Monday, April 22, 2002

The Smell That Surrounds You

Proving that hope and quarters spring eternal at the local arcade, Editor and resident cynic Mitch Borgeson brings us this interview with coin-op impresario Ryan Cravens. A tireless booster of all things arcade, Ryan is just the man to put a halt to Akumono's predictions of impending arcade doom and the lament he would surely write.

The sense of smell is a powerful mnemonic, one that can evoke palpable senses of place and history and transport you back, willing or not, to memories past. To this day, certain smells nearly incapacitate me with the associations and distant scenes that they carry. Perfume, Vicks Vapo-Rub, the oily smell of a baseball glove -- each chock-full of subconscious suggestion and the capacity to resuscitate distant scenarios I had thought long forgotten. For good or ill, smell brings with it a precious clarity, an olfactory enlightenment that clears up the synapses and gets them firing on all cylinders. And there’s nothing like a dose of old-fashioned Arcade Smell to crank up my remembrance engine to the mental red-line...

At best unpleasant, at worst revolting, the Arcade Smell is something that has haunted me on and off for twenty years. It is a strange amalgam of adolescent desperation and sweat, circuit boards choking and overheating on unchecked dust, and the metallic funk of a million quarters lost forever in the depths of a dirty Centipede machine. It’s filthy floors and spilled soda pop. Sweat-stained Metallica T-shirts and cigarette smoke. All of these jumbled together into a heady mixture impossible to erase from the dim corners of the unconscious.

And however repellant this odor may be in reality and to the uninitiated, its connotations in the realm of memory are, to me, legendary and beautiful. But, as so many childhood odors tend to do, the Arcade Smell was hibernating peacefully in a black crevice of my mind, best left undisturbed.

This sleeping, malodorous beast was grumpily awakened on an innocent trip to the Pak-Mann arcade, and it still has me in its clutches. You see, the specter of the Arcade Smell haunts only certain gaming establishments and thumbs its nose at all others. You will never stumble upon the Arcade Smell in the antiseptic, franchised environs of a GameWorks or Dave and Busters. Those wood-paneled, well-scrubbed yuppie havens, by their very nature, are anathema to the beast. No, the Arcade Smell seeks its harbor in the garish and gleefully foul environs of the neighborhood arcade. It revels in the sticky floors and the hazy light and the disenfranchisement of the independent corner arcade. This is its home, its perpetually neon-lit domicile.

Pak-Mann, sandwiched in between fast-food franchises and thrift stores, is the quintessential cave for the beast to inhabit. Dark and dusty, this arcade is a powerful experiment in atavism. Its patrons, predominantly male, slink from machine to machine, each greasy and grimy from the innumerable hands that have controlled it before. The games are a jumbled mess, with no discernible order. Most are falling apart, some completely broken, all with signs that advise the player that if it eats your quarter, well, tough shit. No games seem to have been manufactured after 1996, with two or three exceptions (Dance Dance Revolution and a LAN section being Pak-Mann’s primary concessions to the Now). The change man sits behind two inches of Plexiglas, disinterestedly taking your money and dispensing quarters. Real quarters! No fancy token crap or rechargeable “game cards” for this place. The pinballs are mis-aligned, games lack joysticks, burned-out monitors gaze at you morbidly, and everywhere is the Smell. It permeates the place, down to the very core.

The Smell, devilishly hard to ignore, worked its magic. Suddenly, it’s circa-1985 all over again, and for all its disgusting implications, it’s impossible not to love or remember. I was at sea in a mnemonic reverie, every lost fragment of arcade-going memory rushing back to the fore. Reagan-era remembrances of arcades long bankrupt sped through my mind. Where had they all gone? Why was this arcade, on the outer fringes of Los Angeles and so hard to find, the only place to evoke these thoughts and feelings in years? Is this the last sanctuary for the Arcade Smell? Is this, the independently owned and operated arcade, simply a doomed relic of the Information Age? Can the beast survive the corporate onslaught? Is the traditional arcade, that home to disenchanted teens everywhere, soon to be eulogized by those who had forgotten it was still around? Are arcades, as we have always known them, dead?

Unable to answer these questions simply, I started to examine the evidence before me. From my observations, the independent, neighborhood arcade such as Pak-Mann seems now an apparition of its former self in the face of increased competition from consoles, the Internet, and any other number of things that vie for kids’ entertainment dollars. Increasingly rare, they exist on the periphery where rent is cheap and expectations are low. Even in a city the size of Los Angeles, they are few and are weakly grasping for new sources of revenue. Many arcades seem to rely on the popularity of Dance Dance Revolution and its kind to attract players, forgetting the uprights and pinballs. Others, like Pac-Man, have made concessions to the PC era, installing LAN gaming sections for the Counter-Strike breed to play. Though LAN based gaming does add to the Arcade Smell (quite heavily, at that) it is an enormous departure from tradition and something to ponder. In contrast, mega-arcades and “fun centers” like Dave and Busters appear to be expanding aggressively and prospering. Why the shift? Are independent arcades irrelevant to all but the hard-core? Have consoles won the war between home and arcade? Have independent arcades, by being what they are, reduced their appeal to a minute and odorous audience? Are games like Dance Dance Revolution and BeatMania arcades’ only hope to compete with the consoles by providing some unattainable-at-home experience? Did the exit of gaming giant Bally/Midway spell out “Game Over” in huge flashing letters?

