After the painfully familiar rigmarole of signing into yet another vast trade show, stepping into the Amusement Trade Exhibition International 2008 show (ATEI) greets you with a quite dazzling sight. Rows and rows of blinking lights and rasping speakers fill the air with excitement, and countless flat screen monitors flash up all kinds of next-generation visuals.
Sadly, aside from the odd pinball table, it's clear that almost every machine you can see as you enter the well-trodden Earls Court arena is some reinvented fruit machine or newly designed betting station. The arcade industry is now a gambling industry it seems, and videogames are just the bedfellow of something far bigger and much more glamorous.
But after passing numerous booths displaying everything from gumball dispensers to gaudy end-of-the-pier kiddie rides some reassuringly familiar friends come into view. Below huge Sega, Konami and Namco Bandai banners are perhaps the event's most extravagant stands, showing that if nothing else, these companies have some money to spend on their arcade endeavours.
A generously lengthy tour of the Konami stand by the company's enthusiastic product planning manager James Anderson reveals several great arcade machines, including the superb Silent Hill walk-in cabinet, which gives players a huge amount of gameplay time per credit by offering an atmospheric light-gun shoot-out based on the internationally popular console licence.
There's also a huge pair of machines for Drum Mania and Guitar Freaks V4 Rock x Rock, which enjoy a constant and lively crowd as players step up to perform with robust plastic instruments that long ago pre-dated the craze for Guitar Hero and Rock Band. There's also a hint that a new Dance Dance revolution is heading to UK shores, and old Konami IP like Frogger makes an appearance on the now-familiar pub touch screen upright.
So how does Anderson feel about the UK arcade gaming industry, and how healthy is it right now? "In some respects the new gaming law didnât help things," he say immediately, and throughout the show it's a sentiment echoed again and again by those involved in traditional videogame machines and updates of classic amusements like crane grabbers.
"The easiest way to get your head around it is to think of it like this," explains Anderson; "If you've got a chance of winning anything out of a game, it falls into one of two categories; it's either a game of chance, where it's predetermined if you win or loose, or it's a game of skill where your own skill effects the outcome of the game. Games of chance are a nightmare at the moment. An absolute headache."
The cause of the headache is that as companies continue to try and tempt curious passers-by into the once glorious arcades, prize giving has become paramount. Redemption is the buzzword of the show, and Segaâs seemingly infinite display area is covered in cabinets that combine traditional arcade gaming with material enticements. Light-gun games that reward accuracy with sweets and gadgets are joined by the heavily publicised Sega UFO Catcher; a new generation crane game that includes LCD screens and genuine interactivity.
"It's a difficult time obviously, and the gaming law is having an effect across Europe, and makes things tough for investors," confirms Sega Amusement's sales and marketing manager Justin Burke, "but our strong point is our range. From crane games to redemption machines, we havenât got all of our eggs in one basket anymore."
Treading the fine line between player incentives and falling under gambling laws is obviously a defining factor for the industry at present, but as gambling machines increasingly include game display screens, perhaps a bit of cooperation might be the secret. As Chris Costello, the business development manager from fruit machine giant Barcrest puts it, "What we do, and what we've always done for 40 years is make great games. Everything we make is in essence a game."
However, his colleague and director of UK sales Gareth Scott is quick to add to the discussion, and his well-intended words about new fruit machine technology highlight that there's still something of a suspicion between the two industries. "I don't believe our games have been driven by, or are in any way a derivative of arcade videogames."
Thankfully, at ATEI 2008 there's still plenty of more traditional arcade games on display that seem to be doing very well. Games like Sega Race TV, Lets Go Jungle, Silent Hill and Midnight 3: Maximum Tune enjoy constant queues. "It's not too bad for arcade videogames as the market's changing and we should have a fairly strong future. It's good," explains a confident Anderson, but adds, "The market requires a little bit more localisation, because a product doesnât work globally anymore."
Arcades succeed when they offer something a gamer can't get at home; a task that has become increasingly difficult since the arrival of the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. The answer to that problem comes in elaborate cabinet design, typified this year by a trend for fully enclosed hydraulically mobile simulator games, but it was good localisation that really drew crowds at ATEI 2008.
A simple Deal or No Deal quiz game for example, attracts droves of older players, despite being an idea that would likely flop overseas unless it was repackaged to suit another TV show. Player memory cards were another common theme targeting the console owning gamer, appearing in one form or another on The Fast and the Furious Drift, Midnight 3, and V4 Rock x Rock cabinets among others, though so far the system hasn't been as easy to localise here as overseas. "Practically and technically it works well, but establishing a business model has been hard," says Anderson.
While things look promising for the future, and all the main players have plenty to shout about, it's actually the technology and circuitry exhibitors that are the most vocal about a potentially fruitful future. Wolfgang Heinz-Fischer is a man with a knowing smile.
He is the European marketing director for Advantech, a company that design and manufacture the internal workings of everything from car-park ticket machines to arcade cabinets. "The arcade gaming market is changing from 'do everything' to 'buy externally' I think," he says; "We are moving closer together. The gaming industry is looking to buy industry parts and we are looking to move into gaming."
And the benefits for game makers? "With PC industry technology made outside their company they can focus on how they build the outer machine, the branding and the experience for the player," confirms Heinz-Fischer, who is hugely optimistic about the future; "Because of our relationship with cell maker Intel, we can see perhaps five years into the future, and yes, it's very exciting." Sadly, what those five years entail is his secret.
While diversification, gaming laws, localisation, redemption and cabinet design are the talk of the busy show floor, thereâs one small cabinet that proves if nothing else, thereâs still a market for the most traditional of arcade games, and still a public hungry to experience them. Past a huge crowd and plenty of cheers and camera flashes is a tiny but exceptionally high quality Tekken 6 cabinet. Amidst an arena of innovation and speculation, a superb but conventional beat-âem-up is doing what everything else there strives for, and recreating the magic of the 'golden era' of arcades.