U.S.A. - Imitation, they say, is the sincerest form of flattery. If so, then bulk vending industry should consider itself highly honored. For the past couple of years, operators of prize merchandisers have been morphing into bulk vending operators, and vice versa. Now the merchandising machines themselves appear to be following the same trend. The latest generation of prize merchandisers , particularly of the non-crane variety , reveals a distinct influence from bulk vending equipment in terms of features, prize types and presentation, not to mention awareness of target customer segments.
Meanwhile, manufacturers say that traditional cranes continue to sell steadily. Existing suppliers support those sales with a steady output of new cranes, which often differ little from their predecessors other than cosmetically. Yet top-end cranes have included novel features in recent years, ranging from self-leveling playfields and automatic "fluffing" of plush, to giant-sized cranes with the dimensions of storage sheds.
But non-crane entertainment merchandisers are where the greatest growth potential lies, experts say. Non-crane, self-contained merchandisers have already enjoyed double-digit machine sales growth in recent years. And this category, today, appears on the brink of a new explosion. Indeed, over the next few years, the growth in merchandisers is expected to catapult this market into a leading category for one reason: operators are searching for a replacement for lost income from video uprights. Merchandisers seem to answer this need for more and more amusement and games routes.
Manufacturers are excited about the potential market for merchandisers because the number of locations that can take them vastly exceeds the nation's 5,000 to 10,000 fun centers (depending on whose estimates one believes.) Merchandisers can be placed , and are being placed , in all types of street locations. They include restaurants, taverns, pizzerias, Wal-Marts, movie theater lobbies, shopping malls, drug stores, supermarkets, car washes'in short, just about any place that players could have found a "Pac-Man" 20 years ago.
Examples of merchandisers-to-bulk morphing are easy to find. While there were precedents (see sidebar), perhaps the first real breakthrough came in late 1997 with the introduction of Sammy USA's "Sports Arena." This seminal hit features skill-stop, light-chaser gameplay and row after row of different types of player-selectable merchandise. Thus, "Arena" emulates within a single machine the prize variety and psychology of customer choice that characterize bulk vending, with its typical array of multiple heads offering an array of items.
"Sports Arena" was followed by a host of imitators and sequels , and possibly even improvements on the original , that haven't stopped coming yet. The reason is simple. As Benchmark executives said of one of their hit entertainment merchandisers: "'Whirl Win' is a complete merchandising package offering a wide range of prizes to permit locations to enter the redemption market without having to build, staff and stock merchandise behind a fixed counter."
Another notable step in the merchandiser-to-bulk crossover evolution came when longtime bulk vending machine maker OK Manufacturing LLC created "Mr. VIPS," combining elements of bulk vending (prizes in capsules) with video gameplay (the unit is now produced under license by Merit Industries http://www.meritind.com/Vips/vips.asp). As OK Manufacturing executives like to say, "You will find nearly every bulk vending machine on the market today employs innovations that were developed by us." As "Mr. VIPS" influences other entertainment prize merchandisers, those bulk features continue seeping into the amusements realm.
A recent example of a similar game is Sammy USA's "Go Go Cowboy," blending simple video gameplay on a small monitor with bulk-style capsule vending in a kiddie-sized cabinet. The size of the visible prize storage area dwarfs the monitor, and not only because it's a child's game. The difference in size between the monitor and prize display area makes it clear the appeal of the game lies first with the prizes, and only secondarily with the game.
Bay-Tek's "Whistle Stop" and "Red Zone" take the bulk-style function of player-selectable prizes among a variety of merchandise and combine it with the skill-stop action of gameplay. By stopping the continuously spinning carousel at the right time, "Whistle Stop" unloads the desired prize and the player wins. Bay-Tek's "Movie Stop" takes the same basic concept but substitutes a motion picture theme and DVDs and VHS movies for the prizes.
Valley-Dynamo's "Lighthouse," originated by LAI Games, offers classic skill-stop, button-controlled novelty with hanger display of multiple prizes. Here, again, winning players are able to select their choices of prize. In a divergence from the bulk format, however, "Lighthouse" performs best with high-end merchandise, officials say. Valley-Dynamo also offers a ticket-or-capsule option with LAI's "Most Wanted," a video shooting game.
Capsule prize vending is an option for several skill games from Andamiro such as the hammer game "Himmer," as well as "Capsule Express" and "Wagon Train," and its latest , "Treasure Ship" , all of which can also be operated on a ticket-vending basis. Andamiro offers a gun-themed variation on the skill-stop, rotary prize hanger-type of game with "Real Shooting." The company's "Musical Chairs" offers a skill-stop version of a rotary merchandiser.
