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The Coolness Factor

How Technology Can Save Coin-Op

by Chuck Weiner (Ghost authored by )
Published in InterGame Magazine – November 2011, Vol 18, Issue 3
Reprinted with permission.

Another summer arcade season has come to a close. In my location, it was a very good year, given the stagnant economy. If you’re like most amusement operators (myself included), redemption and instant prize games have driven your earnings all summer long. But you’ve probably noticed it’s harder to capture and keep people’s attention. Let’s face it: in the eyes of the public, coin-op just isn’t cool anymore.

The manufacturing community hasn’t exactly responded in a way that is helpful to operators. The newest releases from the leading video game manufacturers, for example, bear a striking resemblance to everything that came before them. When is the last time a new driving game knocked your socks off? The cost for a brand new driver is prohibitively expensive compared to its modest, even anemic earnings. Even lease options offer little ROI potential. Yet the leading distributor is still pushing the same old video instead of offering the operator something of real value.

Clinging to outdated ideas is bad. Deliberately forsaking the lifeblood of our industry is worse. Countertop touch screen games are a fixture in almost every bar and diner in the country. But if you have a good look around one of these locations, you’re bound to see people glued to their smart phones instead of the countertops. Why? Because for the price of a single play on a countertop, you can download an almost identical game app to your smart phone and play it as much as you want. Operators are feeling the pain. And to make matters worse, the leading manufacturer is rubbing salt into the wound by licensing its touch screen games as phone apps, bypassing its operators and rendering its own hardware redundant. Smart phone users can now play the exact same games without taking cash out of their pockets.

Fate is a cruel mistress. Decades ago, technological innovation gave rise to our industry; now it threatens our very existence. Home gamers play titles like Halo or Call of Duty with or against anyone in the world via the internet. In bars and clubs across America, people ignore countertop games and play apps on their smart phones. We’re at a crossroads, people. The hi-tech revolution can kill us or save us. I don’t know about you, but in times of sink or swim, I choose to swim, and swim hard. There is hope for coin-op, if we apply the “coolness factor.”

To be cool again, we need to get “smart,” and embrace new technology. The smart phone is the most important status symbol among young people today. Electronics retailers are running commercials about “phone envy,” and a leading wireless carrier is urging America to finish our work faster so we can all get back to playing Angry Birds.

What’s that? You haven’t heard of Angry Birds? Then you’re missing out on the number one prize item in the country, as well as a bona fide pop culture phenomenon. It’s generating the kind of consumer frenzy that Pokemon and Beanie Babies did years ago. Angry Birds is a free game application you can download to any smart phone. It’s humorous, easy to play, and downright addictive.

More importantly, the game has spawned an entire franchise of licensed merchandise that is flying off of retail shelves. I put all my stock in Angry Birds merchandise early in the season; I put it in every game that could handle it, and made it the theme of my location for 2011. Plush toys, t-shirts, stickers, and bracelets featuring the phone app characters have been driving my business all summer. They’re so hot, in fact, that one winner in my arcade won a large major prize, and asked if he could trade down for some Angry Birds gear. That’s cool.

So one part of the coolness factor is to know what merchandise is cool. The other part is to take what’s already cool, and make it even cooler by enhancing the user experience with technology. In other words, even the smart phone can use a shot of Adrenaline.

Adrenaline Amusements is rethinking video games by making smart phone apps larger than life. Adrenaline’s Touch FX is a wide format touch screen system designed for arcades, FECs, bars, and any location with room for a full-size cabinet. It’s attractive, it’s fun, and it appeals to players of all ages.

The coolness factor here is that Adrenaline licensed another wildly popular smart phone app, Fruit Ninja, and super-sized it on a 46-inch screen. Adrenaline did the exact opposite of what the leading countertop manufacturer did, and to the benefit of operators everywhere. Because it’s on a giant touch screen, the game play is identical to the phone version. But the big difference is that the player can now show off in front of friends, family, and onlookers, so Fruit Ninja is becoming a “bragging rights” game, like Dance Dance Revolution and Guitar Hero before it.

Amusement giant Dave & Busters was impressed enough with initial tests of Touch FX Fruit Ninja to put the game in most of its locations. And Adrenaline is staying ahead of the curve, closely watching the phone app market, and preparing to license the next batch of hot titles as upgrades for Touch FX. That’s cool.

We’ve seen what a little coolness can do for video games, but what about something as mundane and benign as a photo booth? It’s a quiet workhorse, usually placed near the exit, hopefully to capture a few extra dollars from patrons on their way out the door. Manufacturers have tried different gimmicks – like superimposed hairstyles, morphed photos, and digital backgrounds – to make the photo booth more appealing, yet the traditional four-print strip remains the most dependable earner. So, can this humble piece draw a crowd? Can a photo booth be cool? You bet.

Enter game changer Team Play, Inc., with its impressive Fun Stop Photos. While the industry leaders have been resting on their laurels, Team Play has been using technology – and the coolness factor – to turn the photo booth into a genuine showpiece. Topping the Fun Stop is a camera-shaped beacon in day-glow green. A flashing strobe beckons the curious from all corners of the location. Once a crowd has gathered, the fun begins. The back of the machine has a working camera that snaps photos of the crowd and displays them on an external monitor. Kids take turns mugging for the camera and showing off for their friends. With the help of technology, Team Play has made the photo booth into an interactive game, and enhanced the user experience. That’s cool.

Fun Stop Photos also has a host of features designed to make life easier for the operator. For starters, the average operating cost is only $0.25 per print, and can be as low as $0.17, with no dongle necessary. Compare that to the operating cost of the leading photo booth at $0.80 to $0.90 a print. If that isn’t enticing enough, Fun Stop has two 26-inch monitors, two dollar bill acceptors – in plain sight, and two photo printers. So a jammed bill acceptor or an empty paper tray won’t put the booth out of operation. Team Play has also added a revolutionary and thoughtful anti-theft measure to Fun Stop: if the machine senses any evidence of tampering with the cash box, it will take and save to the hard drive a sequence of ten photos of the offender – in the act! Busting thieves: that’s very cool!

So technology can help us as an industry to recapture the coolness factor. But we, as operators, need to embrace it, follow it, capitalize on it, and give special attention to manufacturers who are doing the same. You don’t have to run out and buy a smart phone, but you should stay informed about what apps, games, and features are popular among your audience. Talk to your kids; talk to their kids. And remember, at the end of the day, we can offer people a user experience that no smart phone and no social networking application can duplicate: genuine, organic, human interaction. Technology can never replace this experience, but it can sure enhance it. And that, my friends, is cool.

Chuck Weiner is a 35-year coin-op veteran, founder and president of Weiner Distributing Company in Baltimore, Maryland, and the owner of the Beach Arcade in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware.