#1133 – Charting the Anniversary of Amusement

We look at the current and past amusement and entertainment scene in order to gain a better perspective during this time of change and investment – looking first at more developments in the amusement and entertainment landscape, and how the current new restructuring is impacting the future aspirations. Meanwhile, the remainder of the coverage looks at the current crop of anniversaries, and the trends from forty, thirty, twenty and even ten years ago, which impact the modern scene. 

Entertainment Facility Business

The changing landscape of amusement and entertainment facility business, internationally, has been accelerated by the developments resulting from the global lockdown of business, as well as the resulting financial pressures and European crisis. These developments have had ramifications on the mergers, acquisitions and restructuring of businesses in a sector that, only a few months ago, industry specialists had serious doubts about the ongoing survival of. 

An increased culture of investment and acquisition has been charted, seen with the announcement from the owner and CEO of SEGA Amusement International (SAI), that he would be setting up another new company called Urban Fun Ltd and would be acquiring FunBox Entertainment – an operator developer of amusement venues, with over 12 amusement venues in Europe and the UK. This includes the operation of  ‘Gravity Wandsworth’ and the soon-to-be-opened ‘Gravity Liverpool’ Family Entertainment Centers, in partnership with Gravity Active Entertainment. This has seen the deployment of the ‘Amazon Prime’ delivery service for redemption prizes, the first of its kind in the UK. Through the investment operation of Urban Fun, the acquisition is intended to grow the ‘FunBox’ chain of operations and services.

In Japan, the GENDA GiGO Entertainment amusement facility operation has been establishing its presence. Following the retention of the SEGA amusement facility operation, the amalgamation of these facilities, with a 56-year history in amusement operation, has been underway. The media has reported on several closures of once iconic Japanese SEGA venues by GENDA, but the reality is that while some locations were in venues about to be redeveloped, or proving increasingly uneconomic, there has also been an increased rollout of new GENDA facilities, all under the new ‘GiGO’ (Get into the Gaming Oasis) name that has replaced the SEGA branding. As with the separation from the Western operation, and the divesting of their amusement facility holdings, the need for the modern amusement factory to understand the best place for their business in this changing landscape defines their future survival.

This survival is illustrated by what is being seen in other entertainment-based industries. In the cinema sector, the market was rocked by the latest apocalyptic development. It was announced that exhibition theatre operator Cineworld was filing for bankruptcy. The owner operator of the ‘Regal Cinema’ chain has filed for Chapter 11 protection towards restructuring the debt laden business and to construct a future to bring the operation back into profit. Cineworld was still reeling from the collapse of its attempt to consolidate its operation in the 2020 planned acquisition of Canadian chain Cineplex, which has been abandoned, and resulted in a legal judgement against the company. The subsequent record losses that Cineworld has recorded for their previous year have forced the need for bankruptcy protection, and the need to raise liquidity. Aspirations to look at “Cinetainment” style applications across their chain have not been ruled out. 

This year we see investment towards new entertainment applications, with the move towards Competitive Socializing, new Mixed-Use Leisure Entertainment (MULE), and a greater investment towards a new mix of fun, food, and gaming. But while we look at a changing tide for the venues, what about the changes that mark the machines that draw the plays.

Anniversary of Amusement Evolution

As the years stretch before us, we can better recognize the important trends and anniversaries of the establishment of Out-of-Home Digital Entertainment. 2022 is one of those important years that allows us to chart the trends that have shaped the modern amusement and entertainment sector, and pointing to the new future of innovation that lies ahead. In this unique #BlastFromThePast report we look at the anniversaries, milestones, and the trends that have an influence on today and tomorrow. Not just listing the popular titles, but also recognizing the cashboxes they successfully filled.

Forty Years Ago!

The 1982 amusement scene was still in its “Golden Age”, and the innovation that the explosion of the 1980 business had generated was still fresh and new. For Western audiences and Asian ones alike, the hits kept coming, and the market was starting to be defined by game genres, unforgettable game mascots, and addictive gameplay.

