As World War II drew to a close, manufacturers that had concentrated on building for the war machine were able to turn their attention back to their original areas of expertise. The coin-operated machine industry, and amusement machines in particular, exploded during this time, with pinball experiencing a golden age it hadn’t known since the early 1930s. Advances in technology could finally be directed toward these seemingly frivolous amusements, with efforts explained away by a need to boost morale and joy in the post-war years.
It worked; by the 1970s, pinball was huge. The game had spilled out of the milk bars and the bowling alleys and into dedicated pinball parlours. These were massive halls, the kind that had once been filled with ballroom dances and Friday night formals, outfitted with a shitload of power points and crammed with the wide variety of pinball machines made to satisfy an ever-growing audience. Some players were casual, throwing a coin or two in while waiting for something even more exciting (like such a thing exists), while others were hardcore. To the uninitiated, these parlours were dark, smoky, forbidding, sleazy dens full of suspicious characters, illicit substances, wild music and an air of general unpleasantness. To true pinheads, they were heaven.
And then, in 1978, a thunderbolt.
These new “video” games were took up less floorspace, required less maintenance, and ate coins at a much faster rate. At that time, the problem with pinball was that pinball wizards could make a single coin last a very, very long time, and that meant less money for operators because a. dudes weren’t putting in lots of coins and b. they were hogging the machines so no one else could either. Space Invaders’ novel touch was that the difficulty increased as the game went on, and soon even the most elite defender of Earth couldn’t keep up. Coin boxes overflowed, and suddenly pinball tables were looking quite dusty. The release of Pac-Man in 1980 – and the runaway success that followed – was the nail in the coffin. Video games burst into mainstream public consciousness, and “video arcades” rapidly replaced the pinball parlours of the past.
But of the many innovations of these video games, one proved crucial…and ultimately fatal to the industry: two-player games were nothing new, having been around since the original Pong in 1972, but advances in graphics and concepts meant that two player games could be competitive in a wider variety of arenas. 1984 saw the release of Karate Champ, the first one-on-one fighting game. Suddenly, you weren’t just trying to beat your friend at a lame approximation of tennis; you were trying to beat the pulp out of their virtual, and very human looking, avatar. If you won, you played on and awaited further challenges. If you lost, you’d better have some more coins if you wanted to try again. It rained money in these arcades.
In 1987, the concept of the fighting game was turned on its head with the release of Double Dragon, a game in which you team up with a friend to beat other hoodlums down. Who wouldn’t want to form a gang and take down all comers on the streets? It was this mentality that, in the eyes of concerned authority figures, started to bleed into the culture of these arcades. By the end of the 80s, the biggest threat for a kid walking into one of these places wasn’t that some creepy boiled lolly man would try and lure you to his house with the promise of coins…it was that you’d get bashed for real. Sydney’s Oxford Street banned arcades from its gay and lesbian areas due to the perception that they attracted young men prone to homophobic violence and petty crime.
At the dawn of the 1990s, the amusement industry fought back against this public image disaster by consolidating their efforts. Out were the independent parlours and arcades of the early years: Fonzies, Spacetacular, Westworld etc. In were group efforts by arcade operators and Australia’s biggest supplier and manufacturer of the machines themselves, Leisure and Allied Industries.
LAI had been around since the late 1950s, and promoted themselves as pioneers of the “Family Entertainment Concept™”. This near-monopoly had begun with the establishment in 1978 of their first Timezone family amusement centre, and as the public’s discomfort with the dodgy nature of video arcades grew, LAI stepped up and began selling the concept big time. Surely nothing would happen to you at a family amusement centre! You might get rolled walking into Spin Out or one of the independents, but Timezone had uniforms for staff! Bright colours! A brand to protect, an image to uphold! In an era of massive innovation, I think this move might have been the smartest. Pity it couldn’t last.
