Keeping The Cabinet Alive: An Interview With The Owner Of One Of The Last Real American Arcades

[Editor’s note: Community member walkyourpath did this great interview on his local arcade scene. — CTZ]

The rumors of arcade gaming’s demise in America have been greatly exaggerated.

If you know where to look, you can still find those brilliant electronic cathedrals where the acolytes of the hardcore gather to worship at regular intervals. There’s something in the blood of these players, who could be at home on the couch with controller in hand, but instead choose to make their weekly or even daily pilgrimage to bring fresh round metallic offerings to their cabinet idols. They crave the competition, they thrive on the challenge, and they enjoy the camaraderie they have with their rivals. Because of their devotion, lush oases of true arcade games can still flourish as beacons of hope in an arid desert filled with nothing but ticket games and children’s arcades.

I stopped being an arcade regular after college in the mid 90’s, when I no longer had the convenient proximity of multiple arcade locations to pull me in. Since that time, the arcade gaming culture and industry have changed dramatically, as they experienced a crash and contraction that continues to this day in most areas of the United States. One by one, I heard about the closures of my old arcade gaming haunts, and so I thought that my city had seen the end of an era. Recently, I decided to poke around and see what was left after the firestorm of closures in the last 5 years, and get a feel for how arcade culture has changed since the days when I myself happily tithed away my funds in the pursuit of just one last divine continue. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that a bright neon flower was bravely blooming out of the ashes.

Arcade UFO is a small and unassuming location nestled away in the area just north of the University of Texas campus. This is where the arcade devotees of the town have migrated since the death of so many gaming locations have given them no other venue to pursue their passion. 

Every good church needs a great leader to keep the congregation active and alive — in the case of Arcade UFO, that person is Ryan Harvey. Ryan Harvey doesn’t just proselytize for the sake of getting more customers into his establishment, he truly practices what he preaches. Ryan is a hardcore cabinet gamer with skills. He represented the U.S. in the SBO (Super Battle Opera) Tournament in Japan in 2007, and will be doing the same again this year playing Street Fighter IV. When I asked why he opened an arcade in Austin when so many others had gone, his reply spoke volumes — “I opened this arcade, because I needed an arcade to play in.”

This past weekend, Ryan was gracious enough to give me some of his very scarce time to discuss the decline of U.S. arcades, what we can learn from Japanese arcades, console gaming, and why the Scientologists simply cannot be trusted.


The pulpit from which Ryan Harvey shepherds his cabinet-devoted flock.

Ryan, thanks so much for making time to share your insight into the arcade world with myself and with others.

No problem.

Let’s just jump right in, shall we? Your arcade recently hosted a U.S. Qualifying Tournament for the Super Battle Opera Tournament in Japan. You’re even sponsoring 6 players to go over to the Tokyo Dome and compete this year. Now, why do you feel that Arcade UFO has been able to not only survive, but thrive in a declining U.S. arcade market?

Well, that’s a really good question. I feel like we’re able to offer something that people aren’t able to normally get in the entire United States. A place like Arcade UFO, humble as our size may be, is something that you would normally have to fly across the world to experience — and the fact that we’re bringing brand new import titles here within the first week of release is, I think, something that hasn’t really been done before.

So, in reading some of the other write-ups that have been done on Arcade UFO in the past, I noticed that the inspiration for the name came from a Japanese arcade called Game UFO that you frequented during your time in Tokyo. So, what do you see as the major differences between the way arcades are run in Amercia vs. Japan?

Japan, first of all, has a lot more genres, more arcade games to choose from. One very popular genre that’s missing from American arcades is the the virtual card games they have, for example. There’s a whole genre of collectible card arcade games where you both collect cards, and then you bring your deck to the arcade, and the cards all scan in to the system — it’s all networked. That’s just one really good example of what Japan has access to that we don’t, because even if we were to import that, it’s all in Japanese so nobody could understand the rules. And secondly, we don’t have the network they do, which is limiting.

So, what aspects of Japanese arcade culture do you think translate well to American arcades, and how do you in particular go about incorporating those aspects into your business?

Well, I think the thing that Japan does right is, first of all, the head-to-head aspect. In Japanese arcades, you’ll often find that your opponent in an arcade game will sit across from you, rather than right next to you. We call that head-to-head, and a lot of the games at Arcade UFO incorporate that. So a lot of our fighting games, like SF IV of course, we have hooked up like that. The Gundam VS. game, that we’re having a tournament for tonight, is also set up like that, so, you sit next to your partner, but your opponent actually sits on the opposite side.

