For many U.S. operators, videogames are like an old flame you keep thinking about -- even though you almost wish you could put her out of your mind. "Flame" is precisely the right word. Many operators felt burned by the video sector in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Vendors became resentful of a category that once delivered unprecedented booms, only to degenerate into a seemingly endless cycle of operators feeling "forced" to buy costly new games that never seemed to earn back their purchase price.
As a result, large numbers of U.S. industry members -- especially street operators -- did their best to walk away from the videogames, investing in them only when absolutely unavoidable.
Still, pay-for-play videogames refuse to go away. Millions of American players continue to like them, including teenagers in FECs, and adults in bars and taverns.
Manufacturers keep building them, too. As leading game designers themselves admit, the videogame sector has seen more than its share of look-alike, "me-too," unoriginal and overpriced technology in the past decade.
Yet anyone who takes the trouble to separate the wheat from the chaff has also seen a steady supply of solidly designed, beautifully engineered and sturdily manufactured products that have demonstrated amazing longevity in the marketplace. Even in taverns, video remains an immovable part of the scene, thanks to the hunting- and golf-themed videos which thrive alongside touchscreen countertops.
Could the U.S. operator romance with pay-for-play videogames ever bloom again?
The answer is that this once-torrid affair is already being rekindled to a surprising degree. A survey of current and upcoming titles, both in the U.S. and in Japan, offers the hope that even if most operators won't fall madly in love with video all over again, they may find themselves "falling in like" -- and far more strongly than they might have believed possible.
TODAY JAPAN -- TOMORROW, THE WORLD
Our survey of today's videogame scene begins in Japan, arguably the fount of innovation and certainly the center of greatest investment for pay-for-play videogames. In recent years, Japanese manufacturers appear to have bifurcated the market, keeping their most elaborate, advanced (and expensive) technology at home while exporting only low-grade, dumbed-down, lower-priced versions to a price-resistant U.S. market.
While there is much truth in this perception, it's not the whole picture. As the U.S. continues to catch up with Japan in rolling out high-speed digital networks and wireless networking infrastructure, the two markets are likely to merge once again. For a look at what America's video scene may look like three to five years from now, we should examine Japan's today.
The place to start is at the Amusement Machine Show, better known as the JAMMA show, after its sponsor, the Japanese Amusement Machine Manufacturers Association; the 48th annual staging was held Sept. 9-11 at the Makuhari Messe, Chiba Prefecture, in Tokyo. The JAMMA show is the launchpad for the latest and greatest in Japan's amusement trade. It featured an aggressive embrace of the Internet (multiplayer online gaming) and social networking (think Twitter and Facebook), along with smart card payment systems and 3D displays.
Sega spotlighted its new AiME noncontact IC card system, a complete player loyalty package encouraging repeat play. The first title supported by the infrastructure was Samurai Wars, the latest in the networked multiplayer ancient war game.
Sega shares the AiME service with Namco Bandai. Both manufacturers plan a series of future releases for this joint venture platform, which provides online player stats, community (Twitter integration) and smart card payments. The same or similar features are found in dedicated systems developed by other major Japanese manufacturers.
Namco Bandai, Konami and Taito are taking arcade video into the 3D world. Namco offers special viewing glasses for updated titles such as Deadstorm Pirates and Maximum Heat (the latter is called Dead Heat: Street Racing outside Japan). Konami Digital Entertainment didn't exhibit at the JAMMA show, but is location-testing videogames that use 3D glasses such as Metal Gear Arcade, based on a popular consumer title that sold 27 million copies worldwide. The new Konami driver Road Fighters is a 3D street racer offering visor-based 3D imagery, rather than using cumbersome glasses.
Taito showed a record-breaking 11 new games at JAMMA, all supported by their new Type-X Zero architecture with PureDepth (non-glasses) 3D architecture. Taito is also moving aggressively into "amusement downloadable content" (ADLC). The company revealed that the Taito Network Entry System infrastructure can download game content to cabinets connected to the new NESiCA x LIVE Hub.
Taito has developed titles for its new NO! series, standing for no complication, no violence and no difficulty to play. One such example is Battle Gear Spin Wheel, a simplistic futuristic circuit racing game using an illuminated steering wheel and bright colors. An unusual cabinet design allows young children to ride the game while sitting on their guardian's lap. Two players can participate on one cabinet, one standing behind and operating an action button.
THE AMERICAN SCENE
When will the U.S. market see 3D displays, social networking, smartcard payment systems and the rest become common videogame features? Perhaps sooner than many believe. At least two companies are already planning to bring Asian 3D games to the U.S., as part of an international rollout.
One of them is South Korea's Simuline. Building on its earlier Sega partnership, the company has launched Aqua Race Extreme, a two-rider powerboat racing game with full motion and 3D graphics and physical effects. Another is TecWay/Belrare, developing a suite of racers and shooting games, one being an enclosed theater experience called Dino Survivor 4D, a two-player mounted shooting experience using 3D glasses to deliver a compelling experience.
It's not 3D, but Innovative Concepts in Entertainment is bringing advanced display technology for Taito videogames to the States with the shooter Panic Museum in a small-profile 47" LCD cabinet, as well as the original theater version featuring an 80" display.
