Aussie Arcades: Playing Into the Future

In this feature, GameSpot Australia investigates the state of our nation's once-favored social hangouts.

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You can find a game arcade on just about every street corner in the neon playgrounds of Tokyo, Seoul, and Singapore, but in Australia, arcades have been going out of fashion since the early '90s. Only a handful of dedicated game arcades still remain in capital cities across the country, and with an increasing number of cabinets collecting dust in the corners of bowling alleys and movie theatres everywhere, the once-lucrative arcade amusement industry in Australia looks set to breathe its last breath.

Dreaming Big

Zak Athanasiadis played his first pinball machine at the age of 6, inside a low-lit arcade next to his father's fruit shop in the Latrobe Valley, east of Melbourne. He spent most of his early teens dropping coins inside Pac-Man and Space Invader machines before taking up computer programming in high school to learn how to make his own games. He studied computer science and applied physics at RMIT, hoping to one day join Australia's then-booming game development industry. And then, while bartending at a St. Kilda pub late on a Friday night in his early 20s, Zak had an epiphany.

"We had a few pinball machines in the pub, and the ball was always getting jammed on a Friday night because so many people played it. But the guy responsible for fixing the machines wouldn't come until Monday morning. So one night, I asked him to leave me the keys to the machine. I'd been hanging around arcades since I could walk, so I was pretty certain I could work out how to un-jam a ball. But he got angry at me because I was only 21 and thought I knew everything. He said to me: 'If you think it's that easy to run pinball machines, then why don't you buy your own?'"

So he did.

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Zak has made a living from importing game arcade cabinets to Australia.

Zak now owns and runs Zax Amusements, the largest distributor of coin-operated video game arcade machines in Australia; he owns and runs about 800 machines in hotels, cinemas, bowling alleys, and dedicated arcades like Time Zone and Playtime across Melbourne. The company imports new and used machines from Japan, Taiwan, and China and also exports to the US and Europe.

When Zak first started the business, pinball was where it was at, but after spotting the very first Tekken arcade machine in an arcade in Melbourne in 1995, Zak scrounged together A$30,000 and bought 10 machines from Japan. He placed them in video stores, 7-Elevens, milk bars, and pubs around the city. His tenacity paid off: Tekken became a sensation, and Zak's business thrived.

"Because I was an active gamer, as I am today, every time I went to a trade show, I could tell what would sell and what wouldn't. It's very rare for me to assume something will make money and it doesn't. I know straight away."

Big Buck Hunter is a good example. According to Zak, it remains Australia's most popular arcade game, due in large part to the fact that unlike other arcade games, it's not achievement based: Every player is guaranteed the same game experience no matter how good they are. But with only two or three dedicated arcades like Time Zone and Galaxy World remaining in each capital city, old-school arcade games like Street Fighter, Tekken, Sega Rally, and Time Crisis are becoming increasingly harder to find.

"Arcades are no longer a destination business. No one wakes up and says: 'I'm going to go and play a driving game.' You could argue shooting games were popular up until a year or two ago, but now, you have the Wii and Kinect slowly edging those out."

Zak has changed his business accordingly, moving away from video game machines toward ticket redemption games like claw machines, basketball, and air hockey. In Zak's mind, this is the way of the future for Australia's once-thriving arcades.

"Sure, the occasional video game--a new fighting game, a new driving game, etc.--will make it into an arcade here and there, but it's the ticketed stuff that will keep arcades in Australia open. It's a different story in countries like Japan and Korea, where there is definitely an amusement centre culture. In Australia, however, our culture is to go to the pub and have a drink."