This aspect plays really well in a Japanese culture because, you know, it’s kind of cliched, but the Japanese are kind of shy, so this is the way that they can challenge strangers without having to directly face them. It translates well here for a separate reason. It does well in America because people like to have arm room, people like to have their own space. So, while the reasoning is really different, incidentally it does cross over pretty well here as a business aspect for us.

It’s head-to-head play. Pay no attention to the man behind the cabinet.

That’s fascinating. You’ve previously sited the American coinage system as one of the reasons for the decline of arcades in the United States. What are the other factors that you feel have contributed to that decline?

While the coinage system is a major issue in the decline of American arcades, and I’m sure I’ve said this before, but I think the main reason for the decline of arcades in America is redemption games. The way I believe it to have happened is — in the late 90’s, a lot of men who owned arcades for decades or years learned through the industry, and through trade shows that redemption (or ticket games) were more of a money maker than video. And so, in the late 90’s you had this transition of a lot of not only mom and pop arcades, but these big chains that we had everywhere, like Tilt for example. All of a sudden they started to look like, you know, kiddie joints.

What happened was, a lot of industry vets were getting better returns on their investments from the redemption titles. What they should have realized, but didn’t, was that it was temporary because you can only go in and enjoy random luck maybe once or twice a year, but a true skill video arcade game you can enjoy several times a week. It doesn’t get old, because you’re actually getting better the more you play. So, unlike redemption where it’s like this fleeting, non-lasting fun, the video arcade games are a source of, you know … you’re getting more for your investment. You’re actually gaining a skill.

But to accommodate this need for redemption in America, you had a lot of the game developers catering to that. So, suddenly you have developers losing their focus on video arcades and shifting over to redemption. Namco U.S. decided not to release Tekken 6 in the U.S., and because of that, our machine is an import machine — the other arcades in America that have it and have done very well with it have all imported the game.

So, in conclusion, what we saw happening in the early 2000s, was the result of the shortsightedness of the old arcade industry veterans. Which is, they ended up with a bunch of ultimately unprofitable machines in their arcades and, at the same time, the U.S. game developers were no longer offering real video arcade games to the arcade people. The arcades were filled with a bunch of games that weren’t making money and the distributors were filled with warehouses of arcade games that wouldn’t make any money.

Now, the industry has been surviving in Asia, because Japan is still focusing their arcades on skill-based fun — every genre of Japanese arcade game falls into this category. So, a lot of people look at Arcade UFO, and they consider us an import arcade. But what it is, is an arcade with real videogames, and the unfortunate truth is that America gave up on developing real video arcade games a long time ago because of this 2 or 3 years of bad decision making and switching to redemption.

You dirty rat, you killed our culture! You dirty rat.

Do you also feel that the proliferation of console gaming has hurt the arcade culture or industry?

Absolutely not. I think console gaming is a different genre of gaming. The example I like to give is — console gaming has been taking a trend for the past decade or so. I mean, I was raised in the NES era. The NES was released in the U.S. in 85, I got an NES for my second birthday in ’85 when it was brand new, it was an excuse for my parents to play it, I think, because they played it more than I did at first.

*laughing* — I was older, but it was the same at my house.

You know, I was raised in this generation of games that were very challenging, you died a lot. They were rewarding because they were challenging. In the past decade or so, games haven’t been so challenging. The focus has been more on interactivity and storyline, so I think what a lot of games have drifted towards for consoles is you know, games like Metal Gear. The Metal Gear series which I thoroughly enjoy myself. But it’s not so much, the core gameplay isn’t really hardcore. Metal Gear is a very forgiving and easy game. You can get through the game without dying a lot.

These kind of games, I think of more as interactive storytelling than I do a true hardcore videogame. And that’s not an insult to the Metal Gear series, it’s simply a different direction that console gaming has been taking. It’s the reason that it’s been popularized and put into so many homes. Video arcades still offer what the original consoles offered, which is a true hardcore videogame experience. The truth is that hardcore videogaming isn’t for everybody. There are some people who maybe don’t have a competitive spirit or they don’t understand the point of suffering so much to have fun.


