Arcades Of Future Past

Posted On: 2/12/2015

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TAGS: Vending Times, Vending Times editorial, vending industry, coin-op, vending machine, coin machine business, office coffee service, vending machine operator, micro markets, Alicia Lavay, arcades, coin-op news, amusements, Nathan's, landmark arcades, Chuck E. Cheese's, Star Worlds Arcade, Patrick O'Malley, Walter Day, Barcade

Alicia Lavay, vending

Nathan's, a famous landmark where I grew up in Oceanside, Long Island, closed its doors in early January 2015. They'll be moving down the road, but the 1956 landmark location was a part of the history I share with many old friends I still have from my high school days. It was a place where after a beer or two (or 10), you went to grab some food and play a videogame in the arcade. The restaurant will reopen in its new location early this spring, but rumor has it that the arcade will not. This made me feel nostalgic, because Nathan's without an arcade just won't be the same. In fact, when I was a kid, Nathan's also had a small amusement park, called Fluffyland, which was operated by the same now-third-generation operator who ran the gameroom.

Of course, this is the not the first gameroom to close its doors. But it made me wonder: why have a few videogame locations survived, even in today's environment where most young kids are playing videogames on their handheld devices and mobile phones?

It also occurred to me that this third-generation operator was successful in doing what many people grappled with in the late '70s: getting games into the fast-growing quick-service restaurant chains, whose local managers often were prevented by the terms of their franchise agreements from contracting with local operators. While Nolan Bushnell was the first to propose the operation of pizzerias with integral arcades, some people found that they could get a similar result by teaming up with a local restaurant to develop a gameroom.

The pioneers of the original videogame arcades tried very hard to keep customers from bringing food and beverages into the facilities because they feared that people would spill drinks into the games. At about the same time, Nolan was putting the finishing touches on Chuck E. Cheese's Pizza Time Theater, because in his view, videogames basically had hit a wall. They sold entertainment in little blocks of time, he said; you would play a game, then either play it again or go do something else. While annual videogame revenue had surpassed that of movie theaters, as he had been predicting for years, he noted that a movie theater extracts a substantial sum of money from you and then entertains you for a reasonable amount of time.

Nolan wanted to offer an "experience" that would keep customers entertained for an hour and a quarter, cost them $5 (this was 1977) and persuade them that it had been worth the money so they would come back and do it again. This was long before Starbucks and Apple had popularized the term "experience" to describe the intangible benefit they offer that makes people eager to pay premium prices.

Meanwhile, there is an arcade in DeKalb, IL, called Star Worlds Arcade, founded by Patrick O'Malley in January 1985. According to videogame historian Walter Day of Twin Galaxies (Ottumwa, IA), this venue has the distinction of being possibly the last existing authentic, vintage neighborhood arcade -- an arcade that has just videogames and flippers. (It does cater parties, a concession to today's market.) It may occupy only 1,000 square feet., but it is always packed and has become a national landmark by providing an experience for young and old. And, most importantly, it is about to celebrate its 30th year of being in business.

People stop at this arcade when they are passing through the area. And parents will bring their children to Star Worlds Arcade just to show them what an authentic arcade used to look like, back when they were kids. A number of contemporary startups, like Brooklyn, NY's Barcade, specifically cater to people who enjoyed the old videogames with their limited color palettes and low-resolution graphics.

This got me thinking -- what is the next new "experience" that will make consumers eager to pay more? If the kids today are just discovering the Rolling Stones, and Aerosmith can have a resurgence by doing remixes with rap artist Run D.M.C., is retro back in vogue? It certainly seems to be, for pinball machines; how about videogames?

Just look at our smartphones for proof we are hung up on the past; Throw Back Thursday hashtags punctuate our Facebook posts; and Timehop, an app that reminds us exactly what we were doing this time last year, two years ago or four years back, is topping the download charts.

While today's consumers like new technology, a large number of them also like to relive experiences that they enjoyed in the past. If we focus exclusively on the Next Big Thing, we may be missing potential customers for the things amusement operators know how to do.