"I think that arcades in Australia have a dim future--the quality and availability of titles on consoles keeps improving. As soon as other factors start pulling players away, it doesn't fare well."
This lack of certain ingrained cultural behaviors has been the biggest contributing factor to the decline of gaming arcades Australia wide. The Good Games Store (GGS) on Broadway in Sydney's CBD recently removed all of its arcade machines to make room for the more profitable non-electronic gaming side of the business: board games, card games, role-playing games, and tabletop miniatures games. GGS co-owner Scott Hunstad says the concept behind the store originally revolved around the potential for crossover between the gaming mediums. What ended up occurring is the opposite: The arcade players and tabletop players kept to their own areas of interest, and as business grew, Hunstad realized which area was the least profitable.

"Our business model focuses on player space and community interaction, and as such, more than half of our stores' floor spaces are devoted to game-playing areas," Hunstad says. "When we first started, we had a little more flexibility with our extra space and the arcade game machines were a good fit; we're now in a situation where every square meter counts and we just needed that space for our retail business to operate."

"I think that arcades in Australia have a dim future--the relative price of rent is always rising and the quality and availability of titles on consoles keeps improving. With any gaming community, you need that critical mass, and as soon as other factors start pulling players away, it doesn't fare well."

Arcades once represented a large part of Australia's urban culture in the 1980s and early '90s, with cities like Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane, and Adelaide sporting as many as 10 arcades each in their heyday. Their popularity came from the ability to successfully re-create schoolyard conditions without the oppressive undertones: a place for young people of all ages to come together and exercise their competitive streaks in a fun, social environment.

According to RMIT media and technology lecturer Christian McCrea, the global decline of arcade culture past the mid-'90s was a direct result of a lack of new and interesting arcade machines, as well as a general overreliance on physical gimmicks inside arcades.

"In Australia, we experienced a huge wave of Americanization in the 1990s that was quite unlike what had happened before. This pulled people toward different uses of public space," McCrea says. "At the same time, Asian youth migration and children of second-generation Asian families were influencing arcades with highly popular Japanese games such as Dance Dance Revolution, ParaParaParadise. So by the late '90s, Australia's arcade scene was a mix of ethnicities, competitive Street Fighter and King of Fighters scenes, and dance and rhythm games."

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Australia doesn't have the same kind of arcade culture as countries like Japan.

But ultimately, it all comes back to culture. Arcades are fundamentally about spending time with others in public, something McCrea says is increasingly counter to the Australian idea of leisure. Originally, arcades in Australia thrived near beaches, rivers and piers; these days, Australians have found different ways to spend their time together.

"The arcades that are surviving combine the delights of the mechanical age, the best social video games, and teenage photo booths. Places like Time Zone have largely shrunk to a miniature version of themselves, and the big commercial arcades, such as Galactic Circus in Melbourne, give a lot of their real estate to mechanical games, which date back to the '50s and '60s in design."

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A Fighting Chance

Dennie Renessis, venue manager of Galactic Circus, says the stream of clientele at the arcade has been steadily growing, not declining, since the venue opened in 1997. While arcade games like Elevator Action still remain popular, it is the mix of ticket redemption games like Big Bass Wheel and Mega Stacker with mechanical games like Cyber Coast that draw the crowds into the arcade.

"I think the general decline of arcades came from things like online gaming," Renessis says. "Personally, I used to love going to a good LAN place with my mates until all hours of the morning. Now, I barely see their faces because I can play at home without the effort of driving or putting clothes on for that matter. The convenience of online gaming versus the effort of going to meet up with a friend to game somewhere is one sided toward the online component."

Renessis remains optimistic about the future of the arcade scene in Australia. He believes there is a potential for a revival, even with the problems posed by modern gaming consoles and the rise of online, casual, and social gaming.

"Sure, nostalgia isn't going to save arcades. But they will have to come up with some unique games and experiences that cannot be replicated in the home."

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Does the future of arcades in Australia lie in ticket redemption machines?

The story is much the same everywhere else. The Box Hill Timeout arcade in Melbourne's east has been operating for 15 years, and in that time, it has undergone a significant decrease in regular clientele. Andy Tran, who has maintained a close relationship with the arcade through the organization and running of regular fighting game tournaments, says the decline is reflective of a wider trend.

