Amusement industry veteran Chuck Weiner discusses the smart way to furnish the arcade room in a family bowling center.
Back in the early 1980s, the local bowling alley was a popular teen hangout. Every mid-size town in America had one. It was dark, smoky, sometimes sticky, but it was the place to be on a Saturday night. Just about every one had a snack bar where you could fill up on such nutritious health foods as frozen pizza, cheese fries, and grape soda. And, of course, each one had a small arcade room with a few classic video games like Pac-Man and Donkey Kong. Occasionally, these games were even in working order. Sound familiar? My, how times have changed. Todayís family bowling centers are super-clean, efficiently run businesses with quality food and good lighting. And bowling is enjoying resurgence in popularity, as the kids of Generation X are now raising teens and tweens. So it may come as a surprise that the arcade areas in many of these facilities arenít meeting their earning potential.
Weíre facing a slow economic recovery right now. Fortunately, this is the type of financial climate that favors the family bowling center. As money becomes tighter, more and more families are looking for affordable entertainment options close to home. This leaves the bowling center owner in an ideal position to capitalize on a down economy, and coin-operated gaming can help keep you squarely in the black. The biggest money to be made in coin-op is in ticket redemption; however, not every business is in a financial (or logistical) position to operate a full redemption arcade. So in this article, I will focus instead on the five essential non-redemption pieces that every family bowling center should have. Without further ado, here they are:
There is no doubt in my mind that LAIís Stacker Club is the best instant prize game on the planet; in fact, itís the only game I will endorse here by name. Having said that, your degree of success will ultimately be determined by the way you operate it. The beautiful thing about Stacker is that itís timeless. Itís a lightning fast game of reflexes, and as long as the machine is stocked with desirable merchandise, people will play. The key to making money with Stacker is high-value prizes. The machine has the capability to award prizes valued at over $200 and still turn big earnings, when properly configured. I operate several in my own arcade, with hangtags for prizes like the Apple iPad and the XBOX Kinect. You donít need a full redemption counter; just a secure office or storage area to stock a few items. To generate more interest and word-of-mouth advertising, place a video monitor above the machine. Run promotional videos for the major prizes and photo slideshows of lucky winners all day on a loop.
The skill crane is the granddaddy of all instant prize games. Winning at a crane takes a steady hand, coordination, and a little bit of luck. Again, because the game play is simple and the prizes change with the times, good cranes will be steady earners in your location for years to come. Thatís cranes, plural. I recommend outfitting your game area with several cranes, at least one of which is running inexpensive prizes that appeal to younger kids. This crane should be configured so kids can win easily. Youíll still make money on every play, and the kids (and parents) will feel like winners. This builds consumer confidence and encourages repeat customers. Round out your fleet of cranes with more challenging models stocked with moderate value prizes. Create a theme for each crane, and fill it with merchandise that fits that theme (i.e., one with watches, one with mp3 players, one with plush, etc.)
Thirty years ago, most of the machines in a typical arcade or game room were video games. Today, the balance has shifted away from video to instant prize, redemption, and interactive play. However, there is still room in every arcade area for a few well chosen video games. Driving games, in particular, have withstood the test of time for a number of reasons. First, driving games are more interactive than other video games. The player is part of the action, using lifelike controls rather than a joystick and buttons. Home gaming consoles donít offer this kind of realism. Second, most arcade driving games allow for head-to-head competition by linking multiple cabinets. Friends can challenge each other and race for bragging rights. Third, driving is still a right of passage and a status symbol for teens. Sitting in the driverís seat is empowering, even if the road ahead is on a video screen. When choosing a driving game, the newest title is not necessarily the best. What you really want is a game that will pay for itself within three months. Look for any popular title that has spawned a sequel or a special edition. Buy used, and get at least two of the same title with a link kit.
This is a sensitive subject for anyone who is running a family operation. Fortunately, the novelty and variety a gun game brings to your location is far more important than the content of the game itself. There are plenty of non-violent shooters on the market that will make fine additions to any arcade. This is just another way of diversifying your location with interactive play. Pick a title that suits your audience, preferably a two-player game to encourage friendly competition. Again, itís best to look for a clean, well-maintained, used cabinet.
Basketball games are popular in redemption arcades, but they can also be a hit in a non-redemption area. Disable the ticket dispenser and let players shoot for high score, then post photos of the top scorers on a bulletin board or video screen. Better yet, get two units and link them for competition. To make things even more interesting, you can hold mini tournaments for prizes to be used in your location, like a free game of bowling, free shoe rental, or concession stand coupons and gift cards. The great thing about basketball games is that they encourage physical activity and social interaction, so they appeal to entire families. As always, you can save a lot of money and break even much sooner if you purchase quality used equipment.
So, in summary, your game area should be a profitable extension of your business that enhances the experience for your patrons. Setting up a good arcade room doesnít have to break the bank, because you donít need the newest, fanciest equipment. All of the recommended games in this article are available used or reconditioned. As long as a machine is attractive and operational, it will earn money. Most importantly, as an operator, take the time to learn how the games work, and make sure your machines are cleaned and serviced regularly. Filthy machines earn very little; broken machines earn nothing. On top of that, take a tip from P.T. Barnum and be a shameless self-promoter.
One more important tip: help is always available to you if youíre willing to ask. If you have any questions that werenít addressed in this article, please contact our offices here in Baltimore, Maryland. Our staff of experienced industry experts will help you through every step of the process, from choosing titles to laying out your floor plan. Weíre happy to help in any way we can. Remember, we donít just sell the games; we make them work for you. I wish you much success!
Chuck Weiner is a 35-year coin-op industry veteran. He is founder and president of Weiner Distributing Company in Baltimore, MD, a leading sales and service provider to the coin-operated amusement industry since 1984, and owner of the Beach Arcade in Rehoboth Beach, DE.