Arcade1Up's David McIntosh on Ms. Pac-Man and surviving a pandemic
Arcade1Up's marketing director talks securing the Ms. Pac-Man license, physical plungers on pinball tables, and more.
I miss arcades. Hanging out in cool, dimly lit caves full of flashing screens and weird sound effects offered a social atmosphere for gaming matched only by huge LAN gatherings like QuakeCon.
The team at Arcade1Up, a brand of Tastemakers, LLC, continues their mission to bring arcade classics into your home with a slate of announcements that includes a new spin on its X-Men Vs. Street Fighter cabinet, a Marvel-themed virtual pinball table, and the big one: Ms. Pac-Man.
I talked with David McIntosh, the brand's director of marketing and communications, about the long process of bringing this wave of cabs and tables together, how the brand has fared during COVID-19, and why the team slipped a Super Nintendo game in among coin-op classics.
David L. Craddock: How long have these four cabinets and this announcement been in the works?
David McIntosh: These products have been in development since 2018. From [Arcade1Up's] inception, Ms. Pac-Man, X-Men vs. Street Fighter, Big Buck Hunter--these were all titles we were going after. So this has been a two, two-and-a-half-year deal. Unfortunately, due to negotiations, limited capacity, executing these things properly, it does take a lot of time to do it right.
In some cases, we're re-developing the games altogether. So these have been in the works for quite a while.
Craddock: I believe this marks the first time a console game, X-Men: Mutant Apocalypse, has been included in one of your cabinets. How did the company decide to include a console game?
McIntosh: John Diamonon worked for Capcom for 11 years. He was a huge part of working with X-Men vs. Street Fighter and in helping developing storylines around a lot of those games. When it came to including a console game in an arcade machine, we typically stay away from that because we want to provide the authentic arcade experience we're known for. But in this case, John had worked closely with these teams, and we decided [Mutant Apocalypse] actually helps close the circle on the storyline for the Marvel universe on the video game side of things.
So the decision wasn't about adding filler content. We could have made this cabinet without the SNES game. However, in this case we felt like it added value, and it's an overall great game in general. That was the rationale behind including a console game.
Craddock: I think the cabinet I'm most excited for is Big Buck Hunter. Now, I haven't played any Hunter games, but I love light gun games, and this is another first for you all: BBH is the first cabinet to feature a light gun, and that gets me excited about the future of bringing more of these types of games to the home market. What was the process of building a light gun that is affordable, which is one of the big appeals of your cabinets, while maintaining the authenticity of the plastic guns we're used to holding in full-size cabinets?
McIntosh: We partnered with Sinden Lightgun, and these folks are leaders in the industry. They've made light guns for LCD screens, they're high quality, and durable. They feel like the arcade experience.
In partnering with them, we were able to bring an affordable arcade experience without cutting any corners. In fact, a lot of the development costs for this were eaten by Scott [Bachrach, founder of Tastemakers LLC and the Arcade1Up label], just because he wanted to provide a light gun experience. He knew we could take this technology and apply it to future titles that games we have yet to announce.
Craddock: That's exciting because for the longest time, light guns were thought to be incompatible with LCDs and plasmas. A lot of retro fans keep CRT displays on hand specifically for these types of games.
McIntosh: Yeah. At a very high level, it's based on technology used in the game itself; it's not in the screen. Typically you'd have a light bar or CRT for [this type of peripheral] to work, like the sensor bar that came with the Wii. If a game involves a light bar, that's okay, but it does take away from the aesthetic [of an arcade cab].
So in this case, it's part of the technology that Sinden developed. They put a perimeter on the screen itself. You can't see it, but it's detectable by the gun, and the perimeter and gun can speak to one another.
Craddock: Arcade1Up has made pinball cabs before, but the Marvel cab in this announcement is the first to use a physical plunger. How was the decision reached to bring that part in for this machine?
McIntosh: We haven't announced this yet, but it can be a Shacknews exclusive: All of our pinball machines will include a physical plunger moving forward. Believe it or not, when Forbes came to our booth at Toy Fair, they wrote an article on us, and Scott read it a dozen times. His biggest takeaway was that we'd closed the realism gap of virtual pinball [and physical playfields]. We did so with tactile feedback, haptic feedback, 3D CGI so the content itself was developed flawlessly.
