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Arcade Perfect

Japan's arcade games don't export well - but their ideas and systems could well do.

One of the things which always strikes games industry types when they visit Japan is the rude health of the arcade business in the country. Although it goes through ups and downs like most businesses, and there are presently concerns of a decline in the sector, it's undeniable that by contrast with their Western counterparts, Japan's arcades are a major success story.

Travelling around Japan in the last couple of weeks, I've been struck again by this contrast. Perhaps the most important aspect is not even the fact that Japanese arcades are plentiful and bustling with customers - it's the fact that they represent the fruits of continual investment and evolution.

They have moved with the times and created whole new categories of game to draw in consumers - while at the same time, western arcades have for the most part declined into a depressing landscape of outdated machines and gambling games, interspersed with occasional recent Japanese imports which simply feel out of place.

Despite the sorry state of arcades in the UK and elsewhere in the west, however, I can't help but wonder if the time isn't right for some clever entrepreneurs and investors to revitalise arcades - taking some inspiration from Japan's success, and some from the unique social and cultural demands of their home nations.

Several factors intersect to suggest that the potential for an arcade market in the West is healthier than it has been for some years. Take, for instance, the increasingly "casual" nature of the gaming audience, brought about by both the ageing and the expansion of the gamer demographic. The original downfall of arcades came about because their graphical prowess was rivalled and then overtaken by home consoles - but so-called casual gamers seek experiences, rather than graphics, as is ably illustrated by the success of the relatively underpowered Wii.

This is the audience which has driven the success of Guitar Hero and Rock Band, of Wii Sports and SingStar and EyeToy. In Japan, it is an audience which is well catered for in arcades thanks to rhythm game machines like Konami's Beatmania, Guitar Freaks and Drum Mania systems - along with other popular machines including a variety of football games, music and rhythm games, and dancing games, all of which exist comfortably shoulder to shoulder with more "traditional" gaming stand-bys like fighting games and giant robot games.

This is clearly quite a departure from the traditional view of arcades as smoky environments where hardcore beat 'em ups and shooting games sit shoulder to shoulder with jangling gambling machines - and while that may not have been the reality of the situation for many of the West's more progressive arcades for some years, it's still the widespread perception of them.

I'm not suggesting by any means that there should be a wholesale import of Japanese arcade systems to the UK - there are huge cultural differences which would mean that many Japanese arcade systems just wouldn't work over here. I can't, for example, see girls in the UK dragging their boyfriends to PuriKura ("Print Club") machines to create collectable pictures, which are automatically edited by software that makes everyone look glowing and beautiful.

However, the immense success of SingStar and Guitar Hero prove that the Western market is more receptive to rhythm and music games than most people believed - and who's to say which other genres have also been wrongly dismissed as "too Japanese" over the years?

Most of all, the lessons that can be learned from Japanese arcades relate to how to create an environment that welcomes customers and keeps them coming back. At the simplest level, popular arcades here are well-lit, brightly coloured and welcoming, with comfortable stools, well-maintained machines and clean facilities. Vending machines dispense drinks and ice cream - an extra profit centre, as well as a pleasant facility for customers.

Much cleverer is the introduction of network functionality and persistent systems for arcade games. You can, of course, simply throw a hundred Yen coin into a Guitar Freaks machine and play a few songs - but Konami's e-Amusement system creates a whole new level of compulsion for gamers.

New songs are uploaded across the network to the machines on a regular basis, so they keep up with the charts, and players pick up an inexpensive e-Amusement Pass card, giving them a persistent account that tracks their progress, their worldwide (well, Japan-wide) ranking and their skill levels. Because it's all handled across the network, the e-Amusement pass works on any machine in the country - effectively downloading your account each time you start play on a new machine - and it also works for multiple games, so you can track progress on games as diverse as Drum Mania and Silent Hill Arcade on a single card.

Other systems for bringing players back time and time again are even cleverer. A popular football game here relies on a collectable card system - allowing you to participate in networked games across Japan by moving your cards around on a playing board. Combining the appeal of something like Football Manager with the compulsion of collecting football cards - and an interactive gameplay experience that's quite different to either, of course - it's easy to see how a game like that could work in the West. Similar systems are used for everything from military strategy games through to Gundam battle games.

This, perhaps, is the key lesson - create an environment where players feel comfortable, and then give them a reason to keep coming back. Progression and persistency are the watchwords; as any MMO developer could tell you, if your players feel like they're making headway, and like perhaps tomorrow they could achieve something new, they'll be back tomorrow.

The concept of a resurrection of the arcade market - in a markedly different form from its original incarnation - seems especially relevant today, and not just because of the evolution of the gaming demographic in recent years. At a time when there is an increasing recognition that the leisure facilities provided to young people in the UK are shockingly inadequate in many places, especially in the nation's cities, is it unrealistic to think that a revival of arcades as open, social spaces could be presented as part of the solution?

It would, of course, not be easy. Reviving the arcade market could potentially bring huge financial rewards, but would call for investment, innovation and powerful marketing. However, Japan has already created some of the tools - devising systems, if not necessarily games, which would work perfectly well in the West. The first steps have been taken elsewhere; will anyone in the West now embark on the rest of this journey?

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