The Making Of: Arcade Club
games for any fan of retro is an incredible place Europe’s biggest arcade too. We speak to it is an incredible undertaking, to visit - and running it’s done to find out exactly how founder Andy Palmer
Andy Palmer on creating Europe’s largest arcade and completing a lifelong ambition
The first time you visit Arcade Club, it almost feels like you’re making a crazy discovery. That’s partially because the building it’s housed in is nothing exciting – Ela Mill was previously a factory making handbags and other leather goods, so other than some signage and a few players smoking outside, there’s little to suggest that there’s an arcade inside. But once you make your way inside, pay your entrance fee and head up a few flights of stairs, the magic hits you hard. As you pass the cocktail cabinets and head into the main arcade, a sit-down Ridge Racer greets you on the left. Beyond that you’re flanked by rows of Electrocoin Goliath cabinets as you make your way towards the back of the room, each cabinet containing a classic like Golden Axe or 1942. In an adjacent room, there are PCS ready to go for Minecraft sessions. Downstairs, you’ll find a variety of Japanese music games like Sound Voltex and Groove Coaster, as well as pinball tables, consoles and more retro arcade games. If you’ve ever had any interest in videogames at all, Arcade Club is a thrilling place to visit.
Of course, a collection of cabinets spanning over 40 years doesn’t come together overnight. “We had a chain of computer shops and we noticed there was a turning off in the industry,” says
Andy Palmer, founder of Arcade Club. “We had some arcade machines in the shop which I’d been collecting for a while, and I was wondering what to do with them.” After toying with giving away tokens to shop customers and a coffee shop idea, Andy hit upon the first version of the Arcade Club model. “We set up 30 machines in the shop to see how it would go, and we charged £10 for four hours on a Saturday. For that they got a free can of Coke and a biscuit thrown in as well.”
The idea soon took off, necessitating increasingly spacious venues. “BBC’S Collectaholics got involved which kind of catapulted it into the stratosphere, and we decided to move to the unit which was 100 machines. After that everything was going fine, no problems. But there was a major problem with parking, we had no parking facilities around the warehouse where we were, and that caused major problems with the locals – it just wasn’t good. And once we reached the capacity of 100 people it was one in, one out like a nightclub. People didn’t seem to mind it, and they quite liked the exclusivity.”
Still, Arcade Club was growing and it needed a new home. “It’s very difficult finding the amount of space required at a good rate that the business model will actually sustain, because if you go into a town centre you’ve got parking problems and you’ve also got massive business rates, you’ve got service charges – you’ve got a lot of stuff on top which means you’d have to put your door prices up. You’ve got to be very careful about the pricing model.” Ela Mill was eventually picked as a suitable location, but it didn’t come without risk. “We threw caution to the wind a little bit, we didn’t have a lot of money when we came to Bury,” Andy admits. “We actually sold – which I regret now – an Out Run deluxe just to get the deposit together.”
With all of Andy’s prior knowledge, we wonder if there was anything he hadn’t factored in. “Electricity,” he says. “We’ve had to do so much with the infrastructure of the mill. We’re
drawing eight 80-amp feeds, and there’s that surge of turning the machines on – we don’t want to have to turn them on individually because that would take far too long. We’ve spent many, many thousands just on wiring and infrastructure.” Additionally, since a business of Arcade Club’s kind is somewhat unusual, some people struggle to grasp it. “It’s very difficult to get it through to the council sometimes that it’s not a gambling arcade – there won’t be any fruit machines – because they don’t have a videogame arcade category anymore,” Andy says. “But we had a great guy on planning who loved arcades, which helped – he actually said, ‘Do you have Tron?’ That was the magic key.”
The roots of the Arcade Club games collection, which now numbers over 250 games, can be found in Andy’s own long-term collecting hobby. However, the selection has been balanced for quality and commercial appeal. “I targeted cabs, some of which I had anyway, like Space Invaders, Pac-man, Galaxian, Star Wars, Robotron and Defender. I just went for triple-a titles, the best of the best, because I thought if we’re gonna do it, we’ve got to do it with triple-a titles.” The longterm build-up of Arcade Club’s collection has also been a major factor in the quality of the games available, according to Andy, simply on financial grounds. “If I was starting it now, straight away
I’d run into a brick wall of, ‘It’s £1,000 for Pac-man, it’s £1,600 for Donkey Kong’ – there’s better ways to make money nowadays with an investment. Everything’s just gone ridiculously priced.”
Despite that, where there’s demand, Arcade
Club adds capacity. “If say for instance Pac-man or Space Invaders is particularly popular, even if people can’t get past the first few levels, we’ll add more cabs. We did have three Defenders in here at one point because it was particularly popular with 40-somethings that wanted to relive their youth.” What’s more, there have been very few games that have escaped once being put on the Arcade Club most-wanted list. “Discs Of Tron and I, Robot were two difficult ones but I’ve got a source for those now, they’re buried in a friend’s storage but he’s said once he gets to them they’re ours, which is fantastic.” Still, certain games aren’t feasible to run. “Everybody keeps saying about the R-360, but the problem with that is that it needs X-raying every six months or so to look for microfractures in the subframe and stuff. They were a bit of a nightmare to keep going back in the day, and I think the duty cycle at Arcade Club would mean it would potentially be broken more than it would be working. It also needs an attendant, which means it needs to be fully staffed, which needs a wage.”