As the arcades tried to clean up, the video game developers themselves were doing their best to keep things dirty. In 1991, Japanese developer Capcom released Street Fighter II, a one-on-one fighter featuring eight hardcases beating the stuffing out of each other all over the world. The game is still counted among the most popular video games of all time, and it was an absolute sensation at the time. Every milk bar and corner shop had one, because all they seemed to do was generate insane profits from a minimal investment. Players were going nuts for a chance to prove their skills against each other, and since each round of fighting only lasted minutes, a large roll of coins was necessary to compete. Practice made perfect, which required even more money. As king of the arcades (and with many more machines on the premises), Timezone held local tournaments…then statewide ones. Then nationals. Street Fighter II was unstoppable.
Competitors rose in its wake, but none were more controversial than 1992’s Mortal Kombat. Yet another fighting game, this one had (for the time) photorealistic graphics that featured actors filmed and digitised into the game, providing a level of visual realism the cartoony SFII couldn’t match. It also featured perhaps the most controversial aspect of the entire arcade era.
At the end of a match in Street Fighter II, the loser was knocked unconscious, points were awarded, and you progressed to the next fight. In Mortal Kombat, victory was interrupted by a gleefully sadistic voice commanding you to “finish him”. Players were initially confused; “I beat him…didn’t I just finish him?” But they soon discovered that it was a prompt for a secret button input that would make your character brutally murder your helpless opponent. Once the media found out that kids were able to tear each others’ hearts out in these family amusement centres, calls for greater regulation and safety at these places reached a crescendo loud enough to drown out a thousand “finish him”s.
As for the players, they went mad for it. The game reeked of the arcade culture, and the money came thick and fast. Think about that situation though: “These places are creepy and violent, bad things happen there, bad people hang out there, we need to close them down,” versus “Hey, these places are our refuge from a society that thinks it knows what’s best for us! Nothing bad happens here, it’s just a place where we can hang out!” It’s easy to see both sides, and while bad things could and did happen at these arcades, the truth is that for many of the “rough” kids, home was an even worse place to be.
But oddly enough the financial pinnacle of this era of blood and thunder came in 1993, with the release of two…sports games?! The first was a basketball game released in 1992, NBA Jam. A simple, two-on-two basketball game featuring the biggest NBA players of the era…only with no fouls, plenty of shoving and a healthy dose of smack talking. More than any other, this game reflected the culture that had grown in the petrie dishes that were the arcades. At no time was basketball bigger than the early 1990s, and this game was in the right place at the right time. According to just about every source you can find, NBA Jam made more money than Jurassic Park, generating over $1b in quarters in the USA alone.
The other big success story was Daytona USA, a racing simulator by Sega. You still see (and definitely hear) DAY-TO-NAAAAAAAAAA setups in bowling alleys and cinemas all over the country, a testament to either the game’s staying and earning power or the weight of the machine. Both of these games made an insane amount of money, and when something like that happens, big money starts to take notice.
Kerry Packer was a man who never seemed to miss an opportunity to say “I can do it better,” and then back that up with some serious splurging. No other decade had taken splurging to the X-TREEEME like the 1990s. Nothing was as X-TREEEME as video arcades. It was…the perfect storm.
I think that last paragraph is the most revealing: “the company hoped to take advantage” of consumers. As the article says, Packer and Village’s unholy union resulted in Village Nine Leisure, a concept so insanely commercial it could only have existed in the 90s. In Packer’s signature extravagant style, VNL wasn’t just going to run some ratty arcades with Daryl Somers cutting the ribbon – these were going to be suburban indoor theme parks. As VNL managing director Gary Berman puts it,
We’re banking on the fact that people … are becoming more discerning about what they’re doing with their leisure time. What we’re doing is … creating a critical mass of entertainment that we think people will embrace.
A critical mass of entertainment. Gee, if Spacetacular had thought of that one, they might still have been around in 1999.
It’s clear from the language of the article that VNL didn’t care about what the public actually wanted – they were going to tell them what they wanted. They were going to make a place so hi-tech, so cutting edge, so…X-TREEEME that the public couldn’t help but turn up and empty their pockets.
