The Great Arcade Comeback & What it Means for Gaming

Ars Technica recently ran a feature called “The surprising, stealth rebirth of the American arcade” that delves into one facet of “social gaming” that in recent years has been largely overlooked: the arcade as a social hub. Nowadays most of us associate arcade games with seedy hotels, movie theater lobbies, and the occasional mall-based establishment, where they still exist but are kept relatively out of the way. Back in the ’70s and ’80s, however, arcades were an integral part of the social scene, a cheap way to blow off steam after a hard day at work.

This kind of “social gaming” never totally died out, but the prevalence of home video game consoles definitely dug into their popularity. The article, however, notes that in recent years, arcade gaming has started to see signs of a comeback. While this may be an indication of the importance of games in social gatherings, I prefer to see it another way: social gatherings are one of the driving factors behind people playing video games.

What makes arcades so interesting is that they are frequented not only by people who have made some kind of expensive commitment to video games by buying a dedicated game console, but by the Average Joe (and Jane) who just want to have a good time. This is critical because it means that arcade games may hit demographics that otherwise may not have been described as “gamers.” They fall in that group that Nintendo has targeted as the “expanded audience,” those who do not play games but may be convinced to given the correct set of circumstances.

A good example of a recent success story is Insert Coin(s), a “videolounge & gamebar” in downtown Las Vegas that can hold up to just shy of 300 customers at a time – and frequently sees lines going out the door. Others include the ZAP arcade nearby Minneapolis, Brooklyn’s Barcade, and 20 other major dedicated arcades that have opened up in the last two years. That may not seem like a lot, but it’s a huge turnaround from the decline that began in the ’90s.

How do arcades draw these players in? Aside from the obvious factors such as the low cost of entry – a few quarters versus upwards of $200 plus the cost of games – for today’s wave of arcade owners, success means two things.

First, it means providing some other incentive for people to visit apart from the video games. This typically means establishing a good bar scene, serving tasty food, delivering solid live entertainment – in short, the game-winning factor is the creation of a gaming environment geared around socializing in general. The presence of a good social scene drives the popularity of the games.

The other factor to consider is whether the presence of games improves the satisfaction of the patrons. Do customers actively participate in the games?

Doug Marks, owner of the Emporium Arcade & Bar in Chicago, had this to say about maintaining a strong arcade scene:

What makes us unique is the games — they’re fun and people still play them. But after a while, if you don’t have a good bar, you’re not going to have people keep coming back. I think it could even be more important to get the bar aspect right than the arcade aspect, because it has to be a place people enjoy going for more than one reason. After a while they’ve played all the games… but if it’s a place they know they can get as good a beer as any place in the city and [also] play games, then that’s what makes it stand out.

We could be completely full to capacity and all of our tables will be open—no one is at the tables because everyone is out playing games. Any other bar I’ve ever been to in my life, the tables are the prime real estate, not the games.

One of the messages we get from a lot of the people that are here is that they’ve never been to a bar where people are so happy before. It’s a very laid back, fun atmosphere where people are just running around with big smiles on their faces playing any games they can get hands on because they’re just having a good time.

How does this pattern relate to other forms of gaming, specifically home console and PC games? I think it has a lot to do with the role of the television in the household and the Internet boom.

The first massively-successful home console was the Nintendo Entertainment System, which sold itself as a TV machine around which the family could gather to play together. The highest profile games released in the system’s early life mostly consisted of arcade ports and multiplayer games like Super Mario Bros. (it supported 2-player) and the NES sports line – in other words, social games.

Super NES followed the same pattern (Super Mario World, F-Zero, Gradius III), and almost all of Wii’s biggest-selling games (Wii Sports, Wii Play, New Super Mario Bros. Wii) continued the trend. Wii is particularly noteworthy thanks to its reputation in connection with social gatherings. It stands to reason, then, that in terms of home consoles it was Nintendo’s ability to tap into the home as a social gathering place that led the company to its greatest successes.

For PCs, the growth to massive success came with the rise of the Internet, which helped propel games like StarCraft, The Sims, and Minecraft to stardom. I don’t think I need to elaborate much on how deeply the Internet is connected to social interactions and community; the popularity of online multiplayer should speak for itself.

What about Sony and Microsoft? I think the popularity of Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, and their biggest games in particular, came about as a result of leveraging both the living room and the Internet for social gaming. The most popular multiplayer games – Call of Duty, Halo, and so on – feature both strong local play and robust online. They’re appropriate for both kinds of social play.

More recently, we’ve seen a shift from game consoles and PCs to other devices like smartphones and tablets as well as social networks like Facebook. Given the previous avenues through which games gained popularity, this only makes sense. Place games within specific social spaces, in these cases the devices that people use to communicate with others on the go and the social networks where people keep track of their friends, and you’re bound to capture a pretty large audience.

So, like the arcades, home console gaming, PC gaming, mobile gaming, and social network gaming all have one thing in common: they all rose to prominence when games were positioned at the centers of social interaction.

That leads us to the other half of the equation for the success of the arcades: the games that seized the biggest popularity were the ones that did the best job at fitting into the communities where they tried to belong. In other words, the content had to fit within the social context.

Arcade games are very successful at this because arcade games (like sports) are easy to pick up and are as fun to watch as they are to play. The best-selling Nintendo games were successful because they were oriented around those arcade values and were family friendly. The best-selling online multiplayer games add strong online services to the features that already made multiplayer great. And the best mobile and social networking games are the ones that are closest in character to their arcade ancestors.

Success in the next generation is going to depend on how well future hardware and software is able to position itself in relationship to sites of social interaction. I can’t really comment on what Sony and Microsoft will do next, but Nintendo has already taken some preemptive strides that are very intriguing.

With Miiverse, they’ve tried to localize social interaction within the gaming space itself rather than placing themselves within existing social environments. Everyone who plays games on their Nintendo system will have access to a community of others who play those same games (and more) right from the game console. Meanwhile, they’re still making efforts to improve their system’s utility within the home social sphere while enhancing its capabilities for core online play. And, while the industry may have its own thoughts on Nintendo Land, it’s very much a descendant of multiplayer arcade games in a similar vein to Wii Sports.

Not only that, but Nintendo has responded to one of the key limitations of current game consoles: their dependence on the television. Nintendo has given the famous example of family members no longer having to fight over who gets to use the TV, but I think the relationship between video games and the television runs deeper than that. What if my wife and I want to watch TV, but don’t want to sit through the commercial breaks? Now we can easily pick up a game on the GamePad instead. My wife likes to sleep in pretty late whenever she can, but I’m an early riser and I often want to play games in the morning. It’s much easier not to disturb her if I can just plug a headphone jack into my Wii U controller and play quietly.

What does this have to do with social interactions? Not much, admittedly – but what it does achieve is greater utility for game consoles within shared spaces. Knowing Nintendo, I very much doubt they’d make this kind of move without some market data to back it up. The question is whether play within shared spaces is a strong enough proposition to draw in families. Judging by the popularity of handheld video games, which despite their portability are often played within the home anyway, I’d say there’s some potential there.

If there’s anything I think is worth taking away from the arcade revival, it’s that the positioning of video games in relationship to the lifestyle of the consumer – and most critically gaming’s role in social interactions – that creates the biggest success stories. And I think that’s going to be the most important truth to examine as we push forward into the future of video games.

Check out the original article at Ars Technica: “The surprising, stealth rebirth of the American arcade”