The Change Game: The Hottest Trends in Coin-op Games Throughout North America May Surprise You

If you think that arcades are a thing of the past thanks to home entertainment systems like Xbox and Wii, think again. Never have arcades been more popular among such a wide range of gamers.

Look no further than Barcade in Brooklyn’s trendy Williamsburg section where old-school coin-op arcade games line a warehouse where one’s as likely to see hipsters engaged in a competitive game of Pac Man as friends sip pricey microbrews at the bar.

“We have about 34 games,” said Aaron Ashby, Barcade’s general manager. He says all of the games come from the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s and cost 25 cents per play with some of the more popular consoles being Ms. Pac-Man, Tetris and Galaga.

“These were the first,” said Ashby, “with eight-bit graphics. Everyone’s got a little nostalgia. I think there’s a response to the older games that have simpler graphics, and are difficult to play and master.”

He said these games are less about the story line and intense, almost life-like images that dominate today’s video gaming world, and more about competition. “These games are old, but they’re still about as tough as they can get. Generally speaking, you can’t get must tougher than Donkey Kong.”

And while many of the patrons at Barcade are old enough to remember these games from their first Atari and Nintendo home gaming systems, Ashby said many younger players are also finding a niche. “The younger kids missed out, but they are aware that this existed at arcades in the mall,” he said. And for the 30 and 40-somethings who may have played them the first time around, Barcade also gives them a place to relive the glory days – with a frosty adult beverage in hand.

A Family Affair

At the Amusement Expo this year in Las Vegas, several arcade managers and owners picked up tips for making the most of the coin-op business.

“I really enjoyed the seminars put on by Jim Chapman,” said Nikala Hunsinger, arcade manager at Big Al’s with two locations in Beaverton, Ore., and Vancouver, Canada. She attended two of Chapman’s seminars: “Merchandisers and Cranes: Are You Getting the Most from your Games?” and “Redemption Strategies for Now and the Future.”

“In our Big Al’s Beaverton arcade, we have Winner’s Cube and Road Trip, two very popular merchandisers and also two crane machines,” said Hunsinger. “Learning new ideas and ways to showcase these games have increased sales. For example, rather than the average toy or solar bobble piece inside of Winner’s Cube, try to market to every sort of guest who may be thinking of playing.”

She’s been rethinking prizes in the cranes to attract not only kids and tweens, but also teens and adults. “By putting gift cards in for specific stores a Dad may want to shop at, that might intrigue a father to play,” she said. “Same with every member of a family. Also, with the crane machines, facing every plush item forward to help kids see what they are trying to pick up may help their determination to continue playing.”
At both Big Al’s locations, Hunsinger said Big Bass Wheel, Spin ‘N Win, Wheel of Fortune, Deadstorm Pirates, Fire and Ice and Typhoon are the most popular games at the moment.

“Our main age range is the older kid coming in with parents,” says Hunsinger. “We have many teens that also come in on weekends and play, and many adults who enjoy playing our games, but the average is around 8 to 18 years old.”

In addition to demographics, Hunsinger’s paying close attention to the next big thing in coin-op. “Over the next couple of decades, the games will most likely get more technologically advanced,” Hunsinger predicted. “Most of them have already moved away from the traditional mechanical games, like coin pushers. A lot of arcades will probably lean more towards computer-driven video games rather than the simple redemption games.”

She expects that these games will also have many more bells and whistles. “Bigger screens, more flashing lights and more interactive controls are most likely going to be the way of the future,” said Hunsinger, who spends a lot of time seeking out vendors who can deliver and keep up with the most popular of these titles.

“A good start to finding vendors would be doing some research on the Internet for the most popular games, and finding who makes them,” she suggested. “A lot of times, the game manufacturers will be able to provide a list of vendors that are local in your area. Keeping in regular contact with them will definitely keep them in good spirits towards you. Fixing as many of the errors and problems in house is also a very good method.”

And the most important tip? “Cleanliness. No one wants to play a dirty game,” said Hunsinger. “Cleaning the glass, dusting the whole game, and disinfecting the buttons and handles are some of the daily cleaning we do to keep them running.”

Big Al’s also employs both a full-time and a part-time technician. “They are responsible for checking on any faulty behavior with the games. They are continually checking infrared sensors and controllers, wiring, accurate communications with our system server and verifying proper play of each game on a weekly basis. They also check ticket payouts, assuring every game is at a high enough percentage per play.”