It sounds, like kind of masochistic, right? But the truth is, this is human nature. You can’t get a feeling of accomplishment from something that you don’t have to try really hard for. Console gaming gives you this sort of fleeting and fake sense of accomplishment, because when you beat a Final Fantasy game you feel accomplished. But that’s only because you saw the end of the story, and you saw that last cutscene that ties it all together. I bet that over half the people that played FF XII — you could play through that entire game and just go through the story, and not do any of the side quests, and play through the whole game without dying very easily. So, you know, those games are fun and they provide you something. They provide you with entertainment, but I don’t think they provide you with a hardcore videogame experience, which I classify by difficulty.

Fighting games are good for that because you have real human competition. And of course, humans are the ultimate opponents, right? We devise strategies, we try to outsmart the other person, so the value is gained there when you have opponents. There are other hardcore games that are focused more on single-player aspects, like for example, we have Espgaluda II, which is a really challenging vertical shoot-em-up. That game is beatable in one credit but I’ve never seen anyone here do it. I’ve seen a few people get to level 4 out of 5 total levels on one credit, which is really good. But the truth is, it takes a really skilled player, and not just a player that goes in for the first time. You have to have some experience. You have to have a strategy for each level. This is a quality that so many old games had, like the Mega Man series, the original Ninja Gaiden — the first one for NES, you know, even Punch Out to an extent.


Yeah! In fact, Battletoads NES was renowned for being an incredibly difficult game. It’s kind of funny, because I lived in Corsicana during middle school. Corsicana is where Trade West Entertainment was. The founder of Trade West was this guy Byron Cook, he had a mansion, he was the richest guy in the city. He was this farmer/rancher that learned Japanese and started Trade West and his company made Battletoads and they were really well known for that. The Battletoads arcade game came out in 1993, I think. That game was even harder than the NES version. The NES version was already insanely difficult, but the arcade game was even harder, which was, you know, ridiculous. Sorry, got off on a tangent there, what were we talking about?

Battletoads NES is apparently for casual gamers.

No worries! You were saying you feel that console gaming doesn’t really compete with arcade gaming, but rather that they’ve just taken divergent courses.

Right. In Japan, if you ask a lot of players in arcades what consoles they own, a lot of them will tell you that they don’t own a console. All their gaming is done in the arcade. Of course, that’s not always the case. You’ll find a lot of people who are like “yeah, I have a PlayStation 2, or PlayStation 3”, or even fewer will say <chuckle> an Xbox in Japan. But my point stands that an arcade game can never be replaced by console gaming because it is a completely different genre of playing for the most part. You know, when you watch a movie with 150 people at the Alamo Draft House, that’s a lot different from watching the DVD at home with your one buddy or your girlfriend or what have you. Sometimes I say it’s like the difference between bars and drinking at home. I mean, that’s a more extreme example of course, but arcades provide a social element that not even XBL and other online services can recreate.

That brings me to another question — obviously you spend a lot of time with good players, you’re hosting tournaments, etc. The elite tournament level players that come in, do they even utilize consoles when they’re not at the arcade to hone their skills, or do they find that even with the fight sticks that are out there that they prefer to do even their practicing in the arcades?

I absolutely think there’s a divide there. I would say that at least half of our regulars probably also have at least a console and SFIV at home, since that’s kind of the hottest game right now. I have a 360, I have a PS3 and a PS2, I have a Wii, so I’ve done the console gaming since I was a little kid, and that’s a part of me as well. I don’t have as much time to play console games anymore, but while recognizing that it’s a different kind of gaming, it is still something that I enjoy immensely. My favorite joystick right now is the MadCatz tournament edition for arcade style games. So, I have SFIV at home, I have BlazBlue at home. I haven’t picked up KOFXII yet. I have several of the shoot-em-up games at home.

I enjoy playing at home, but I usually don’t find myself playing those types of games there. It’s almost like, self-defeating. I don’t get as much satisfaction from playing a vertical shoot-em-up at home, for example, because part of the fun is playing at the arcade. You know, people are watching and I’m trying to get by on one credit, whereas on a console version I’m tempted to be lazy and credit-feed and keep continuing.

