IN FOCUS: Shifting from Street Fighter II battles to winning tickets for toys – how arcades have upped their game to stay relevant
Mobile games and PC games are always within reach, and can be addictive. Despite that, arcades still hold an appeal to many. CNA looks at the reasons behind the draw of these arcades that are now a far cry from before, and why they are here to stay.
SINGAPORE: When his parents announced his family's move to Singapore from Indonesia in 2012, Mr Denzel Kuosastra was apprehensive.
That was until Mr Kuosastra, then a teenager, found out that some arcade machines in Singapore came with technology that the ones in his home city of Jakarta didn’t have yet.
“When I heard about this, it just shifted the switch in my brain and suddenly it went from reluctance to 'I really want to go there and see for myself',” he said.
That’s how big a deal arcades were to him. They still are.
Now 23 years old and waiting to start a Masters degree in management, Mr Kuosastra still visits his "playground" once a week.
While he has tried all kinds of arcade games over the years, he finds himself drawn most to rhythm games, some of which require players to move their fingers so fast that they look like they are flying. Others are like workouts, requiring people to perform various moves set to choreographed songs.
When CNA met him at arcade Cow Play Cow Moo at Suntec City on a weekday afternoon, Mr Kuosastra had settled himself at one of the machines called Beatmania IIDX by Japanese firm Konami.
The machine involves choosing a song then hitting notes accompanying the rhythm of the song as they appear on a screen. The game also requires players to use a turntable. The more accurately players perform the song, the higher their score and chances of finishing a stage.
It was the beginning of a six-hour session during which friends he has made at the arcade over the years came to join him. His years at the machines showed as he handled the buttons at a dizzying pace, so much so that this reporter wondered how his fingers did not get cramped.
Reducing the volume on the machine, which he had amped to the highest level, he said: “Previously my arms or wrists would hurt after some time, but I learnt to take care of myself. I don’t go straight to the hard songs, I warm up with easy songs.”
For Mr Kuosastra, who was left to his devices in the arcade once a week by his parents from the time he was four years old, the magic of the arcade lies in the feel and variety of the rhythm games.
"They have their own unique control setups like the buttons, turntables and such. Wouldn't really be able to experience them at home," he said. The music, a lot of which is made specifically for the arcade games, also appeals to him.
The arcades and games of today are generally a far cry from how they were in the past. Then, youths would gather in darkened halls to crowd around games like Street Fighter II and Mortal Kombat. Competition would be intense as players fought in virtual worlds to showcase their mastery of complex moves.
When he went to the arcade to play Street Fighter II as a teenager in the 1990s, he would start off playing against the computer, said Mr Poh Keng Jin.
The 43-year-old, who now runs workshops on how to build retro arcade machines under the name RetroCade SG, said that he would always end up challenging other arcade goers.
“There’ll be people who just drop in and want to challenge you. The winner gets to stay. The fun of the game is really playing against other players,” said Mr Poh, who is also an adjunct lecturer who teaches game design among other specialties.
THE ARCADE OF TODAY
On the mezzanine level of the arcade where Mr Kuosastra was playing, many machines seemed to be made for people to show their penchant for coordination. Some of them wore gloves to protect their hands.
Others busied themselves with claw machines, trying to pick up toys and other goodies.
On the basement level, the games were slightly different. The music was loud and the ambience had more buzz, not that different from carnivals.
Many sat with plastic takeaway containers full of tokens that looked like they were prepared to spend the whole day in the arcade.
People of all ages punched clowns, scored goals in soccer games and dropped balls into the right holes in the hopes of winning tickets. Some were already walking around with their baskets of tickets to redeem prizes. The prize shop was decked with popular licensed merchandise like Frozen, Marvel and Sesame Street.
A rotating conveyor belt hung overhead, displaying among others, Winnie the Pooh and Mickey Mouse soft toys like that would cost more than 30,000 tickets.
APPEAL OF THE PRIZES
It is the prizes that are on offer in arcade games which are a key draw for many players in an era where mobile and PC games are so prevalent, said Mr James Walton, travel, hospitality and services sector leader at Deloitte Singapore.
"Those are really the things that set arcades apart, the idea that you can play a game and at the end of it win a stuffed toy," he said. This is not something that is possible in other kinds of gaming, he added.
And the arcades know this.
“A lot of our focus has been not just the games but also the prizes they get to take home with them,” said Nesh Selva, the general manager of Timezone, the arcade chain with 14 branches across Singapore.
Collaborations with licensed merchandise companies mean that Timezone has exclusive Pokemon and Crayon Shin-chan prizes.
