For sixty years, arcades were as american as the coca cola and pizza stuck to the knobs, buttons and joysticks. As a child of the nineties, there was nothing as exciting as the heavily greased yet insanely sticky Street Fighter arcade in the corner of our local burger joint. I will never forget my best friend's birthday parties of Whitey Fords (an arcade), or community trips to Space Plex where they had Capcom Versus Marvel, Virtua Fighter and when our parents weren't looking, Mortal Combat.
Over the past fifteen years, increasingly capable home consoles, mobile gaming and the affordability of big screens TVs combined to decimate this market. My seven year old doesn't even know what an arcade is.
This is all about to change. Because the fundamental gaming experience is about to take a giant leap forward.
Ever since Atari, video gaming has been about learning new fine motor skills to manipulate increasingly graphically accurate experiences. The Wii changed the game by introducing gaming in a truly natural interface. The Wii (and by extension, the Xbox Kinect) brought us halfway towards a natural, immersive experience. We waved our hands and moved our bodies, but we didn't feel any haptic friction or feedback. Without this closed feedback loop, it was hard to cross the line between fiction and reality.
Home consoles (and mobile phones) have done an admirable job of bringing us deeper into a flat experience. But it's just that, a flat experience. The cost of setting up an accurate, truly immersive gaming experience would be too steep for most families, and the space required will be too large for most homes (for now). But the experience of a fully immersive, virtual reality environment as an augmentation of our physical space, is intriguing. Consider the video below.
While this experience would likely be too costly for a single family, the economics of the arcade could be a great fit for this experience. The cultural fit of the arcade would reward players and celebrate "watchers" much like the arcades of our youth. Big screen broadcasts for spectators and friends could transform this isolated gaming experience into a return to gaming as the social and societal catalyst it once was.
The arcade of the future may not feature giant boxes and joysticks. In fact, it may look and feel similar to laser tag and conventional sporting events. But I believe the economics, technology and societal factors behind the arcades of yesteryear will return with the rise of immersive VR gaming. It will cost more than a quarter to play. And we will get to be the old people, commenting on how when we were kids, there were these things called "bits" and "pixels".