Get Your Game On On-premise

The quarter drops, and the machine comes to life in a buzz of music,  lights, and animation. Friends look on and cheer; one offers to buy the winner a drink, and another claims the next game, laughing at the player’s misfortune. Scenes like this are becoming increasingly typical in bars across the country, as many establishments begin to recognize the importance of on-premise coin-operated entertainment. When it comes to attracting customers and making sure they stay, the best bars offer more than just an empty stool and a cold drink.

With arcade-style machines costing patrons anywhere from a quarter to $2 for a play, the payoff is in the time spent in the venue. Robert Morris, vice president of New York distributor Action Game and Music, is the vendor for popular sports games, pool tables, pinball machines, shuffle alleys, foosball tables, and touch-screen games. Morris believes the benefits of coin-operated entertainment outweigh the costs of the machines. “Here is a way to keep your customer in a bar longer and give them something else to do,” he explains. “It will give them a reason to spend more money and help you sell your drinks.”

In choosing coin-operated entertainment, it is essential to consider how well the games go along with the theme of the bar and if they fit in with a target audience. Young crowd? Go for the popular mainstream games. Older? Try playing into nostalgia with classic games. Sports bar? Try the latest bowling or golf options.

Also of importance is space consideration. Will a large arcade-style game disrupt the flow of traffic? Will touch-screen games on the bar block bartender-patron interactions? Bethany Smith, manager of Ace Bar on New York’s Lower East Side, says certain games were selected for her bar based on how they enhanced the atmosphere. Ace Bar currently features two Ski Ball games, pinball, Buck Hunter, several pool tables, and dartboards, all of which cost a dollar or less. “We’re an old school rock-and-roll bar, so we put in Ski Ball to get that Coney Island feel,” she says. Creating a theme certainly paid off for the venue. “It’s our most popular game,” Smith says.

In Williamsburg, Brooklyn, an impressive list of beers isn’t the only thing on tap at Barcade, which boasts an incredible 27 coin-operated machines on-premise, creating a sort of adult playland.

The idea for an arcade bar originally came from conversations the five co-owners had about games they used to play when they were young. Now open four years, Barcade attracts a steady crowd of all ages who come in for a good time and hopes of challenging their friends. “We get a pretty wide range of people who come in,” co-manager Scott Beard says. “People come for the classics or looking for new games. We have a pretty wide collection.” The young owners considered a huge variety of games before selecting the current machines. “We chose the games based on a combination of availability and our favorites,” Beard explains.

Another draw of coin-operated entertainment is the nostalgia factor. Beard says people come from all over looking for the games they used to play with childhood friends, which is why the bar’s most-played games tend to be older. “Our most popular game is [beer-themed] Tapper, then the classics like Pac-Man, Asteroid and Frogger,” he says.

Brian Murphy, director of marketing for vendor Betson Enterprises, explains the business benefits of bar entertainment, which he sees as an expanding industry. “Coin-operated games are a great way to attract patrons into a bar,” he says. “People will go into a bar, have fun, come back, and tell their friends. This sort of entertainment is growing.”

Though nostalgic games and traditional bar entertainment like pool tables, darts, and jukeboxes may be the most popular, digital downloading games and new, innovative coin-op entertainment options are appearing across the country. LAI Games featured a new photo booth called Star Blitz at the recent Amusement Showcase International (ASI) show in Las Vegas. Star Blitz is a new, roomy photo booth that allows patrons to take glossy pictures of themselves with fun decorations and borders. Infrared technology can even send photos to the user’s phone. “This goes way beyond taking a photo,” Sheri Jameson, marketing manager at LAI Games says. “It is truly memory-making.”

Betson Enterprises, regarded for their Big Buck Hunter Pro and Big Buck Safari games, recently began manufacturing an arcade version of one of the hottest video games out today—Guitar Hero. The arcade adaptation is a two-player version with the same popular songs as the original video game. It is also tournament-friendly, allowing friends to challenge each other with league brackets and prizes. “With Guitar Hero, bar owners can have competition nights, getting people out of their homes and moving them into bars to play,” says Murphy.

Popular games like Guitar Hero, Big Buck Hunter, and sports and trivia games lend themselves to crowds. Vanessa Cabrera, marketing and communications manager for AAMA (American Amusement Machine Association), says tournament play provides a huge boost for business. “When they play, they stay,” Cabrera says. “Depending on what you give them, they’ll likely come back for another tournament. This increases food and alcohol sales.”

In addition to putting on the annual ASI showcase, AMAA also started the Location Trade Show Program, establishing “coin-op” pavilions at trade shows across the country. “The program allows for great exposure,” says Cabrera. “Bar owners can see what the coin-op industry can offer.”

Trade shows tend to be a great place for potential bar owners to explore entertainment options. In selecting equipment to install in the bar, it is important to speak directly with vendors and to try out games firsthand. Do your research, and find out which games are most popular among the crowd you want to attract. Could the game be used for tournament play? Do you have an appropriate amount of space so that the game will not obstruct the flow of traffic?
Then there is the ultimate concern: money. It is essential to take into account costs for installation, maintenance and repair. If you’re concerned about finances, it may be smart to consider tabletop machines and other less expensive options, or choose a coin-op game that has a greater monetary return.

“Coin-operated pool tables tend to make the most amount of money,” Morris says. Coin-op pool tables also save bar owners a considerable amount of trouble by taking care of scorekeeping, timing, and turn rotations. This new take on the traditional game is growing in popularity, giving bar employees much less aggravation than the typical pool table.

If funds are a concern, bar owners should also take caution when purchasing year-specific games. A 2008 Golden Tee game is certainly less appealing than the 2009 version, but updates to the latest version can get pricy. The same goes for jukeboxes; as more music options become available, more updates will have to be installed. Owning the latest machines can certainly attract a crowd, but it is first necessary for owners to explore the finances behind the possibility of multiple updates.

Extra coins and additional customers can all add up. So in this expanding realm of bar accessories, the buzz around on-premise gaming is certainly something to take seriously.