all, a phenomenal game.) It was available as a very modest sit-down cabinet with a 27-inch monitor and as an upgrade kit for a whopping 10 preexisting games. Space-conscious and cost-effective, F&F: DRIFT was a game that worked perfectly in small street venues like movie theaters and pizza parlors.
Fast-forward, if you will, to December of 2016. Raw Thrills’s big racing game that year was Cruis’n Blast, a game that still dominates the market to this day. However, unlike F&F: DRIFT, you’re not likely to find Cruis’n Blast outside of FECs. Why, you ask? Because, quite simply, it’s not suitable for small locations. With a 42-inch monitor encased in a gigantic, cockpit-style cabinet, Cruis’n Blast is a huge game. And it’s not just huge—it’s also wildly expensive. While it may not have very much in-game content (only five courses, after all), Cruis’n Blast is $8,000. Those figures do not work for small-time street operators.
And the “bigger is better mantra” has infected rail shooters as well. Back in 2010, Terminator: Salvation was released in four different cabinets, each with unique monitor sizes, ranging from 32 inches to 100 inches. These variations allowed Terminator: Salvation to fit within both the spaces and budgets of street operators. Compare that to Raw Thrills’s newest shooting games: Jurassic Park Arcade and The Walking Dead. These are $12,000 games with 55-inch monitors housed in gargantuan environmental cabinets. Once again, they don’t align with the needs of the humble street operator. I've seen a Jurassic Park Arcade shoved into the corner a Cici's Pizza game room before. It doesn't fit; heck, it almost looks silly! And I'm sure that, in a small street venue, the earnings don't justify the ridiculous expense and floor space that one would have dedicate to a game of that magnitude.
Of course, there’s nothing inherently wrong with deluxe cabinets; they are certainly exciting. But when developers release all of their new games in deluxe cabinets with no standard alternatives, it’s no wonder merchandisers are taking over street venues. Merchandisers actually bother to fit the criteria these locations demand.
I hate claw machines as much as the next guy, but there’s no denying that they’re more attractive than an overblown, super-sized, $15,000 video game. After all, deluxe has become the new standard! Nearly every major developer, from SEGA to Namco to Raw Thrills, releases games like Cruis'n Blast and Jurassic Park. Games that have no hope of competing with a 31-inch, $3,000 crane game. Games that most kids will never see outside of Dave and Buster’s.
This, my friends, is why merchandisers are killing the arcade industry. To put it plainly, they’ve won the battle.
So what do we do?
The decline of video in street venues has more negative effects than first meets the eye. It’s already inherently problematic that operators stock restaurants, grocery stores, and the like with nothing but crane games. What makes this even worse is how merchandisers are ruining the arcade industry’s reputation, as well.
Ask any teenager about arcades, and they’ll dismiss them as a dead relic of video game history (despite all evidence that this claim is totally false). Ask any child about arcades, and the first thing they’ll picture is ticket redemption games and claw machines. And why wouldn’t they think this? They don’t see video arcade games at their local pizza parlor or shopping mall. No, they see instead a sickness. An influx of Key Master and Stacker machines. Of crane games and prize dispensers. Because merchandisers have become so prolific, the face of the arcade industry has been almost irreversibly damaged.
So it is certainly clear that something needs to be done to incentivize street operators to purchase new video arcade units for their locations. To do this, developers must make video desirable again. Merchandisers appeal to street operators for their compact presence and inexpensive pricing. Video, on the other hand, has increasingly targeted the growing FEC market, and has therefore grown to be ludricrously bloated. Like I said, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing; we just need to see more standard cabinets released.
Let’s use our earlier examples again. Cruis’n Blast, as we’ve already mentioned, has a very large footprint. While the cockpit design is exciting and immersive, it doesn’t work for small street venues where every square foot counts. To remedy this, Raw Thrills could release one or two standard cabinets. The first could also be a sit-down cabinet, but instead utilize a 32-inch monitor and ditch the swooping cockpit and tall marquee, thusly mirroring the Super Cars cabinet design.
To make Cruis’n Blast even more perfect for street locations, Raw Thrills could release it in a standard upright form. I’ve been calling for the return of upright drivers for a long time, but unfortunately, the industry has completely abandoned the design. If Raw Thrills could bring this back, it would significantly decrease the size and cost of their racing games.
And their rail shooters would be that much easier to release in standard cabinets. It’s nigh impossible to fit a game like The Walking Dead in, say, a dentist’s office, but were it released in a compact, upright form, it would flourish in street venues. Raw Thrills already has plenty of small cabinet designs from the Terminator: Salvation and Aliens: Armageddon days. Why not use them now? If developers tailor games to street venues, the industry will expand. Players will be exposed to brand-new video arcade games everywhere they go—not just in Dave and Buster’s.
Of course, Raw Thrills obviously isn’t the only company eschewing small cabinets for flashy, FEC-centric beasts. This is very much an industry-wide problem. (SEGA and Namco have to get their crud together, too!) However, they are a very good indicator of how the market has changed over the years. Raw Thrills used to make the most inexpensive games out there. Heck, they still kinda do! But things have changed. Their arcade cabinets are no longer suitable for small venues, and their game pricing is no longer suitable for a quick play at the grocery store. How can kids play video arcade games when they have to shell out a dollar per credit? How can kids play video games when there aren’t any in the first place?