Not wanting to be a gaming Cassandra, I sought out one who could illuminate the inner workings of the arcade business and hopefully refute my apocalyptic prognostications. This search led me to an old friend who has been intimately involved in coin-op for as long as I’ve known him. As he is now managing his family’s arcade, his combination of a fresh perspective and familial knowledge of the inner-workings of the industry is hopefully more than enough to prove me wrong. In an email exchange, we did our best to hash out the problems that arcades face and their hopes for redemption.

Mitch Borgeson: As a person with a deep knowledge of the coin-op/arcade business,
could you give us a description of the general state of the industry and, briefly, why it is in such sorry shape?

Ryan Cravens: I have been involved in the arcade industry since age 13 and my family has been involved in the overall coin-op industry for over 35 years, that is, before the introduction of the video game. The arcade business does have it share of ups and downs and unfortunately we are in a pretty big downturn right now. The way that the arcade business has usually operated in the past, in the event of an economic upswing like we saw with techs and dotcoms a couple of years ago, the arcade industry suffers. The rationale behind that theory is, Mom and Dad have a little more money lying around and they can buy little Johnnie and Suzy the new Panasonic Rectangle or whatever console is hot at the time. However, if there is a slump in the economy, Mom and Dad don't have 400 bucks lying around to buy a console, controller and one game so they give the kids twenty bucks to go down the street and play games for a couple of hours. Unfortunately, in the recent recession we didn't see that type of reaction for a couple of reasons. There were three great consoles introduced to the North American Market
which took the wind out of the arcade sales. Secondly, there has not been enough product to come out to drive the gamers into the arcades.

MB: Have the major corporate chains and franchises (Dave and Busters, Gameworks, etc.) been affected by this downturn?

RC: The corporate chains are a completely different animal in comparison to the independent FEC (Family Entertainment Center). They have been hurt, reporting losses, but both of the aforementioned brands are still expanding. There are a couple of other brands that are doing some very aggressive expanding. The very well known Chuck E Cheese and another brand that is starting to makes some noise is Mr. Gatti's, which is coming close to opening its 200th location. With competition like this, it is hard to be an indie FEC owner.

MB: How have consoles and PC's changed the landscape of the arcade business? Now that console and PC graphics are equal to, if not better, than arcades, (a radical reversal from the old days when you went to the arcade to see the latest and greatest) how can arcades compete? Would this explain the popularity of Konami's Bemani and other games that simply cannot be replicated in the home (Police911, MoCap Boxing, et al)?

RC: I have been an arcade rat my whole life, that is how I was raised and it is sad to see that the coin-op industry is so far behind the home market. There is a reason for this. Companies like Atari (RIP), Midway (RIP) and Sega would come out with their own platform to create a series of games, then they would dump that platform after 2 or 3 titles and create a new platform. Not too cost effective and they would pass the expense down
the chain and it got way too expensive for the arcades. And the platforms that they would have to create to compete with the Cubes, Xboxes and PS2's of the world would be crazy because only one company would use it. So the manufacturers have said let's give them a unique experience, dancing games and full body simulation. The one thing that people tend to forget though, as much as I love video games, they are not the backbone of the arcade, the redemption side is the workhorse. Redemption is something you can never
replicate at home and kids love getting tickets and trading them in for prizes and guess what, families spend more money than teenagers.

MB: On that note, what would you say is the core demographic of the independent arcade? Young, disaffected teenagers? Are arcades doomed to the reputation of being the kind of place that young punks and hooligans call home? It's always been like that to an extent, but it seems to have gotten worse.

RC: Again, I believe my goal core is the family because they have much more money to spend and families don't mix well with the lovely group that you just so colorfully described. My focus is to bring in more families, but my location is dominated by the male teens, and I would have to say a big reason for that is the nature of the games. Most of the games are aggressive games that feature violence. The big mystery is the Dance games. I do not mean to hurt any feelings but I am surprised that so many guys play these games. I guess every guy secretly wants to be Dancing Queen only 17.

MB: In my recent arcade going experience, the only new games that arcades have had are the Bemani (Dance Dance Revolution, Guitar Freaks, etc.) games and others of that variety with a noticeable absence of new, more traditional arcade games (fighters, etc.). What's happened?