Timezone weren’t exactly shaking in their boots, however. Despite the impending competition, Timezone felt pretty comfortable that they’d remain a place for “core” arcade gamers to go, an attitude that seems completely at odds with the family image they’d been bending over backwards in the years leading up to 1994. But they had three things going for them: the brand recognition, that Timezone was where you went to play the latest arcade games; the edgy “street” image of regular arcades they secretly revelled in, knowing that the kids coming in to play the violent games were the ones spending a lot of money; and finally they were owned by LAI, who would have to supply the VNL initiative with machines. In the 90s, there were no losers.
Oh, except these guys.
By 1994, Norman Ross was essentially done. A pioneer of Australian appliance retail, they’d gone into liquidation in 1992 after spending a decade under the ownership of Alan Bond. Insert your own obvious joke here.
The departure of Norman Ross (centre real estate previously occupied by Nock and Kirby’s) had left Hurstville’s Westfield with an abundance of free space. As we’ve previously learned, Westfield Hurstville was a trailblazer in many ways, and consciously or not, VNL’s decision to make Hurstville the site of their first indoor leisure park maintained that reputation.
The VNL crew spent the next year (and $150m!) behind closed doors at Hurstville, meticulously sculpting what was being hyped as the evolution of the arcade. In fact, the absence of the word “arcade” from any promotional material felt like a conscious effort. Just as video arcades had taken pinball parlours one step beyond, so too would Packer’s entertainment venue venture into the next millennium.
Intencity. A name so 90s it puts World 4 Kids to shame. A name so 90s it might as well be wearing a Hypercolor shirt and Oakleys. A name so 90s it took spellcheck three times to get it right. Millennials, am I right?
To get a sense of just how epic this place was, we’ve gotta take the full tour, and to do that we’ll need some help. When PBL and Village joined forces, they each threw into the mix every arm of their respective conglomerates. This meant that much of the non-virtual entertainment would be provided by Packer’s Channel 9 or Village’s Triple M radio station, and it also meant an advertising blitz spanning the same gamut of entertainment outlets. If you weren’t hearing commercials for the place during ad breaks on Village’s Triple M, you were seeing the TV ads on Packer’s Channel 9 programming like What’s Up Doc. In the weeks leading up to the April 5, 1995 grand opening, the public was treated to a vague, cool, edgy marketing blitz, punctuated by ads like this:
Packer even got his ACP magazine publishing company in on the act. By 1994, video games had reached such cultural prominence that a handful of magazines dedicated to the industry had popped up, the most prominent being the multi-platform Hyper. But “I can do it better,” so Packer introduced Gamestar, a shameless knockoff that hoped to beat Hyper at its own game by adding the advertising muscle of ACP, expensive freebies…and in the June 1995 issue, an exclusive preview of Intencity.
So just what was Intencity? The name gives almost nothing away. What happened there? If it was just another arcade, why all the hoopla? Let’s hear from Gamestar’s David Smiedt as he took the tour just prior to its opening:
Eight individual zones, each packed with the latest games, rides or virtual experiences. These are the Wide World of Sports Centre, The Chameleon, DiMMMensions, Virtual World, Wizards, The Lost City, Vocal Recall and Hide & Seek. Best of all, because there is no entry fee, you only choose to spend your cash on what grabs you. You can visit every zone or just hang in one or two.
In case you actually have time to think about stuffing your face, there are also three food areas where they whip up some seriously humungous pizzas, shakes and fries. There’s also the groovy Instyle shop, where you can pick up a street-hot Intencity cap or sweatshirt, the latest CDs or even a few computer games to take home.
Smiedt describes the Wide World of Sports (very subtle, Kerry) zone as being full of virtual sport games, most of which are featured in the above TV commercial. You get a sense that it wouldn’t have taken long for the “undesirables” to wear the place down, and sure enough, I have vivid memories of playing an arm wrestling machine that had long since lost its lustre due to five or six dudes at a time piling onto it. You spoiled it for everyone, fellas.
