By: Steve Zachmann
With so many games, is there a lot of maintenance going on here?
It’s every day. We still have a skeleton crew that works here. There’s only me, and one other guy that can actually fix stuff. Some days we’ll have ten games go down. Sometimes it’s a board issue, usually it’s a monitor issue. Sometimes it’s something more egregious, like someone will smash a control panel. We’re very strong on policing and making sure that stuff isn’t being played too hard, but it just takes a second for somebody to bash too hard on something and put a joystick through the control panel. At that point, if it’s a wood top we have to make a whole new top. That’s another element: we have a wood shop right here because of the production stuff and our prototype cabinet, so I’m very comfortable doing wood work. We’ll do a lot of custom elements for cabinets. And again, because of the production, we have excellent graphic arts skills behind us. We do a lot of custom artwork. A lot of our marquees, some of our complete cabinets, like our Mortal Kombat 2011 cabinets. Those are all completely custom; side-art, marquee, control panel, front stickers. We did that for Injustice as well. NetherRealm being in Chicago, we had actually designed a cabinet for their offices. They came out and had their launch party here at the arcade. The lead writer, and a lot of the motion actors came out, and we had this giant tournament right at midnight. It was a really awesome time and gave people, not only a cool tournament to come to, but also a chance to meet developers and industry people.
It sounds like you guys always have something awesome going on.
We really try to. We have a very large announcement coming up, probably by Wednesday. There’s some expanding coming up, and some other really cool stuff. That should be posted on our Facebook page. The growth that’s coming is going to pushing us off in different areas.
It’s always great to see something like this be successful. I’m a child of the arcade scene, so I obviously have a huge amount of nostalgia for this type of stuff and it’s great to walk in here and not just see the machines, but to hear your passion for it.
I feed off the customers too. The Mortal Kombat guys especially. There’s such a major draw for this place. When we have our tournaments we have all this stuff printed out for them to sign. Seeing people meet the actors that they idolized is awesome. Meeting Daniel Pesina, how cool is that? You can play Mortal Kombat against Johnny Cage. I had met Phil Bahn — who plays Shang Tsung – at my arcade when I was growing up. That was such an amazing experience. I was just some guy, he didn’t know me from anybody. But now you can see that they’re such cool guys. They’ve befriended so many people here. It’s awesome to be able to hang out with these actors, and they really get into it. It’s awesome to see these iconic, video-game celebrity people hanging out and being so cordial. It’s truly amazing.
Working here, do find yourself even playing the games, or have you kind of played them all out?
I play something every day. A lot of times if I start playing something, if there is anything wrong with it, it’s more important to fix the issue with it than to actually play it. There are times when we’re here super late. Some nights, when there is a lot to get done, we’ll leave the arcade open until six in the morning. There is a lot of playing being done, but with so much stuff to do, it’s hard to play as much as I would like to…unless I’m going after a score, then I might get a little side-tracked.
Speaking of that, it seems like there are a lot of world records here.
We actually have one-hundred and forty-three world records that are held here. If you go on Aurcade, there are one-hundred and seventy-five world records that they track, and we have one-hundred and forty-three of them here. Through the late 80’s and all through the 90’s nobody was tracking this stuff. Now that the accessibility to some of the games is so limited – again, there are seventy machines that only we have here – if somebody wants to make a name for themselves and show how good they are at the game, they have to come here for the most part. There’s not very many venues that track scores and get so serious. High score runs and streaming events have really been a pivotal element to the place doing well; letting other people see these great achievements and scoring being done. There’s so many things that other arcades aren’t doing that seem to lend themselves to making the place more accessible and making a better community.
It seems like now is the perfect time to re-open the arcade scene because a lot of us who did grow up with that and now have our own disposable income and time would be really open to being a part of that scene.
We actually helped nine other arcades open since we opened. We’ve had a couple of places mirror our business model where it’s pay-at-the-door. We’ve helped a lot of people find games, a lot of places fix games. Some of the older arcades look at it as competition from one arcade to another and they’re very standoffish.