Fighting game wise, the online has gotten a lot better in the recent generation. Especially in the last 2 years or so, there have been a ton of advancements in online play for fighting games. That’s a lot in part thanks to the Cannon brothers, who created a unique piece of netcode called GGPO. It’s great, you should check it out — — it’s totally free for PCs. It utilizes a new emulator with old ROMs, so you can play games like Marvel vs. Capcom 1, Street Fighter Alpha series, Vampire Savior, you know, games of that sort. The netcode utilizes what’s called rollback, which will basically rewind by a couple of frames if it needs to, but it’s a lot more responsive than anything we had before. This is because before, netcode for fighting games was written by people who didn’t understand fighting games. So the first fighting games that had online capabilities were just a mess.

SFIV’s netcode is okay, it’s not great. BlazBlue’s netcode is fantastic. KOFXII, I’ve heard could use some work in the netcode department. My point is, the netcode in general is great, and home play is legitimate. However, even BlazBlue, with the best connection on the best netcode is still not as responsive as playing a local match at home or the arcade.

Quick side question — who are your go to characters in SFIV and BlazBlue?

In SFIV I use Akuma, that’s who I qualified for SBO with this year. In BlazBlue, I’m using Carl Clover.

For Ryan Harvey, “Akuma Metata” means no worries.

So, when you look at your arcade’s Web site, there’s obviously a heavy emphasis on tournament play and bringing in the latest and greatest cabinets from overseas, which appears to cater to a more informed and hardcore crowd. Is that hardcore crowd your bread and butter, financially speaking?

I would say for the most part, yes. Austin has had an arcade culture built into the city for many, many years, thanks to the arcades we had on The Drag before. They were there for so long. Einstein’s, the last great arcade, lasted until 2007. So, between all the arcades that were in Austin, there’s still a group of people here that when Einstein’s closed were like, “Fuck. We need something else now.” Of course, Arcade UFO was the natural transition for a lot of those regular customers, myself included, that were going to Einstein’s daily until the very end.

So with that culture built in, do you think the best strategy for keeping the arcade culture alive is really to “rally the faithful”, so to speak, or do you feel that there’s an opportunity to expand your business to those who might be less devoted or less in-the-know?

We feel like it’s half and half. Of course, our business thrives on regulars, but at the same time we want to have that supplemented by people who become newly interested, even as casual players who are just out to try something new or different. We need both groups’ support. The arcade is a very delicate balance. We try to balance game lineup such that there are great games for both first time and for hardcore players. The best type of game would be a game that is both easy for new players to learn and quickly feel accomplished in, and the more they continue with it, the stronger they become, and the more rewarded they are for it. Several of our games satisfy both of those categories.

is a great example of a game that a completely new person can go in and do bad-ass things with their character and beat up the computer really easily. At the same time, if they keep playing, and play against some the more hardcore players, they can start to see that “Oh, there’s another level to this. I can learn the game more deeply.” And some people will quit and say “No, I’m not interested in doing that.” That’s fine, but if just one out of 100 people who try it out decide to become more dedicated, then that’s the most important thing for us. We want to continue to expand and grow the community of hardcore players and we also want to give the loyal Austinites who have appreciated the arcades for so many decades a place to go play some games on a Friday night.

So, you mentioned a lot of the places that I frequented when I first moved to Austin, like Le Fun, Einstein’s and the Power Play, all on The Drag. They all were closed. The Scientologists forced out Le Fun by outbidding them on their lease …

*chuckling* They’re always up to no good.

Why can’t you understand, Oprah! BLAZBLUE IS FULL OF THETANS!!!!!

I know!! But since those closures, only Arcade UFO has risen to take their place. Do you feel that the market for cabinet gaming in Austin is strong enough to support multiple arcades again, or do you feel that demand has contracted to the point that it really only supports one major location?

Well, I think that an arcade like this — probably only one location is necessary. I don’t necessarily think that other video arcade cabinet locations would be bad. I don’t think it would cause one location or the other to fail. But I do think that if another arcade were to open, whether it be us or a competitor, it would have to be in a very good and prominent location. If not on The Drag, then maybe South Congress, or someplace where a lot of people are outside and walking by at all times. That’s how Einstein’s and Le Fun survived before, there were just so many students and tourists walking by, you know, it doesn’t matter if 1 in 10,000 people walk in. I’m sure there’s much more than that walking by The Drag in a day.

On a separate note, do you see any differences between people who play different types of cabinets? For example, the types of people who devote themselves to the fighting games versus the people who come in for DDR-type games. If so, is there any culture clash there? Do you find yourself having to make adjustments to account for that?

(This question was posed to me by DToid community member Chooly, and Ryan was happy to answer.)

