Let's face it: 2012 was a challenging year for much of the amusement industry. Between Hurricane Sandy and the North Carolina Supreme Court's thumbs-down on sweepstakes videogames, trade members encountered some very tough weather.
The year's best news? The Illinois video lottery finally launched. Judging from early results, operator-run VLTs proved considerably more profitable, on a per-machine basis, than even the optimists had predicted.
Ecast collapsed, but pinball seemed to enjoy a renaissance in player popularity if not in operator sales volumes.
The industry's two national trade associations did well. Amusement Expo was a solid show, and continued its hopeful trajectory of growing a bit stronger each year. AAMA "showed the flag" in Washington, DC, several times, always a good thing to do. AMOA proved once again the value of its Council of Affiliated States.
Smoking bans got worse -- meaning more widespread. Route cashboxes (according to the president of AMOA, who should know) got better. That may mean the industry's ongoing shrinkage is merely slowing, not stopping. But it's a move in the right direction, and welcome news.
The year ended on a tragic note -- or more accurately perhaps, a tragic symphony --with the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Within 48 hours the videogame sector had once again become a political and cultural scapegoat for violence, along with guns, mental illness, bad parenting and assorted other targets.
You can take your pick among economic forecasts for 2013. As happens nearly every year, the optimists are predicting growth while the pessimists are saying the opposite.
What are we to make of all this, and what does it mean for the future of the amusements industry?
To a great extent, it means we're on our own -- as usual. It's hardly news to point out that this industry is unloved in many quarters, a frequent target of blame and shame. Just ask the Chicago Tribune editorial writers who seem to think the typical operator was just paroled after robbing a bank. Or consult the endless TV news pundits who cranked up the "violent videogame" rhetoric, which by now is old enough to vote.
When you're largely on your own, you have to do three things.
One, you have to be resourceful. This industry is pretty good at that. Exhibit A, Touchtunes. Exhibit B, AMI Entertainment. The main U.S. digital jukebox brands are leading the way in bringing music and amusements into the era of social media and operators are following.
Two, you have to band together. This industry is becoming extremely good at that discipline, too. AMOA and AAMA, which spent much of their time at war with each other 20 years ago, have become staunch friends and allies. Getting closer to the bulk vending crowd is a good move in this department. The state-level trade associations do a fine job, all in all. Some do a great job. And, with state and national associations reaching out to help California trade members launch, yet again, a new Golden State association, the strength-in-numbers strategy is being applied in a place where it's really needed.
Three, when you're on your own, you should keep a low profile. Operators, distributors and manufacturers have understood that instinctively for many, many decades. Important note: even when you're keeping a low profile, it's still crucial to stay in touch with your national, state and local governments. The point is to keep an eye on the government so you'll know when and how the government starts keeping an eye on you.
The industry could do a better job of keeping a low profile in some instances today. Those "Golden Jackpot Winner's Casino" flashing neon signs that advertise sweepstakes videogame parlors may bring in the customers. But they also tick off many more citizens, from Boston to Honolulu, who dislike having Las Vegas in their backyards. No doubt this sort of glitz contributed to the outlawing of previously legal markets for operator-run video poker in years past. Now we are seeing the same cycle reenacted with sweeps videogames.
Where else can the industry do a better job? Several of the last dozen AMOA presidents have said they would like to see the music and amusements trade get faster at understanding trends in popular culture and technology, jumping on those trends, and getting ahead of them when possible and when it makes sense.
Wise words. Tough assignment. But perhaps a good 2013 New Year's Resolution for an industry that lives or dies by pop culture and high-tech.