6 Weird Realities Of The Underground Arcade Gaming Industry
You probably already know that people can make a living just by playing video games. But that's not enough for you. You long for the roar of the crowd, the grease of the public joystick, the stink of humanity as you game ... standing up. That's the dream: professional arcade gamer. But does that even exist? Turns out, sort of! We spoke to "advantage player" Michael Lucas, who uses math to earn a steady second income by playing games at his local Dave & Buster's, and he explained to us that ...
You Can Make Surprisingly Decent Money At Video Arcades
For those who don't know: Dave & Buster's is a restaurant-slash-arcade where you can play hundreds of different games and earn tickets/points that can be exchanged for prizes. Chances are, you've visited a similar establishment in your own neck of the woods, which is why you probably assume that the best D&B has to offer is a pewter skull ring that leaves weird stains on your finger.
The reality, however, is much more awesome than that.
Never question the awesomeness of an arcade with a 16-page bar menu.
"The joke of 'Oh, I won 50,000 tickets; I can get three tootsie rolls and a plastic comb' should have died long ago," Michael told us. "What do I take in prizes nowadays? So far I've grabbed PSPs, iPod Videos, iPod Touches, iPads, Wii U's, PS4s, and more video games than I can remember."
Right now, the Dave & Buster's site lists prizes including a Keurig K450 Brewing System, a Fitbit Charge Hr Wireless Activity Wristband, and a Ninja Professional Blender 1000, which an advantage player can easily pawn off on eBay for at least $100 a pop.
He accounts for 35 percent of last-minute wedding gift sales in the tri-state area.
"There was one year where I went through almost 100 iPads," Michael said. "Two a week, during a period of about seven months. I found out after the fact that me and one other person at my location were responsible for about one-third of the game's advantage play across the country. Crazy when you think about it."
Jesus. If TV has taught us anything, it's that there are probably Dave & Buster's themed hitmen after him right now, their orange and blue camo doing them absolutely no favors ...
The Games Are Surprisingly Fair
According to Michael, each Dave & Buster's ticket is worth about .4 cents. So a $200 prize costs 50,000-plus tickets. You probably have to play for decades to get that, right? Maybe not ...
"Short-term," Michael explains, "I'm looking to earn between 8,000 and 15,000 tickets in about an hour's time, at most. It averages out to 10,000 tickets, and I should be spending between $11 and $14. ... Last Wednesday I spent about $144 in chips to get 100,000 tickets, which should net prizes worth $400. On a perfect day, this would take two hours; on a horrible day, this can take as many as eight hours, but it averages out to four or five hours, and I should be making at least $50 per hour in net value."
So just less than the median lawyer salary for top-notch Whack-A-Mole skills.
There is a shocking list of things we would do to make $50 an hour. The most appetizing by far is play video games.
But doesn't winning at games take skill and lightning-fast reflexes? Sure, but that's not as dire as you might think. Here's a video of Michael demonstrating his prowess:
In the video, Michael is playing Kung Fu Panda Dojo Mojo, a game where you have to smash the controllers according to what appears on the screen. The first thing that an advantage player will notice is that there are patterns to what controller you have to hit in each stage. They're fairly simple to figure out.
The next important thing is the bonus round, where you have to get 33 to 35 points to win. But what Michael figured out is that after a certain amount of plays, whether or not there's a winner, the difficulty of the bonus round drops until you need only, say, 25 points to win. That's the kind of mathematical advantage a skilled advantage player can really take ... uh ... advantage of. Sorry, we wrote ourselves into a corner there.
The Manufacturer Will Tell You How To Beat Their Game
Michael says: "Most game companies (the good manufacturers, anyway) will put the manuals for their games online freely, for anyone to download. You can tell the inner-workings of many games this way, including whether or not a game can be set to be unwinnable for a certain number of plays, or if the game adheres to a set percentage. ... Anytime I'm suspicious of a game having an unwinnable mode [where you'll always lose for a number of plays, no matter what you do], I'll immediately look up the manual."
And yes, they answer to the question you've been asking since childhood:
The claw really is rigged.
For most people, those manuals wouldn't really mean anything, but for advantage players, they are basically the machine's private diaries detailing all of its turn-ons and turn-offs (literally). For example, check out the online manual for Spin-N-Win, a pretty straightforward game where you hit a button to stop an electronic wheel in the hopes of landing on the Jackpot.