RC: There are only a handful of manufacturers left and the big fighting franchise (Street Fighter) will only make a few appearances because Capcom has focused on the home market because they make more money there.

MB: Thinking back to the old days, I remember when anybody could play a video game. Pac Man, Pong - these were playable by any Mom, Dad, or kid. Do you think that the intimidatingly complex nature of today's games has hurt the overall appeal of arcade gaming for those without the patience to learn? Or is this just a natural progression?

RC: You hit on a huge problem and that is why the coin-op industry as a whole has shifted to the bar market. The 3 major bar manufacturers -- Incredible Technologies, uWink and Merit -- all make games that are very easy to play (golf and touchscreen games). However, those types of games do not translate well to the younger kids. Let's face it, the younger kids are much more skilled than we were at that age.

MB: How, if at all, has the rise of emulation (notably, MAME) affected the arcade? Now that pretty much any game you can think of is playable on the PC, what is the incentive to go to the arcade?

RC: A lot of the people that use emulation software are teenagers, and even though they use those programs, they still come to arcades to get away from home. That is the one thing that arcades will always have going for them, kids can use it as an escape from home. And yes, the emulators have hurt us but there is a little bit lost in translation from joystick to keyboard arrows on Pac-Man. People still love to see that we have Ms. Pac Man in the original cabinet. One more thing that can never be duplicated on the computer is Pinball, and even though there is only one Pinball company (Stern) left, the games still get played.

MB: Where are the American developers and manufacturers? Did the exit of Bally spell the end for American coin-op? Will there be a rebirth? Why do the Japanese seem to
have such a stranglehold on the industry?

RC: platforms killed the American giant Midway/Atari/Bally. That is a big reason that the largest American manufacturer left is Incredible Technologies and the only game that they have been able to sell is the golf title, everything else that they try to bring to market fails miserably. The Japanese may have a stranglehold but the rebirth will come from Korea not the U.S. Korea is in the position that the Japanese were in 20 years ago. They are coming out with cheap games that earn pretty well. With companies like Andimiro and Sinko America leading the way, you will see the changing of the guard in 5-10 years.

MB: What are your thoughts on the recently announced Nintendo/Sega/Namco Tri-Force?

RC: The Nintendo Tri-Force project can do nothing but help the coin-op industry. Nintendo will be the biggest company in the industry and their name alone will help
spur sales. Even if the system flops, people will still come in and play it a few times.

MB: Finally, what, in your opinion, can be done to lift the coin-op and arcade industry out of its current doldrums? What, as someone who is now managing his first arcade, are the avenues available for you to pursue? With your fresh perspective, what are the simplest things that can be done to rescue this ailing beast? Can arcades ever regain the prominence they once held in our collective consciousness? Or are they doomed to a spot at the bottom of Pop Culture's dustbin until nostalgia kicks in at their absence? I sure as hell hope not.

RC: To make the arcades come back, I think people have to refocus on who is the core player. I am not saying abandon the teen angst, but remember there are other people out there that are willing to spend money. Make it fun for everyone by having redemption for the kids and tournaments on the DDRsand the fighting games for the teens. Do some promotions with the classics and pinballs. Try and include the family and the ex-arcadians and the current players. The arcade is like a bar for teenagers, they go there to interact with people. If they wanted to, they could play the game at home. But who wants to get blisters on their palms by playing with themselves all night long? Go out and mingle. I think that this is just a downturn, not the end. Tri-Force will help regenerate interest in the arcades, and, ultimately, it will be the responsibility of the owners to keep up the interest.

And so, the Arcade Smell may just live to see another day, to infect the mind of another generation with its pungent force of memory. The beast has been challenged many times; by the post-Atari backlash, by puritanical naysayers in the Mortal Kombat era, by PC’s and ever more powerful consoles, by financial instability -- but it has always emerged from its cave intact, if not unscathed. The Smell, the beast, and by extension, the arcade, has always managed to Hang On, in the face of great odds. Perhaps its enduring potency will, inevitably and necessarily, be diluted by families and minors driving Daddy’s SUV and the passage of time, but it will always be there, lurking, hiding, lying in wait for the zealous. Once we, the susceptible, discover it and recognize it, we can only await its infrequent reemergence as a fleeting, redolent sensation and heed its clarion call. The call of the arcade, of the disenfranchised, of the quarter-plunkers. In a world such as this, there will always be a place for the beast’s disciples, unwashed and grimy hands raised in tribute to a wavering, but still breathing ideal. We, the faithful will see to it that the arcade and its Smell will never die. Or so we hope….

Ryan Cravens manages “Quarters,” an independent arcade in Kirkland, Washington.