What Makes a Good Game Room


Although many industry experts have written about game room design before, they often instruct from a much different perspective than my own. They explain the processes of guiding guest traffic, spacing out attractions, and choosing the right equipment with the sole aim of maximizing profits. While earnings are obviously a pivotal consideration in constructing any business, I find that this approach largely ignores what should be the primary focus: the games. And gaming is, first and foremost about fun. With that in mind, I’d like to discuss what makes a good game room from a player’s—or rather, a gamer’s—perspective.

Upfront, I must admit that I’ve never been a fan of ticket redemption or prize merchandisers. I go to arcades because I want to play games, not because I want to win stuff. However, I do fully recognize that redemption is insanely lucrative and, apparently, fairly popular. I understand its appeal to both operators and casual players. That being said, there’s nothing more disappointing to me than entering a game room with an overwhelming redemption majority. The standard 60-40 split is bad enough, but a 70-30 divide (or even more) is rather off-putting. When a game room’s library skews so heavily toward one type of game—in this case, redemption or merchandisers—it leaves very little variety for those of us who aren’t as enamored by these machines. In my eyes, a good game balances redemption and video evenly. And if it were to skew more towards one side, video would be the more appealing game type.

Though many of the more earnings-conscious might find “overwhelming redemption/merchandisers” to be a silly concept, it can be devastating for video game fans. Nowhere was this phenomenon more apparent to me than during my trip to Gatlinburg, Tennessee earlier this year. Being the popular tourist destination it is, Gatlinburg is filled to the brim with arcades. Dedicated venues were plentiful, and the street games were nearly countless. While the dedicated arcades were mostly the usual 60-40/70-30 setups, the street locations were absolutely dreadful. Hoping to stumble upon more awesome video games, I found nothing but claw machines. In the hotel. At go-karting venues. At restaurants. Crane after crane after crane. I’m sure these games are profitable, but they definitely don’t make for a balanced game room.

Of course, a good game room is not just about balancing video and redemption. For maximum fun, it’s good to see a wide variety of genres within those two larger categories. While it isn’t a dealbreaker, per se, I’m not as excited when I step in to game rooms with only the most popular games. I can only play Terminator Salvation and Jurassic Park Arcade so many times. Eventually, I’m going to seek other experiences, but I’m limited in my ability to do so when a room is stocked with nothing but rail shooters and racing games. There are so many fascinating titles available on the market right now, and all deserve a space in game roos everywhere. I believe that a good venue represents all facets of arcade gaming, from Raw Thrills, Sega, and Namco to every indie under the sun. A good game room isn’t just about having video games; it’s about having a fun and varied selection, too.

Lack of video game variety is actually quite a bit more prevalent than I’d like. It’s not uncommon to enter a new game room and see...well, old games. At my local Walmart, there’s a small space operated by Namco USA that perfectly exemplifies the state of many street venues. There are only two video games: The Fast and the Furious and The Fast and the Furious: Super Bikes. These two games are both over a decade old and can be found everywhere. Although the F&F series is one of my all-time favorites, it gets tiresome when it’s all I see. And with so many cost-effective indie games now on the market, it’s rather odd that we don’t see more variety in these spaces.

I encountered a similar issue recently with the reopening of a local bowling alley. The new owners were aiming to transform the venue into more of a “bowling entertainment center,” removing some of lanes and filling the remaining space with bumper cars, putt-putt golf, and a brand-new game room. For months, I had been anticipating a new arcade venue—one so much better than those at Walmart and the local laundromat. And after the reopening, it is considerably better in so many ways...but still more of the same. The vast majority of the games are ticket redemption pieces, but the four video titles (Terminator Salvation, Aliens Armageddon, Jurassic Park Arcade, and Cruis’n Blast) don’t feel very diverse. Three are rail shooters, one is a driver, and all are from the same developer. These are the kinds of regular earners you see in every modern arcade—games I’ve played over and over again. And although they’re still stellar games, it really hurts the appeal of a game room when there’s nothing unique to be found.

Video certainly isn’t the only thing out there, though. Despite being one of the earliest coin-operated game formats, it seems that pinball is conspicuously absent from many game rooms. Granted, pinball appeals to a much different demographic than the redemption crowd, so it’s understandable that pinball fits better in barcades and “retrocades.” Still, even as more of a video guy myself, I love playing a good pin. And more than that, I recognize it as an important pillar of the arcade industry. People associate pinball with the arcade experience, and rightly so. Just as video shouldn’t be ignored for redemption, pinball shouldn’t be ignored for other mediums. Variety is a huge part of creating an enticing game room. The age-old silver ball table is just another fun piece of that puzzle. Even if it’s just a couple of popular Stern pins, I truly do believe that pinball is a necessary part of any good game room.

Of course, arcade games really are unique, and I think all the little novelties out there make that clear. Alongside primary facets like video games, pinball, and redemption, there will always be the physical, novelty experiences. These mainstays—such as air hockey, dome sports, foosball, basketball machines, and pool—are relatively small additions to any game room that make a big difference. Even bold, new concepts like Calinfer’s Table Pong and Bandai Namco’s Pac-Man Smash may quickly become staples of arcades. No matter how advanced video gaming may become, I’ll always have a soft spot for the simple stuff. That’s why I firmly believe that a good game room pads itself out with these easy-to-learn, timeless classics.

A good game room is a well-rounded one. While I’m not the voice of every player out there, I’d like to think I capture at least some of his or her ideas. When a game room skews too heavily toward redemption, there’s nothing of value for someone like myself to play. Even when there are video games, it’s nice to have a broad selection, rather than just the same, routine earners from the past 8 years. And as I’ve said, it’s nice to see at least a few pinball and novelty games, as well. Naturally, all of these suggestions are just that—suggestions. I have no earnings or operations experience to back my claims up, but I sure do know what’s fun. And sometimes, that’s just as important.

Anyway, I’m out. See ya ‘round, ya sweaty flippin’ nerds.

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