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Tuesday, Oct. 7, 2008

FYI

GAME ARCADE

Survival now arcades' most pressing game


Staff writer

Once viewed as dens of delinquency, game center arcades are diversifying their entertainment fare, and in the process, attracting not only youths but families, high school girls, couples and video game fans.

News photo
Dream machine: Visitors to the Amusement Machine Show in Makuhari Messe in Chiba Prefecture try out the "Hummer" ride game at the Sega Corp. booth on Sept. 20. KAZUAKI NAGATA PHOTO

Basic information about game centers follows:

When did arcades first appear?

According to Masumi Akagi, editor of Amusement Press, the first video game was created in the U.S. in 1972. Atari Inc, founded by Nolan Bushnell, introduced the mock table-tennis "Pong," considered the first arcade video game.

As similar games showed up in Japan, arcades followed, finding a popular fan base.

A Japanese spinoff of Atari's popular "Breakout," in which players, like in "Pong," use a moveable paddle to direct a ball at breakable bricks in a wall, proved a big hit, Akagi said.

When did the arcades really take off?

The number of arcades drastically increased when Taito Co. introduced "Space Invaders" in 1978. Players control a spaceship and shoot at slowly approaching enemies.

The game proved innovative at the time and it became a mega hit.

Taito Co. itself produced 100,000 machines and its partner companies made another 100,000.

The unprecedented popularity of "Space Invaders" led to an estimated 300,000 to 500,000 machines, including illegal copies.

But game arcades at that time had a negative image, summed up by the 3Ks, "kowai" (scary), "kitanai" (dirty) and "kurai" (dark), Sega Corp. spokesman Tetsuya Takahashi said.

"As a result of the industry's efforts (to fix its negative image) after the 1980s, recognition that arcades are places where people can go for casual recreation began to spread," Takahashi said.

Because arcades had an image as juvenile delinquent hangouts, they fell under a law regulating adult entertainment businesses in 1985.

The law requires operators to obtain permission to engage in business, prohibits them from being open between midnight and dawn, and requires them to keep their premises adequately lighted.

Who are the main customers of arcades now and what machines are popular?

The general assumption was arcades were the realm of young males and video game buffs.

But this image largely changed with the debut of the "purikura" Print Club, developed jointly by Atlus Co. and Sega in the mid-1990s. With Print Club machines, people could photograph themselves, and the machines immediately printed the small shots as sheets of stickers.

They proved extremely popular with high school girls, who would use the photo stickers like business cards and exchange them with friends. Many would collect photo stickers of friends to keep in their address books.

Since the start of the new century, arcades have been catering more to families. One example is the hit game "Mushiking" ("King of Beetles"), which allows parents and children to play and collect cards together.

All the characters are based on real insects, and the cards have their biological information printed on them for educational purposes.

The game has been popular because many fathers used to collect insects in their childhood, and the game allows them to relate their experiences to their children.

When a video game becomes a tool for communications, it gets highly popular, according to Takahashi.

What are recent trends?

One appears to be the wide use of networking functions on some game machines. They enable users to play with others located at other game arcades. For instance, by networking, users can play mah-jongg, quiz and racing games with others in different arcades.

How many arcades are there in Japan?

Recently, arcades have been on the decline.

According to the National Police Agency, there were 9,091 arcades in Japan in 2006, down from 18,125 in 1996.

Takahashi of Sega said the decline does not necessarily indicate the industry has shrunk, because some companies have closed several small outlets and combined them into bigger arcades.

He said overall amusement industry sales generally rose between 2002 and 2006, although the number of arcades declined.

However, the industry began feeling the pinch last year.

Sega's operating profit from the amusement facilities plunged to ¥130 million in fiscal 2006 from ¥9.2 billion a year earlier.

And Sega posted an operating deficit of ¥9.8 billion in fiscal 2007.

Namco Bandai Holdings Inc., which also runs arcades, posted an operating profit of ¥1.6 billion in 2007, down from ¥4 billion in fiscal 2006.

Why is the business sluggish?

There are several reasons. The game industry has not had a big hit like "Mushiking" in recent years.

In rural areas, with the rising oil prices, people tend not to drive to shopping malls, where arcades are often located.

The spread of home video game machines, such as Sony's PlayStation, is also said to be hurting the arcade business.

Takahashi added that some arcade games may also seem too complicated and thus are alienating new users.

Because the industry has created a market for a diverse clientele, it still holds out hope, Takahashi said. Thus the industry must not only create popular products but also pleasant surroundings.

The Weekly FYI appears Tuesdays (Wednesday in some areas). Readers are encouraged to send ideas, questions and opinions to National News Desk


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