Where the games went

New video games are lucky to keep gamers’ attention for six months. Mass-produced cliches and unoriginal gameplay don’t last long the shelves. Very few extraordinary titles–Diablo, Counter-Strike, Quake, StarCraft–can hang on for a year or longer before being binned, but classics are frozen in time in the minds of gamers and at the arcades. Trends and clones come and go but the Galagas and Tetrises will always find players from the past.

“A whole generation grew up with those games,” says Southern Music Limited’s Showroom Manager Brian Verlaan. “Some classics have faded away but are slowly coming back.”

The selection of games at local establishments largely depends on their customers.

“Games are going to stay in locations where they’re being played,” says Verlaan. “You could put a Ms. Pac Man in a bar and it does nothing, but move it to another bar and get $200 a month. In a bar with a loyal clientele, a Golden Tee Golf or Buck Hunter could get $500 a month.”

Not surprisingly, the selection of video games is affected as much by the operators of gaming venues as their customers.

“Owners walk in [to Southern Music] and you can tell what kind of game they want,” says Verlaan. “The young guys want Golden Tee, Buck Hunter and Street Fighter-type games and the older ones want the Pac Mans. The really young kids want the Dance Dance Revolution.”

Although arcades are all but extinct in Calgary, arcade video games remain viable in places such as entertainment venues, travel waiting areas and local bars and restaurants.

“The number of games hasn’t decreased, the variety has,” says Verlaan. “With Golden Tee Golf and Buck Hunter, you see those everywhere, they’re taking the place of Pac Man or pinball machines.”

Verlaan notes that the only remaining pinball machine manufacturer, Stern, currently produces only one new model per year. Pinball machines, says Verlaan, have become a luxury novelty item in some homes.

The move away from pinball machines to more interactive driving and shooting games has also increased game prices from 25 cents in the 1980s to a dollar or more today.

“The biggest thing about the newer games is the size and elaborate interaction with the customer with much more than just a joystick,” says Verlaan. “Now we have double sit-down driving games, games that rattle and the gun games. As the interaction level increases and we maximize value for our customers, the costs of the games have also gone up, from a couple thousand to upwards of $10,000.”

Southern both sells and operates games for retailers. According to Verlaan, a Pac Man game would cost $2,500 to purchase or $0 to operate on commission. An average upright could cost $8,000 to purchase while a Dance Dance Revolution game costs $12,000 for a double unit, and some driving games cost up to $25,000.

The high cost of game machines is perhaps a reason for the decline of arcades. Southern has only two video game arcades in Calgary, one on 7th avenue downtown (see story, right) and one at the airport.

“It’s hard to say why the number of arcades has declined,” says Verlaan. “Some [arcade] owners were worried about vandalism and customers losing interest.”

Along with the cost and larger size of newer games, Verlaan notes retail space–an average of 5,000 square feet for the average arcades of the past–has become more expensive. Combined with increasingly sophisticated gaming options at home, many gamers are less reliant on arcades.

“The evolution of gaming consoles has definitely hurt us as well,” says Verlaan. “With the X-boxes, PlayStations and N64s, the type and variety of games available at home has increased. It used to be that Pac Man had colour and sound and you had to go to the arcade and pay money to play that. Now you can just play that on the PlayStation on the classics disc at home whenever you want to.”

Verlaan predicts the future of arcade games will likely head towards more interactivity that can’t be offered at home, for example in more sophisticated shooting and driving units that surround the player.

“The parity of what people want to play and what is available has been reached,” says Verlaan. “Everyone is looking out for new ideas, for things you can’t do at home. It’s not just about pushing buttons and joysticks anymore.”

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