Today's amusement trade is blithely, deliberately and needlessly risking one of its most profitable markets. That market is the crane sector.
We have been here before. Crane machines were the coin-op industry's hottest games in the 1920s. But by the 1930s, they had been banned virtually nationwide because unscrupulous operators rigged them to cheat players.
Cranes were legalized again starting in the 1980s because the industry proved a new generation of machines were not gambling devices and promised to operate them fairly. For a crane to escape being categorized as a gambling device, it must meet three tests: First, it must work the same way every time. Second, all prizes within a single game must have roughly equal monetary value; many law enforcement officials, and some courts, insist on this. Third, player skill alone must determine the outcome.
The best crane manufacturers and redemption experts have always insisted - until blue in the face - that operators can make a tremendous profit on true skill games, even if those games have a higher cost of prizes won.
In fact, they said, "a smart operator makes the most money when his cranes have a higher cost of prizes won." Operators should smile when they see customers walking away from machines with armfuls of prizes, the experts say, because the operator has "sold" those prizes for a perceived value that thrills players yet still profits the operator.
Endless primers, columns and articles on how to do this have been published. Industry associations have provided endless seminars, workshops and booklets on how to do it, too.
Even if you're too lazy to bother learning these principles, you can still make money with true skill cranes - although profitability is more erratic. The law of averages is such that even if a skillful player wins many prizes on Monday, less skillful players will win far fewer prizes on Tuesday.
So far, so good. But in recent years, the industry has all too often broken its promise to deliver truly skill-based cranes.
In some states, operators have reverted to the shameful practice of wrapping a high-denomination bill around one or two prizes. (And, just like the bad old days, some of these "come-on" prizes may be glued to the playfield or heavily weighted, for all I know.)
In other instances, operators have demanded - and compliant manufacturers have provided - cranes equipped with "auto-percentaging" controls and claws with variable strength, regulated by either software or the old potentiometer. Such cranes track how many prizes have been won. If lots of prizes have been vended during a specified period, the machine will provide less electrical power to the claw mechanism. In fact, the claw becomes so weak that it can't hold onto a prize. Even the world's most skillful player could not possibly win anything.
The public isn't stupid. They know they're being ripped off. For proof, simply stand in a mall or restaurant lobby and listen to moms tell their children why they can't play the crane. (That's despite the fact that players often accept hit frequencies of one in a few hundred when perceived prize value is $200 and up.)
Negative publicity is only the beginning. Just let the gambling industry decide to gobble up all the money spent on the crane sector and then lump it in with the truly skill-based redemption sector. It will take your breath away how fast local police, district attorneys and even state senators can suddenly "get religion" and demand that those thieving, unfair, quasi-gambling devices known as "cranes" must be outlawed.
By the way, many other merchandise-dispensing machines are truly skill-based and do not employ auto-percentaging. It would be unfair to lump them all into one broad category, thus making it easier to just wipe all prize-dispensing games off the face of the earth. But in the worst-case scenario this could happen.
This nearly happened in California recently. The industry feared that if the ball got rolling in the Golden State, it would keep rolling until it flattened the crane market from coast to coast. Only shrewd intervention from several industry experts averted catastrophe. Next time, the coin machine operators may not be so lucky.
The amusement industry faces a choice: either clean up its act, or kill the goose that lays the golden eggs. If the industry chooses to relive the 1940s and '50s, when cranes were outlawed as gambling devices, along with many other skill-based redemption games that are currently permitted, what a tragic and needless waste it will be.