Over the Christmas holiday my brother took me to a cool little retro arcade called 1984. There’s no discernible George Orwell vibe, but all the games are from the early eighties. Donkey Kong, Pac Man, Galaga— that type of thing. There’s a $5 cover charge at the door and all the games are set on free play; just press a button where the quarter slot would normally be.
The free play system was interesting to me because of the way it changed the dynamic of playing the games. I’d be in the middle of a game of Tron, get bored and simply walk away before it was over. I found myself treating the games with all the respect one might afford the hot air dryer in a bathroom.
The games are simple by today’s standards, but I don’t think that’s the problem. The Muse Mechanique in San Francisco features coin-operated games and displays from the turn of the (20th) century that aren’t even games by today’s standards. Most are jittery coin-operated dioramas. It takes about two seconds to see what they do, but you’re strangely compelled to stand there and get your quarter’s worth.
I talked to the owners of 1984 about the system they had in place and they explained that taking quarters to the bank every week was a huge hassle. Much easier just to deal with a cover charge. The one exception was pinball. Those games are still on a pay-to-play basis simply because their mechanical parts are subject to wear and tear. They found that kids were playing the pinball machines non-stop all day long when they were on free play; breaking them much more frequently. Adding coin operation back into the loop acted as a throttle on that behavior.
Lots of theme parks charge gate admission rather than handling payment for individual rides. I wonder if the same metrics are at play. In most cases you can’t stop the ride and get off mid-stream if you’re bored, so it’s hard to make a comparison.