The Chameleon was a fully immersive pod-based ride which, according to Smiedt, combined “the speed and spills of a show ground ride and the best 3D video graphics you have ever seen on any game”. Once you’d chosen your scenario (high speed car racing or futuristic exploration) the pod would rumble and jostle you around as the game played out. Interactive…to a point.
Virtual World seemed to be the same thing: you’d choose one of two scenarios (Red Planet or Battletech) and embark on another virtual journey of immersion, sound and fury. “You’ve never seen presentation, interactive brilliance and a games challenge that comes close.” gushed Gamestar. Except for, gee, I dunno…the Chameleon, perhaps?
I don’t know about you, but so far I’m not all that buzzed about going there. Next…
Wizards, as should be obvious, was a pinball parlour, featuring 17 machines from the past and the present. It’s interesting that they’d bother incorporating such a large pinball zone into the place, seeing as the games were so far removed from the futuristic angle they were going for. Gamestar reflects Intencity’s disinterest by relegating only one unenthusiastic sentence of the five page article to describing it as a “pinball paradise”. In fact, so boring was Wizards to Gamestar that they neglected to take a picture. Gee whiz.
If you were looking for “a get-me-some-dollar-coins-NOW collection of the latest, greatest slot games you’re likely to see in one Australian venue”, you’d be heading to DiMMMensions, sponsored by the good folks at Triple M. I seem to recall their standard arcade being named NRG, so maybe Triple M withdrew early. Says Gamestar, “There are X-Men and Tekken terminals everywhere and the whole place is kept pumpin’ by huge video screens blasting out Pearl Jam, Diesel and a host of other faves from Triple M.” Imagine if it were still around – it’d be nothing but Pink and Nickelback.
Speaking of terrible music, Vocal Recall (a diabolical pun, and that’s from someone who knows) was a private recording booth capable of letting you record one of 900 songs onto a cassette tape. Somewhere out there, someone’s got one of those tapes. Get in touch.
The article ends with the usual “AND SO MUCH MORE” pronouncement describing Intake (the restaurant), The Lost City (a prize game section) and Hide & Seek (for little kids, and designed by the guy who created McDonald’s playgrounds). It’s sad that today’s arcades are pretty much all Lost Cities (in every sense of the term), but that’s where the money is. Everyone wants something for their investment, and cassette tapes just don’t cut it anymore.
Intencity has it all. Unreal virtual worlds, hot video games, old favourites and a whole lot of stuff you’ve just never seen before. For the foreseeable future, this type of interactive entertainment is sure to be the IN thing.
Interesting that Smiedt should end the article on such an uncertain note. Perhaps even he could see the ‘city limits?
By all reports, Intencity was an instant success. “200,000 people through the gates in the first weeks of operation,” screamed TechTonic. “In four weeks, Andrew Brown, 24, has spent almost $1000 at Intencity,” gaped the Sun Herald. The marketing worked (it certainly worked on me), with the image of all-ages-yet-slightly-adult-skewing interactive entertainment hitting the zeitgeist on some subconscious level…at first.
According to a June 1995 Sun Herald article, Intencity had found its audience relatively quickly:
There was one guy we were particularly watching. He had been sitting in the seat of a racing car game for more than two hours.
Later we found out his name was Scott Tinge, and he was 15. He had spent more money than he’d ever dare mention, yet he didn’t consider it until he saw that he had beaten last week’s score.
We asked Scott if he cared about the money he spent weekly on these machines. He replied: “I work at Kentucky. I got the jeans I want, I saw Pearl Jam when they came out, and I love playing the games. They’re fun. Sometimes I think about the money, like it could have been saved but I don’t care to think about it too much.
“I reckon I’m entitled to spend my time here when I’m not at school. It’s my money, and I choose what I want to do with it.”
Besides the regular hangers, like Scott, there is another type of people who visit Intencity, and they are the observers, like girlfriends, fathers and those who like to have a go but aren’t sure what they’re doing, because the concept of all the gadgets and joysticks is too advanced for their prehistoric brain – that’s us.
