Arcades: Why I Criticize What I Love the Most
Good evening, gamers.
Today’s discussion is a very serious one—but one that I should’ve started a long time ago. I owe the readers, players, and industry representatives who support Wilcox Arcade an explanation as to why I criticize arcades.
This is something I want to handle as delicately as possible—and most certainly without pointing any fingers—so I’m going to speak from my soul in the form of an extended analogy. In my eyes, there’s no better way to communicate why I criticize what I love the most.
Strap your seat belts, kiddos.
Picture the home gaming industry circa 2006. Sony and Microsoft were seemingly poised for massive success with their beefy next-gen offerings, but it was Nintendo that took ultimately the world by storm with a quaint little console called “Wii”.
The Wii was vastly different from Nintendo’s previous platforms in many ways, the primary distinguisher being its focus on the “casual” subset of players. Pack-in title Wii Sports contrasted strongly with the “core” releases Nintendo had churned for…well, every console prior.
While this casual-minded approach was undoubtedly lucrative—capturing the “iPhone market” before such a thing had even been identified—many of Nintendo’s dedicated fans from the Nintendo 64 and GameCube eras felt understandably gipped by the lack of support.
Sure, these players were thrown a bone or two in the form of Super Mario Galaxy, The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, and Metroid Prime 3, among others, but the bulk of Nintendo’s output at the time signaled that the company was heading in a different direction fueled by the likes of Wii Fit.
As such a fan, you’d hope that Nintendo would get back in gear within the next six years—only they didn’t. Come 2012, Nintendo’s next console was the Wii U, a harrowing commercial flop that failed to capitalize on the very segment that Nintendo themselves had pioneered.
During this period, many long-time Nintendo fans were angry—and why wouldn’t they be? Their favorite developer had forsaken their primary customers’ needs for an incredibly fickle market that soon flocked to smartphones and never came back. The fan outcry was especially loud during the Wii U’s brief tenure.
The Wii U was a wake-up called for Nintendo, who quickly pivoted back toward the group that had made them great with the Nintendo Switch. This bold console boasted the core library fans loved with none of the gimmicks of motion controls or tablets (unless you consider portability a gimmick).
Best of all, Nintendo proved they can still serve the casual market every now and then with “blue ocean” products like 1-2 Switch, Labo, and RingFit Adeventure, none of which have detracted from the artistic direction of heavy-hitting fare like Super Mario Odyssey and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of Wild.
At the end of the day, everyone gets what he or she wants, from the most casual of browsers to the most serious of diehards. I consider a diverse market a healthy one. Nintendo’s recent history serves as my proof. This is something I lived, y’all.
Contrast the Nintendo saga with that of arcades, an industry that’s followed a somewhat similar trajectory. Sometime during the 2000s—perhaps earlier, though I didn’t live it—most developers’ output became much more focused on the casual player in the form of ticket redemption and “softened” video games.
For a good number of arcade game developers and operators, this model has proven extremely profitable, so it’s no wonder many venues (particularly family entertainment centers) pin much of their business on redemption. Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, I’d heard the amusement industry was the strongest it had been in years.
Like with Nintendo, there are players who’ve been clamoring for arguably more engaging video game experiences for a long time. While we certainly see these core offerings once in a while—thanks in no small part to indies and the occasional oddball import—it seems like the “major” developers are currently on another path.
We’ve yet to have our “Nintendo Switch” moment, meaning that I don’t believe the coin-op market has been able to suitably cater to a wide breadth of audiences on a regular basis yet. Most of the games I see from prominent developers are casual. Most of the games I see advertised by distributors are casual. Most of the games I see at “modern” arcade venues are casual. There’s simply little variety.
Having options for casual players is never, ever a bad thing—and I mean it. However, I’d argue that focusing exclusively on this style of play is frustrating for longtime fans. As great as indie games are, as I said, they’re incredibly difficult to come by outside of major U.S. cities. We dedicated few still need the support of other developers (and operators) to more consistently access hardcore content.
Despite the fair amount of online feedback I'm seen from my "sector" of arcade gaming, I’m not sure if we’re necessarily being considered. From what I can tell, the industry is slowly but surely moving away from us completely. There are way too many variables at play here, so again, I’m not going to point fingers.
I know this article will probably tick some people off—people who don’t see arcades through the same lens I do—but I’ve said my piece as gracefully as I possibly can. My goal is simply to articulate what I and so many other coin-op congregants believe in our collective heart of hearts. We love the games, man.
Before I go, I’d like to touch on something semi-related to the topic at hand that I’ve yet to address. In response to concerns I’ve raised in the past, some industry representatives have made reference to my status as fledgling arcade operator with the following question: “Don’t you want to make money?”
My answer? No—at least not this way. I firmly believe that it’s possible for casual, hardcore, and “in-between” arcade experiences to exist alongside one other without sacrificing every shred of profitability. This, my friends, is not a zero-sum game.
If you’re a developer, engineer, or what have you, please don’t take this as a slight against all the hard hours you labor over the current crop of arcade games. I don’t want to hurt you; I just want to make my voice heard. This is the only way I know how to get anything done.
So yeah…that’s my spiel. I sometimes wonder if what I’m saying is beneficial or if I’m becoming the enemy of the arcade industry, but I have a feeling today’s message was genuinely necessary. I guess we’ll see in once the feedback rolls in, right?
Thanks for reading, ya sweaty nerds. Have a beautiful time.