While we wait for more of Asia's cutting-edge arcade technology to migrate to American shores, it's also worth noting that the number of American-made, pay-for-play videogame releases is ticking upward, reversing a longtime downward trend.
Raw Thrills and its Play Mechanix subsidiary reinvigorated video shooters with Terminator Salvation. Based on the hit movie, it was released in three models (32" standard, 42" deluxe model and 100" super deluxe). Meanwhile, Play Mechanix has expanded its Big Buck game-hunting franchise with Big Buck World, which features Open Season and Safari for different settings and animals.
Both the Terminator and Big Buck titles are supported by Play Mechanix's CoinUp network, a platform for online national tournaments that promotes repeat play, high-level competition and attention-getting prizes.
Raw Thrills has also upgraded the visual presentation of Super Bikes 2. It boasts a 42" LCD integrated into elaborate motorcycle cabinet and 12 new tracks. The motorcycle racer, along with the company's Fast & Furious: Super Cars, is supported by the PIN key storage facility that lets players store customized vehicles and stats, and access them at later dates.
Dancing stage videogames have established themselves as a new staple. Konami, represented in the U.S. by Betson, continues to refresh the genre for U.S. players, most recently with Dance Dance Revolution X2. Its reengineered platform is designed to suit international tastes. Andimaro USA has been active in the dance genre for a decade now; its latest entries include Pump It Up Fiesta and Pump It Up PRO 2; the latter of which boasts a new cabinet design.
AMERICA CRAVES SPEED
Driving games are still the most reliable videogame among U.S. videogame players. Global VR's Nascar Team Racing features "connected" head-to-head online support infrastructure. New tracks and drivers are matched against intense competition supplied by network support.
Namco's Dead Heat: Street Racing, mentioned earlier, offers a mixture of casual racing and intense competition for up to four networked racers. Players capture their images using the NamCam2 so the their faces are represented above their vehicles on the screen. Namco is also offering a blend of casual and hardcore gameplay styles and NamCam2 support with Tank Tank Tank, featuring competitive and cooperative warfare.
Sega Amusements USA is race-worthy with its new Grid Arcade, based on a successful consumer game that has been ported to the arcade, keeping the best tracks and latest super cars that can compete with up to six networked racers. Sega's popular Lets Go Jungle wasn't about racing, but it did offer vehicle-based fun; the concept has been updated to a tropical island setting with Let's Go Island. Two players cooperate to avoid dangers and shoot mutant creatures using mounted guns; a special motion cabinet deluxe version is available, as well as a standard cabinet.
Sega's Golden Gun was developed to offer a lower-priced shooting experience with gameplay comparable to the company's hit House of the Dead series. Two players each wield their own golden gun, shooting at a series of supernatural enemies in urban settings.
For younger players, Sega offers Hopping Road, under license from Taito. Players take to their pogo-sticks and race round a cartoon circuit collecting bonuses and special items to race to the finish line.
Coast to Coast Entertainment, the New Jersey company known best for its skill crane products, said it will distribute the Friction Game Studios title, eponymously named Friction, initially as a kit that can update a wide variety of older gun game cabinets with fresh, faster-paced gameplay.
This column previously reported the rise of midscale attractions -- big machines that offer near theme park experiences, but scaled for amusement application. The trend has seen companies such as Triotech Amusement release its interactive eight- to 24-seat audience experience, the XD Dark Ride. Players can shoot at a large screen packed with oncoming opponents, with their score represented at their feet on a special display.
Another Asian name worth keeping an eye on is Universal Space. Its new Crazy Speed street racer offers four networked driving positions. For young adults, Universal's video redemption title Waterpark Splash uses actual water jets to blast action onscreen for a highly physical experience.
Quasimoto has become a market leader in porting consumer games to coin-op; its GameGate title runs on a Microsoft Xbox 360 in a special amusement configuration. Recently, the company has embraced the latest consumer technology and developed a version of the system that uses the motion-tracking Kinect peripheral from the console manufacturer.
Arguably, many of the above titles are intended chiefly for FECs. What about taverns? Incredible Technologies is keeping its bid for leadership in taverns in its latest trackball golf title Golden Tee Live 2011, along with the "live" Silver Strike Bowler. Both feature the ITNet champion tournament network, offering their own prizes and player statistics.
Namco's Pac-Man Battle Royale, commemorating the 30th anniversary of the company mascot, is an up-and-coming bar game. This simultaneous four-player tabletop game is highly competitive and simple to play. (Also in the nostalgia zone, Namco has Pac-Man's Arcade Party, which offers a traditional arcade cabinet with the most popular classic coin-op titles from Namco's history in a brand new and reliable package.)
As it heads into a new year, the videogame sector is a place where past glories have not been forgotten … and where new chapters are being written in the book of earnings success.
KEVIN WILLIAMS is founder and director of the out-of-home leisure entertainment consultancy KWP Ltd. His nearly 20 years of experience in global video amusements and high-tech attractions includes top management and design posts, with a focus on new technology development and applications. He is a well-known speaker on the industry lecture circuit, and has authored numerous articles. Williams is also editor and publisher of The Stinger Report, a leading industry e-newsletter and Web-based information service. Go to thestingerreport.com to sign up for a free subscription.