After Spain and numerous public appearances in Japan, exA-Arcadia visited France during Stunfest 2018. Shmup’Em-All took this opportunity to interview the president of this new company, Eric Chung, in order to learn more about this ambitious new arcade hardware.
– Can you introduce exA-Arcadia ?
Eric Chung: exA-Arcadia is a platform based on PC hardware; the specs are stronger than those of the PS4 Pro. I think we are more powerful than any existing consoles as of today. Our objective with exA-Arcadia is to make it easy for creators to make a game on our platform, since both console and arcade worlds tend to converge towards PC hardware. We could have made something like a FPGA system, but then no one would have developed games for us. That’s why we chose a PC-based system.
When you look at the history of arcade games worldwide, SNK’s NEOGEO MVS has been the most successful arcade platform in the world and we really looked at the MVS for inspiration. For example, this system held up to six cartridges at the same time. Likewise, the exA-Arcadia can hold up to four games. Also, like the MVS, having a system available worldwide at a price that arcades can afford is really important.
When you look at some places like South America, South East Asia or Middle East, some of these regions can’t afford the most expensive arcade games like Japan can. For example, the new Gundam game, Mobile Suit Gundam: Extreme Vs. 2, that will come out later this year will cost $55,000. There’s no way a small arcade, even in Japan, could afford this.
That’s the main reason why arcade owners want to have a modular system where you can switch between different games, and that’s why exA-Arcadia will support four games. We really hope to become the next NEOGEO.
– What is your relation to the arcade culture?
Eric Chung: As you may know, I’m a big collector and I work in the preservation of arcade games for MAME. It’s just a love for games. The first game I played in my life was an arcade game, Galaga, and since then I have been involved as a player in fighting games. I started with Street Fighter II like many players and then I discovered Virtua Fighter. I played Virtua Fighter 4 at a pro level, I was number one in the US and I got second at EVO 2004. I was really involved in the fighting game community and, even then, we had problems in the arcade market when Virtua Fighter wasn’t sold in America. We had Virtua Fighter 4, but there were numerous patches and upgraded versions; none of these had ever been sold in the west. And as a consumer I always felt Why is it this way?
Through my quest for boards in Japan, I met many people like Mikado Game Center owner Minoru Ikeda, and many other arcade owners as well as people who worked in the Japanese video game industry. I also used to be an executive in a very big video game company in Japan.
– In an interview published on the Arcade Belgium website, you said that the development of exA-Arcadia started in September 2017. In such a short period of time, barely a few months, you have managed to convince major developers like G.Rev, Tanoshimasu, and Locomalito to provide a more than impressive line-up. Can you honestly say when the idea of creating your own arcade system actually started?
Eric Chung: It truly was written in this interview [laughs], September 2017 is when we started. I know it seems like a very short amount of time, but I think it’s because we have such a good team that we have been able to make progress so quickly.
As for myself, I have a background in start-ups in the Silicon Valley and also in Japan. The people around us are well-connected to many different game companies. These people all understand the vision for exA-Arcadia and what we are aiming to change in the industry. All these creators want the same thing: to reach many people across the world so that they can play their games. With exA-Arcadia, we want to create that bridge between the creators and the players. Tanoshimasu, G.Rev, Locomalito and many others, they all understand this.
– During JAEPO, an exA-Arcadia cabinet was made available to the public on the Safari Games stand. Was it a temporary collaboration for this specific event, or is Safari Games an active part in the creation and development of exA-Arcadia? More generally, is exA-Arcadia a completely independent new arcade system?
Eric Chung: Safari Games is a subsidiary of Dimps. It’s their arcade distribution arm and we just happen to know people who work there. Many members of the staff at Safari Games are actually ex-SNK employees, and they’re not involved at all in the development of our platform. We are just friends with them and they were able to share space with us.
For the exA-Arcadia distribution in Japan, we may end up working with them, but it’s not decided yet. But yes, everybody was surprised when we showed up at their booth! [laughs]
– Could you give us a list of development studios that are ready to partake in the exA-Arcadia adventure and promote it?
Eric Chung: We will in due time announce each studio that is working with us, but you can be sure that every major Japanese arcade developer, outside of the big guys, will join us. As you have seen today, M2 has officially joined with exA-Arcadia.
