Las Vegas- The success of this year's Amusement Showcase International lay squarely in the eye of the beholder. Some hailed the show as a triumph, while others took a much dimmer view.
Sponsored by the American Amusement Machine Association, ASI 2003 ran from Tuesday through Thursday, March 25-27, offering 169 exhibitors in 571 booths in an upstairs hall of the North Wing of the Las Vegas Convention Center.
ASI show co-chairman Sal Mirando asserted: "I believe that we did exceptionally well in today's environment." True enough, yet , aside from Vegas weather that was unusually mild and sunny for March , ASI 2003 faced a very a tough environment indeed. Critical factors ranged from general operator sales resistance to wartime travel fears'from the host city's fading appeal, to the daunting competition of the Nightclub & Bar Show in the same venue at the same time.
Opinions from visitors and exhibitors varied. "The best show in years," enthused Frank Seninsky of Alpha-Omega Amusements (East Brunswick, NJ). "There was lots of good product; the important people were here; what more could you ask for?"
Yet Pat Lawlor of Lawlor Design Group, consultants to Stern Pinball Inc. offered the opposite judgment. Lawlor's and Seninsky's contrasting views both found plenty of supporters. Some exhibitors judged ASI 2003 as "great." Other exhibitors , sometimes located in the very next booth , expressed disappointment.
If there were a consensus of opinion about ASI 2003, it was that manufacturers displayed a strong product lineup to a core base of distributors and larger operators'but that aisle traffic was light. In particular, the ranks of mid-sized and smaller operators appeared decidedly thinner than in the past.
Some visitors said the Tuesday-through-Thursday pattern worked against small operators, who need to service and solicit accounts during the week. Other observers said Las Vegas wasn't the national draw it used to be , too expensive and too familiar.
Show organizers William T. Glasgow & Associates said total registration was 4,924 , up 13% from 2002. By Glasgow's count, based on preregistration two days into the show, the total buyer category was roughly 2,713, up from 2002's figure which was 1,739. What made the difference, apparently, was the addition of something like 1,071 visitors who crossed over from the nearby Nightclub & Bar Show.
ASI officials said the number of industry buyers (operators and distributors) was roughly comparable to last year's show. ASI has long pitched itself as primarily a "distributor's show" and several manufacturer exhibitors turned in the reliable sentiment that "Our major distributors were here so we wrote good orders at ASI."
One factor that clearly depressed the visitor headcount was the U.S.-Iraqi war. ASI 2003 was the U.S. industry's first wartime show in memory. On March 19, just five days before the show began, American bombers initiated hostilities with a pinpoint strike on one of Saddam Hussein's residences in Baghdad. As the Vegas show got underway, coalition ground forces were racing toward the Iraqi capital.
The war , and attendant fears of hijacked airplanes , appears to have reduced the number of visitors from Asia and Europe. These fears may have had less impact on domestic attendance. News reports said mall traffic remained at par during the first weekend of Operation Iraqi Freedom and that Vegas occupancy rates stood at 95% during the week of ASI.
As for the great experiment , opening ASI's doors to attendees from the Nightclub & Bar Show, the Pizza Expo, and the National Automatic Merchandising Association National Expo , registration figures showed around 1,000 NC&B visitors came upstairs to ASI (NC&B itself drew an estimated 38,000 attendees). Yet it was also clear that the hoped-for flood of tavern owners failed to materialize. Indeed, several exhibitors wondered how many ASI registrants may have decided to spend most of their time downstairs at the NC&B Show, enjoying the plentiful free liquor samples and eying the scantily dressed models.
AAMA officials acknowledged the crossover admissions policy met with mixed results. At the close of ASI, show co-chairman Mirando said of the new admissions policy: "The jury is still out."
Later, AAMA president Mike Rudowicz said, "I think there was some operator resentment of ASI opening our doors to visitors from the Nightclub & Bar Show. We lost a few people from that." The association's official position, expressed in an April 4 newsletter, stated: "Inevitably, we are a bit disappointed with this number [of crossover attendees from NC&B]; however the AAMA wholeheartedly attempted to implement a win-win situation, which we feel we have accomplished."
New product was the outstanding success of ASI 2003. While there was no single "hit of the show," attendees generally agreed the new goods on display were excellent across the board.
The biggest buyers at ASI 2003 (from national chains such as Wal-Mart, Chuck E. Cheese's, and Dave & Buster's) pronounced themselves pleased with the new equipment offered. Undoubtedly there were high-quality entries in every category: video, redemption, music, table and sports games, attractions, and the rest. ASI also featured more plush and prizes than past shows, reflecting the ongoing transition to more and more redemption in arcades and more and more merchandisers on street routes.
