Today in Tedium: An “arcade game” might conjure up images of Pac-Man or Daytona USA. But a different type of arcade game has dominated most arcades since the early 1990s: the redemption game. These machines dispense tickets you can exchange for prizes. Although they might seem simple compared to video games, these machines have a rich history. Today in Tedium, we’re taking a whistle stop tour through the rise of redemption, from Skee-Ball to Chuck E. Cheese’s. — Michael @ Tedium
Today’s GIF is of a guy trying to win at the redemption game Cyclone, but just barely failing. It must be rigged. Right?
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The number of tokens a single Cyclone machine collected over two weeks at an arcade in 1995. The game remains an arcade staple despite some misleading settings that make it hard to get the jackpot. For more about ICE, the maker of Cyclone, check out Andrew Egan’s article on Bubble Hockey.
Trade Stimulators, Rolling Ball Games, and Cranes
What is a redemption game? I argue there are four key elements:
- The machine is coin-operated.
- It incorporates some degree of skill.
- It automatically rewards tickets, tokens, or electronic points.
- Its rewards can be combined with winnings from other machines for prizes.
Going back to the earliest days of the coin-op industry in the late 19th century, you can find many different types of machines that incorporate at least some of these elements.
Consider the trade stimulator. These countertop machines were a cross between a vending machine and a slot machine. You dropped in your nickel and then the machine did something random (spun a roulette wheel, dropped your coin down a Plinko board, etc.). At the end, you’d call over to the clerk or bartender to redeem your prize. They “stimulated trade” because the chance of winning an extra cigar or stick of gum was fun enough to attract repeat use.
Some trade stimulators even automatically dispensed a prize ticket on winning. But we’re not quite in redemption territory yet. These machines were not games of skill. And their tickets couldn’t be combined to earn bigger prizes.
Another redemption prototype was the crane, also known as a claw machine or UFO Catcher. The earliest cranes were known as “diggers” and relied on the novelty of using a crane to scoop up dirt. By the 1930s, they had evolved to resemble the machines we know today, but with one important difference: most machines had cash prizes. This led to a national ban on all these machines for a few years in the 1950s.
Cranes, unlike slot machines, do have some element of skill. But since you directly win prizes from the machines, they’re usually considered “merchandisers.” (Cranes where the prizes were rolls of tickets didn’t take off until the 1990s.)
A final type of machine that fulfills many of the requirements for a redemption machine is Tamakorogashi or Japanese Ball Roll. As related in great detail by Cait at the So I Bought a Pinball Machine blog, there’s evidence from as early as 1906 that operators of these games kept track of scores over an entire season. Players could redeem high scores for prizes. The only element lacking was an automatic ticket dispenser. That would come with a more famous ball rolling game.
The number of Skee-Ball Alleys manufactured by the Wurlitzer Company during their 10-year ownership of the Skee-Ball brand from 1936 to 1945. Wurlitzer industrial designer Paul Fuller gave the game a sleek redesign.
Skee-Ball and the slow roll to redemption
Skee-Ball is the game where all the elements of redemption come together for the first time.
Chances are, if you’ve ever been to an arcade, you’ve put a few quarters into one of these ball-rolling games. Maybe you even won enough tickets that you got to take home something fun.
But it took a few decades for Skee-Ball to evolve into the automatic-payout game we’re familiar with today. And a few more decades before Skee-Ball had more than a handful of competitors in the ticket game space.
Skee-Ball exploded in popularity in the 1910s. The game thrived on boardwalks, resorts, amusement parks, and even as a “gentleman’s game” in Masonic lodges.
Where it didn’t flourish was in penny arcades. There are two main reasons for this.
First, early Skee-Ball machines were considerably bigger than they are today, closer in size to a bowling alley. They simply took up too much space in a storefront arcade.
Second, by the 1910s, penny arcades were in steep decline. These businesses peaked in the 1890s, driven by the new technology of the moving picture. As dedicated movie theaters started replacing mutoscopes, penny arcades went down market. (Often literally—they moved from high-rent areas with lots of foot traffic to dingier parts of town.) They earned a reputation as seedy businesses where one might see a risqué peep show. Proprietors did not have money to invest in Skee-Ball alleys.
Skee-Ball did appear in some of its own purpose-built venues, though. A 21-alley behemoth constructed in Atlantic City hosted the first National Skee-Ball Tournament in 1932.
In Skee-Ball’s early days, the appeal of getting a high score was enough to draw people in. But by the 1930s, we have firm evidence of a Skee-Ball Parlor that adopted almost all the elements of a 1980s redemption arcade.