The upright cabinet was king, and the innovative and addictive gameplay was demanded to keep the quarters flowing. We saw Williams release hits like ‘Joust’ and ‘BurgerTime’, though a Japanese license from Data East. Other licenses also came from Japan, such as for Atari with ‘DigDug’ and ‘Pole Position’ from NAMCO. Meanwhile, Bally-Midway continued to establish their successful character with ‘PAC-MAN Plus’, and another legendary characters was born with ‘Q*bert’ from Gottlieb, ‘Mr. Do!’ from Universal, and ‘Donkey Kong Jr.’ from Nintendo. The growth of Japanese-developed content went on to see a drive for more direct representation, pushing distributors and agents aside.

The appearance of larger and flashier cabinet innovations continued from the seated-deluxe cabinet for ‘Pole Position’, and the unique styling of the ‘TRON’ cabinet – also marking the continued influence of movie licensing crossover that has continued into the modern market. The amusement trade was looking to establish their supremacy in the face of the continued encroachment from consumer video gaming, from manufacturers such as Atari, Milton Bradly, and Coleco. The trade was unable to shake the habit of seeing the Video Amusement scene in they way they looked previously at the Electro-Magnetic Amusement, and Pinball business, as a box moving exercise. 

The encroachment of technology advancements that helped amusement also gave birth to their competition. The consumer microcomputer scene was emerging as a draw for video gaming, and we saw the launch of the IBM ‘Personal Computer’ – the term PC would become ubiquitous with the future of computing, deposing the fledgling microcomputer boom. For the amusement trade, the importance of this development would not become apparent till much later. 

The technology directly benefited from microcomputer chip advancements through commercial application in micro-electronics, and was made available for deployment in the fledgling home computer revolution. Atari launched the successor to their successful ‘Atari 2600’ console – with their new ‘Atari 5200’ that was even codenamed “PAM” for “Personal Arcade Machine”. But there was also the rumor that Nintendo would be launching, the following year, their entry into this scene, moving from their full amusement focus into their ambitions with their ‘Nintendo NES (Famicom)’ in 1983. Was the writing on the wall for amusement’s continued dominance of video gaming?

Thirty Years Ago!

Looking back at the 1992 market, the innovation which the microprocessor achieved in shaping amusement was magnified by the advancements in digital and custom microcomputing. The richness of graphics, the ability to manipulate Full-Motion Video (FMV) and the arrival of the first successful CGi 3D graphics would be landmark moments in the industry, but also would be the high water-mark for the traditional video amusement industry.

Video amusement upright cabinets were still a mainstay of the business, and the street route operators demanded the latest. Midway struck gold with ‘Mortal Kombat’, with its roto-scope graphics, but other brawlers also saw success. Menwhile, at the same time, the Japanese undertook a bold move with the SNK ‘NeoGeo’, creating a console and amusement platform standard, to attempt to create a means to hold back the tide regarding the encroachment of home console gaming. While a raft of successful ‘NeoGeo’ titles would be created for amusement, the home console aspect of the platform gained cult status but would underperform. SNK’s hope that a MVS (Multi Video System) coin-op would be able to sit alongside an AES (Advance Entertainment System) console and both rule over consumer and amusement, was an ambitious pipedream. The idea of renting the games played in the arcade to the AES was a concept that would not prove its validity.

Innovation abounded with the latest version of the FMV laserdisc game success story, with ‘Mad Dog II’ from American Laser Games. Eventually, new microcomputer technology would circumvent the need for laserdisc tech, and the Golden Age would pass – with this version of the game pressed on CD-ROM, the format for which celebrates its 40th anniversary this year. This era was ushered out by the appearance of the latest new technology, as SEGA wowed the dedicated racing game scene with the launch of their next CG technology with ‘Virtual Racing’ (advancing beyond the previous pixels representation). The polygonal experience was the beginning in achieving effective pricing and performance dominance of CGi, in all-digital entertainment (since the faltering steps with ‘I,Robot’ and ‘Hard Drivin’). This was all supported by deluxe cabinets that started their own arms race in performance and impact.  