The only criticism Forbes had was that it was missing a physical plunger. Scott said, "If we get a 9 out of 10 from Forbes, and the only thing missing that would have made it a 10 out of 10 is a plunger, why don't we have a plunger? Whose decision was this to not include a physical plunger on our machines?" Someone said, "Uh, Scott, this was your decision." And he said, "Oh." [laughs] We'd pitched it to him and thought he'd want to do it, but he thought it was too expensive.
Now he's eating the cost and all our pinball machines will include physical plungers. I'm excited about that. It does take more development on the games to [harness] the physical plunger effect, but our partner studios have been wonderful with all the last-minute changes we've thrown their way.
Craddock: Fans have been asking for a Ms. Pac-Man cabinet since Arcade1Up started, and you mentioned earlier that the team had their collective eye on the game as well. What was the process of finally pushing this cab through?
McIntosh: There's a lot going on with Ms. Pac-Man, but we've been great partners with Bandai Namco. They provided some of our launches titles: Galaxian, Pac-Man, and a few others in our launch roster of quarter four 2018. The conversations began at that point. We knew we wanted to do a Ms. Pac-Man title; they knew they wanted us to be their partner on that title, but we wanted to make sure we did it right.
If I'm being honest, the time [since Arcade1Up started] was beneficial because it allowed us to work out some growing pains. It really allowed us to apply the lessons we learned into what will probably be the best product we delivered this year. The team, including Bandai Namco, has had such a close hand in not just the machine, but the messaging and marketing materials. They know this is such an important piece of arcade history, and we've all invested so many resources to make sure it's a grand slam.
So it's taken a long time, but we've had our eyes set on this since 2018, and we're absolutely thrilled and honored to be a part of arcade history and bring this game to consumers.
Craddock: Another calling card of your cabs is the companion games that ship in each cabinet. How did you decide which games were appropriate to round out the Ms. Pac-Man cab?
McIntosh: A big criticism we get is we either have too many games, or not enough games. It's weird when we hear "too many games," but the hardcore enthusiasts want a Ms. Pac-Man replica with just that one game, and a joystick configuration and artwork true to that game. Then there's a flip side where other consumers want more value.
So we have some machines with two games, some with four, some with 12. We try to find a sweet spot, and it seems to be between four and eight games. As long as the joystick and button configuration [for a cab's marquee title] are compatible with the other games, people seem to be happy. It's when you start to add extra joysticks, a spinner, a trackball, eight more buttons--it becomes too cumbersome and overwhelming.
The simplicity of the arcade is the essence we're trying to capture. So for this cab, Ms. Pac-Man, Galaga, Pac-Mania, and Pac-Man Plus are the four games on this variation [of Ms. Pac-Man], and there will be retailer-specific exclusives with variations of those four games as well.
Craddock: Retail exclusivity always makes me nervous. So often in the last generation of consoles, publishers would announce characters, maps, weapons, and other content that was exclusive to pre-ordering their game at Target, but other content was exclusive to other big-box stores like Wal-Mart and GameStop. That's frustrating because as a fan, if I'm willing to pay for pre-order bonuses, I want everything at once. Do you and the team worry about blowback to that?
McIntosh: I understand that, and personally, I'm on the consumer's side. I'm a consumer before I'm an arcade PR guy. I want value, and I want to shop at the retailer I prefer. But if you go to our website and look at our retailer section, we have everybody on board at this point. I can't list one major retailer that doesn't support us.
In order to do that, and in order to have the mass appeal we have and not be limited to just online sales and one or two titles a year--we roll out roughly 20 titles a year in all these variations--it has to be part of our business model: Certain retailers get certain titles. That's how you get them on board. They all want their point of difference, that reason to draw a consumer in.
Now, if you want all titles, maybe just hold off. We're trying to bring in a lot of titles to arcade1up.com. We'll eventually carry most of the titles we offer at the retail level, with maybe an exception or two. But for example, if you're looking for Ms. Pac-Man but the retailer you frequent doesn't have the [variation] you want, maybe arcade1up.com will.