And even in the west we have many developers ready to support exA-Arcadia with more “indie” but fairly famous games people already know. These games may have been crowd funded or popular on Steam or other platforms. We will announce them in the near future. There are over 35 companies ready to support exA-Arcadia.
gekko: Is there a chance, even small, that CAVE may join you?
Eric Chung: We’d love to work with CAVE, but as you know their arcade division was closed a long time ago. It’s really up to them to see what’s possible. But now let’s say that for bigger companies like Capcom or Bandai Namco, the reason why they stopped making these kind of retro game we like, action games such as Makaimura (editor’s note : Ghosts’n Goblins Japanese name) or Contra for Konami, is because the cost for their staff to make these types of games is too big. The sales they would make are too small compared to what they could make by producing mobile games. It’s going to be very hard for them to just do everything on their own. I’d like people to keep that in mind. But, of course, we would like to work with CAVE and maybe we will have something that will surprise people later this year.
– A message has been posted on Twitter inviting independent developers to contact you if they wanted to see their games ported on exA-Arcadia. What were the results of this campaign?
Eric Chung: I don’t have the exact numbers, but we had many developers, both Western and Japanese, who contacted us. So many that we didn’t have time to review every single submission that came to us [laughs]. But even though we may not have been able to reply to every single person, we take great care in reading the emails and playing every game that is sent to us. We had a lot of shooters, fighting games, and even racing games, which is really surprising. We got a very interesting racing game, actually.
Among those games, we have a few that will be coming with some changes. We are working with developers to retool their games to do well in the arcades, because it’s such a different environment compared to console and PC gaming.
gekko: Yes, like Super Hydorah AC which introduced a lot of changes compared to the versions we all know.
Eric Chung: Yes, I’ve personally been a fan of Locomalito for a long time. I contacted him many years ago about how his game should really go to the arcade, and I’m happy we can finally make it happen this time. With Super Hydorah AC we made some very deliberate choices in changing the balance of the games to better fit the arcade environment. In Japan, there are not many Steam users compared to other countries, so the number of people who know Hydorah is very low. When we first showed Super Hydorah AC in Japan, many users said it looks and sounds like an X68000 game, which is very adequate because it is inspired by the games of this era. I hope people will enjoy Super Hydorah AC, because I think there’s been a very bad reputation for Western shooting games since the Amiga and Atari ST days, where the games were really unfair.
gekko: Yes, to the point that the term euroshmup became kind of like an insult [laughs]
Eric Chung: Yes, and I think Super Hydorah is a really good start for the change of Western shooters.
– For the moment, your line-up is mainly composed of shooting games. It may be considered risky, considering the fact that shmup has become a niche in the game industry. What is your relation to the shoot’em up culture? Is this orientation a deliberate choice from your part? Will your catalogue be open to other genres in the future?
Eric Chung: We are open to every genre. We want to have a balanced line-up for exA-Arcadia. When you look at the NEOGEO when it first came out, you had a very balanced line-up, with sports games like Baseball Stars Professional, action games such as Magician Lord, shooters like for example NAM-1975, and even beat’em up like Ninja Combat. Different genres were in there, and we want to accomplish the same thing.
Obviously, we work with Tanoshimasu for Aka to Blue Type-R, which was the first game that was signed up and a very exciting one, a vertical danmaku shooting game with a very good DNA. It just so happens that all Japanese arcade creators love shooting games, and because it has been so many years since they last had the opportunity to make an arcade game, now that they have an opportunity, the first thing they all want to do is make a shooting game! It’s both a good and a bad thing, because if you have too many shooting games they will cannibalize each other in sales. So, we are controlling what we are doing and what we are going to release regarding shooting games. In fact, we have many shooting games in our pipeline, but we are not going to announce them all and release them right away.
We want other types of games and we recently revealed a fighting game, The Kung Fu vs Karate Champ. It won’t be the only one, we have other fighting games that are coming on exA-Arcadia, we will announce them soon. We also have another game we will announce soon, which is more of an action puzzle game like Puzzle Bubble, and we also have a sports game in development. We are really trying to have a line-up as diverse as possible.
One thing we really focus on with developers is to make 4-players games; games that many people can enjoy together, especially for the Western market, is something we’re seriously working on. We already have several 4-players games actually, we will announce them later this year.
– The Mikado game center really put a spotlight on the exA-Arcadia. For instance, there was a short location test for Aka to Blue Type-R and Super Hydorah. Has Mikado taken part in some way in the development of the exA-Arcadia?