In the photo below, you can spot a Blue Eagle with the letters “N.R.A.” above it. This dates the photo to around 1933, the height of the National Recovery Administration, a short-lived New Deal agency. To the right of the eagle is a prize cabinet that bears many similarities to a redemption prize counter. The placards to the left of the cabinet describe how many tickets are given for high scores (divided between men and women). The signs even mention how you can cash in the tickets for a check to build up your points over multiple days. The only thing missing is the automatic payout. Those came two decades later.
According to Seeking Redemption: The Real Story of the Beautiful Game of Skee-Ball, the first automatic ticket dispenser for an arcade machine was invented by Frank D. Johns, a Florida businessman who owned a rooftop minigolf and some 75 coin-ops. The Philadelphia Toboggan Co., the company that manufactured Skee-Ball, soon started adding Johns’ ticket dispensers at the factory. An ad the company ran claimed that the ticket dispensers brought in “50 percent More Games Per Hour.”
These bulky mechanical ticket dispensers were improved in the 1970s with an electronically controlled one from ticket powerhouse Deltronic Labs. An ingenious clamping mechanism prevented miscreants from yanking out the whole ticket reel.
Redemption runs through Jersey
With all the technology in place, when and where did the redemption arcade take off in the United States?
As best as I can tell, redemption arcades grew out of the boardwalks of the Jersey Shore. As longtime redemption lawyer Tom Fricke explained to me an interview, New Jersey was one of the first states to establish clear rules for games of chance This legal certainty allowed boardwalk arcades to raise capital and operate without fear of police persecution. They could develop business models and practices that were later copied in other states.
The first business I could find that capitalized on New Jersey’s liberal redemption legislation was an Asbury Park operation called Casino Amusement Company. A brief article in the May 19, 1937 edition of the Asbury Park Press describes the business as running a recognizable redemption operation: “coupons are awarded for points scored in the various games, and prizes range from small novelties, dolls and dogs, to lamps, radios, cocktail sets, electric toasters, and other desirable items.” Games on offer included Skee-Ball, Pokerino, and target shooting.
Even if arcades in other states wanted to copy what the Casino Amusement Company was doing, arcades were not an attractive business venture after World War II. It wasn’t until the 1970s that the arcade business generally recovered.
This was the decade of Pong and Space Invaders, plus arcade staples such as air hockey and (newly legalized) flipper pinball. By the early ’80s, video was everywhere and earning more profits than any other arcade attraction ever had. Few arcades felt the need to invest in redemption.
Following the much-mythologized video game crash of 1983, things started to change. (Side note: This crash is more complicated than what you may have heard. The podcast They Create Worlds has a deep dive on what really happened.)
Even during the boom, most video games had their earnings tank after about 3 months. Video gamers craved novelty. Other types of machines suddenly started looking like better investments. In particular, ticket games were thought to be “evergreen,” with the appeal coming from the prize and not the game itself (this isn’t true, but their earnings did keep up longer than videos). More and more arcade owners started buying these machines.
This increased demand spurred manufacturers to expand their product lines. As late as 1985, Skee-Ball and Exidy’s Whirly Bucket were the only ticket-dispensing games on the “Novelties” chart in industry trade magazine Play Meter. If you wanted to stock your arcade with 10 different lines of redemption game, you’d be hard pressed to do so. There was arguably more redemption variety in video games. After-market devices such as The Redeemer could be wired into a cabinet like Space Invaders and draw players back in by dispensing tickets for high scores.
Just a few years later, new classes of redemption machines like the token action game, the basketball simulator, and video poker were filling up arcade trade shows and manufacturer catalogs.
Also important in the rise of the redemption game was a new type of facility to place the games in: the family entertainment center. The most important of these businesses was Chuck E. Cheese’s Pizza Time Theatre, which was founded in 1977. Chuck E. Cheese used redemption games, especially Skee-Ball, to appeal to kids of all ages. Its rival, ShowBiz Pizza Place, even formed an early partnership with Aaron Fechter, the man who claims to have invented another redemption classic, Whac-A-Mole.
For these businesses, redemption games had an extra appeal over other machines: they’re super simple to play. Rolling a quarter down a chute or hitting the “stop” button in Cyclone is something even a three-year-old can do. And unlike pinball and video games, many of these machines have extremely short gameplay loops. A kid could burn through a cup of tokens before the pizza was ready. If they can convince mom and dad for another roll of tokens, that’s more profitable for Chuck E. Cheese.
By 1991, redemption games were everywhere. A retrospective that year in Play Meter noted that average revenue per machine on redemption games had increased by 84 percent in just one year. There were so many machines that the magazine started splitting their redemption charts into categories such as “Roll-down games” and “Sports games.”
Jumping ahead, redemption games helped the arcade industry survive challenges from home consoles, smartphones, and a changing economic landscape. The country’s largest arcade venues have made redemption games the main part of their machine mix.
