While arcades used to be as popular as coffee houses, most have sadly gone the way of the dodo—or the oxygen bar. But in Los Angeles, the Family Arcade is still around 45 years after they first opened on the same spot on Vermont Avenue. It’s considered an institution among L.A.’s hardcore gamers and casual button-mashers.
To see how they’ve kept it going, we spoke with founders Harry and David Peck, two brothers who still run the business alongside Harry’s son Robert and David’s kid Stephen. What’s the key to their enduring successs? What are their most popular titles, and which games do the founders still revisit? Read on and find out.
When you first opened the arcade, were there a lot of them?
HARRY: No. We were one of the first arcades in L.A. There was basically us and the one on the Santa Monica pier.
Aside from the fact that you’re across the street from a college, why did you think you’ve survived?
HARRY: Well, we always have the new games…
DAVID: …and the nostalgia machines…
HARRY: …but we’re also constantly switching out the games. So the arcade’s constantly changing.
DAVID: Our games also always work. You go into some arcades and half the stuff doesn’t work. And our games break all the time, too, but we have technicians here who are constantly fixing them.
You guys also rent arcade games to other arcades, bowling alleys and so on. Since you make more money from that, what’s the point of keeping the arcade open?
HARRY: We use it as a working warehouse. When a new game comes out, we’ll buy one machine and try it out. If people really like it, then we’ll buy a bunch of them.
Given that people can get a lot of the classic games on their phones or wherever, why do you think people come here to play them?
HARRY: I think they come, in part, for the social experience.
DAVID: We’re open until 1:30 in the morning, and we’re open every day, even on holidays. So it’s become an institution, a place where people come and hang out.
HARRY: They also know it’s a good value. We use tokens, and you get, I don’t know, a gazillion tokens for 20 bucks, so they can play for a long time on five, ten dollars.
DAVID: We’re also known for having the latest games. There’s a new Aerosmith pinball table coming out, and we’ll be the first ones to have it.
Barcades are becoming a big thing in L.A. lately…
HARRY: Yeah, they get machines from us. So do the [movie and TV] studios. We have some arcade machines from the ‘80s that are mint condition, and the studios will come rent them when they need them.
DAVID: The studios also know that if they get it from us, as opposed to a prop house, that the machines will work, and if they stop working for some reason, we will send a technician to the set to fix it right away.
Are there certain games that have been consistently popular for years?
BOTH: Ms. Pac-Man and Galaga.
HARRY: There’s a lady who comes in every day to play Ms. Pac-Man. But it’s always been popular. Back when 7-11s had arcade games, we had Ms. Pac-Man machines in every one.
Are there any recent games you think could have that kind of longevity?
DAVID: Probably the most popular game of the last 10 years is Jurassic Park.
More than the recent Star Wars arcade game?
DAVID: Yes. And Star Wars is a more expensive game [to buy], but Jurassic Park outdoes it two-to-one. Which is how we judge these games: by the cash box.
Do you notice a pattern in who plays the games? Like, do only older people only play the classic games or do some people come in just to play the new ones?
HARRY: Not really. People will often come in to play a new game, and we make more money from the new games, but after a few games they’ll often play a couple of the older games as well.
DAVID: Though there are people who come in just for the classic games. The old games also add to the atmosphere and make it feel like an arcade.
How about pinball—how well do those machines do these day?
DAVID: They don’t make a lot of money. We’re one of the few arcades that have a lot of pinball machines, since that’s what we cut our teeth on.
HARRY: The market today for pinball tables is largely for collectors.
You mentioned that you repair the machines when they break. Do you also go to auctions, buy old games and restore them?
DAVID: We don’t do that, because the sellers are usually companies like us, and they’re just unloading a machine they can’t fix.
HARRY: What we do is we fix them so they work like they should.
DAVID: Don’t forget: When you’re dealing with older games, a lot of the companies are out of business, so getting parts can be really hard.
So do you guys play games?
HARRY: I stopped playing after Centipede. I liked that game. I grew up with the simpler games.
DAVID: I enjoy pinball, and I’ll play a couple rounds on a table when we get a new one.
HARRY: Yeah, I’ll go down and play pinball once in a while, too. But I don’t play much anymore.
When you did play them, was Centipede your favorite?
What about you, David?
DAVID: I liked Missile Command.
HARRY: We have one of those, too.
Family Amusement Arcade located at 876 N. Vermont Ave. Los Angeles, CA 90029.