Eric Chung: Mikado is the biggest independent arcade in Tokyo, so they have truly passionate customers who go there every week. Being able to make location-tests there gives us excellent feedback and allowed us to see how our games can perform. Minoru Ikeda, who is the owner of Mikado, and also the guitarist for the Aka to Blue original soundtrack, obviously knows games very well and he really understands the problems of arcades in Japan, which is normal since he owns an arcade, right? [laughs]
We work together really well on the location test and we were able to get feedback and test games at his arcade. We’re really grateful to him.
– Have you been contacted by game centers such as Round One or others? Do you have plans regarding distribution in occident, a potential exportation network?
Eric Chung: In Japan we have been contacted by Round One and many major chains. We will also probably work with a very big distributor who networks with Round One, SEGA and Taito. We will probably make an announcement about that later this year. For other parts of the world like South-East Asia, we were contacted by the biggest local chain already; the same with Australia. For the United States, we already met with Dave & Buster’s. So for the US, Japan and South-East Asia, we have a pretty good coverage area already.
We’re here at Stunfest to really understand more about Europe and how the distributors are here. I know European customers are really concerned about the high taxes on customs if we sell to them directly from Japan, so we are trying to find a way around that. During Stunfest, we already talked to French distributors, and we are actually in contact with three to four French distributors. We will try to find something that will work for European users. It is really challenging because Europe is a really big place.
– Could exA-Arcadia become a dynamic element in the resurgence of arcade culture and game centers around the world?
Eric Chung: That’s why we’re doing it. It’s our hope that exA-Arcadia can be the platform to revive arcade in Japan where arcade owners are really struggling because of the revenue shares forced onto them by other companies.
We are going to create new ways for arcades to make money. Not just by putting coins in the machines; we will add additional services that we haven’t announced yet. We will probably announce them by next JAEPO in 2019. We are going to make it so that arcades can earn more money and engage their consumers better. No other system will have what we can do. Because arcades would like to make more money, I think they will buy more exA-Arcadia units.
That’s what we see in Japan, but also in countries like the US where we see more arcades opening every month. This is really surprising, and many people don’t know this, but if you take a look, the number of independent arcades keeps on growing! Even a chain like Dave & Buster’s is opening about one new store in the US every month. There’s Round One, a Japanese franchise, which recently arrived to the US, and they plan to open over 200 stores over there; they are very aggressive. And then there are independent arcades throughout every state, with more new places opening every month. Then there is China: many people don’t know this about China, but it’s the fastest growing arcade market in the world!
We feel like we could work with arcades in all these different countries, and others like Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, where there used to be a strong presence from Capcom or SNK, but they all left ten or fifteen years ago. We want to go back to those markets and let those people have new games. I went to Mexico in January and an arcade owner there told me, “If you have new games like NEOGEO games, we will buy them all.” It’s really exciting!
– The arrival of a new actor in the arcade world is a major unexpected event, considering you will have to face SEGA’s ALL.Net and Taito’s NESiCAxLive, two solutions that seem more flexible and commercially interesting for game center operation, since both these systems provide an online distribution. What features will exA-Arcadia offer that could compete with SEGA and Taito, and convince game center owners to give it a try?
Eric Chung: Many people don’t know that both ALL.Net and NESiCAxLive force a revenue share on the coins put in the machines, which ranges from 30% to 50%, depending on the game and platform. It’s a very expensive cost for the arcade owner: not only do they have to buy the cabinet and the unit, but there are also other charges. Actually, they have to buy the network equipment: router, server and then there is the monthly fee to access the network. It’s a very expensive proposition.
And then you look at NESiCAxLive, it runs on an older Taito Type-X2 hardware launched with Windows XP. Nowadays it’s becoming more and more difficult to develop on this hardware and I don’t expect many developers to be able to support it. Also, one of the biggest problems with these systems is that they have so many games on them. NESiCAxLive has a lot of great games on the platform, but in reality it becomes a bit like the App Store or Google Play: you don’t know how to find the games. Many players go and see the menu, and they never scroll past the first screen, so they never know what’s available on the machine.
