To me, who had most of my early youth in the 2000’s, an ‘arcade’ was a sad-looking dimly-lit liminal space attached to your local SkyCity cinema, or, in some cases, Burger King. Perhaps showing my ignorance to the situation, they were characterized by severely out of date Sega racing cabinets (where the Nissan Skyline GTR was the new car), and your certified arcade classics like air hockey, claw games, and classic joystick/button shooters.
Despite having generally solid core gaming prospects, arcades floundered in obscurity as the 2000s saw the peak of the PlayStation 2 generation, where gaming was generally, at most, a two-person affair. Despite never owning a console until the 2010s, I have fond memories of the Nintendo 64, and there’s nothing quite like the nostalgic feeling of this sound sitting in front of a CRT TV early on Sunday morning.
I knew that arcades weren’t what they once had been in the west even then. The primacy of the arcade as a place to play video games peaked in the 1970s/1980s before home game systems like the Famicom (a.k.a. the Nintendo Entertainment System) hit the scene and became affordable for households. Really, this is my parents generation. The interesting thing about it is that while the primary driver for kids to go to arcades in the 1980s was access to gaming in an affordable manner, when you read people reminiscing about their experiences there today, they emphasize the notion of going down to the arcade with friends, and competing to get the best high-score (for that cabinet) amongst the gang. In this way, I see arcades as a sort of ‘collective’ gaming experience, despite most games being typically single or two-person multiplayer.
Despite the allure of a collective gaming experience, this wouldn’t stand in the face of affordable consoles and then, ramping up primarily in the 2010s, remote multiplayer over the internet. These new modes of play offered sufficient human connection to enable a dynamic multiplayer experience while being more convenient, and offering unbeatable value in terms of $-per-minute gameplay.
Tragically, this has delivered a jugular strike to the arcade industry in the west. Thousands of arcades have since shuttered from their peak in the late 1980s, so significantly so that for me in NZ, an arcade was just something in the cinema to do before the film started, as opposed to it’s own proud destination.
The Arcade Strikes Back
Did you expect the arcade juggernauts to take this lying down? Little known to most of us in the west, the people behind arcades have actually done something to modernize their product in the 30 years that has elapsed. In Asia, particularly Japan, arcades never quite died like they did in the west. They too suffered from the mighty Famicom, but managed to hold on relatively well and retain significant audiences. There are several reasons for this in Asia:
- Smaller living spaces encourages people to do things outside the home more
- A significantly more PT dependent culture encourages engagement along routes of travel to PT stations - for example, kids walking from school to the station are much more likely to stop by the arcade, instead of ‘going there’ in a car
I would like to think that the third reason was that the arcade companies - namely Sega, Konami, Bandai-Namco Amusement (henceforth referred to as SeKoBan) among others, actually innovated and delivered product features that their users desired.
Innovations in Arcade Gaming
Bringing your play data with you
One recognizable trademark of arcade machines between the 1980s and the early 2000s was that during their attract modes they would present a list of high scores, where people with three-letter names could show off how they were the best at this arcade game on this particular cabinet. This enabled people to keep a verifiable running record of their skills - which worked, provided you didn’t move anywhere (or they didn’t reset the cabinet’s high-scores).
Bandai-Namco has solved this several ways since the 2000s. An early example was a ‘Tuning Card’, usable with the Wangan Midnight series (not related to Midnight Club), a paper card with a magnetic strip. These ‘Tuning Cards’ stored the entire player state on them - meaning you literally carried your save data with you from cabinet to cabinet. If you lost the card? There were options, but they weren’t ideal. Magnetic save cards were typically unique per game, and not very durable, requiring you to carry a stack of them should you wish to hold accounts for multiple games.
But, with the proliferation of the internet, there was the possibility that one could have their high-scores stored with the arcade companies. This isn’t so much to enable the best in the world to dominate the top of every cabinet in the globe, but more for individuals to track their own progress, and earn rewards for continued patronage. It was easy to store high-scores centrally and have cabinets dial in - high-score and play data is low-overhead - but how to have players identify themselves? Typing in usernames and passwords would be arduous - especially when your main input device is a steering wheel.
With the rise of NFC, SeKoBan and others moved to capitalize on this and brought out ‘IC cards’ which could be tapped against readers to log you in. Play data is pulled from their servers, and you can replace your IC card if you lose it, with no data lost. Bandai-Namco’s card is called a Bana Passport, and Konami’s card is called an e-Amusement Card. These IC cards are global, which means that theoretically I could roll into an arcade in Japan, and log in just fine with my scores, rewards, and unlocks achieved in New Zealand.
In recent years, Sega, Bandai-Namco, Konami, and Taito have banded together to create an ultimate IC card, Amusement IC. Depending on if your game of choice supports it, you can use any IC card with the Amusement IC logo on it on any game that also supports Amusement IC. In the near future, you might only need one card for everything.
Asynchronous Online Multiplayer
Arcade companies have been looking into ways to bring the solo online multiplayer experience to arcades. The issue with multiplayer is that generally it is a synchronous affair, where players engage simultaneously experiencing the other players actions and responding to them. This requires all participants to be present simultaneously and to give the same time commitment. This is considerably more feasible in the home, where the lack of having to go places to play allows for longer, more spontaneous gaming sessions. Going to the arcade requires commitment, especially if your local arcade is a bus ride away.
But multiplayer gaming is just simply better. Real people provide dynamic, engaging, challenging gaming experiences. Competing against the PC in many games is alright at best, with the quality of computer players varying by game genre (a convincing Civilisation V opponent is much easier to develop than a convincing CounterStrike opponent).
So the issue arises in how SeKoBan can balance the feasibility of gathering friends, with the desire of the quality gaming experiences provided by multiplayer gaming.
A solution here is found, again, in the Wangan Midnight Series, by repurposing a traditional racing game mechanic: time trials. Many racing games feature a time trial mode, where the player can race against their previous performances by racing a ‘ghost’ - typically a transparent car with no collision which one has to beat round the course in less time. However, Bandai-Namco have repurposed time trials by making the ghosts other player’s previous runs - in a game mode they call ‘Ghost Battles’. This creates an asynchronous multiplayer experience.
One can enrol themselves in the system once they have completed a race, after which other players can race your ghost at any time in the future. Players get rewards for playing Ghost Battles, including the ability to collect stickers off your opponents should you win. Ghost Battles are matched to players by skill level and car performance, but players can fine tune to race specific ghosts, even down to your enrolled friends, or players from specific locations.
In Ghost Battles, the location, date and time of the ghost recording is displayed while you select your ghost to race. It’s an exciting experience to think you are battling someone who completed this race on the other side of the world - last night. Or race someone from the local arcade in the country over. While we are used to playing with people from Europe and the likes in certain MMORPGs, there’s an exciting level of realism to get the exact arcade and time one recorded their ghost session - I feel more connected to that person, despite not even playing the game at the same time.
The game tracks your Ghost Battles wins and losses. To date, I have won twice, and lost seven times, to people from Australia, the Philippines, and Japan. Such is life…
Check back later for Part 2, where we discuss more innovations by SeKoBan and others.