But these games are far from universally loved. States continue to pass laws making them unprofitable or even illegal to operate. This sentiment is alive and well on the comments sections of YouTube videos about redemption games, with many calling them scams or legalized gambling for children. (As a teen, I 100 percent agreed with this sentiment. My thoughts today are more nuanced.)
At a cultural level, redemption games aren’t even a blip on the radar compared to the juggernaut of video games. It’s rare to see these machines mentioned in the countless magazines, books, and documentaries devoted to the retro gaming hobby. Artifacts from these games, even when they come from marquee publishers like Konami, have only recently been preserved. Even a Super Mario World redemption game took years to confirm if it was even released. There are no known gameplay videos and just 1 low-res photo of it in the wild.
To attempt to remedy this, we’ll conclude this piece by looking at a few machines that highlight the evolution and appeal of the redemption game.
Four notable types of redemption games that might have taken your tokens
Wheel ’M In: This game from the early ’90s is a notable example of the “token action game.” These games use your coin to drive the gameplay. Your coin is rolled down a giant treadmill that’s always spinning. The player’s goal is to position their token onto the center of one of the ticket tracks. If the token is just slightly off center, you don’t hit the jackpot. The best strategy is to aim about halfway up the side rails to reliably hit the 25-ticket strip.
This game is apparently an updated version of a gambling game popular in British arcades in the 1960s. British arcades never went big on redemption because of several important economic and legal differences compared to US arcades that are explored in my favorite book of 2022, Arcade Britannia.
Slugfest: This game is stretching the boundaries of “redemption game” a bit but it’s unique enough that I wanted to include it here. Slugfest combines elements of pinball, redemption, and competitive arcade sports games like air hockey. It’s an evolution of dozens of earlier electrotechnical baseball simulators from Williams.
In single player, the computer “pitches” a pinball at you. The game uses magnets and other techniques to vary the speed and direction of the pitches. You try to time hitting the big “BAT” button so that the ball is directed at one of the targets where a hit or home run is lighted. Missing the ball or hitting the wrong target can lead to an out. Score enough points and the game spits out your reward: a baseball card.
A recent “research visit” to Dave & Buster’s revealed companies still make updated versions of this game, although without the cards.
Feed Big Bertha: By far the weirdest redemption game in the third-rate Jersey Shore arcade where I worked as a teen was one called Feed Big Bertha. The problematic premise of this game is that you need to throw plastic balls (the type you’d see in a ballpit at Chuck E. Cheese’s) into Bertha’s mouth to help quench her insatiable appetite. As you did this, Bertha’s dress inflates to give the player some visual feedback of what’s happening. Yikes!
This game was one of the biggest hits for Smart Industries, a big player in the redemption space. Smart even tried to expand the market for redemption games with the Smart Redemption Center.
This thing was basically a gigantic vending machine that you fed tickets into. It eliminated the need for an attendant behind the counter giving you the prize. It was marketed for smaller arcades and “street” locations. I personally never saw one of these and suspect it was a little too impractical to gain a wide market.
Angry Birds Arcade: Jumping ahead two decades, Angry Birds Arcade exemplifies how redemption games have evolved with the times. Familiar IP remains important. Rather than hot ’90s properties like Bobby’s World, arcade manufacturers have found it lucrative to convert games kids are already playing on their phones. All these games add some twists to make it more of an experience. In this case, players grip the handles to fire actual plastic balls at the screen. I find this viscerally satisfying in ways that the phone game never was.
To close things out, we’ll look at a signature game from the company that did more than any other to popularize the redemption game, Chuck E. Cheese’s Ticket Blaster, a birthday party staple since the 2000s. In the original, the “birthday boy or girl” stands in the machine for a few seconds and tries to grab as many tickets as possible as they’re shot around by a fan.
In 2013, the chain experimented with an enhanced version of the machine that used a pre-Facebook Oculus Rift headset to make the experience more immersive. “Creative technologist” Dan Ferguson claims that the game was “the first permanent installation on record using the Oculus Rift.”
Although the game was quickly discontinued due to safety concerns about kids using VR headsets, the VR arcade experience lives on. In fact, one leading VR arcade, Two Bit Circus, is operated by none other than Brent Bushnell, one of the sons of Chuck E. Cheese and Atari co-founder Nolan Bushnell.
Alongside high-tech VR experiences like Birdly where “you lay down prone … and you flap your arms like wings while real wind blows in your face,” Two Bit Circus offer a midway of “carnival classics.”
On this midway you’ll still find that all-time redemption game classic, Skee-Ball—just as fun as it always was.
See you at the prize counter.
Thanks to Tom Fricke and Frank Seninsky for answering some of my questions about the redemption industry. And thanks to Ethan Johnson and everyone at Gaming Alexandria for research help on this piece.
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