"I got the manual for Spin-N-Win. ... It showed that the timeframe the jackpot window can be set to is between 2 and 20 milliseconds, with a factory default of 5, but more importantly, it DID NOT have a setting for 'games until next win.' This had me playing the game consistently because it would never be 'due' for a jackpot, unlike Stacker or Tippin' Bloks, where the difficulty drops significantly every few hundred games or so, making it much easier to win."
Don't grab your car keys and a roll of quarters quite yet; that's still a default window
of five-thousandths of a second.
But if you don't want to wait that long, you can always hire an advantage player to win some tickets for you, like the least sexy mercenary possible.
There Are Freelance Arcade Gamers For Hire
"I often get asked to play for other people," Michael says. "People come up to me and say, 'Oh wow, you're awesome at that game! Would you consider playing for me? I'll fund it and split the tickets with you or buy you a drink or food!' How I handle this depends entirely on what game I'm being asked to play."
"I'm far more likely to play for someone on a game I either don't think I was getting another jackpot out of as is, or a game that doesn't have an unwinnable mode. I will very rarely play pro bono for someone. Sob stories ('It's my kid's birthday,' etc.) don't work on me, but if I've already cleared 100,000 tickets on the day, I may do some charity work on the way out of D&B."
Usually, Michael asks for a 50-50 ticket split, but with the introduction of cards for collecting points instead of tickets, that's become more difficult as of late.
In those cases, Michael can sometimes be persuaded to work for booze. "If someone agrees to buy me a Million Dollar Margarita, which typically rings $10 to $11 after tip, I win them about 2,500 to 3,000 worth of tickets on their card without taking a cut of the proceeds. If someone's willing to buy me a second drink, then I'll carry on with another 3,000-plus worth of tickets. I'm not paying $11 for a mixed drink in public, but if someone else is willing, all the better."
Five percent of an Xbox in exchange for a quart of booze does seem like a pretty flawless system.
Wow, that sounds like a terrible remake of Seven Samurai.
The Management Is Mostly Fine With Advantage Players
We're tempted to think of these prize-based arcades like casinos, and advantage players like card counters. So does Dave & Buster's security eventually drag Michael to the basement and smack him around for "stealing" from the establishment? Nope!
"Despite my success and that of people like me, we're simply a drop in the bucket. Dave & Buster's are still making money long-term; advantage players are not that much of an impact on their bottom line," Michael explains.
Fill people with mojitos and convince them they can play basketball; the money pretty much prints itself.
"In talks with the higher-ups of their arcade operations, they've told me that they're completely fine with advantage players, but getting other employees to adopt that mindset is difficult at times. To be fair, the places I frequent have staff who are very good sports about keeping the games set to standard and keeping them in working order."
Though, surely there's a corrupt Dave & Buster's somewhere out there, with rigged machines and the much sadder equivalent of De Niro and Pesci in Casino, right? Maybe not, because ...
Advantage Players Are An Entire Subculture Governed By Their Own Rules
The advantage community and Dave & Buster's have an unspoken understanding of sorts. The company won't crank up their games' difficulty or set them to pay out a hilariously small amount of tickets, and advantage players agree not to gang up on one location and clean it out on a daily basis. This, however, can be achieved only by the players constantly keeping tabs on one another.
"I run the Dave & Buster's subreddit where players all across the country check in and update everyone on happenings at D&B," Michael told us. "It lets everyone touch base with local APs and ensure that the least number of people are playing key games ... If too many players swarm a key game, it will pay out more than it takes in, and D&B will (understandably) have to alter the game's settings or payouts."
"Apparently, 50,000 tickets have lost some of their purchasing power this week."
There are also other rules that advantage players must observe. According to Michael: "AP rules: no under-pricing one another on eBay when you're selling stuff. That's just bad form. ... When there's a limited number of machines to advantage play on and more APs that want to play it, each player should be taking turns playing the same amount of credits. Another big rule would probably be: Don't cheat on the games. You should be making a profit playing legitimately."
We assume the "or else" at the end of that last sentence was heavily implied.
Michael Lucas is an advantage player and Mewtwo fanatic. Cezary Jan Strusiewicz is a Cracked columnist, interviewer, and editor. Contact him at email@example.com.
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