"The majority of revenue in Timeout right now comes from international students of young business professionals who either don't have the time or facilities to play games at home," Tran says. "At this point, I think the current arcade business has passed its prime. The remaining arcades that have survived have done so because they have changed with the times, shifting from purely game machines to prize and ticketed amusement--a more family-friendly atmosphere."

"For casual fighting game players, the value of an arcade is miniscule. But for the more experienced players, arcades are the place to be for atmosphere and hype."
"It's definitely because the younger generation has been brought up on console and PC gaming in the home. Portable games, mobile games, technologies like the Wii and between 12 and 17 years old are more likely to be playing games at home or with friends online rather than venturing out to an arcade."

But Tran says the essence of the arcade scene will always be the same: a proving ground for players to test their skill levels in the public eye. And nowhere is this more evident than in Australia's growing fighting game scene, which has had a spillover effect into arcades, reviving arcade titles like Street Fighter 3, Street Fighter 4, and Tekken.

Youssef Faddoul is an active member of Sydney's fighting game community, helping to organize and run Tekken tournaments, as well as co-organize the annual OzHadou Nationals, one of Australia's longest running fighting game tournaments. He says fighting games have played an integral part in keeping the arcade scene alive in Australia.

"From the days of Playtime to now, fighting games have always had an arcade following," Faddoul says. "For casual fighting game players, the value of an arcade is miniscule. However, for the more experienced players, arcades are the place to be for more than one reason: atmosphere, hype, a convenient meeting point, and the fact that arcade sticks are in most cases the preferred method for playing."

While the spirit of competition may be the same as it ever was, websites, forums, and online hubs have made it much easier for gamers to communicate and play without leaving the house. Of the few arcades that have survived in Melbourne, most have worked very closely with Australia's fighting game community.

"When I first spoke to the owners of these arcades, they were happy to support us and we worked together with them," Andy Tran says. "While arcade machine tournaments are still regarded highly by players, it's just easier to play on consoles. I remember the release of Street Fighter 4 brought many of those who had played the earlier version back out into arcades again, but the fighting game lineup nowadays is predominantly console releases: Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3, Street Fighter X Tekken, and so on."

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Australia's rising fighting game scene could go some way to revive the country's arcade culture.

Tran says arcades will need more than just the support of Australia's fighting game community if they want to survive. He believes establishments like the Mana Bar, a chain of cocktail bars with a focus on gaming, do a much better job of attracting gaming enthusiasts than arcades currently do.

"It's the social element that draws people in. I think arcades will have to find a way to incorporate some of this--be it serving alcohol or offering consoles as well--in order to survive."

But for Faddoul, arcades continue to remain the beating heart of gaming communities in Australia. Sites like OzHadou, first created in 2001 to help promote Australia's fighting game scene via online interaction, community building, and regular tournaments, make it easy for just about anyone interested in fighting games to access information about players and tournaments and participate in the community's arcade meet-ups.

"The drive to test yourself against everyone else in Australia is a pivotal point for any gamer," Faddoul says. "That's why the national tournament for Australia--OzHadou Nationals--is the must-see event of the year. It shows no signs of slowing down. With Tekken Tag Tournament 2 just around the corner, and the game looking like it has been improved, a revival of the scene is imminent. Queensland is already gearing up to play the game once it hits. Victoria is ready to come back in full force as well, and hopefully, other states that never played Tekken at that level will compete as well."

This is why Faddoul believes arcades will continue to survive. It doesn't matter if the revenue comes from fighting games, shooting games, driving games, or ticket redemption games. The point is that arcades continue to offer something that gamers can't get anywhere else: atmosphere.

"We're never going to see a complete revival, with people packing out arcades like in the old days. But I think they will survive. Nothing compares to that feeling of belonging when you're playing an arcade machine, surrounded by your friends, shouting and cheering and egging you on."

Think Australia's arcade scene could be better? Check out some of the wackiness from the Japanese arcade scene below!

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