One interesting facet of Arcade Club is that although it has a huge roster of retro arcade games, it is not exclusively retro-focused. “I think people will get bored of Pac-man,” says Andy. “A lot of people will turn up, play Pac-man and Space Invaders, realise how hard they are, be put off and then never visit again. For those sorts of people you need to do something different, so we have Japanese games, VR, PCS, consoles – we cater to what the audience wants.
Most of the newer arcade games found at
Arcade Club are Japanese games, so you’re unlikely to find anything that you could easily run across in your local bowling alley. “We actually fly out to Japan, we source everything ourselves,” says Andy. “We want to be on the cutting edge all the time.” That’s something that can’t be achieved by sticking exclusively to what’s available domestically, which Andy attributes primarily to the amusement industry’s lack of focus on videogames. “It’s always redemption, the ticket machines now. The industry’s going that way and I feel it’s a bit of a mistake, because they’re just aiming for kids with these tickets, it’s a little bit manipulative and it’s not in the spirit of gaming, it’s in the spirit of money,” he explains. “I know that’s what business is there for but at Arcade Club, we have to make money, fine, but I feel like we can do it in a fair way. It’s hard to balance, but I think I’m doing it.”
The business end of things is an interesting subject – conventional wisdom says that the arcade business isn’t the place to be today, and Andy has said himself that there are better ways to make money. “It’s not a booking system at Arcade Club, which means you’re never guaranteed on your numbers. Summer was hard for us, we had the World Cup and the heatwave together, so we saw a massive dip in numbers,” Andy confesses. “Luckily we’re structured so we could get through that, but we wouldn’t have got through that if it had lasted three months. We would’ve had major problems.
While the heat isn’t something many would seek out in an arcade, Arcade Club does attracts a number of players used to heated competition. “We have a lot of record holders here – Charliefar, David Lyne he’s called, he’s the Galaxian world champion and he’s the best player I’ve ever seen in my life. John Stoodley comes here quite often, he’s one of the world’s Pac-man champions. Shaun Holley from the Ten Pence Arcade podcast, he does a lot for the community. We have MBA, Manchester Battle Arena which is our fighting community – it’s all to do with gaming across all genres and all ages, that’s what Arcade Club’s about.”
Speaking of all ages, Arcade Club is family friendly but it requires adult supervision for all children under 16. “Yeah, it’s quite strict actually, very conservative,” Andy admits. “The reason we did that is we didn’t want a gang of kids potentially causing issues. I want everyone to be safe – and the other thing is we don’t know everyone’s medical history,” he continues. “So if somebody drops off a group of 12-year-olds and one of them has a fit, falls or has an allergic reaction to something in their food, we won’t know what’s going on there and it could potentially be life-threatening. And the other thing is, I’d hate for someone to turn up five hours after dropping their child off and say, ‘Where’s my child?’ because they’ve just gone out of the front door, because you can come and go as you please. I don’t want anyone ever to go, ‘You lost my child.’” Arcade Club also runs adults-only sessions
(with 16-to-17-year-olds allowed as long as they are with an adult) on Thursday and Friday.
So what does the future hold for Arcade Club? A new location has just been announced, based in Kirkstall, Leeds and due to open in early 2019. We also discover that a third floor is in the works for Bury. “We’ve found that the Japanese floor can get a little bit chaotic, so what we’re doing is we’re going to turn that floor into a dedicated Japanese floor, drop the VR and PCS down a floor and set up a more loungey console-type area,” says Andy. “I’ve always wanted to do a console area for people but if you can’t keep on top of it, people tend to start resetting things. It needs stewarding, so to speak, it needs somebody there to make sure everything’s okay.” Additionally, it will free up space for some of the more popular attractions. “We find that VR can be a little bit queuey sometimes, especially on a Friday night, so we need to add more,” says Andy.
How about long-term plans – Arcade Club is already the biggest arcade in Europe, could it become the biggest in the world? “I don’t know if we can achieve that, but hopefully we can,” says Andy.
“We have hundreds of machines in storage, and we have literally about 50 machines in containers winging their way over from America and Japan. We are looking towards the future and we want to make Arcade Club bigger.” How about more locations? “One day – maybe – I’d love it if we could possibly open about four or five across the UK so everyone could enjoy it,” Andy replies cautiously, “but I have to make sure the infrastructure is there first, and that we’re able to keep on top of repairs before we could do that.”
Regardless of any plans for future expansion, Arcade Club is already a unique and exciting venue for any gamer to visit – and when all is said and done, that’s the thing that Andy finds most satisfying about the business. “It’s never been about the money, it’s just about having a fantastic time and leaving something, once I’ve left this mortal coil, that was worthwhile. That’s very important to me. I don’t want to just have a big bank account,” he says. “A lot of people said it wouldn’t work, and I’d end up with a very expensive lesson in what businesses not to open, but fortunately it did – people supported us and just love Arcade Club for what it is, which is a great value day out that the whole family can enjoy.”
» As well as gaming, Arcade Club offers food options, and you can even enjoy your meal on a cocktail cabinet.