"There was more new good product shown at ASI 2003 than at any show in the past five years," declared Rudowicz. "Each leading manufacturer had one to three strong new entries, amounting to probably 30 or 40 brand-new titles. I spoke to executives from the leading arcade chains and without exception, they said the new games were excellent and that they placed serious orders at the show. When you think about the difficult state of today's market, it was truly a remarkable performance by the manufacturing sector."
A STRONG SLATE OF VIDEO GAMES
ASI's new product slate included plenty of shooting and driving videos, including some new titles, some holdovers, and some prototypes slated for future release later in the summer or fall. Widely mentioned as a leading ASI title was Namco's "Time Crisis 3," which actually previewed at last fall's IAAPA show. The deluxe version was shown in Vegas as the company promised a smaller upright by late April; the standard version will ship as a twin-cabinet arrangement but can be separated into two single units.
Namco also got nods for its "Tokyo Cop: Special Police Reinforcement," a driving game licensed from Gaelco (Spain). The deluxe motion simulator version ships in late spring, followed by a standard upright in the summer.
Sega's "Virtua Cop 3" won solid notices; the two-player video shooter comes in 50-in. deluxe and 29-in. standard versions. Shipping by late April, both versions feature "ES Mode" which is a slow-motion effect inspired by the movie "The Matrix." A software update for Sega's "Crazy Taxi: High Roller" added New York City and Las Vegas settings to the popular driving game, along with new drivers. It's shipping now.
Video golf was a key category with "Golden Tee 2004" from Incredible Technologies, which actually showed its wares at the Nightclub & Bar Show only. Many new courses and promotional features were released by IT on March 17 (see last month's VT for the full story); many trade members , and certainly lots of bar owners , got their first glimpses in Las Vegas. Also touting its golf prowess was Global VR, which continues to tweak its "EA Sports PGA Tour" game. Global VR also showed its "gvrSX" upright standard cabinet video platform, a system slated for May shipment that will allow non-VR presentation of the company's licensed software titles (see simulators, below).
Some of the best-received video titles at ASI 2003 came from companies that are not usually counted among the top-ranked competitors in this niche. Team Play got strongly positive reaction to its sit-down video shooter "Police Trainer 2" and good notices for the new, multiple cabinet configurations for its "Star Trek Voyager." Innovative Concepts in Entertainment likewise commanded salutes for "Special Forces: Elite Training," a gun game featuring pump-action shotgun firing. It ships as a one-player standard upright and as a podium-style model with 50-in. monitor; dedicated versions are coming at the end of April and kits by the end of May. Also from ICE was "Chase Up," a PC-based driving game in a compact sit-down cabinet, featuring nine levels of action.
Betson stood taller than ever in the video category as official U.S. representative for Konami's shooting game, "Warzaid." A two-player version (with pistols) ships in May, followed by a four-player version (equipped with large machine guns) that ships in July. Betson also previewed Midway's "Arctic Thunder," which it has licensed from Midway Games for remanufacturing later this year. Finally, Betson showed Taito's "Battle Gear 3," a video driver that can be connected online for tournament competition.
Sammy USA said it was "business as usual" despite the stunning recent news of its impending merger with Sega Corp. At ASI, the company put the spotlight on two debut titles for its "AtomisWave" system. A target-competition game called "Sports Shooting" features unique transparent plastic pistols with laser-scope sites. It is slated for mid-April shipment in two versions: a 33-in. monitor deluxe edition for two players and a 27-in. monitor standard upright for two players. Also at Sammy's ASI booth was "Maximum Speed," its driving game that combines Daytona, Indy 500, and truck racing action, slated for May shipment in deluxe and economy sit-down versions and a standard upright version.
Andamiro showed an updated version of "Pump It Up GX" with a larger monitor, more lighting, and new music. SNK Neo Geo USA Corp. showed "Matrimelee," a new cartridge game for the venerable "Neo-Geo" system. The two-player street fighting game ships in late April and features characters spun off from a popular consumer game series called "Power Instinct." A new Korean manufacturer called GameBox debuted its "Dream Hunting" game, a video kit featuring ultra-realistic graphics generated by a PC platform.
Deluxe simulators and virtual reality type games were easy to find at ASI 2003. Global VR showed its new "V3," a smaller and more economical version of its popular "VR Vortek" platform, plus three new VR software titles all under exclusive license for April shipment: "2003 Desert War," "Operation Blockade," and "Incoming." Sega previewed "F Zero AC," a super-deluxe motion platform video simulator with sci-fi race action controlled by an airplane-type yoke. Running on the TriForce platform (adapted from Nintendo's GameCube console architecture), it's expected to ship in September , with a hefty price tag. Also well received was Sega's "Wave Runner GP," an older game now offered in a smaller, non-moving sit-down cabinet with a 29-in. monitor and a trimmed-down price; it's slated for late May or early June release.
