AWPs can be fun

David Snook casts his knowing eye over the state of the German coin-op market, which has received good news from the government in recent times

The German Government has at last got around to updating the law, making the long-suffering operators and the manufacturers who have become more export-minded as despair of their home market has frustrated them, happy men.

It must have been 30 years ago that Dr. Bill Pilkington, then chairman of Bell-Fruit manufacturing, told me that it had cost the company  £ 50,000 to get just one AWP machine developed, approved and marketed in Germany.
      He might have been exaggerating, but Bill Pilkington was not the exaggerating type. And it fitted in with the general consensus of opinion in what was then a very thriving UK AWP manufacturing sector- that Germany was a country best left alone. The German manufactures, then a dozen or so, had it all to themselves. They had a country of around 200,000 AWPs – horrible, slow, wall-mounted games of baffling complexity, but the advantage that they had to be thrown away after three years and replaced with a completely new one.

      Not too much has changed in 30 years. The German manufacturers – now down to three or four- still have it all to themselves, still have a built – in lifespan for the machines and they are still monumentally boring. Only Barcrest, it seems, has made any ground, producing a couple of game in 2005 in conjunction with German giant Gauselmann Group. All of threat might change – indeed, probably will change – this year. It certainly will next year.
      The games were dull, made so by a ‘nanny ’ state that was petrified of problem gambling (like their Dutch neighbours), so the siren lure of razzamatazz and features was suppressed. So was the stakes and prizes situation, again made so to take away some of the appeal of the games.
      The trouble is, that when a government does things like that, it often finds excuses not to update the laws to take account of things like that, it often finds excuses not to update the laws to take account of things like inflation. So German AWPs have become less and less attractive as time has moved on and, equally, the German trade has clamoured with increasing frenzy for a lift. The same thing has happened in Ireland and is now happening in the UK.

During 2006, however, we are to see the start of a new dawn for Germany which could- should – move the German AWP business from representing the sick old man of Europe to a veritable beacon of vitality. The German Government has at last got around to updating the law, making the long-suffering operators and the manufacturers who have become more export-minded as despair of their home market has frustrated them, happy men.
      The industry of course asked for just about everything under the sun, knowing full well that it would be knocked back on many of its demands, but gambling that it would be left with enough to give the entire business the shot in the arm it needs.
      Under current German law there are now big arcades. They have to be a minimum size and each AWP must have at least 10 sq.m. allocated to it, so the practice is that every arcade has just 10 AWPs. German operators have got around that by dividing up their premises into a series of rooms, each of 100sq.m or more and each containing 10 AWPs, although thy can have other games in there as well of course.
      It clearly doesn’t achieve what the government set out to achieve all those years ago when that regulation was framed and you would dump that regulation. In fact, they haven’t . under the proposed new regulations for this year, the floor area restrictions remain, but the operator will get more machines, up to 12 from 10 but not the 15 they asked for.

      At the same time the number of AWP machines in a bar or pub is increased from two to three – a major improvement and overall it is likely that the two factors, 20 per cent   more machines in arcades and 50 per cent more in pubs will push up the overall German AWP figures to 250,000 when the dust has settled.
      Perhaps the greatest benefit of all is the relaxation of the features – it means that no-one can label German AWPs ‘boring’ in the future! Gone is the depressingly slow plys cycle when was a monotonous 12 seconds. This is down to five seconds- still slow by most European standards but a related so that the games will not just be faster, but more imaginative, brighter and with greater player-appeal.
      There is of course a price to pay – there always is with a government. They always seek  a ‘trade-off,’ giving with two hands but taking away with one. Gone are the ‘fun games,’ effectively stopping the route into Germany for the non-German AWP manufacturers. They found some years ago that their games, with brighter attractions, faster play and features, were popular even though they could not pay out cash. The British, Dutch and to a lesser extent the Spanish, all got into that business with games that paid out nothing more than replayable tokens. The Germans liked them, the games thrived – and unfortunately so did illicit gaming, as all of us with experience of the industry would expect. Scandals and newspaper headlines about locations exchanging tokens for cash were to be expected and they duly happened. But that did not stop the sector expanding to about 100,000 units in the space of 10 years. By the end of 2005 it was the norm for a German arcade to have 10 AWPs per ‘room ’ and 10 fun games. Now they are gone …banned, but Germany is not crying too much. It is a good trade-off for better, brighter, faster AWPs. After all, they now have ‘fun games ’ with cash!

Another downside is the loss of the jackpot and bonus system, which went out in January. Machines were linked together in the same way as they are in casinos all over the world. Out of 120,000 AWPs located in German arcades, probably 90,000 were linked in this way. The games are allowed to remain in location and operate as individual machines, but they can no longer be linked. Again, this is looked upon by the industry as regrettable but worth it for the benefits that have come from the law change.
      This disadvantage – and the failure of the industry to get the 15 machines per ‘arcade room ’ it originally requested – is almost certainly down to the influence of casinos. There are over 100 of them in Germany and they are notoriously heavily taxed. It is almost certain that they lobbled strongly to limit the number of AWPs and get the jackpt system removed from them. So where does that leave the German AWO market?
      Basically it leaves it impatient to get going with its newly liberated AWPs. The problem there is that testing is stringent in Germany and the PTB cannot test the 100 or so new models with will replace the 200,000 existing AWPs as fast as the industry would want it to.