As you can see, not everyone was as impressed by the glitz as Scott “Mr. 90s” Tinge. In an article in RealTime magazine’s June-July 1995 issue, writer Leigh Raymond suggests there were greater forces at work:
Intencity’s location in a shopping mall and the involvement of the developer Westfield in its operation is significant because the design and management of Intencity enables some forms of social control. It’s like McDonald’s meets the video arcade.
While some of Intencity’s games can offer the same kind of subjectivity that old video arcade games did, the environment in which they’re placed is far more tightly regulated, and the ‘guests’ or users who might go to a video arcade might not find the Intencity experience that attractive. It’s safe, sterile, (if brightly coloured and shiny), family oriented and heavily staffed, unlike a video arcade.
The games are designed for an environment which is safe and sterile. Both the games themselves, and their physical and simulated environment, have many of the characteristics that George Ritzer argues, in The McDonaldization of Society, are being built into a fast food world: rationality, efficiency, calculability, standardisation and predictability.
Wherever possible, he argues, this McDonaldization removes the human. Staff become integrators, a role which is at least partly scripted and for which they are trained.
When integrators and actors step outside their roles, things become more engaging. Wandering around the corridors of games we meet up again with the young man who introduced us to the Chameleon. He asks what my score was and I say it’s so pathetically low I couldn’t possibly tell him, he’d just laugh. He laughs anyway.
Did I like it? he asks, and because he wants me to like it because he identifies so strongly with it, I say yes, sure, it was cool. But I’m not used to it. It made me feel, well it made me feel sick, I tell him.
He says he’s had hundreds of goes on it and you get better the more you do it. I want to say that like any reality, it probably looks better after a drink, but then I remember the vomit button in the cockpit pod and I start feeling clammy and nauseous again.
Likewise, the SMH’s Sacha Molitorisz had something to say about Intencity’s gender politics in September of 1995. It seems that despite all their efforts, Intencity didn’t have the kind of unisex appeal its creators were aiming for:
The gender gap yawns open at an early age. Look at how teenagers spend their pocket money. While boys pay to pound each other in video games such as Mortal Kombat and Streetfighter, girls tend to seek out less violent pastimes such as shopping or the cinema.
“I think it’s because boys are lazier than girls,” smiles Samantha Brincat, 15.
Damian Marshall, a 16-year-old from Haberfield, is not lazy, but he does like video games. He has about $60 a week to spend, most of which he earns by refereeing basketball games. He admits he and most of the boys at his school spend a lot of their time and money on video games. The girls he knows do not.
Whenever he comes into town to visit the movies, he stops at a video arcade. And he would regularly visit Intencity, Village Nine Leisure’s arcade at Hurstville, if it was not so far from where he lives.
If he did go, he’d have no trouble spending a lot of money. From traditional games such as air hockey and pinball machines, Intencity has virtual reality rides that cost up to $10.
Here flashing lights assault the eyes and pop music clashes with the aggressive sound from dozens of games competing for your attention.
Although Samantha Brincat has about $100 to spend each week, she has never been to Intencity. “I’m not really interested in (video games). Most of my girlfriends aren’t either, but most of the guys are. We usually go out shopping instead while they stay home and play their Sega.”
At least in this case the stereotypes weren’t being dictated by Intencity.
As 1995 became 1996, VNL followed through with their promises to open more Intencities. Parramatta, Tuggerah and Broadway followed suit, with the Parramatta Intencity in particular taking up a whopping two storeys. Despite the undercurrent of naysayers inevitably attached to any Australian initiative of this scope, Intencity’s mix of old arcades, futuristic virtual reality, processed food and cross-market entertainment seemed like a hit.
Certainly enough of a hit to put the fear into Timezone, which responded to Intencity’s big plans to open outlets in Malaysia by threatening to open a chain of its own arcades in Indonesia. How’d that work out, guys? Oh.
But by the end of 1996, the sheen was starting to wear off. While it’s easy to point the finger at the Hurstfield effect, there’s a much clearer explanation for the sharp decline in Intencity’s fortunes.
