Amusement location with passion; “The Heart of Gaming”.

24/04/2013

As you know, in the past couple of years the British arcade scene had taken a hit. For players the real blow was SegaWorld Trocadero, aka Funland. After Troc’s demise, the arcade gaming scene was temporarily saved by “Gamerbase”; an HMV chain which hosted fighting game tournaments in nationwide locations. Yet Gamerbase ironically shut this February as HMV themselves almost went into liquidation.

As a rule of thumb, the top arcade players are known to each other globally via the net. The best players in London will know the best players in NYC and vice versa. Prone to travelling as part and parcel of tournament play, onsite locations were vital to the community to get together as the arcade scene has always been a social one. While people can indeed play at home, the “face to face” atmosphere and physical presence of major location areas was lost.

So when I heard that long term London players and friends headed by Mark Starkey (aka Firebug) and Simeon (aka Bulletproof), who had not only bought ex-Troc machines, but gained permission to open an arcade with the fully restored cabinets, I could not believe my ears!

Opening weekend on Saturday the 13th April

Called the “Heart of Gaming” aka HOG, this was literally a centre for players by players. Originally testing the waters in Potters Bar last year, they have since transformed a small location into a full on centre relocated in North Acton. Getting there was fairly easy via the Central line direct from Oxford Circus. Exiting to the right of the station, you arrive at the main road with Tesco’s and a handy cashpoint in front. Turning right up the street, there is a passageway by the graveyard on the left, running alongside the train tracks leading you directly to HOG.

Although of course on arrival, Murphy’s Law used my phone GPS to run me & my friends around the houses, through an industrial estate, face to face with 5 men sawing off a sofa. By now we had visions of an Evil Dead warehouse with the promise of an arcade as a trap! We were extremely curious as to how the place would look!

Standing out from everything, the building entrance itself is hand painted; the first indication of the effort Mark and team have put into the venue. We could already hear the buzz and bright lights shining through the door on a bleak Saturday afternoon. James (Sendo), was there to greet us, the first of the genuinely friendly and enthusiastic team members on hand. I could immediately feel the warmth and love these gamers had, yet retaining that unpredictable and street edge feel synonymous with arcade players. While online gaming is a challenge, amusement location gaming forces you to immediately play your best. If not then your money is lost, plain and simple. That competitive survival element gave birth to the players edgier, streetwise characters. Now this generation was back, to essentially defend an empire taken away from us. Older and wiser, having grown up yet never losing the will to have that environment again.

 

Atmosphere and banter
Inside was literally a dream. Not only were lines of machines there, they had been beautifully restored, new panels, sticks, buttons colour coded, everything in perfect working order! This could easily have been in Asia. Something profit driven and often game clueless European operators now fail to provide. Not only were the machines gleaming, the whole building had been freshly painted, with carpets, a no smoking policy, eating only in designated areas (complete with sofas, bins and tables) sinks, bathrooms, this was a clean and smoke free environment.

Also it was clear that attitudes were put aside, troublemakers left at the door. People had specifically come here for the love of the games, to challenge others and just relax with their favourite hobby. Starting out from reception, staff members took payment, administering tickets and registering emails for the guest list. They were also happy to point me in the direction of somewhere to eat, answer questions and a generally friendly smiling bunch.

The first room hits you immediately, the atmosphere already there as you pay your ticket. People fixated to the machines, Yet also bantering, peering over to grin or mock their opponents. The SEGA “VS City” cabinets are back to back, with one player on each side. I saw several players walk around and comically mimic game moves used  (that were still happening on-screen) to defeat their opponent. This resulted in a contestant stream of laughing, from face holding in despair, to back slapping and hitting each other on the arm. The whole show recreating arcade face to face camaraderie that online gaming can never reproduce. It didn’t take long for me to join in the banter and add new friends to my phone and Facebook after the first day.

Walking to the adjacent room provided a brief oasis of calm, with 3 leather sofas, bins and tables to have a snack or chat. A small interim room had rescued, yet to be setup machines – An “Initial D”  racer from Angel arcade, Mame cabinets, some fighters.

After this interim room on the right you have the largest hub; a wall to wall of console setups. Again, the sofa section in the middle offered another place for opponents and friends to catch up.

To the left was the staff room, bathrooms and what appeared to be an unfinished kitchen/storage area. All in all, while decoration was obviously just recently finished (I’d even bet the day before) the toilet facilities were clean and in order. It basically summarized the whole place, a clean, bright environment unfinished still finding its feet. Much like a friends expanded living/bedroom, if Mark and co had decided to create a home from home gaming centre to meet your mates, they have not only succeeded but gone above and beyond.

On a side note, there is also an excellent Lebanese restaurant/bakery 5 minutes away down Park Lane. We ate amazing kebabs and falafels in the sit down restaurant around £4 a head. Be sure to check it out.

Observation: The evolution of the arcade medium
Towards the end of the night, my first thought was demographics. The arcade room was predominantly mid 20′s to late 30′s gamers. Those who grew up in the arcade and those who caught the tail end. Of course with exceptions; I watched a Street Fighter Alpha 2 player, Dan, hold a 15 run win streak against old school Troc regulars. A game released when he was 3 years old.

The console room held a visibly younger clientele of late teen’s to mid 20′s. Again, the exceptions did wander from room to room but the core demographics held. I think this is the perfect example of those who grew up with the games, to those who never had arcades yet continued the legacy using home sticks and controllers. The play locations had changed yet the new generation retained that edgy mentality, street attitude and determination/stubbornness to learn time consuming, pixel perfect combos. The core audience was still there, harnessed in a  new way, and visible for the first time back to back with the original generation.

The Coin-Op community
Of course we all have our individual hobbies and groups of friends. But here, much like any fraternity or society, the best way to also describe it is an old boys network. Even after leaving the arcade, staying in touch with people over the years having come together through the same background, we can rely on this network to keep ourselves updated with industry jobs, trade and social events.


The future for new centres of arcade and social gaming
The industry has had to change yet so far not many people have harnessed the potential of gaming centres. It will be interesting to see how companies handle these social gaming and e-sports centres, something not really touched on in the UK (apart from a few independents and HMV Gamerbase), a potential money maker of the future. Several have cropped up in America, I paid a trip to Arcade Odyssey in Miami last summer which operates traditional amusement machines and consoles on a similar basis. http://www.arcadeodyssey.com/
Either way, how it develops will certainly be interesting and just like the Streetfighter II arcade fighting boom in 1992, something I am definitely glad to be at the beginning of.

Find a video interview of Simeon, HOG staff member here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xDa822FYuTI

And Mark Starkey, here: http://ukfgc.com/?p=2437

Finally the Heart of Gaming official website; with location, pricing, and tournament information: https://www.facebook.com/TheHeartOfGaming

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