Ham On Rye showed "The Sprout," a sit-down group video game offering true virtual reality action, headset and all. TrioTech debuted a two-player passive ride platform, "Mad Wave Motion Theater," that shakes up customers while putting them through their choice of up to six ride experiences on a 58-in. screen (with additional software planned for the library every few months). Tsunami continued to draw good reviews for its "TsuMo" motion platform featuring licensed titles "Air Raid" and "Crimson Skies." The company promised new hardware and software are coming this fall.
Touchscreen games, also called countertops, remain perhaps the industry's best-selling single game category, and ASI 2003 reflected robust activity in the sector. Merit showed off its new touchscreen software update package under the name "Ruby," a free upgrade for operators of the MAXX generation of games (non-connected). The company also previewed the Internet-connectivity capable "Force 2004." Coastal Amusements showed its new "Global Touch 2003, Version 3.2" featuring a new "Trivia Bingo" game and a new cabinet with easier service access to the hard drive.
Rowe International and JVL remained contenders with their "GemStar" and "Orion" products, respectively. "GemStar" adds broadband connections, new content, and online tournament capability to the most popular 31 games from Midway's old "Infinity" countertop; "Orion" now boasts a library of more than 80 games and in-house tournament capability (the cabinets now have a new security bar, too).
Cadillac Jack debuted a multi-menu touchscreen game in sit-down and upright configurations called "Slimline LED." Not shown in Las Vegas was "Touch-IT" from Incredible Technologies; the release date for this touchscreen countertop remains unclear.
Under the category "everything old is new again," Betson and ShuffleAlley.com debuted a shuffle bowler called "Parker Bohn III Pro Bowler." This version is updated with video, a pro athlete's name and likeness, digital music and sound, plus various hi-tech add-ons (see VT February issue for the full story). In a similar vein, Benchmark unveiled its "Ten Strike Classic," a 1950s retro-styled bowling novelty in a pinball-type cabinet.
Also in the realm of tavern classics, Stern Pinball had a busy booth with pinball titles "Simpsons House Party," "Monopoly" and "Harley-Davidson Second Edition," the latter slated for a limited run this summer. A wide selection of pool, air hockey, table soccer and other sports table games was displayed by Valley-Dynamo Limited Partnership, Great America Recreation, and Shelti at the upstairs ASI; Global Billiards confined its pool offerings to the NC&B Show downstairs. Arachnid previewed software updates for its now-classic "Galaxy II" electronic darts game; operators can download new video monitor-driven games to memory modules in their offices, then take the module to locations and plug it into the game for a 60-second update. Updated and simplified versions of the "DartMan" league management program will also be available next month from Arachnid.
Tavern novelties included "Virtual Pinball," the lead product from TAB-Australia as the European manufacturer made its U.S. debut at ASI 2003. Bromley showed a prototype of an imported coin-op ping pong table.
THE INDUSTRY BEAT
New jukebox products were displayed on the ASI exhibit floor by three manufacturers, with two more companies showing music products at the simultaneous NC&B Show. Rock-Ola highlighted its "Digital 9000" CD floor model, featuring contemporary styling and translucent "rainbow" graphics that cover almost the entire cabinet front, highlighted by changing color tubes inside. Shipping in late April, the "9000" features Digital SyberSonics, a much-simpler yet more powerful hardware and software system that produces 900 watts of music power. A colorful new wall box, "Vivo," also features translucent colorful graphics and Digital SyberSonics. The company highlighted its optional "Get Connected" online management software, as well.
Rowe International showed a simpler, more economical version of its "StarLink" downloading jukebox, powered by Ecast broadband technology. The unit features a smaller 15-in. monitor with more saturated color, no credit card reader, and no universal power supply , all of which yield significant savings. Rowe officials pointed to the addition of a "My Song First" feature that lets a patron pay additional credits to move his choice of music to the top of the queue, plus a new attract mode with motion sensor-triggered flashing light and new all-LED lighting for greater reliability.
NSM put the spotlight on its "Phoenix" CD jukebox, slated to ship in April. The unit is built in the U.S.A. by Happ Controls and features a shiny, silver-brushed framework, large speaker columns, and backlit graphics panel in the 5.5-ft. tall cabinet. A wide-view, eight-jacket CD title display completes the cosmetic package; inside is the company's 600-watt digital amplifier and tray-based CD changer plus NSM's longtime workhorse "ES-6" programming software.
Downstairs at the NC&B Show, TouchTunes Jukebox Co. continued to preview its "TuneCentral" black box with local storage of thousands of extra songs that can be uploaded to the jukebox from in-house rather than via a long distance telephone line connection to the central servers.