Zen and the Art of Coin-op Repair

At Blackbeard’s Family Entertainment Center in Fresno, Calif., video games make up almost 40 percent of the overall arcade. “But the coin-op industry has really turned from video games to ticket and prize dispensing and redemption,” explained Blackbeard’s General Manager Joe Simmons.

Among the most popular video games are Terminator Salvation and Tokyo Drift, while ticket dispensing games like Big Bass Wheel Pro, Slam a Winner, Deal or No Deal and Winner’s Wheel make the most profit at the Southern California venue. And Winner’s Cube, Stacker and Road Trip, said Simmons, make the most in the prize redemption category.

During the more than 15 years he’s been attending the Amusement Expo, he admitted this year’s decent turn out was promising. “It’s always good to see the vendors face to face,” said Simmons. “As far as coin-op vendors and maintenance suppliers, we have been fortunate to build strong working relationships with Betson, World Wide Video, Happ Controls, Adamiro, 5 Star, and that list goes on and on.”

Simmons said Blackbeard’s makes it a point to have experienced coin-op technicians on staff. Collectively they have 40 years of experience. “We repair as much as possible in house and really try to limit what is shipped out for repairs,” said Simmons. One reason for this is to keep good relationships with vendors. The other reason is that when he does ship machines off for repairs, the turnaround time can be lengthy – which translates to profit loss when it comes to popular games.

“The industry will continue to evolve and it is very important to keep up,” he says. “It used to be as easy as kitting out cabinets every time a new Capcom game was introduced, but those days are distant memories. We have completely changed our mix of games as a result. Purchasing games and purchasing the right games takes a lot of homework. We research and network with other FECs as much as possible.”
He also admitted that using social media sites like Facebook is great for reaching guests and gamers.

The Next Best Thing to Leasing

David Dalpizzol, general manager of C.J. Barrymore’s Sports & Entertainment in Clinton Township, Mich., said the most popular coin-op games at the venue run the gamut between Big Bass, a Monopoly 8 player pusher and Barber Cut Lite.

“Merchandising games have changed the industry tremendously,” he said. “Games like Barber Cut and Winners Cube are great earners. We also have seen the introduction of some really great redemption games like Pop It for Gold Extreme and Big Bass. I think as long as the manufacturers continue to crank out innovative games like these, the future looks bright.”

Dalpizzol has implemented social media in recent years as a way to connect with gamers online. Not only does it help him discover new trends in today’s gaming, it’s a way to offer incentives to visit. He uses Facebook, Twitter, Groupon and Living Social the most.

“You must stay in tune with what’s happening out there because it’s moving so fast you will be left behind if you are not careful,” Dalpizzol said. Another way he stays ahead is by owning the games in the arcade. That adds up to an estimate 125 pieces of equipment with three employees on the payroll (or 100 labor hours).

“We own all our games,” he said. “We had a great 10-year relationship with Namco Cybertainment – I would definitely recommend them. As long as you have a good company, maintenance will be a non-issue. If you are unhappy with their maintenance routines, you are dealing with the wrong company.”

The Impact of Home Gaming Systems

At four of the Cici’s Pizza franchises Greg Costley owns throughout Tulsa, the trend has moved away from video games into cranes and other games where kids and teens can win prizes. And for Costley, who owns all the games and devices, the profits are way up. “I don’t have to split,” he said. “I get 100 percent of the revenue.”

Costley said since he started with Cici’s 18 years ago, the trend is moving away from video to redemption games. “We’re doing away with video games – kids have that at home,” he said. Instead, players want to pay for games where they can actually win prizes. “For them, to come in and put 50 cents in a machine and win something, that’s more enticing,” he said. “I just bought a whole bunch of cranes and I have some where you win every time.” For many, a dollar per play guarantees a prize, like popular nobby and puzzle balls. He also licenses plush toys and top-tier prizes like iPods.

He said a friend of his who leases these same games has watered-down prizes because of having to pay out the split in profits, so he considers himself ahead of the game, so to speak. For Costley, it’s not unusual to ask his own teenagers what games are popular. These days he has between 14 and 19 games in each franchise (with gaming space ranging between 300 and 600 square feet). Over the years he admitted he’s learned to merchandise better. “When I started making it so people can win more,” he admitted, “my revenue went way up.”

Today, it’s not unusual to collect $10 and $20 bills from the machines.

And as far as the video games he still carries, like the new Terminator and Super Car games, he intends to trade up every few years to avoid maintenance costs.

“I used to have 40 video games,” he said. “Now I have 11. The rest are cranes, stackers and gravity hills.” He said simply by changing the names of the games – and the prizes therein – customers appreciate it as a whole new experience.

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