Well, for the most part, and I’m very fortunate in this regard, the rhythm gamers and fighting gamers all get along very well here. You know, it’s not like everyone is buddy-buddy, but for the most part there’s no confilcts of interest. I’ve always tried to keep the volume of each game at an acceptable level, such that the DDR is loud enough for the rhythm gamers to enjoy, and that Street Fighter is loud enough for everyone to hear their moves and kind of hear the music a little bit. But yeah, I’ve found that — and I think part of it I can attribute to Austin being such a laid-back city in the first place — that pretty much everyone gets along here. I’m really thankful for that. One of your fears as a business owner is having to be rude to people, and kick people out, and stuff like that. But I’ve never had to do anything like that. You know, fingers crossed.

We’ve covered a lot of things so far. What’s next for Arcade UFO?

Well, what’s next for us is that we have a big media agreement coming up. I think I’m still under NDA about it, so I better not mention it just yet. We have a promotion happening very soon with a major media conglomerate so you’ll probably hear about it in the next month or so. There will absolutely be links on our Web site about it. I encourage you to check that out.

Also, we have a pretty small location here, but a lot of people ask, is the next step gonna be a new location, are you going to expand? For now, we’re focused on what we have. It’s pretty miraculous that we even pulled together the resources to get this place. So, our focus for at least the next year or two is to try and recover the investment from Arcade UFO on 31st and Speedway. Right now, we’re focused on this. If I were to open another arcade themed venue in Austin, it wouldn’t be exactly like this. I would try to catch a different audience or encourage a different type of crowd, maybe do alcohol sales or something like that.

The other thing is that right now, I work a regular full-time job, so I’m not supporting myself with the arcade. We’re trying to make our money back for it. I work 40 hrs a week for a regular company, so my plate is really really full right now. I have one partner in the business, Crissy Knape, she’s my partner — we do everything, and she and I work together. Even with that, my schedule is pretty much full all the time. So to do another location, or to even do a change of location or an expansion would be an incredible blow to my resources, resources mostly meaning time. All I’m saying is that, I’m really happy with what we have right now. I hope I can make it bigger and better — that would be my ultimate goal. Right now, I’m trying to balance this and my regular life. We’ll see what happens, I think the next 5 years are going to be super interesting.

The doorway to the future of Austin arcade gaming.

So, if I want to trick people into thinking I’m all bad-ass and such, what should I be playing here and name-dropping later in order to level up my nerd-cred?

Good question! I would say for one, that SFIV is the game that you’ll get the most respect for. If you reach a high level of play at SFIV, you’ll definitely get respect from a lot of the regulars. Next up, I would say DJ Max Technica is a really good one. If you level yourself up in that game, you’ll get noticed by all the rhythm gamers, because I want to say that all the top scores are divided between like 4 people right now. So, if you start taking away those high scores, they’re gonna be like, “Who the hell is JEB?”, or whatever. Daemon Bride is our newest title, we just got it in about 2 weeks ago, right after it came out in Japan. That’s another one that, since it’s new, a lot of people are playing right now. If you were to suddenly come in, and get really good at that game, you would throw a lot of people off-guard. Gundam is the other really hardcore game here, and we’re having a tournament here tonight for it. If you were to enter the tournament and place first or second in it, you’d turn some heads for sure. Gundam, SFIV, DJ Max … those are my recommendations.

Is there anything else that you’d like to say?

People who are regular console gamers, the players who were maybe born even 3 or 4 years after me, probably weren’t raised in an arcade environment like I was. For those people, I really encourage you to, if you have the ability to, if you have an arcade in your area, to show your support and to try it out. Search on the Internet, you might not have anything local, but even if you have anything 2 to 3 hours away, why not make a road trip out there every 6 months or whatever? Arcades are not like console gaming, there’s really a different kind of experience, and the more people that can appreciate that, the better. It’s still thriving overseas, and it would thrive here if more people fully understood how rewarding it can be.

Will you promise not to tell everyone how badly I got spanked while I was here?

Oh! Ummmmmm … what are you talking about? I don’t remember you losing at all.

That is the correct answer. Thanks for your time, Ryan. I wish you continued success, and keep fighting the good fight!

Thanks, I hope to keep doing it for a long time.

An Arcade UFO employee combines both fashion and hardware preferences. Also, that’s what she said.

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Sean Carey
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