Redemption manufacturers displayed dozens of new and classic products at ASI, with visitors generally lauding many titles for novelty and creativity. Namco's "SeaQuarium" is a novelty skill piece licensed from Entergament, slated for a spring or early summer release; players roll a small ball down a spiral track, winning points depending on what targets they hit as the ball progresses. A ticket-vending version of Namco's "Bee Panic" (previously built as a merchandiser) was also displayed.
Bay-Tek debuted a new redemption coin-flip novelty, "ShuffleShack," where players flip a coin through three sets of card-themed targets. Matching two or three of a kind wins tickets, and three aces wins the jackpot. Meltec showed "Spin Doctor," a skill-stop novelty with disc jockey theme in a space-saving cabinet (20 ins. x 24 ins). The player stops three spinning wheels (they look like vinyl discs spinning on vertical platters), attempting to match numbers.
Sega's "Jungle Treasures" was shown in prototype form and is planned for May shipment. It's a merchandiser with revolving playfield; the cute angle is a pink elephant character on the playfield whose trunk scoops up the prizes, which can be candy, capsules, and the like. The jungle theme remained a winner for 5 Star Redemption which again showed the popular "Raptor Captor"; it's a ball-launching novelty that continues to sell briskly.
Thinking big was clearly the theme at Skee-Ball: "The Big One" is a gigantic crane, housed in a cabinet that's almost 100-in. tall, wide and deep. Over at Stern, the popular "Monopoly" license was married to the former "Titanic" cabinet and game play for a title that's coming in May. Cadillac Jack/LazerTron, meanwhile, showed their skill-stop, spinning wheel game "Magic Touch." Older titles like "Lot-O-Fun" are also back in production, officials advised. Bromley brought back a classic concept with "Sparks," a coordination tester in a tall vertical cabinet that requires the player to guide a metal object through a maze without hitting the walls; game ends when contact is made or when the player completes the maze.
OK Manufacturing was a player in the redemption niche with "VIPS" (which stands for "Video Instant Prize System"). It combines rolldown action with touchscreen game play and prize offerings in a metal or wood cabinet; ships in May. Of course, ICE is always a leader in this category: its newest redemption offering is "Reactor," a three-player game with flying balls on the playfield; it also ships in May.
Smart previewed the new 2003 edition of its classic "Redemption Center," which combines vending machine technology with prize redemption to turn any redemption game into a stand-alone merchandiser via automated dispenser. It should ship by mid-summer.
BEYOND THE EXHIBIT FLOOR
In addition to product displays, ASI was also the occasion for industry socializing, politicking, fund-raising and promotion. Distributors voted Merit Industries as manufacturer of the year for the third year in a row. Manufacturers voted Brady Distributing as distributor of the year, a repeat honor.
Joe Sladek of Skee-Ball and Leah Bettelman of C.A. Robinson Distributing Co. received AAMA's Lifetime Achievement Award. Honored for best booth at ASI in the small, medium, and large size categories respectively were Ham On Rye, Ideal Software, and Merit.
An ASI cocktail party took place the first night of the show at The Beach, a nightclub located on Paradise Road across from ASI's convention hall. The event drew over 700 attendees who called it a fun affair. ASI's show committee thanked party sponsors including AAMA, Betson, Firestone Financial Corp., Global VR, LazerTron-Cadillac Jack, Merit, Namco, Nightclub & Bar Publishing, Sega, and Valley-Dynamo.
Fundraisers included the annual AAMA Charitable Foundation golf outing, held March 24, as well as a raffle drawing and equipment auction on the show floor. These events raised a combined total exceeding $30,000 which went to K.E.E.N. (Kids Enjoying Exercise Now) and the Children's Miracle Network.
A somber note: the 2003 edition of ASI was dedicated to the memory of operator Rich Holley, Southeast Game Brokers (Tampa, FL), whose tragic death in a Feb. 28 airplane crash was much on the minds of attendees. At the ribbon-cutting ceremony to open the show, AAMA chairman Al Kress asked for a moment of silence to honor Holley, the first president of the Amusement and Music Operators Association to die in office.
The presence of so many unique circumstances, from war to an unprecedented co-location policy with the tavern expo, made ASI 2003 a difficult show to evaluate. Show co-chairman Sal Mirando provided an even-handed assessment as the event drew to a close: "I think we're holding our ground," he said. "The industry is still challenged, but the show is stable. We are promoting ASI more, liberalizing the attendance rules, so from the viewpoint of statistics and income we are staying even. In today's market, that's pretty good."
ASI will return to the Las Vegas Convention Center in 2004 on March 9-11 (Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday).