By Sara Hodon
“Gaming” has had a place in our recreational and cultural landscapes for decades, providing young and young-at-heart consumers with hours of diversion and entertainment. But thanks to the rise of home gaming systems and portable devices which allow consumers to access their favorite game at literally any time of day, the coin-op and redemption landscape has changed from a decade ago. Game distributors and FEC operators say the industry is trying to change with the times and respond to shifting consumer trends in order to remain competitive, especially with the ongoing popularity of sophisticated home gaming systems.
Sit-down and stand-up games have dominated the arcade and FEC scenes for decades and are still a draw for consumers at these venues. Roland Joyal, owner of Professional Amusements, LLC in Herndon, Va., says, “Historically, on my relatively small route, it would be sit-down games as the most popular. The rule of thumb in this business is, ‘If it doesn’t have a gun or steering wheel, it’s not going to make money.’” He mentions a few of the most popular sit-down games on his routes: “Any racing type game—two or more linked even better—such as Cruising Exotica or the newer variants, Tokyo Drift, Need for Speed, etc., or shooter booth type of games like The Walking Dead.” For stand-up, he says, “Shooter games or track ball games like Golden Tee Golf and Silver Strike Bowling, although they are not nearly as popular as they used to be. Classic games like Gallaga or Multicades do okay to some extent.” Joyal’s service area consists of two counties in Northern Virginia.
Stephen Belmonte, owner of Patriot Vending and Amusements in Amesbury, Mass., said consumer preferences on his routes are split: “Right now Connect 4 Hoops, a stand-up from Bay Tek, and Virtual Rabbids, a sit-down from LAI, are killing it by a wide margin. Connect 4 Hoops is a great competitive game. It reaches a wide demographic from small children [on up],” he explains. Patriot Vending services customers in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and southern Maine.
FEC operators are seeing different customer preferences. “I’d say stand-up games [are more popular] for sure, at least in our facility and for our demographic,” says Stephen Antonishen, general manager of SeaBase Family Fun Center in Greensburg, Pa. “I think customers are drawn to them because they’re usually quicker and more casual games that they don’t need to learn how to play. For us, we tend to like what the customers like, but we also prefer them because they take up less space than sit-downs, they’re easier to move around, and usually less expensive.” His most popular sit-down games include: “Mario Kart Arcade Grand Prix Deluxe is our most popular sit-down game. Popular stand-ups are Quik Drop, Crank It, and Paw Patrol. And, of course, ICE Ball FX is still a must-have. It’s virtually a guarantee that everyone in the arcade will play it at least once while here.” He said the sit-down games are typically used by “older kids, who for us are those age 8 plus, and accompanying adults. For us, it’s just the ones who can reach the controls from under the seat and understand how to play.”
Doug Roth, CEO of Scary Strokes Mini Golf and Family Entertainment Center in Waldorf, Md., says although stand-up games are popular in their venue, they’ve converted some of their stand-up versions into sit-down models. “We’re finding that sitting down increases playability—if the player is comfortable, they will sit longer,” he says. “We put barstools in front of some of our most popular games, such as our Willy Wonka game.” Among their most popular stand-up games are Ticket Ring and Connect 4 Hoops; their popular sit-down versions include Walking Dead, Cruisin’ Blast, and Iceman.
Whether its sit-down or stand-up games, Belmonte said one of the most obvious current trends is the physical size of the newer games. “Games are getting larger and larger which makes them more expensive,” he explains. “Virtual reality is hot but it’s still in its infancy. We’re also seeing an explosion of axe throwing, even though it isn’t coin-op.” And as they do, other trends are falling out of style. He adds coin/token games are quickly fading away. “We use Intercard in all of our locations,” he says. “That has saved us thousands of hard dollars every year. We have reduced our service calls by 95 percent by going coin-less and ticket-less.” Joyal says on his small routes, he is seeing a decline in usage in almost all areas except Internet jukeboxes and, to some degree, pinball. As for fading trends, “Bar-top touch screen games were ‘king’ for a long, long time, with a decade of rise …and a sharp decline with the advent of the modern large cell phone and tablet, which provide the owner with not only touch screen games, but other types of entertainment,” he points out.
