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Monday, July 15, 2013

Old-School Arcade Games on Demand: How the Sharing Economy Might Save Pac-Man and Donkey Kong

Posted By on Mon, Jul 15, 2013 at 8:08 AM

click to enlarge pacman.jpg

Even after Nintendo and Atari put home video game consoles on the market and induced gamers of the '80s and '90s to barricade themselves in their bedrooms, a few diehard arcade operators still did things the old way. And their die-hard fans continued pumping quarters into the refrigerator-sized machines, ensuring that Donkey Kong and Ms. Pac-Man would still have a place at the local movie theater or bowling alley. Home systems put a major hurt on the arcades, and then smartphones came along and ate up a few more lives. Suddenly, everyone had Angry Birds right at the tips of their fingertips, and many gaming companies doled out their apps for free.

Old-fashioned arcade games -- with their coin slots, hokey plastic guns, and grainy color palettes -- gathered dust and graffiti, and had all the appeal of an ice box that hadn't been touched in years. Renting them out to arcades was a horrible value proposition, says Antioch stockbroker and old-school gaming enthusiast Seth Peterson, who mourned the changing times. You might earn $15 in quarters, $7.50 of which would go to the house. You'd spend $10 on gas just to cart the machine over.

Peterson couldn't stand to see a whole industry waste away, so he decided to become its savior. Last year he bought and refurbished an old Turbo Outrun arcade game from a vendor in Stockton, and used it to start a business. He thought that by buying arcade games in bulk and leasing them to private clients for $75 a month, he could resurrect an old tradition without subjecting it to the dangers of the outside world. The games in his collection wouldn't wind up in random bars or laundromats; they wouldn't get vandalized or eviscerated.

He and his brother bought classic games in bulk, and wound up with a 150-game portfolio that they could rent to customers in the San Francisco and Sacramento areas. (Think of Netflix's business model, only way bulkier; cute envelopes won't cut it here.) They also created a website to facilitate rentals for other game-owners, using a sharing economy-type system. Any owner could post screenshots of his game and the maximum number of miles he'd drive to deliver it; customers within those zip codes could then respond And presto: Joust brought right to your door.

"We think it's a great way to make the games earn income again, and help save a dying industry," Peterson says, noting that he's also providing opportunities for mom-and-pop operators. Before he and his brother launched their business -- called All You Can Arcade -- the few companies running arcade rentals had a virtual cartel.

"When we looked at the rest of the market, the cheapest guys were charging $200 for a 4-hour rental," Peterson says. "Good games would go for $500."

All You Can Arcade debuted this weekend at the California Extreme Arcade Convention in Santa Clara, which is kind of a Rose Bowl for old-school nerdery: With more than 500 arcade and pinball games on hand (and no quarters needed!), it's one of the few exhibitions that will dwarf Peterson's collection.

For events in San Francisco this week and beyond, check out our calendar section. Follow us on Twitter at @ExhibitionistSF and like us on Facebook.

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About The Author

Rachel Swan

Rachel Swan

Rachel Swan has been a staff writer at SF Weekly since 2013. In previous lives she was a music editor, IP hack, and tutor of Cal athletes.

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