The 80’s and early to mid 90’s were the halcyon days of arcades which found machines in abundance across chip shops, video rental stores, airports and also of course the arcades which were scattered across beach fronts, towns and cities. The arcades were a heady place, full of bright lights, arcade sounds and excited voices. The arcades machines occasionally changed and moved with the times and each new iteration of the latest ‘big game’ brought people in their droves to test their mettle. The arcades served as a social hub for people to practice, share and hone their skills- in short the arcades were a place to meet kindred spirits.
The arcades adapted to the growing pressure of more powerful home consoles on the late 90’s by bringing in the phenomenally popular dance games, which in one fell swoop brought in many traditional non- gamers at that time; females.
My initial arcade experiences were local, I would often visit the local video rental shop in the town (‘21st Century’) and watch in awe with my friends as these pro’s would play through to completion. It was in this way that I saw most of the ending of ‘Street Fighter 2’! I’m sure many of you have a similar story and this is what arcades bring out in gamers, feelings of belonging and nostalgia. I’m sure wherever there are gamers in the world there is a special place in gamer’s hearts about the arcade experience. However the arcade industry in the West has been in decline for the past decade if not longer. Funland in Trocadero London closed on July 2011 and the only real way to share in communal gaming which wasn’t online was through HMV and its Gamerbase extension at the back of its flagship store. Gamerbase held tournaments and competitions and promoted such events through facebook, Twitter and other social media but it too fell away.
Even though the arcade industry has been dealt some serious body blows, the highest profile being the closure of Funland I believe the talk of the demise of the arcade has been exaggerated. The gaming community who still care about the arcade experience have started to mobilize and the best example I can use is ‘The Heart of Gaming’, a recently opened arcade initiative in Acton, North London, which hopes to bring back the arcade experience to the people.
I spoke to the owner Mark Starkey about the death of the traditional arcade and he provided some insight;
It’s lovely to walk into a room and hear all those arcade machine noises, that is gaming nostalgia and people pay for nostalgia. The old arcade business model was outdated. The arcades were often run by old boys who didn’t see the arcade industry changing. Paying 50p, £1 or even £2 for a credit in game in which you might just last a minute wasn’t viable anymore, not when people had arcade quality graphics available at home on their computers. So my idea was to charge a one off entrance fee at the door and people can play as much as they like for 24 hours’.
As a gamer I’m sure we have all experienced this, the feeling of having a finite amount of money and making it last for as long as possible. The idea of a one off day fee is very simple but a definite game changer. It allows gamers time to play a wide variety of games as well as offer an opportunity to hone their craft and skill on specific games they like. During my 5 hours there I played and completed ‘House of the Dead 1’, ‘Gunspike’ (a strange ‘Mercs’ style game featuring Street Fighters Cammy) and ‘Ikaruga’. I played several rounds of ‘Street Fighter 4’ and was soundly defeated by my cousin, often without landing a blow! I also played a couple of rounds of Pacman and Donkey Kong.
This model of one-off payment is perfect for gamers as it allows them to go back to the games they like and get better at them, I dread to think how many continues I used in completing Ikaruga! Also I now want to get better at Street Fighter 4 and compete in the various tournaments and competitions which occur frequently and are streamed online via twitch.tv
Mark has stated that the aim of the HOG is;
… to create strong sense of community. You can play games and get better at them if you like but if you don’t like a game it doesn’t matter, it hasn’t cost you anything… this business model allows gamers to test out a wide variety of games. For example I never even heard of Gunspike but someone mentioned it and now we have it here, it’s a curio.
Whilst speaking to Mark about the new Computing curriculum I asked him about the increased emphasis on programming and developing. Mark became animated and spoke about how it would be good to show children how to fit in the circuitry and build an arcade rig.
We discussed the Raspberry Pi and the possibilities it opens up to children and Mark stated that he would like to develop HOG to include an educational aspect, even allowing for school trips to do classes on building and creating arcade units. I will be talking with Mark more about this as I develop the curriculum but the idea of getting children to programme a game in Scratch, Python or another language and developing a whole arcade unit sounds like a great project. This truly would allow the children to become game producers instead of consumers, which really appeals to me.
So the future of the arcade is more hopeful that the naysayers would have you believe, the arcades are not dead, they are merely evolving…