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What's New?

Posted On: 6/28/2012

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The amusement industry has a complicated and paradoxical relationship with the concept of newness. Some leading trade members believe that such staples as music, pool, countertops, darts, etc., require only periodic updates to remain competitive. Others believe industry growth demands offering new experiences that consumers cannot get at home -- from large motion simulators to a unique blend of birthday parties, fun food and amusements at family entertainment centers (all promoted with the latest social media).

Which side of this debate is right? Both sides can point to strong evidence that their viewpoints are deeply grounded in American culture and character.

For example, Americans clearly enjoy the safety, comfort and familiarity of old favorites. Steven Spielberg once said McDonalds' Big Mac is phenomenally popular because it offers "the ultimate repeatable experience." Yet, ever since Ben Franklin invented swim fins, Americans have been in head-over-heels in love with novelty. We're excited about the latest and greatest thing.

So what is the answer to this conundrum of staples vs. novelty? Should industry professionals simply embrace some of each? Also, can each company decide for itself how much change to adopt and when?

I believe the reality is more complicated.

To flourish, the amusements industry as a whole -- as well as each individual company -- requires a sophisticated mixture of novelty and tradition within each and every product, sector and category. The secret of success is offering "familiar experiences wrapped in shiny new exteriors."

The movie industry has mastered this dynamic. These days, traditional characters like vampires and superheroes are jazzed up with 3D cinematography, digital sound and ever more eye-popping special effects. Old content, new wrapping, big box office.

The amusement industry has partially mastered this approach. In bars and taverns, music, pool, darts, touchscreen videogames and so on are continually refreshed with new technology, new content and new promotions. In FECs, redemption games and prize counters are continually updated with new game themes, new technology and fresh prizes.

Yet more is needed. This industry has experienced 125 years of boom and bust cycles, driven by a predictable pattern.

Phase one: Some entrepreneur finds a way to put exciting technology before the public that they can't afford to buy at home. (Think recorded music in 1877; amplified sound in 1928; electronic pinball in the 1970s; and videogames in the 1980s.)

Phase two: Prices come down. Now Joe Public can afford to purchase his own Victrola, hi-fi set, transistor radio or home videogame console for his living room. The amusement industry loses steam, profits and members.

Phase three: The industry retreats into classic machines -- novelties in the 1900s; cranes in the 1920s; redemption games today. We mark time with these products until some expensive new technology comes along that can be adapted for public entertainment at prices which operators can afford, but players can't. Then a new boom begins and the familiar cycle is repeated.

But in the past 20 years, that cycle appears to have largely broken down. Many new technologies have gone straight to consumer use: iPods, cellphones, the Internet and social media to name a few. Other exciting developments have simply not been successfully adapted for industry use. Remember hologram videogames? How about virtual reality?

Arguably, the sole exception has been digital jukeboxes. But they are now a decade or more beyond their initial launch; and some say their introduction in the late 1990s was a decade overdue. Increasingly, iPhones and other mobile platforms are displacing digital jukeboxes in some markets.

Back in the "Mad Men" days, the president of a leading Madison Avenue advertising agency summoned his creative team for a meeting. "I'm tired of the word 'new,'" the agency chief proclaimed. "Let's come up with something fresh and different. We need a new word for 'new.'"

The team spent months testing alternative words and phrases in focus groups. They tried "unprecedented," "first-ever," "novel," "never-before," "first-time," "advanced," "improved," "fresh," "different," "updated" and "latest thing."

Finally they reported back to the boss. "We have bad news, chief," they said. Consumers did not respond to any other adjective as strongly as they responded to the word "new." Nothing else caught their attention as quickly. No other word engaged them as intensely.

"In short," the agency team concluded, "there is no new word for 'new.'"

Just as there is no substitute for the word "new" in advertising, there is no substitute for new concepts, new technologies and new modes of consumer experiences in the amusement business.

I have no idea what the next "new" new thing will be for this business. But all signs suggest we'd better get busy finding it.