      That was why the announcement of the new regulations on October 14 put the industry into such a quandary about its trade show, IMA, held these days in Numburg, due to the ease of passage for eastern Europeans wishing to visit and exhibit. The pre-legislation games may still operate, of course, pending the arrival of the new models, but that will opened upon the speed with which the PTB can approve them and the speed with which the manufacturer can build them.

      Within a few weeks of the announcement it was already clear that the IMA show would not carry and of the new, approved models. The PTB has said that by the time it gets to grips with the new regulations and begins to test the machines sent for approval by the manufactures, it is going to be April at the earliest.
      The show was cancelled and at the time of writing (early February) there is no news of the fresh date. If it is left too long, of course, it will impinge on the 2007 IMA dates, assuming that IMA remains in January. There are those who suggest that this is a golden opportunity to get out of that cold and inhospitable time of year anyway. The bulk of the new models will not be evaluated and approved until the third quarter of the year, which means that the revolutions in Germany will only be cranked up slowly. 2007 is when it will really get under way and the majority of the replacement process will be undertaken.

But Germany is not all about AWPs and fun games. The market has darts games, pool, table soccer, touchscreens, jukeboxes, video games and pin tables just like anywhere else, all with  varying degrees of success. The country probably led Europe in use of the electronic soft-tipped darts game, especially in the 1980s and it has developed and refined itself into a mature and steady market. Indeed, sports games generally propped up the annual statsitics put out by the manufacturers ’ association, the VADAI, over the past few years while AWPs have been stagnating. Germans like their darts games; indeed, pool and table soccer are popular there too. And table soccer will probably get a boost this year with the World Cup going to Germany.

We suspect that the AWP figures will show a slowdown almost
 to a stop, especially in the last couple of months of the year,
as everyone will be holding on to their machines as long
as possible to await the arrival of new models

      Video games promised much and delivered little in Germany. Tight German regulations over ‘violent games ’ were years ahead of their time and access to many of the more bloodthirsty games was denied for under 14s for a long time. It is interesting to note that the issue of violent games continues to hit the headlines and cause problems for the international coin-op industry today, even though the root of the problem actually lies in consumer products.
      Pinball has its aficionados in Germany just as it does anywhere, but the numbers remain small. The big ‘loser’ in Germany over the past few years has been the jukebox, with sales dropping drastically. Germany was once the home of two of the world ‘names ’ in the phonograph business, NSM and Wurlitzer. The former was hived off from Lowen in Bingen, today a major AWP maker, and the brand transferred to the UK, while Wurlitzer is now a pale shadow of its former self.

      Touchscreen games have certainly made an impact, mot of them coming from neighboring Austria where TAB and Fun world are based. The determination with which the authorities – and the industry – protect the young from gambling devices and from the more risqué video games means that arcades generally are not frequented by the young. The ‘family arcade,’ therefore, does not really exist in Germany. What the country does have, with some modest success, is the modern   FEC or family entertainment center, where food, ‘pure’ amusements and games are mixed in an entertaining and low-key fashion.
      The overall German market has perhaps   4,500 operators, split 2:1 in favour of arcades. The single site operator – the businessman running machines in pubs and bars, rather than arcades – is responsible for about 80,000 or 40 per cent   of the entire market.

      Their spend in the next couple of years is going to be almost entirely in the field of AWP machines, which are available to them. That means, in turne, that the annual statistics for the German market (other countries please take heed of this efficiency) will probably show a dramatic slowing of investment in other types of coin-op.
      This is one of the downsides to not having an IMA show this year. The VDAI usually calls a press conference on the eve of the show to release its accumulated figures for the entire sector for the previous year. With no show, that’s not happened. Out latest information is that the 2005 figures will be released toward the end of March.

We suspect that the AWP figures will show a slowdown almost to a stop, especially in the last couple of months of the year, as everyone will be holding on to their machines as long as possible to await the arrival of new models. With anything up to 250,000 new AWP machines entering the German market over a period of two to three years, it is almost inevitable that the foreigners from the UK, the Netherlands and Spain, who have cast envious eyes at the German business for years, may be tempted to make a serious bid for a slice of the market. They are all perfectly capable of producing games which German players like – they had plenty of experience with their fun games.
      Will they be prepared to go through the long-winded and exacting exercise with the PTB this time?  Will they be prepared to put up the money to do it?  I went back to roots and talked to today’s incumbent in Dr. Pilkington’s big seat at Bell-Fruit, John Austin. Will he make a German AWP?
     “You are right that UK (and other countries) manufactures are put off the German market because of extensive testing required and the fact that all the distribution channels are controlled by the major German manufacturers. Additionally, the requirements of the existing legislation make German gems unique and different to what the UK and most other European territories required. However, the opportunity arising with the changing legislation will make Germany a far more attractive target.
     “Bell-Fruit Games is watching with interest the introduction of legislation and aspire to enter the market with product probably more akin to that seen elsewhere in Europe. Clearly I am not in a position to publicly state our plans in terms of how we achieve this and I am sure we will not be alone in our efforts. ”
      In other words. Bell-Fruit will make a German AWP. Now what WAS the name of that German AWP that Dr.Bill Pilkington’s Bell-Fruit developed all those years ago?  It was something Bell …Golden Bell…Liberty Bell?  I am sure that there is an old-timer out there somewhere who will remind me