You may have seen it as self-indulgent wankery, but the reason for the extremely long winded history lesson about video games at the beginning of the article was to give you context on the changing face of the fledgeling industry, something Intencity’s planners could have benefitted from. If they’d known, perhaps they would have picked up on a very significant growing trend: home consoles. Since the mid 1970s, video game consoles were available for homes with enough money. From Atari to Nintendo to Sega, these consoles offered watered down versions of the games you’d find in the arcades with only a one time fee attached. However, the relatively weak hardware meant that the games weren’t 100% facsimiles of their arcade cousins, forcing players to seek out the real deal…until 1995.
In September of that year, Sony launched the Playstation, a system that was widely seen as the first finally powerful enough to accurately emulate the arcade experience. Suddenly, kids didn’t need to go to Timezone or Fun n Games to play the latest Street Fighter or Mortal Kombat; they could play them in their bedrooms. This had the knock-on effect of the developers slowing production of arcade games and focusing on these home systems. No new arcade games means no new reasons to visit places like Intencity, the rides at which could only hold their novelty for so long. In fact, the most forward thinking part of the Intencity initiative was making the rides the backbone of the enterprise. Unlike Timezone, they somewhat tried to avoid the arcade games being their bread and butter. But obviously, since it’s appearing on this blog, it wasn’t enough. The rides had to be long enough to justify the price, and the longer the ride, the less sessions you could hold. It was pinball all over again, but this time the stakes for the operators were much higher. Of course, no one felt this sting worse than Sega…but that’s another story.
With attendance (read: revenue) dropping faster than a dollar coin down a slot, the bean counters at VNL started to sweat, while the bean counters at Westfield started to tighten the noose. With the ever-shifting face of the retail game bearing down, and the red finally swallowing the black, time was up for Intencity, and that hefty amount of real estate made it an extremely easy…well…
There’s little to say about Target and the homogenised shopping experience it offers (uh…the floor out the front’s still the same? Aaand so’s that ceiling sprinkler?), so let’s turn our attention to a post-mortem of Intencity. With that logo, that attitude and well, that entire concept, it was a foregone conclusion that it would never reach the new millennium. Once Hurstville closed in 1997, PBL’s enthusiasm began to wane. Parramatta soon followed, and in 1999 PBL sold its stake entirely, leaving Village holding the bag.
According to a November 1998 SMH article, it wasn’t until that year that Intencity finally turned a profit – after four years of operation. Not good. In that year alone, coin-op machine revenue had fallen 30% from 1997. Ouch. VNL chief exec John Anderson told the SMH that:
“Intencity became very fragile because it relied on virtual-reality attractions to bring people to the centres and it became apparent the formula was wrong given the Australian marketplace and the games that had been selected,” Mr Anderson said.
“Virtual reality will come . . . but it will be a minimum of five to 10 years until you see it in a format that drives people into entertainment centres,” he said.
Mr Anderson attributed the decline in revenue from coin-operated machines to the emergence of the high-technology computer games for the home and increased use of the Internet – a situation which has also affected VNL’s 50 per cent-owned machine-distribution business.
You don’t say?
In the years since, arcades have essentially become a thing of the past. Anderson’s prediction of virtual reality entertainment centres by 2008 did not come to pass, to say the least. Where George Street was once peppered with video arcades of every size, only one remains today – Timezone. Perhaps by soldiering ahead with the same business plan they’ve had since 1978, they were able to weather the storm that decimated the industry. It’s not what it was, despite what their website would have you believe. Today, Intencity claims to have 14 “family entertainment centres” across eastern Australia, but if you’ve ever been to one, you’ll know they’re traitors to the name, having become the very thing they tried so hard to push the industry beyond so many years ago. If nothing else, the failure of Intencity is a testament to a lack of forward thinking by both the suits behind it and the public they hoped to take advantage of.
Game over (ugh), Intencity. The 90s were never 90ier.