Game over: Family Fun arcade is pulling the plug

Inside, the Family Fun Arcade is dark, even on a sunny day. In the back, there’s a counter where you can get change, buy a can of soda for 75 cents and grab a bag of Doritos or a cellophane-covered brownie. The place is noisy, always noisy, not with the flashy whining arpeggios of slot machines or the squeals and songs common to a Chuck E. Cheese but the booms, beeps, blasts and hai-ya’s particular to Street Fighter.

Despite the name, Family Fun is not the typical kiddie-enticing arcade. There are no redemption games here — no Skee-Ball machines spitting out tickets to trade for plastic trinkets, no claws feebly grasping at plush toys. An air hockey table stands near the door, but everything else is joysticks, buttons and video.

Yet as modest as it appears, this Granada Hills arcade, called FFA for short, is legendary in certain circles, a “Street Fighter” mecca known far and wide. “We would get guys from Canada, Japan, Australia, because of the level of competition here,” says owner Ralph Sehnhert. “These guys are like chess masters. They know every nuance of the game, to how many frames per second and what move counteracts what. Their strategy is absolutely amazing. They live and breathe it.”

“What we used to have going for us was that we were the unique experience you couldn’t get at home,” Sehnert says. “Now, you can sit in your pajamas, play against some guy in Amsterdam or Yugoslavia with a seamless connection, and you don’t have to keep going into your pocket to put quarters in.”

That’s another stumbling block to coin-op economics: the quarter. While prices of virtually everything have risen since Family Fun first opened, it’s hard to jack up the per-play price of a game, Sehnert says.

In the arcade’s early days, mechanical games like faux-rifle-equipped shooting galleries and pinball — newly legalized in Los Angeles — dominated. Air hockey had just been invented, as had the first video game, “Pong.” In the early 1980s, “Pac-Man” fever spiked, then cooled. “Dragon’s Lair,” the laserdisc game, was supposed to revive the sagging industry. It didn’t.

Online Games Are Making a Play for a Mature Audience

At 63, Elnor Smedley seems an unlikely target for a video game industry that zeros in on acne-prone adolescent males.

These days, though, the silver-haired grandmother of five is the belle at a billion-dollar ball thrown by video game companies eager to court mainstream consumers via the World Wide Web.

Microsoft Corp., Sony Corp., Vivendi Universal and Electronic Arts Inc. are among several companies pouring vast amounts of money into online games. It’s a bid to both broaden the appeal of video games and establish long-term revenue streams through subscriptions to a constantly updated cache of games.

That strategy of selling digital fun as a service is the current rage among software and entertainment companies searching for ways to make money on the Internet and move beyond one-time sales of shrink-wrapped music and movies.

“Games take a long time to build,” said Erick Hachenburg, chief operating officer for EA.com, which in February paid more than $40 million to acquire Pogo.com. “And we’ve been making the investments to build them. We believe people will pay for online games.”

For now, the games are free and the sites are supported by online ads. But with online advertising dollars at a nadir, game sites desperately need other sources of revenue.

“The model is cable TV,” said Stan McKee, EA’s chief financial officer. “Years ago, people asked why anybody would pay for cable when they can get broadcast TV for free? The reason was that cable TV offered content that wasn’t available anywhere else.”

McKee predicted that EA.com’s rate of loss will ease once it begins broadcasting games such as “Majestic” and “Harry Potter Online.”

The riskiest game in the lineup is “Majestic,” a conspiracy game in which players solve a mystery with clues delivered via e-mail, phone calls and faxes. Already several months behind in production, the game’s four monthly “episodes” are due out sometime this summer. The fall will bring another lineup of games, including “Motor City Online,” a game that lets players buy, collect and trade virtual cars.