Recently, actually for quite some time now, arcade culture as we once knew it has been fading out of existence. The small corner or mall arcade is now almost completely extinct, instead replaced by large corporate ones. This is a short, casual series examining that phenomenon.

Death of the Arcade Part 1 – Mo’ Money (Pricing)

I understand that arcade machines these days, in many cases, actually should cost more. Many games now come in specialized cabinets which means that an arcade must purchase an entire arcade cabinet, and not only just a ROM to stick in a generic cabinet. These larger machines often typically are large because they must accommodate a unique interface system, such as DDR or Gallop Racer. These large, custom interface machines are nothing new, but they have become far more mechanically complex and physical than the old Rad Racer games. Modern games also offer a more immersive experience than the typical stand-up machines of yore.

Now, the problem is when arcades are making this extra money off of larger machines, but are not using the money to maintain them properly. Too often I have put my hard-earned money into a Time Crisis machine (I will use Time Crisis as an example often, because this is the current generation game I play the most), only to find that the recoil action on the handgun is not functioning, or, worse yet, that the entire light pistol has been replaced with some piece-of-shit generic gun that’s usually too light and too small. Arcade operators: If you’re going to charge $1.00 a play, the machine had better fucking work properly.

Furthermore, arcade owners seem loath to lower the cost of their older games. For instance, in the Malibu Grand Prix arcade I visited recently, both the Time Crisis 2 and Time Crisis 3 machines cost $1.00 to play. Now why in the hell would I want to play a 3-year-old game for $1.00 when I can play a brand new one for the same price? Especially when the old one is essentially the same game as the new one, only with worse graphics, less options, and a thicker coating of arcade gunk? The answer is, I don’t, and I don’t think many other people do either. Once a new version of a game comes in, and it’s clearly superior to the older one, it’s time to lower the price on the old one so that people keep playing it. Seems obvious to me.

Also, too often today’s arcades will only feature games that are more expensive, and have no 25-cent options. Even the crustiest, joystick-not-moving-left, most faded old stand-up Die Hard machine still costs 50 cents to play. This leads to me often having to figure out how to spend my quarters (or more often, tokens), in the most efficient manner possible (Let’s see, I can play 3 games of Hydro Thunder, and then have exactly enough left for one game of Soul Calibur 2.) Having a few classic games (or less huge and complex games) around costing only 25 cents would allow for total quarter (or token) supply exhaustion. By “classic” I don’t mean just a Pac-Man/Galaga cabinet (although those are fun too). There was a whole decade in between the 80’s and now. Why not throw in a Sunset Riders, Raiden, or Dark Stalkers machine?

Ahhh yes, tokens. Tokens are, as far as I can tell, a devious way for arcade owners to get players to think about their money not in terms of money, but in terms of credits. If your customer is left with a few quarters in their pockets, those quarters are still legal tender, and can be used to buy, gasp, something else! Tokens however, are only good as video game credits. They still are about the same size as a quarter, just as bulky, and almost always cost 25 cents apiece, they just lose their monetary value in the exchange. Some places will offer bulk discounts on tokens, such as getting 4 extra tokens when you spend $20 at once, which is arguably just. There was an arcade in Santa Cruz at one point which would give you 5 tokens on the dollar, an unprecedented amount of generosity by any standards, and was, naturally, our favorite arcade until it closed down because stupid gangbangers kept stabbing each other near it (No one I knew ever had any trouble).

Then there is the Dave and Buster’s method which is, in a word, genius. Because tokens still resemble quarters, it’s easy for one to still think of them in terms of being worth 25 cents apiece or so. However, D&B gives you a “Power Card” which contains all of your credits on it, and games are priced weirdly like, 3.6 credits a play, or 5.2 credits. Having a card completely disassociates the credits from actual money and makes them much easier to spend recklessly, especially if you’ve been drinking. Also, Dave and Buster’s machines are typically more expensive than in other arcades, though they can be less expensive if you buy a whole crapload of credits at once.

Another common system is the “3 credits to play, 2 credits to continue” arrangement. However, never does one see it cost less to begin play than it does to continue, which is rather odd, since it goes against the “first hit’s free” principle. Of course, then one must actually have a game that’s compelling enough that the user will want to insert more of their money to keep playing. Also, with so many games having unique and often unfamiliar interfaces, I personally am turned off by the prospect of having to spend a few dollars having to learn a new interface and gameplay mechanics. The instructions on the front of a machine are typically woefully poor, and you can’t read them anyhow if someone else is playing. Some games offer an introductory level which is easy and short, but allows the player to familiarize themselves with an interface. Trouble is, these typically shorter experiences don’t cost any less. Perhaps machines could offer potential players a chance to play a training level for less money than the actual game.

I used to be able to spend a whole afternoon at a corner grocery store on just five bucks. Now one arcade visit can cost as much as a brand new store-bought game. Thus, a casual arcade visit is no longer an option. It used to be the case that if one had some change left over from a purchase at a mall's food court, one could then blwo it on a couple games of Toobin' at the nearby arcade. Now this is not the case, a trip to and arcade is a money investment, generally requiring at least $10 for an hour or so of entertainment. I’m sure all the supply/demand ratios have been carefully worked out, but it would be nice if there were various pricing options for games, or new games that are simpler and more traditional that are less expensive. Older, or improperly functioning equipment should not cost as much as new games, and sometimes it’s nice to give your customers a break. Those loose change moments are lost profits.

This trend of more and more elaborate and expensive equipment requiring more space and more money to operate is a positive feedback loop. Although many of these larger games are innovative and fun, the sheer cost they require to buy and maintain will require higher prices in the future. Smaller arcades have neither the space, nor the funds to compete, and more traditional cabinets are becoming phased out entirely. I long once again for the day when a quarter in my pocket held a chance at saving the universe, not just a quarter of a chance.


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