From an FEC operator’s perspective, Antonishen says one of the biggest trends he’s seen is a more sophisticated gamer with very specific requests than in years past. “Everything has to have a big, bright screen. Kids today expect more because they have immediate access to much more interactive and addictive games than even 10 or 15 years ago,” he said. “Many of our games were based on apps before they were made into an arcade version and they all perform well. And although it’s not strictly an arcade game, we also installed a BEAM Interactive Game Floor a couple years ago which has been very popular. We regularly hear it’s [the] kids’ favorite thing here, especially on the younger side for ages 5 and under. So there too, it’s bright, interactive, and basically a big screen on the floor.” He says the older-looking carnival- and Boardwalk-style games are fading trends. “[They] get very little use and just make an arcade look dated. Some, like ICE Ball FX, might still be popular enough, but probably even there just because it’s the latest version and it’s an attractive, modern-looking game, but otherwise just about anything else that we haven’t brought in within the last five years or so is overlooked by customers in favor of the brighter, newer games with big screens,” he says.
As a relatively new FEC owner (Scary Strokes will be two years old in October 2019), Roth says they have increased their games by a wide margin since opening their doors. He was a bit surprised at how quickly the arcade portion of Scary Strokes grew in popularity and usage. “We started at 19 games and now have 29. The game play has stayed the same, but we’ve just brought in more games. We’ve gotten requests for certain games, and we try to stay on the cutting edge. We’re looking to add one to two new games every year. We’ve seen an uptick in people who come in just for the arcade, not the golf, so that’s been interesting, and we’re constantly asking ourselves ‘How do we increase the playability?’”
Staying current with trends and meeting customers’ needs are just a few of the ongoing challenges for coin-op distributors and FEC operators. Roth says, “Finding really good staff is a challenge. We’re an FEC so we have a younger crowd. Our goal is to provide the ultimate in customer satisfaction and experience, and we always try to get staff to maintain the standards we’ve set. Many of our customers comment on how clean our facility is, and we want our staff to keep up those standards of cleanliness. If a snack bar employee is told to scrub a pot, don’t just run it under the water—really scrub it,” he notes. Antonishen says he sees two major challenges for FEC operators: “One, as fast as technology is updating today, it will always be hard for facilities to stay on top of that fast enough to keep things fresh, fun, and relevant to new generations. Two, as labor costs begin to increase, automation is going to play a big part. We’re constantly looking for ways to minimize staff, and the more hands-off and low-maintenance something is, the more likely we will be to install it. If it needs an attendant or needs regular human-intervention, we’re really hesitant to give it a second look. So that, too, would likely be a strain on smaller businesses, as the big players are the ones that can more easily plunk down money for self-serve kiosks, redemption machines, and go cashless.”
As a route operator, Joyal said pinball is still something of an underground hit and has seen an uptick in recent years, but says, “The problem with pinball is, and always has been, maintenance. While it is somewhat popular in limited locations, it is hard to make a buck operating pinball because of the constant maintenance, which is why most operators have given it up. And those that still have it will resist placing a pinball machine on location unless their location absolutely insists on it to keep the account. Pinball techs are scarce and busy, and get paid well, so the cost of labor is high.”
Joyal said the industry will continue to evolve, and it’s up to game manufacturers, distributors, and FEC operators to evolve with it—or not. “The entire industry has gone through major changes in the past decade …no longer is it a “big deal” for kids and teens to look forward to going to an arcade …they have high tech games at home. Then there is the redemption type of games that have been increasing in popularity, where the entertainment value of the game is secondary to the tickets it will spit out to redeem for prizes.” It seems the most successful FECs have a number of attractions available to catch and keep customers’ interest. With so many other entertainment and recreation options available, it’s more important than ever to offer customers that “something extra” to get them out of the house and playing games at their favorite FEC or arcade.