An even more obvious example of merchandiser-bulk crossover is found in Bay-Tek's "PlaySoccer." Like most traditional bulk venders, this unit is compact and requires no electricity. And, in another clear nod to the bulk category, it is as much a vending unit as it is a game. The foreshortened pinball-style playfield attaches to a marquee backboard that bears more than a slight resemblance to a bulk vending head, filled with up to 1,200 superballs. Bulk venders with pinball-style gameplay have been a staple for years from companies like Impulse Amusements; Bay-Tek's offering of such a product simply confirms once again the blending of the two markets.
Wedges/Ledges has long flirted with bulk features and bulk-style prizes for its novelty merchandisers such as "Gumsucker" (marketed by Smart Industries). The company's new line includes "Crane Vac," recommended for use with capsule merchandise, collectible trading cards, and other merchandise that could easily be vended through a bulk machine.
This spring Sammy USA actually crossed the line from quasi-bulk products into the real thing with "Prize Party." This versatile multi-tower prize-dispensing machine has no real game to play, but it does display an assortment of "prizes." Prizes can be vended from multiple towers, with payment handled through a central unit that controls all the attached vending columns. Operators may choose how many and which types of prize column to attach. Prizes supported include capsules from 1 ins. to 3 ins., gumballs, superballs and optionally, stickers, 4-in. capsules or candy. Note: "Prize Party" does include a feature that officials call a "bonus game," but this is a non-skill experience in which players can win an additional prize "if the bonus light matches your pick." As with all prize-vending devices, operators should check with local law enforcement for acceptability of this feature.
A similar straight vending approach is evident with a more specialized theme in u-Wink's "Design 'R Bear" vending machine. Players select a generic bear body and use a touchscreen interface to progressively select the bear's customized outfit and accessories. Bear and costume are then vended to the player for hands-on final assembly.
Coastal Amusements is an eager entrant into the prize machine market with "Slam Dunk," a basketball-themed entertainment merchandiser featuring button-controlled, ball-launch gameplay and a moving hoop target. The prize zone features six rings that can be stocked with different types of winner-selectable prizes. Coastal executives acknowledge that a certain blending of prize machine and bulk vending machine functions is afoot in the merchandiser market. Yet they advance the view that this trend "is mainly for certain jurisdictions that require a prize every time."
Coastal says the current legal environment is largely responsible for the emergence of a category of machines that offers two types of prizes: high-quality prizes for players who win games, and lower-quality prizes like superballs that are vended every time. The company's own "Ghost Catcher" is a good example; it's a small-footprint game that can vend different capsule sizes and offers an operator-selectable option for a consolation prize as well.
Namco America moved into the prize merchandiser niche this spring with its new "Capsule Factory," which allows players to control a robot arm that slowly pushes a 4-in. prize capsule up a ramp on the playfield. While it's definitely a skill game, "Capsule Factory" reveals the bulk influence both in its type of merchandise and in the sales psychology of merchandise display. The upright cabinet features one shelf to display capsules and another to display non-encapsulated sample prizes.
Similarly, Sega's "Game Show" takes this video leader into the prize merchandiser format with a ball-shooter theme. However, the Sega unit awards players a 4-in. capsule prize every time, meaning "Game Show" is even closer to the bulk vending function.
Not all of the newest merchandisers resemble bulk venders, of course. Innovative Concepts in Entertainment continues to live up to its name with a new kiddie-sized rotary merchandiser called "Mighty Mini." The unit appears to owe little to the bulk vending machine field. "Mini" features an articulated red 3D dinosaur-type skeletal figure that hovers over the playfield. The dino's hinged jaw functions as a claw that is used to scoop up prizes from a rotating playfield. The playfield is suitable for candy, beanies, jewelry or hard toys, said company officials.
U.S.A. , In the broadest sense, it can be argued that the merging of the amusement and bulk vending markets is really nothing new. Old-timers and industry historians like to recall that from the 1890s through the early 1930s, the industry enjoyed steady success with a category of equipment then known as "trade stimulators." These were typically small, simple games , often smaller than a desktop computer today , that charged a penny or nickel per play, and offered low-cost prizes to winners. Many, if not most, were games of chance rather than games of skill. Accordingly, trade stimulators faded away in the 1930s, victims of new federal and state gambling laws.
Possibly the modern trend towards a merchandiser-bulk crossover began 10 or 15 years ago, when innovative crane manufacturers revived the rotary merchandiser category. (This type of machine dates back at least 70 years.) But the new generation of rotary merchandisers introduced in the 1980s and 1990s were often stocked with prizes in bulk-style transparent plastic capsules. In short order, some cranes also began to feature capsule merchandise.
During this period, upright skill venders remained a small but steady niche for companies like Fun Industries and its "Fun-E-Ball," as well as several other manufacturers and products. These machines offered gumballs or prize capsule vending, combined with simple skill-based mechanical or electromechanical gameplay.
Today, the best prize merchandisers scrupulously avoid the slot machine stigma either by offering a clear skill challenge, or by ensuring that players receive prizes every time.