Just about any hospitality business has a few coin-op machines lying around. These are not gambling devices I’m talking about (which is a whole other story), but electronic gaming devices, commonly known as video games. While their inclusion isn’t the main feature of your venue, you’ll notice a few of them lurking in some corner of nearly every kind of hospitality business.
Managing them is one of those jobs that is usually done by the short-straw drawer. Nobody goes around with the job title “arcade manager” so it falls to a side responsibility for the entertainment coordinator, the purchaser, or maybe even the custodians. If it falls to you, you have the opportunity to quietly build a little side enterprise out of it, given that you know your games.
Many people tend to trivialize the humble video game cabinet, but actually they are a quite lucrative profit generator for the small floor space. The “golden age” of video arcades – roughly 1980 to 1995 – saw the video game industry rise to the number-two most profitable industry in the United States, second only to the movie industry. Classic video games drew crowds and lines around the block, and spawned sequels and spin-off movies, cartoons and comics, and whole fiction genres. Arcade games made the fortunes of Atari, Sega, Nintendo, and many other tech companies that are still powerful today.
One consideration is the noise, as well as other environment concerns. Games are noisy, and while the manufacturer settings allow you to control the volume, a bank of arcade machines is best kept in a separate room to themselves. This room should be clean, relatively dust-free, very dry, and on the cool side. The internals of video game machines are just like what goes into your computer, with motherboards and chip sets, and they need to stay cool and dry. If the fans inside the cabinet get clogged with dust and dirt, they can cease to function, and then cause a chip to burn up. You would also want some supervision of the area, which can be as simple as having the security guard poke his nose in on them twice per shift. Like all coin-op vending machines, arcade games are frequently the target of vandalism and theft.
Another concern is the rise of personal laptop computers and cell phones. Indeed, why bother selling people games for a quarter per play when they have all the games they want for free on their personal electronic devices? This fear is actually totally groundless; ask any video game enthusiast and they will tell you that even the simplest game is more fun on an arcade cabinet than it is on a phone or laptop. Portable devices have drawbacks for gaming; they have small screens, tiny memory, low-quality sound, and the control interface ranges from fiddly to abysmal.
Most maintenance is left up to whoever you contracted with to rent the machines, similar to the vending machine situation. If your business follows that policy, you will have a service contract, and be responsible for damage, theft, vandalism, and all sorts of minor annoyances. Most business owners just pick this option, however, because it gets all the details out of their hair. The downside of using a service vendor for your games is, you’re only getting about 20% of the profits you could be getting!
Did you know that you can buy used arcade machines for as little as a mere $25? Auctions all over the place move hundreds of machines per week, and most of the competition for them is hobbyists. For that price, who cares about maintenance? Buy it, run it and let it gobble quarters for you, then junk it and get another one. Of course, at the rock-bottom $25 price, the game will usually require some refurbishing and repair. If you have an engineer on staff, they might jump at the opportunity, as many people with an electronic knack like to work with arcade machines for the novelty of it. Machines in better condition can fetch a price into $1000, but by this time we’re talking about a four-player environment machine like a sit-down racing simulator.
The simple stand-up ‘upright’ cabinet or table-top ‘cocktail’ game takes up no more space than a refrigerator and can put that odd corner of your retail space which you never knew what to do with to work for you making you money. The upright cabinet is the cheapest, with not much more to it than a big wooden box, a circuit board, a screen, and controls. The cocktail models are the kind you still find in bars, with a table-oriented layout, very easy for two players to share from either side, and with a protective glass cover to prevent the obvious hazard of a spilled drink ruining the machine.
Arcade video games are experiencing a huge nostalgia run that is still mostly untapped. Anybody who was a child during the golden age of arcades will light up on seeing a really popular game from his or her childhood. They are not (and in fact never were) just for kids. Video games are an entertainment genre that spans all ages and cultures, as they are innocent, family-friendly fun that young and old alike from all walks of life can enjoy boxing arcade machine
Furthermore, the really popular games from ages past have a great nostalgic draw. Twenty years ago, these games were a dime a dozen, but now they are so rare as to be sorely missed. Increasingly, if the original game machine is simply unavailable (there’s hundreds in this category), the game can be emulated. There is one project, MAME, the Multiple Arcade Machine Emulator project, which is a Free Software project to maintain a single computer-platform emulator capable of playing game ROMs. This enables the restoration of original games whose owners have now gone out of business. These require any computer and monitor built into a cabinet and outfitted with appropriate controls. The emulating hobbyists have driven down the cost of supplying arcade classic games down to nearly nothing, and ensures that our history of electronic entertainment can be preserved for generations yet.