We were doing this wiring class, it was a fairly long class, about forty people showed up, some people from Enchanted Castle showed up and express how their machines would go down and their techs would never get to them because they were always doing redemption game stuff. They wanted to be able to fix their own machines, and I thought that was awesome. The more working arcades out there, the better. This one guy, Scott Lambert, came to our wiring class and said, “You know, I think I can do this. I think I want to open an arcade.” I told him I’d help him out, gave him a bunch of tools, helped him find a bunch of games. Now he’s the owner of the Underground Retrocade out it West Dundee, another successful arcade. They mirrored our business model, I talk with him all the time, and we do a lot of high-scoring events against each other. I send my regulars out to him, his regulars come out to me, and it’s like this giant meshing of two arcades. It just makes so many more talking points and makes so many cool things happen when everyone is working together instead of being off on your own island, trying to out-do one another. The more arcades that open, the better. You’re very accurate in that our generation of players can open their own arcades now. On a Saturday we’ll have four-hundred people through the door, and they say, “You must be rolling in cash.” We do ok, but if that’s what they’re looking at first, it won’t work. I’ve seen it before, guys who are just money-hungry try and open up an arcade. It’s not going to work. If you don’t have that passion for it, you’re not able to talk to the players the same way. If you just see them as a dollar sign walking through the door, they’re going to feel it.
Because of how specific the whole idea is, it seems like the kind of people who would want to come in the first place aren’t going to enjoy the experience unless they feel welcome there.
When I opened a lot of people asked me, “how much redemption are you going to have?” (Note: redemption means ticket based games e.g. Ski-ball, Whack-a-Mole) I told them, “None. I do not want to have a redemption based game here.” Every person in the industry told me that we’d be closed in two months. I completely disagreed. It’s hard not to listen to what everyone else in the industry is saying, but the business model and the business philosophy of this place is that there is the casual gamer and the hardcore gamer. There are a lot more casual gamers than there are hardcore gamers, but the casual gamers are very much like a revolving door, but they’re more vocal about what they want. Dance Dance Revolution, for example; everyone was saying that we needed DDR machines here. I had no interest in having one here yet. You can go play them other places, they don’t have their place here yet. Until they’re scarce, they’re just not going to work here. A lot of times I think that if we started taking out some of this really obscure stuff and putting in Golden Tee, you’re going to lose the hardcore gamer. The casuals come and go so often that adding that stuff would just change the environment way too much.
It definitely seems like the older games are really where this place’s soul is.
For sure. I’m not opposed to buying new games. We had King of Fighters XIII and Street Fighter 4. I like some of the newer stuff, it’s just not as mainstream. It has its niche market. I want to have the place packed with cool games that you can’t play other places.
Time for a few personal questions, what are your top three favorite games of all time.
Mortal Kombat, definitely. That’s a huge part of my gaming history. Asteroids. I was a huge fan of Asteroids. NARC was another one. That was actually the first arcade game I bought for my house. I had been working my whole life but I had my first pay-check job at a video game company, and I my second check I used to buy NARC. I remember still living at my parents’ house and having that brought up to the door telling them, “don’t worry, it’s going in my room.” So yeah, definitely NARC. NARC was a very amazing game for me.
What’s your favorite memory here at the arcade?
That’s a really tough question. There have been so many memories with so many different people. All of the Mortal Kombat events mean so much to me. It’s such a pivotal game while I was growing up. One of the reasons why I started my production company was Mortal Kombat. The overall thing that has impressed me about this place has been the tremendous friendships that have been made here. It’s not even something game-specific. Normally by this age, people have their set friends. Here, everybody is always making new friends which is just unheard of. It’s a very unique place as far as that goes. It’s cool just watching everyone interact with each other. It’s a competitive scene, but it’s usually very friendly. On a psychological level though, there are a lot of interesting things that everybody here does. It’s always very fun and interesting to watch how people are interacting, and the general on goings of this place.
Stay tuned tomorrow for pt. 3 of the interview!