Another big difficulty with NESiCAxLive is that some games are one-player only, not two-player, but in Japan, as you know, many cabinets are set head-to-head for versus fighting games. In that case, if it’s not set on two-player mode, that means several games are not available on the platform. I have been told that there are only 40 two-player cabinets in all of Japan for NESiCAxLive.
gekko: That is surprising! From a western perspective, NESiCAXLive and ALL.Net seemed to have a much larger place in Japanese game centers.
Eric Chung: They have good features like online distribution, but when you have online distribution and so many games it becomes a problem managing to find the game available, like when you open Steam for example.
And as you know, NESiCAxLive and ALL.Net are not available outside of Japan, and that is one of the biggest problems. When you go to an arcade in South-East Asia for example, they are not equiped to provide continuous and stable connexion. And so, if you require a network at all times and charge them for it, there is no way to run the cabinets. That’s why we think we can tackle both Taito and SEGA, because we are targeting a market they are not in, and we are enabling arcades to make more money than they do today.
Concerning ALL.Net, they have only one announced game left and it doesn’t seem like they will aggressively support the platform anymore. And if you look at the other manufacturers like Bandai Namco and SEGA, they basically left the traditional arcade game industry and now only focus on « deluxe » dedicated cabinets. They are not making “normal” games anymore, only Taito is still in this space.
– For the moment, all the games announced for exA-Arcadia are already available on PC or consoles. How will you manage to create the desire to buy and play games already known and owned by most gamers? Will these arcade ports have something more to offer or will they be direct ports of their home versions?
Eric Chung: I’d like to point out that Aka to Blue is not on PC or console, but on smartphone [laughs]. But yes, there is a requirement for any game on our platform to have exclusive content for the arcade that will not be released anywhere else. Without it there would be no reason to buy these versions, is there not ?
Aka to Blue Type-R will not be released on any other platform, it will be arcade only. Super Hydorah AC is a specially tuned version for the arcade. Infinos Exa is getting a rearranged soundtrack by Hyakutaro Tsukumo and also a lot of changes inside the game. I think the original game, to me anyway, was kind of easy so it will be tuned for a more “arcade difficulty ». There have been graphic changes to the bosses as well, and to the patterns too. All our games are like that. With Strania EX, there is a rearranged soundtrack by Keishi Yonao, and the game balance itself will change taking in account users’ feedback over the years,among many other things we will announce later (editor’s note: During CAX, a new game mode has been revealed for Strania EX: Hell Mode)
The Kung Fu vs Karate Champ will have exclusive characters and stages never seen anywhere else, and I think people will like these exclusive characters quite a bit.
While we are promoting these games in the arcades, the next set of games is already in motion. Like we announced today on stage, we are working with G.Rev on three games, and one of them will be crowdfunded and it’s a sequel to a game people want.
gekko: No… I don’t think it can be what I believe it is ? …you are kidding, right!?
Eric Chung: [laughs]
– In the long run, do you intend to release games exclusive to exA-Arcadia system?
Eric Chung: Aka to Blue Type-R will be an exclusive game, but what we want is to enable creators to create the whole arcade ecosystem again: first you release the game in the arcades, and then you release it on consoles. That way developers maximize their revenue, and this will enable them to create more games. We want to enable that, but at the same time arcades need to have content that is not available anywhere else.
In the past, Capcom, for example, released Street Fighter IV, Super Street Fighter IV, and so on, but three months later after the games hit the arcades, there was already a home version and then nobody bothered to go to arcades anymore. And, especially with what I told you about the revenue shares, it made the situation really difficult for the arcades, many of them would refuse to buy an update for the game, because they knew they would never make their money back.
– Could you tell us more about exA-Arcadia architecture and specifications? On what media will exA-Arcadia games be distributed, and what about compatibility, compatibility and screens? (analog, digital, tate, yoko, 16:9, 4:3, etc.)
Eric Chung: exA-Arcadia is PC-based, we are using Windows to make it easier for creators to make games on our platform. About the physical media, it’s going to be in the form of cartridges. It will be possible to attach four cartridges to the motherboard, but you will have to wait to see what they look like.
gekko: Will the cartridges have the same size as an MVS game?
