Smartphone-controlled arcade claw crane games popular in Japan amid pandemic

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An employee patrols a row of machines at an online claw crane games facility in Kanagawa Prefecture in June 2021. (Mainichi / Ryotaro Igawa)

TOKYO – Video arcades are also joining the trend to go online amid the coronavirus pandemic. Even Japan’s crane gaming machines – where players press a button to move a claw and hopefully raise a prize – are going digital. But what gamers see on their smartphone screens isn’t a virtual world, it’s real physical machines and prizes. A reporter from Mainichi Shimbun explored how it works.

Inside a warehouse in the southern part of Kanagawa Prefecture, surrounded by rice paddies, there were rows and rows of claw crane game machines that I knew from video arcades. The arms of the crane would move to grab the prices even though no one was touching the machines.

This is a facility operated by the game-related company Taito Corp. based in Shinjuku Ward, Tokyo, to operate online claw crane games. It covers an area of ​​around 1,300 square meters and the number of machines is “undisclosed”, but at first glance I’m pretty sure there are more than a few hundred.

This is how it works. When the user starts the application downloaded on his smartphone, the real claw crane machine placed at the base is displayed on the screen. By touching the up, down, left and right buttons on the screen, the position of the actual crane arm moves accordingly. Once the user touches the button at the target location, the arm will try to enter the price. Each machine is equipped with multiple cameras that allow users to change the perspective displayed on their phones.

Players can move the crane arm as many times as they want within a certain period of time and their winnings can be delivered to Japan for free. Game fees start at 150 yen per session and are paid for with points purchased in advance. According to the company, awards related to the popular manga and animated series “Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba” were particularly popular in 2020.

This claw crane hub operates 24 hours a day to enable in-line use. After playing the game a number of times, a button will appear on the player’s phone screen, and when the user touches it, an employee will move the item around to make it easier to lift.

Online crane games first appeared around 2010, and there are currently around 20 companies offering the service. Many of them are video arcade operators.

According to “The White Paper on the Police,” the number of licensed gambling halls has declined year on year, from 26,573 in 1986 to 3,931 in 2020. Behind this trend is the spread of video game consoles home and smartphone app games, as well as the fact that the coronavirus pandemic has caused people to avoid crowded places.

Taito, known for its hit shooter “Space Invaders” released in 1978 and primarily engaged in operating video arcades, entered the online claw crane market in 2017. The number of registered users of the app, which was around 1 million. by February 2020 before the pandemic, had grown to around 1.7 million by May 2021.

The smartphone version offers a wide variety of prices as there are so many machines to choose from. In addition to the standard stuffed animals, there are also household items such as the makers of hot sandwiches, which are said to be one of the reasons the popularity of the game has spread to housewives who have little or no experience with it. arcade games.

“We envision online games as the new backbone of the business,” said Katsuhiko Iwaki, president of Taito. “Among them, crane sets will be our flagship product.”

Some of the companies that have entered the online claw crane market have priced at several thousand yen per set, while still offering prices that are normally sold for tens of thousands of yen (several hundred dollars), like popular home video game consoles.

This upward trend in prices has accelerated since 2016, when the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry reported that the Law on Control and Improvement of Entertainment Activities, etc., which applies to game rooms, does not apply to online claw crane games. The National Police Agency regulates the price of prizes to “800 yen or less”, but this does not apply to the smartphone version.

As a result, the industry is worried about the increasing problems caused by the high price tag. There have been times when it was suspected that some operators made it difficult to raise prices.

In response to this, the Big Three, including Taito, established the Japan Online Crane Game Industrialist Association (JOCA) in March 2021 to protect consumers, and around 60 companies are currently members of the association.

JOCA plans to establish a guideline to price the price at 800 yen or less, which is the same as arcades, to reduce fraud and over-service. The association has also opened its website (https://www.joca-jp.org/) as a point of contact for consumers to consult.

“We want to develop online claw cranes in a healthy way,” said Tokuya Fujiwara, president of Aeon Fantasy Co. and representative director of JOCA.

(Japanese original by Ryotaro Ikawa, Department of Economic News)


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