Twenty Years Ago!

Jumping forward in the history of amusement to some twenty years, and we see the trends that are still captivating the market today. Obviously, the list of memorable titles is much less as a reflection of how much, in 2002, the amusement trade had been decimated by neglect. While still a strong business, it was clearly an industry (especially in the West) suffering a serious decline.

One of the most notable aspects of the market from that period was the dominance of dedicated cabinets. Meanwhile, 2002 marked the last attempt at a JAMMA-style platform to keep upright cabinets alive, with the ‘Atomiswave’ from Sammy Corporation (soon to be merged with SEGA in the following years). The platform evoked the memories of the ‘NeoGeo’ as Sammy attempted to use console thinking, with the SEGA ‘Dreamcast’ console processors boxed for amusement application. It was the dedicated racers and deluxe cabinets that ruled, with ‘House of the Dead III’, and ‘Initial D’ from SEGA. Or from NAMCO (yet to be acquired by Bandai), with ‘Time Crisis 3’, and under license ‘ATV Track’, proving still-strong Japanese investment in the West.

It was interesting that, amongst all this, Western video amusement innovation was being seen to flourish – as see with the Tsunami Visual Technologies ‘TsuMo Dome’ motion simulator platform. This was a cost-effective simulator game system that would find interest – while the company would founder. The genre has remained of interest, with new examples expected for the modern market, but it was with the last popular game (‘Beachhead 2002’) on the Global VR ‘Vortex’ system that a glimpse of what would become VR upright self-service cabinets was seen, some twenty years before the current explosion in interest. 

Ten Years Ago!

The closer long view of the trade, in reflection from twenty or thirty years previously, is a stark representation of how much the video amusement trade has changed since the exuberant days of forty years previously. The 2012 Western amusement scene seemed to be fixated on accountancy rather than complete innovation, and the genres were weighed against the needs of the distributors who ruled the roost.  

A new innovative genre in amusement was creating a crossover between redemption and amusement – described as “Videmption”, video-based redemption prize game experiences gathered momentum in this time, and it was becoming clear that this was a trend here to stay. In particular, the ability to take the most popular mobile game apps and give them an amusement cabinet presentation was proving a strong draw and built on their established brand awareness. Releases this year would establish this, with the launch of ‘Subway Surfers’ endless-runner Videmption from Costal Amusement, and with the hugely popular ‘Fruit Ninja FX’ from Adrenaline Amusement. These are games that cemented the opportunity of Videmption as strong revenue generators, in a trend continuing to this day.

‘Beatmania IIDX 20 tricoro’ was released that year by KONAMI – the game marking the 20th release of this BEMANI genre, and being one of the first to include a storyline and be fully supported by the eAmusement infrastructure. However, it also continued the growing trend of not receiving a Western release. A mixture of indifference by Japan management to the US and EU amusement business, and the added expense of licensing music for deployment in these territories, underlined this trend. In its home market, this game would continue to underpin the importance of the music game genre in the sector, while the Western market was deprived of this business. Only a few years previously, the American ‘Guitar Hero Arcade’ was released and, while critically and operationally successful, it would fall foul of the music licensing and public performance tariffs that would see it removed from sale early. ASCAP performance royalties services would be a factor in Western amusement distributions avoidance (no matter how popular) of music games. 

Speaking of the Guitar Hero style-of-play that was originated (and who Activision would pay KONAMI a fee to use), its styling would be employed in a KONAMI video amusement piece as part of their BEMANI category. The launch of ‘SOUND VOLTEX’ offered a music rhythm game with similar play styles to these types of games, but was the first of this series of four-button music gaming in this amusement package. Obviously, it would not see Western deployment, but would make it across the oceans as a specialist import for venues prepared to cater for a very popular music genre – most notably with the appearance of Round 1 USA amusement venues in the States, where these and other music games would get a semi-official representation. 