Eric Chung: It will be smaller, think of a CPS3 cartridge. And regarding connectivity, exA-Arcadia is fully JVS-compliant (editor’s note: JVS stand for JAMMA Video Standard). We have tested it with every JVS board I think now. There are many of them available. We even tested our system on Namco’s CYBER LEAD or Konami’s Windy II, which are very minor when you look at the sales! [laughs]
The reason for this is that, in Japan, there are so many LCD cabs in use and not many CRT cabs left. But when you look at the western market, there are still many CRT left, and we need to be able to work on both. It is a requirement to all developers to support CRT and LCD. 16:9, 4/3, Yoko and TATE : all of these need to be supported. We also have an optional adapter to work with 31kHz and 16kHz screens.
– Will exA-Arcadia be available to non-professional customers such as hardcore arcade fans, as well as professional game centers tenants? How will we be able to buy an exA-Arcadia kit in occident? Have you managed to set a distribution network yet?
Eric Chung: Anyone can buy this system. We are not going to be prejudiced against individuals and collectors. We want them to be able to buy it all over the world. Initially for the West, we will manage sales through our website, we are going to start the preorders for Strania EX soon.
We are looking into each region about how to manage sales there. For example, we are going to do a partnership in China with local companies and distributors. Of course, if as an individual you want to buy an exA-Arcadia unit, you can buy it. Please buy it! [laughs]
– Do you intend to create a « consolized » version of your arcade system, such as Neo Geo AES?
Eric Chung: At the moment, no, we are not considering making a consolized exA-Arcadia. We feel that if you are an arcade collector you probably already have the means to play this at home. Also, supporting a home version makes it a bit more difficult for the creators as well. It induces more overhead to make these things, and our aim is really to support arcade. So no, it’s not a priority right now.
– At what price do you intend to sell an exA-Arcadia kit? And what about games?
Eric Chung: We have not really announced a price yet, but you can expect one kit, motherboard plus game, to cost around US$2000. And then, depending on the game, around $1000 to $1500. We are still looking into this to see what the price will be. But as you know, a new CAVE shooting game was sold around $1800, so it’s more or less the standard price in Japan.
– When will exA-Arcadia be available on the market?
Eric Chung: It will depend on the region, because we have distribution deals. The goal is to have it available as soon as possible, but it will be different depending on market conditions. In Japan, because of the distribution system we’re going to have, we have a certain strategy on how to sell exA-Arcadia to different arcades. In the West, it will probably start with mail orders for collectors by the end of summer.
What we are going to do is that each game will have a limited edition. Very small limited edition for collectors. So maybe 20 to 50 copies, and it will include extras: signed box, special case, photograph of the developers, like Hiroyuki Kimura from Tanoshimasu signing the box of the game. It will also include things like soundtrack and posters. Each game will have a special edition, and we can say that Aka to Blue Type-R will have a super limited edition. We will announce its content later, but there will maybe only be five of them made for the whole world. You know Enemy Zero on SEGA Saturn by Kenji Ino?
gekko: Yes, of course!
Eric Chung: He did a very super limited edition in Japan only, which he hand-delivered directly to the buyer. It came in a very large box. Google it! We are going to do the same thing! [laughs]
Eric Chung: Kimura-san from Tanoshimasu will make the hand deliveries in Japan, but obviously we can’t do that overseas. [laughs]
– After JAEPO 2018, FightCade Offline 2.0 and Stunfest 2018, what were the reactions of the players who had the chance to try Aka to Blue Type-R or Super Hydorah on exA-Arcadia?
Eric Chung: It’s been very positive. People are happy to have new shooting games again. Obviously Aka to Blue Type-R is a danmaku vertical shooting game, so people have been waiting for a new one like this. It’s been six years since DoDonPachi SaiDaiOuJou, so I think people were very excited and they gave us very good feedback. We haven’t really heard anything negative about the game at all.
gekko: People seem to have a hard time understanding the mechanics of Aka to Blue, though.
Eric Chung: One of the things Tanoshimasu will change, and it is a new requirement for all our games, is to provide a NEOGEO-like explanation of the controls and game system when the game starts. Super Hydorah AC already has it and obviously that was not there on the previous console and Steam releases.
Speaking of Super Hydorah AC, we tested this game in Japan quite a bit just to get a lot of feedback from different users. I think that both Aka to Blue Type-R and Super Hydorah AC are difficult games, especially Super Hydorah AC, but when you understand them, they’re not that difficult. I think people have the wrong mentality, like trying to kill everything and get everything on screen, but Super Hydorah is not that type of shooter. Back in the day, it was more Gradius-like, where you can’t do everything, you must survive and do what you can.