It's ancient history now, but once upon a time, if you wanted to play the most recent and most interesting games, you had to get up, leave the house and make your way to an arcade. Games consoles and home computers lived further down the food chain, their owners waiting for often sub-par versions of glorious arcade hits to be released on home systems. The real experience happened in an arcade.
Even to those who experienced that era, it's a little hard to believe when you look at the sad remnants of their former glory which remain. Even in supposedly arcade-mad Japan, games generally find themselves wedged ignominiously in between gambling machines occupied by middle-aged chain-smokers and UFO Catcher booths promising, but rarely delivering, stuffed toys and sweets for bored teens on dates. In western countries, sad, lonely fighting game machines are just stuffed in where "arcade" owners ran out of fruit machines to install.
"the accelerating pace of technological progress turned the size and expense of arcade machines into a liability rather than an advantage"
The reasons for this change are fundamentally technological. Arcade machines are big, bulky and expensive to move or replace. Once, that meant that they were vastly more powerful than home systems - but the accelerating pace of technological progress turned the size and expense of arcade machines into a liability rather than an advantage. Cheap, rapidly updated computers and consoles (and eventually even phones) first matched and then far outstripped the processing capabilities of big arcade cabinets. Rapid updates in graphics, processing, storage, networking, controls and screen resolutions were comfortably adopted by the home market, the costs buffered by cheap, cheerful hardware and absorbed by the wallets of millions of consumers. Arcade operators, faced with replacing large numbers of huge, expensive systems in order to keep track of such changes, fell behind completely.
Social factors either exacerbated or softened this blow, but these were highly region dependent. In Japan, where small family living spaces have engendered a culture in which many social activities are carried out external to the home, arcades persisted as date spots, as places to hang out with friends and - perhaps most importantly - as a venue for games too large, too noisy or too intrusive to be played in a small family home. In parts of the West, though, social factors intervened to hasten the decline, with a perception of arcades as "seedy" venues (in the grand tradition of pool halls and their ilk) discouraging many potential players, while regions with legalised gambling were quick to drop videogames in favour of more profitable slot machines.
"there has been talk of an 'arcade renaissance' on several occasions, yet each time has ended in disappointment"
Over the years, there has been talk of an "arcade renaissance" on several occasions, yet each time has ended in disappointment. Even as living spaces in many Western countries (the UK is a particularly notable example) have shrunk dramatically in terms of average size, Western consumers have demonstrated a continued willingness to engage with loud, bulky games. Rock Band and Guitar Hero were hugely successful as home games in the West, where their Japanese equivalents, Konami's Guitar Freaks or Drum Mania, have acted as sustaining lifeblood for arcade venues. It's also notable that even as Japanese arcades have innovated and invested, launching extraordinary new games which leverage all sorts of new technologies, from the company's ultra high-speed broadband networks through to the possibilities of RFID enabled cards, the arcade sector's health has still declined - a drop-off in footfall, revenue and floor space that's been slower than in the West, but still isn't exactly the rude health you might have come to believe from fawning articles about amazing Japanese arcades in the western media.
As such, it's important to be cautious about any notion of an arcade recovery. Yet if we were to envisage any potential uplift in the fortunes of the out-of-home gaming sector, we can easily say what one key factor would be - just as in the heyday of the arcade, these venues would need to provide games which you simply cannot experience at home. This won't come about, this time around, through more powerful graphics or processing - the trends in those areas are focused on miniaturisation and cost-efficiency, targeting the ability to put high-end 3D into phones rather than building pricey, bulky, ultra high-end systems. Instead, the focus would have to be on experiences that don't work at home for reasons of space, budget, intrusiveness - or preferably, a combination of all of the above.
"Kinect alone is an impossibility for many players due to the space and room layout it demands"
The reason I raise this issue now is because in the past few weeks, most of us will have seen videos or demonstrations of technologies which, although their creators purport to be focused on the home market, clearly fall into these categories. One is Microsoft's Illumiroom system, which uses Kinect to map a 3D space and then projects imagery matched to that 3D map. It's a great piece of technology with extraordinary gaming potential. It's also abjectly unsuited to an ever-increasing number of living rooms around the world. Kinect alone is an impossibility for many players due to the space and room layout it demands; Illumiroom, demanding similar space if not more and intrusively taking over the entire room such that nobody else will be able to use it concurrently with the game being played, is simply not going to work for most people and most homes. Outside the home, though, in a dedicated venue? The potential of the technology is extraordinary, the experiences it could create serving to create a destination for gamers to experience something that just won't work at home.
The same thought process applies, to some extent, to the Oculus Rift. It's not that the superb VR headset hardware won't work at home - of course it will, and it'll probably only be a few hardware generations before the compromises presently being made in the name of cost are ironed out by technological progress. However, the "full" VR experience - with a custom controller (a gun, perhaps, or full-body motion sensing suite), a multi- directional treadmill, and so on, is simply going to be too expensive for most users - and even if prices collapsed, it's too big and unwieldy to live in most people's apartments. Yet the entertainment potential of such a fully-functional setup, running in parallel with a dozen other such suites so that a group of friends can explore a virtual world together, is enormous - and from a commercial perspective, not even all that space-consuming.
"Social factors are trickier, in many ways, than getting the hardware and the software right"
Of course, technology is just one factor. Technologies such as these (and I'm sure that others exist which also fall into the trap of "amazing, but it won't work in my house") can give a compelling reason for people to engage with out-of-home gaming - but the social factors also have to be right if an arcade renaissance is to be possible. Social factors are trickier, in many ways, than getting the hardware and the software right. Losing the seedy, unwelcoming image of the arcade in some regions will be tough; in others, where arcades have died entirely, the marketing of an entirely new social pursuit would present a major challenge. Getting people to try out something like this might be easy; getting them to see a trip to the VR centre with friends as an entertainment option on par with a trip to the cinema is likely to be much harder.
All the same, the entertainment possibilities opened up by technologies of this kind, which are now reaching a mature, usable stage in their development, ought to create an optimism around arcades and out-of-home gaming that hasn't been seen for some time. Social or commercial aspects could still pull the rug out from any hope of recovery or renaissance - but the potential certainly exists for new kinds of gaming and interactive entertainment to take their place as key social out-of-home experiences in the coming years.