The popularity of the brawler, or “beat-‘em-up”, in the amusement scene of the 2012s was not diminished, and the Western amusement trade was still prepared to feed the thirst of the players. The year saw important milestones in the brawler trend, with the launch of ‘Tekken Tag Tournament 2’ from BANDAI NAMCO (having merged in 2006), with the game being overshadowed by its console releases, but still turning good revenue during the short window available. This game continued an arms race between manufacturers to hold the top spot – and SEGA released a software update for their ‘Virtua Fighter 5 Final Showdown’ series. However, the writing was again on the wall for operators, as the distributors became less and less inclined to support the brawler machine scene, as the pool of platforms dwindled

The video game shooting genre saw a unique evolution with a motion-ride approach. SEGA released, in 2012, ‘Dream Raiders’ – a unique (for the time) two-player mounted shooting game, with a motion seat configuration (a stand-up variant would be released eventually). The game was a deluxe approach to a fun shooting and ride approach and went on to define the growing move by SEGA Amusement in the West, towards creating their own systems to support their market – alleviating the need to depend on Japanese hand-me-downs that were becoming non-existent from the parent. With support from internal development resources, as well as a Chinese game studio, this game’s success in the market marked the beginning of a level of independence that was being achieved by the satellite division.

The dependency on amusement released in the States had become apparent by this point in the story. Raw Thrills released ‘Winter X Games SnoCross’, that continued the formula of simple to play, fun, video releases that offered an operator an eye-catching presentation. At the same time, the ability to offer a wider selection of tournament play continued to gain momentum, and Incredible Technologies released ‘Power Putt Live 2012’ – based on their tournament “Live” platform, offering a simple play style in support of their more traditional ‘Golden Tee Golf’ approach. The offering of a mini-golf style game for hospitality deployment is an element of the modern market that is due its own video renaissance. 

Trending Observations!

It would be easy for a layman to look at these past forty-years and see them as a boom-to-bust saga. The traditional video amusement machine business was riding on great success and social impact, that would then be squandered by infighting intransigence and indifference to the changing tides. Those who jumped ship from video amusement to consumer console gaming, like SEGA, Nintendo and even the Atari brand, were able to survive, while the remainder of the trade became shadows of their former selves.

However, the reality is that the amusement scene is still an incredibly innovative and vibrant sector – alhough the traditional amusement trade may not be the key element in driving the new revolution for the genre. We have seen consumer recreations of video amusement from the Golden Era of gaming reaching popular status through the Arcade1Up range, a range that is continuing to grow in titles and scope. Amusement is seeing great popularity in FEC and UEC, be it redemption or prize systems. At the same time, amusement-based innovation continues as we see the explosion in interest in VR that is provided in both the VR Simulator system, as well as the Arena and Upright configurations.

All this, and the possibility that consumer video gaming is seeing a drop off in popularity and needs to widen its coverage. Sales of gaming content across mobile, console, and even PC, have achieved massive revenues, but there is a slowing of sales past the lockdown peaks. To address this, licensing and cross promotion are receiving greater investment. And, for the first time, Out-of-Home Entertainment is being courted. We see consumer IP move across to redemption, video, and even VR amusement. Meanwhile, at the same time, the growth in entertainment location business sees many speak of a new revolution for amusement application. All this, and the classic video amusement iconography is successfully represented in blockbuster movies, as seen with the smash with ‘Sonic’ in the theaters.

The question must be what the next forty years will bring – for the industry which is far from dead!

About the author

Kevin Williams

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The brainchild of two location-based experience enthusiasts, Christine Buhr and Brandon Willey, the LBX Collective aims to inform and educate, create opportunities to connect with industry peers, and to spur collaboration, discourse, and cross-pollination of ideas.

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