The story is similar at Cow Play Cow Moo, which has exclusive prizes under its Disney and Sanrio licences, said its marketing manager Vincent Wee.
SOCIAL ELEMENT OF ARCADES
Beyond the prizes, the social element is another key attraction for arcades, experts and industry players said, with other types of gaming having limited opportunities for interaction.
"There is still something to be said for that moment where you are with your friend and you are… playing some game that allows you to get into the moment with your friends," Mr Walton said.
This appeal is something that Mr Kuosastra feels is important when it comes to the community of arcade gamers he is part of.
"They're people who are equally passionate about the same things in these arcade rhythm games, and they've also been great people who I feel will be my lifelong friends," he said.
It is, however, not just young adults who crave such experiences. Arcades have become a place for families to bond, said Mr Poh.
Gone are games like Streetfighter and King of Fighter, he said. Now the arcade centres are more “family activity centres”, he said.
“Parents will go there, bring their kids, play games together because a lot of mobile games are very individualistic. They play on their own on their device,” he said.
Among parents who regularly take their children to arcades is offshore engineer Andy Goh.
The 43-year-old, who was with his wife and three children at Vivocity’s Timezone during the March school holidays, said that they visit the arcade once or twice a month.
“We don’t want them to stay home and play games on the phone. I let them come and have some fun and win prizes,” he said.
HOW ARCADES ARE STAYING COMPETITIVE
Arcades are continuing to change to cater to their customers’ preferences.
Mr Nesh said that there is “old thinking” that arcades are full of games like Street Fighter and popular rhythm game Dance Dance Revolution.
“While there are some similar games that still exist, we’ve evolved a lot,” he said.
Focusing on the social experience was one of the strategies Timezone adopted in the past five or six years, said Mr Nesh.
“We've taken a conscious decision to move many of the games to be more one where you get a more of a social and bonding experience,” he said, giving the example of carnival games like throwing balls at clowns.
“That has shifted to maybe 70 to 80 per cent of our game mix, so that attracts very strongly our young families.”
Another unique Timezone offering at its outlet in Westgate is a mini bowling game which children can play, Mr Nesh said.
“The ball is really light so that it’s not difficult for them to throw and they score their points easily, so it is all about them having fun.” he said.
With a focus on improving its content, Cow Play Cow Moo has forayed into developing its own arcade games, Mr Wee said.
One of its arcades at Suntec City houses Dragon Orb, launched last month. The game, which took one year to conceptualise, requires players to use a claw to pick up “orbs” or coloured balls and drop them into holes.
“The concept is mainly skill-based multi-tier winning bonus. The better your skills, the higher the chances of winning the game and when you hit the big bonus prize, the tickets will fly out from the top,” he said.
Theatrics seem to play a big role at the arcades, where claw machines light up to announce to everyone that someone has successfully picked an item.
The strategies used by the two arcade operators might be paying off, as despite COVID-19 restrictions that limited the number of players on their premises, both of them had or have expansion plans.
Timezone added two outlets to its stable and now has 14 in total, while Cow Play Cow Moo will open two more outlets to have nine in total.
HOW CAN ARCADES SURVIVE THE TIMES?
If their growth is any indication, arcades are here to stay.
There are some games that are hard to do justice to outside of an arcade, like driving simulation games and shooting games, said Mr Walton.
"You have the whole setup (at the arcade) which is not necessarily a setup you would have at home," he said.
He noted that arcades have changed over time, with fewer "traditional" games such as PacMan.
"You're far more likely to see a football game where you are actually physically kicking a ball to control the player than you are to see something that is joystick operated," he said.
Mr Walton said “it's all about location, location, location”, borrowing a real estate maxim.
The right places include being next to cinemas to catch people during their downtime before or after a movie and near shops that sell Lego for instance, he said.
Keeping experiences up to date and keeping up with technology like augmented reality is also key, he said.
“Increasingly, the way things are going is that the games are going to get more and more immersive, 4D type of games, which is an investment,” he said.
“When you think about what you offer that they can't get at home, those kinds of virtual reality type of things will be the way that it goes.”
There were many periods of times that people thought that the industry would die, but it survived, said Mr Alex Toh, who has been in the arcade industry for more than 20 years and runs his own amusement business.
“I think the social and human element will definitely keep it (the industry) alive,” he said.
He added however the arcades’ survival also depends on the content they offer and whether they have an eye for what will strike a chord among their customers.
For Mr Kuosastra, it would be hard to beat the arcade experience and he sees himself continuing to go there for a long time.
“I like the active movement. I actually have to actively go outside. I would walk around, I would meet at least one friend in the arcade without fail. I don't even need to make an appointment … and I love the games at the arcades a lot more,” he said.