by Kevin Steele
I recently had the opportunity to correspond via email with James Hills, Marketing Director of TLC Industries. If you haven't heard of them yet, don't worry, I'm confident you will. Makers of the FlexArcade and NextArcade systems, they look to be preparing a full-frontal assault on the gaming industry, and home arcade gamers look to benefit the most.
TLC has got a lot of exciting plans for arcade enthusiasts, and I was dying to find out what they were. Here's my interview with James Hills:
Can you give us an overview of TLC? A bit of your company’s history?
TLC Industries has been building arcade cabinets for about the last 20 years, the company has built cabinets for top companies including Sega, Midway, Namco and currently for Incredible Technologies – Golden Tee Golf and Silver Strike Bowling.
Now we are in the process of expanding the company and going into a more publisher-like mode where we are working with independent developers and bringing their games into the arcade world on our two platforms: FlexArcade – dedicated coin-op machines, and NextArcade – home arcade.
Your FlexArcade system is truly impressive. Could you give us a brief summary of what it is and some of the advantages it has over conventional arcade systems?
Thanks, FlexArcade is designed to be, well…flexible. Operators today are forced to spend thousands of dollars buying cabinets to play only one game (or sometimes a suite of small games). With FlexArcade, an operator purchases an arcade game and if they decide after a period of time that they want a new game, then they can buy a FlexGame Pack for a fraction of traditional dedicated game cost. Put the new FlexGame CD in the drive, attach the hardware key and install the new marquee. *POOF* you have a new arcade game.
Certain games may also require specialized control panels as well i.e. moving from a game requiring a trackball and two buttons like Orbz, to a driving game requires the purchase of a joystick.
Roughly what sort of PC specs does the FlexArcade use?
The specs of the FlexArcade cabinets will be roughly equivalent to a mid-range gaming PC. Since it is a PC, it can also be upgraded easily over the life of the cabinet.
The FlexWare development platform looks promising. How easy is it for developers to convert their Windows-based Direct X games over for use on the FlexArcade system?
To convert their games to the platform is very easy, since most developers are coming to us from a PC-Windows platform there is no porting necessary. They simply need to use FlexWare to implement coin-drop prompts and possibly string specific levels together … if you had a game with 50 levels on the PC and wanted to only use levels, 5, 20 and 43 for FlexArcade, FlexWare helps you do that.
How many games have been converted so far?
We have an initial lineup of five games that we showed at AMOA last month: Orbz, Hamster Ball, Flibbidy Jibs, Bandits and RC Cars. Games following that, include Bomber Fun, Ricochet Lost Worlds and Crimsonland.
What sort of PC games convert over well to arcade use?
The best games will be those that that are quick to get started and can give the player fun for 1-3 minutes and then draw them in for more 1-3 min. increments of fun. Graphics are something that is somewhat debatable since while a great game with graphics is a lot of fun, there are some potential games we have evaluated that have DREADFUL graphics but have amazing gameplay.
In those instances, we try to work with the developer to see if they are interested in updating the game to be prettier. However, fancy, whiz-bang graphics are NOT a deciding factor.
Games should be fun and rewarding for the player.
You’ve got a wide variety of cabinet styles. Are the control panels swappable or will the FlexArcade use some sort of “universal” control panel layout?
Great question, control panels are swappable to an extent, though the driver platform is more dedicated than the others. The 27 and 19-inch can each have different control panels ranging from the trackball and two button arrangements found on Orbz and Hamster Ball to a joystick and buttons, two sets of joystick and buttons or other layouts.
Are there any major differences between the commercial cabinets and the consumer cabs?
The most major difference is that NextArcade cabinets will not have FlexWare and coin boxes in them, additionally they won’t be able to play FlexGames. They will be a part of NextArcade and are designed to play NextArcade games or other PC content that the user wishes.
Will the consumer cabs allow multiple games, or will a “swap out” be required?
Consumer cabinets for NextArcade are designed to play any NextArcade or other PC-based games; they are not designed to accept FlexGame packs.
Since everything in NextArcade is downloadable there isn’t even a need to “swap out” a CD.
How soon do you see these systems being available for consumer purchase?
FlexArcade is a commercial solution; NextArcade cabinets will be available at high-end retail stores that specialize in pool and foosball tables and various online retailers in time for the holiday shopping season.
The NextArcade system is intriguing, especially the online aspect. Can you give us an overview of what NextArcade is and what TLC’s plans are for the service?
NextArcade is designed to be the next level in home arcades. Right now the concept of “home arcade” is mostly limited to high income individuals and people with a lot of technical ability who have built their own cabinets and like playing classic coin-op games.
We want to expand that market by leveraging the power of the Internet and combining it with our existing ability to create high quality arcade hardware – control panels, arcade cabinets etc.
So NextArcade was designed as a game distribution system to bring arcade-style games into the home, along with control systems that are robust and familiar. Then people can play those games on devices across the entire spectrum from a basic control panel with a joystick and buttons, to a mobile cart that they can roll in front of their chair, all the way up to a full blown 27-inch cabinet that is nearly identical to the ones we sell to coin-op operators.
Can you expand on the online aspects of the NextArcade? Will there be online arcade gaming versus other human players? Tournaments? An online “high score” table?
After the initial launch, we certainly want to do arcade gaming tournaments vs. other players over the Internet. Games that support it right now can do that at launch, but we plan to unveil a robust tournament system including cash prizes and player rankings etc. after launch.
Can you tell us about the Game Club? Will the Game Club offer similar games to the FlexArcade?
Many of NextArcade’s games will end up on FlexArcade, especially those that are really popular and those that lend themselves directly to a coin-op arcade experience.
Other subtle differences include gameplay tweaks to make the game best for each type of user. For instance, on the PC you might want more depth, more levels etc. and the user can spend hours playing the game.
In a coin-op machine however, you need to make sure that the customer receives a great experience for each quarter deposited. That means that gameplay has to come in bite size portions of 1-3 very entertaining minutes so that they feel compelled to drop another quarter.
GameClub is a discounts program designed to offer benefits to our best customers.
I also noticed that arcade cabinets were mentioned in the press release. Will the consumer version of the FlexArcade system be interoperable with the NextArcade and Game Club?
FlexArcade is purely a commercial product. It is designed so that operators can purchase the expensive hardware once and then buy software upgrades, FlexGame packs, to cheaply, easily and rapidly transform an arcade cabinet from one game to the next.
NextArcade is the consumer side and consists of a download portal for games that run on a conventional PC along with our line of home arcade products – though if desired it can also be played simply with a mouse and keyboard.
GameClub is a program to reward our most loyal customers with various benefits. In exchange for a small fee per month we give customers the free control panel (with one year paid subscription), discount on games, discounts home arcade hardware and an extra special “Editors Choice” game discount each month.
How soon do you see all of this “going live?” Any idea on costs yet?
We will open NextArcade on November 1; FlexArcade began pre-sales at the AMOA tradeshow in Vegas at the end of September.
Game costs on NextArcade will generally be the industry standard of $19.95, minus GameClub discounts and special promotions.
Thanks, James, for taking the time to answer these questions. I do appreciate it, and please feel free to add anything else that you may feel is important. I’ve got to admit I’m excited about what TLC is trying to accomplish, and want to wish you the best of luck!
My pleasure, I look forward to talking with you more about NextArcade, FlexArcade and other subjects again in the near future.