Sales of coin-operated games are booming. Sales of jukeboxes are booming. Pinballs? Can’t keep ‘em in stock. Sales of table games and sports games are booming, too. However, the people buying all this equipment are not mainly operators. The biggest sales of many of these products are now to the home market. This is the dirty little secret of the amusements industry today.
This trend has gone far beyond the occasional sale of an overpriced vending machine through Sam’s Club or the offering of overpriced video arcade games in upscale merchandise catalogs. From top to bottom, our own industry is an enthusiastic exponent of the trend – although most keep it very low-profile.
One of America’s biggest distributors has two full-time employees who do nothing but sell coin-operated games to consumers. Not old, used games – the distributor sells brand-new games for people to install in their rec rooms. In the past decade, a growing number of leading operators have opened showrooms to sell equipment to the public as well. Again, this is not just an outlet for old, used equipment; new machines are the biggest sellers. Just ask Jack Guarnieri of pinballsales.com; he sells a ton of new stuff to homeowners every week.
How about manufacturers; are they in on the act? Absolutely. It’s gone way beyond Rock-Ola’s sister company, Antique Apparatus, selling high-end replicas of 1940s jukeboxes. Valley-Dynamo, Shelti, Great American, Championship Shuffleboard and many other table game companies have full consumer lines that do at least as well as their coin-op lines, if not better.
Now the trend is spreading in a big way to coin-op video. Companies like Merit have rolled out home versions of their touchscreen products. Those remaining manufacturers who haven’t yet jumped into the consumer market in a big way, are thinking about it very hard. This month comes a new wrinkle in the arcade-to-home trend. A Korean company called Big Electronic Games is offering arcade-style video cabinets for your home at under $500. Featured are old Midway titles like “Defender” and “Joust,” but a home version of Incredible Technologies’ “Golden Tee” will be available in 2006, according to a recent announcement.
Some trade members argue – with a straight face – that the growing proliferation of coin-op style equipment in the home is educating the next generation of players and making the amusements industry seem “respectable.” Maybe, but somehow that argument didn’t carry much water in this industry for the first century of its existence. Home versions of our products were always viewed as “the enemy.” Cheap home versions of our machines caused our market to crash several times – such as when the RCA Victrola killed the jukebox industry in 1907. It happened again when Sony-Microsoft-Nintendo shifted some $8 billion in (inflation-adjusted) dollars from coin-op video to consumer video. As Lenin once said: “When the time comes to hang the capitalists, they will sell you the rope.”
Still, it’s hard to blame manufacturers, distributors and operators for “going where the money is.” One leading operator recently confirmed to VT something that operators are not supposed to say. “My fellow operators are just not buying,” he admitted. “Many operators are getting near retirement, and they don’t have a son or daughter in the wings to take over the business. So instead of investing to maintain the business, they are taking money out of the business.”
“You know,” I told this operator, “if you guys don’t start buying new equipment in serious numbers, in a few years there may not be many companies left to make them.” His reply: “Yes, that is a concern for the real pros in the arcades and the street routes. But I regret to say that some operators wouldn’t miss the manufacturers if they did go away. Right or wrong, these operators seem to believe they can just coast along on what they have.”The better operators, of course, have a name for competitors like that: “My next purchase.”