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Arcade Perfect

What the West can learn from Japan's arcades.

Published as part of our sister-site GamesIndustry.biz' widely-read weekly newsletter, the GamesIndustry.biz Editorial offers analysis of one of the issues weighing on the minds of the people at the top of the games business. It appears on Eurogamer after it goes out to GamesIndustry.biz newsletter subscribers.

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in consumers - while at the same time, western arcades have for the most part declined into a depressing landscape of outdated machines and gambling games, interspersed with occasional recent Japanese imports which simply feel out of place.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.