When VCRs first became common in households during the 80s, many people seemed to think that movie theaters would become a thing of the past. After all, you didn’t have to pay movie theater prices for tickets, food, and drinks, and you could pause the movie any time you wanted. You could also avoid noisy moviegoers and enjoy the movie in the privacy of your own home.
The strength of the movie theater industry is testament to the fact that VCRs did not sound the death-knell for theaters. However, video game consoles effectively eliminated arcades to the point where almost none exist today. Sure, you can still find a game or two in bowling alleys or bars, but the era of widespread coin-op arcades is long over. How is it that being able to watch movies at home did not end movie theaters but home systems ended arcades? Here are a few ideas as to why.
Movie theaters were much longer ingrained in society than arcades. Movie theaters have been around for about 100 years. Arcades, when they first began popping up in the early 80s, were a new concept. The idea of leaving home go play video games at an arcade was mainly popular among teens, with other age groups not embracing video games as a preferred source of entertainment until games had become much more sophisticated. When I patronized arcades in their prime, I was 15 years old. Most of the other people at the arcade were my age or slightly older.
Movie theaters create an effect that cannot be completely duplicated at home. The sheer size of movie screens ensures that the experience you get at the theater will always be different that what you see at home. Even the biggest home theater systems are still dwarfed by movie screens. Arcades were not able to make a similar claim. The screens on coin-op machines were generally the same size as television sets that home systems utilized. Depending on the size of your TV, some arcade game screens were actually smaller. While it is true that many of the coin-op games were housed in specially detailed cabinets, the visual experience could easily be copied at home.
Movies have generally kept to nearly the same length. Movies run about an hour or two, so theaters are able to get people in and out several times a day to see the same thing. Video games quickly expanded in both length and complexity, forcing game makers to either come out with new features that home systems did not posses or make their games longer. They did the latter with moderate success for a short time by allowing infinite continues. This allowed the gamer to play lengthy games with advanced content by continuing to pop quarters in after a set time expired or upon death in the game. Ultimately, though, coin-op games simply could not convince gamers to keep dropping quarters for games that did not have as good an experience as what they could get at home.
Finally, it was far cheaper for the game manufacturers to make cartridges and discs than it was to build cabinets. Their return on investment was much higher, since they could sell games to individuals rather than arcades, which would then pass on the experience to large groups of individuals. Movies never suffered from this problem, as movie studios had only to produce reels to send them to the theaters. They did not have to produce a new screen to watch a movie on every time they made one. Movie companies actually gained income with the advent of VCRs, since they could sell you the movie you watched in the theater a few months before.
So arcades are basically a fond memory in the history video games due to the reasons I have described here as well as many others. For those of us who lived during their heyday, though, it was a special time filled with dark rooms lit only by the glow of the games and punctuated by the sounds of early technology and the clinking of quarters.