That's my recommendation. Shop around and stay tuned to our social accounts, because we always announce more compatibility down the road.
Craddock: You bring up a good point. At this point, two years and change into Arcade1Up, the brand seems to run like clockwork. You announce a dozen or more games per year, two or more cabinets per release cycle with several variations in the games. Do you feel like parts of the job have gotten much simpler? As in, you know how to get licenses, you know how to build cabinets, and you know where to eat costs if it means giving fans that little extra something special. You've also branched out into four-player cabs and light guns. What are the unique challenges to conquer when making these machines?
McIntosh: It's funny: I had this conversation with my team a few weeks ago. We could "copy and paste" the same strategy as last year, or from 2018, to sell a million units. The blueprint is out there, and we know what works. But what's different is various things. Not just our business model that needs to change, but our strategy.
External factors like COVID and protests force consumers to buy in different ways, and force us to think in different ways. We were already adapting our business model: There are new competitors entering our market. I know we have 90 percent-plus of the market; there's no denying that. But they can copy what we did last year, too. And then another competitors can copy them, and so on.
If we keep doing the same thing over and over, eventually someone will come in and steal this business. I know we have the licenses and exclusivity in some categories, so we're not concerned about that. But for example, if I don't do anything different, they don't even need me. They won't need a strategist, but it will get stale.
So what we think we've done well is market to hardcore gamers, but where we see room for improvement is [attracting] the mass market. We use the iPhone as an example: Once everybody adopts us, then we'll be satisfied. Until then, we're going to stick with our startup mentality, a hungry grind where we keep working until we hit the mass market and everybody has an Arcade1Up in their game room.
Craddock: Curveball question. When am I getting NFL Blitz?
McIntosh: [laughs] You know, the head of my licensing loves NFL Blitz. We all do. But to be honest, a lot of sports are getting negative press related to concussions and [other injuries]. For a video game to come out that is just so violent, we're facing some obstacles. It's not that we don't want to do it. It's about how we're going to do it, and when we should do it.
Craddock: I'm glad you mentioned current events. Related to what you mentioned, I'm disappointed with how America's leadership has handled COVID since the beginning, and the Black Lives Matter movement and protests against police brutality mean a lot to me as well. How does Arcade1Up navigate that to show solidarity, yet still operate as efficiently as possible in a time when so many businesses are barely hanging on?
McIntosh: We had quite a few changes. I had my whole year planned, and in marketing, they say that if you fail to plan, you plan to fail. I had tactics, timing, budgets, everything planned out. And then the world changed. In a matter of days, nobody was going to retail, nobody was going to trade shows, nobody was going outside. Our advertising campaigns were no longer relevant. Our strategies needed to adapt in real time.
For about a month and a half, some of us within the company tried to figure out how to come out of this. We had to lay off a lot of people in preparation for a long-term recession. We had to let go of external partners, and strategize about shifting product releases. We really did shift our entire business model and every single tactic we had to support it.
Then the complete opposite happened. People started picking up Arcade1Up machines to entertain themselves in the pandemic. Sales increased by 96 percent week-over-week at our major retail partners. E-commerce sales went up over 300 percent, but we had only half the staff and resources, so we've been working overtime for the last two months to accommodate it.
Everything changed, but I think we found a good rhythm. We've adapted in a digital landscape. Some of our retail partners are going strong, and our e-commerce sales are still going strong. So even though we had to adapt for the worst, we were ready even though it never happened. Our supply chain has been a bit of an issue as well, but we seem able to overcome a lot of those obstacles.
Also, announcing these big titles got pushed back a week. There were some things going on, and we didn't want to take away from some of the more pressing matters in the media. We felt it wasn't the right time to announce a video game, especially the biggest one in our history, so we pushed it back a week and a half. Everybody just decided, "This is the right thing to do. Let's not take away from what's going on in the world. Let's all do our part." I think the right voices were heard at the right time, and we did manage to get our message out and were successful in a product launch.
David Craddock posted a new article, Arcade1Up's David McIntosh on Ms. Pac-Man and surviving a pandemic