That so many have discovered London’s most innovative arcade is testament to the dedication of the city’s gamers. From North Acton tube – as far as you can go before leaving Zone 2 and cutting deeper into your Oyster card balance – it’s a walk along an unmarked road and then left into an industrial park. You zigzag for ten minutes past builders’ yards and a half-dozen garages until eventually you end up on the edge of a tumbledown housing estate. Incongruously tucked away atop a flight of stone steps, with lights flickering dimly from behind frosted windows, is The Heart Of Gaming.
“As soon as we opened the door to this place, we were like, ‘Eugh!’” founder Mark Starkey says. “The whole front room was divided into four, with a corridor running down the middle. You couldn’t explain any of this architectural monstrosity. There was wiring everywhere, no heating, and the whole ceiling was asbestos. It made no sense, so we asked, ‘Who was here before?’ The guy said, ‘The last owner was renting it out to illegal immigrants, then two of them got into a fight and started a fire.’ And apparently it all just unravelled, so the chap was practically giving it away. That’s the benefit of being slightly outside central London. Yes, you might have to travel an extra ten or 15 minutes to get here, but out here we can rent a decent venue and give people an arcade that hopefully isn’t going to close down in a couple of months. It’s just that you’ve got to know about it or be curious enough to check it out.” And people are.
Already rechristened ‘The Hog’ by regulars, The Heart of Gaming is run by the trio of amusement industry veteran Starkey, PR man Simeon Lansiquot and manager Joff Keerie. The arcade scene brought Starkey and Lansiquot together, and the pair witnessed its death throes first hand. “I remember how much it hurt when Namco Wonderpark closed down,” says Lansiquot sadly. “It didn’t hurt on the day it closed – it hurt the next Friday, the day we would all go down to the arcade, and we all just thought, ‘What are we going to do today?’”
When the expansive arcade in central London’s Trocadero finally shut its doors after years of decrepitude, the future crew of The Hog saw an opportunity to pick up the torch. “I thought, this is our chance,” Starkey says. “It was our shot to take what’s left of a decaying industry, mix it with what people want to see today, tidy it up, and get everyone enjoying offline gaming again.” The three swooped in, picking up dozens of old arcade cabinets and bar stools for a song. For anyone who spent time in the Trocadero in its heyday, gaming in The Hog is an eerily familiar sensation, but while many of the cabinets and the furniture are the same, the team’s approach to running it is markedly different to your traditional arcade.
“There are lots of reasons why the arcade scene failed, but it was the failure to adapt from the whole coin-operated thing that really killed it,” Starkey says. “Nobody’s going to come out of their house to pay 50p, £1 or £2 a go on a machine any more; it’s a lot easier to just go home, turn on your PS3 and play online. But if you can give someone an entire day’s worth of gaming for a set sum, you’re giving them value for money and letting them play with friends at their leisure.” Instead of milking players one pound at a time, The Hog’s pricing is more straightforward: pay £10 on the door, and then play as much as you like until the doors close after midnight. “You could play for less than a pound an hour. You can’t get into an Internet cafe for less than that. We are purposefully making it affordable,” Starkey explains.
And The Hog’s solution does more than make arcade gaming affordable: it makes it safe. “The arcade scene that we knew doesn’t really exist any more,” says Lansiquot. “People used to go to an arcade and try a bit of everything, but now you have Guilty Gear players, Street Fighter players, King Of Fighters players, Virtua Fighter players, and the scene has split. When they walk in here, they go around trying other games again. That’s what this is about. You can try new things without worrying about wasting your money.”
Aside from removing the coin mechanisms, the cabinets have been retooled by Starkey to be more versatile and support modern demands. Several now house Xbox 360s and flatscreen HDTVs, turning console-exclusive fighters like Injustice: Gods Among Us into working, ‘as good as the real thing’ arcade machines. Two machines in the main room are mongrel cabinets built from discarded parts – cabinets dragged from skips, old CRT monitors and circuit boards scavenged from broken machines. They’ve been lovingly cleaned, sanded and resprayed and now sit proudly among the Trocadero rescuees.
Upright Sega Naomi cabinets now house original Donkey Kong boards, and other machines have been rewired to make The Hog the only venue in Britain streaming live fighting game tournaments every week. In the back, Xbox 360s and PS3s sit atop office tables beside Trocadero chairs, and an In The Groove/Dance Dance Revolution twin setup has been embraced by London’s DDR community. Up front The Hog has curiosities like PC-exclusive Japanese indie fighter Yatagarasu running on modified cabinets alongside Street Fighter III, Rival Schools 2, King Of Fighters and whatever else players request that day. “We want to build up a big selection of software that we can change on request,” Starkey says. “We already have about 20 games there’s just no room for, so we’ve rebuilt the machines and can change the software on request. That’s not really something any arcade in the UK has ever offered before.”
“We try to cater for everybody,” says PR Simeon Lansiquot. “We’ve got consoles so we can bring in the Call Of Duty guys, the Halo guys, Gran Turismo…” Could the Heart Of Gaming be a venue for publishers to show off new titles or for tournament organisers to host e-sports? “Definitely,” Lansiquot says. “We’ve been talking about putting PCs in here so people could play team versus team. The e-sports scene is underdeveloped in this country but I’ve seen the energy that those guys bring, and this kind of environment is what’s needed to help a scene grow. If you give everybody something new, they’ll want to play because they see their friends playing it, and that’s how the community grows. That’s the point of this place: to build the community. We’re doing everything we can; if this doesn’t work, then nothing like this is ever going to work.”
After months of renovation, The Heart Of Gaming opened for business in April. “There was a great turnout on the opening day – about 200 people,” Starkey says, proudly. “The first Friday we had about 15, and now on a Friday we have around 40, with lots of regulars.” And while The Hog is currently dominated by fighting games (“It’s where we come from,” says Lansiquot), the plan is to diversify and cater to every gaming taste – console shooter tournaments, arcade racing cabinets and PC LAN setups are all on the cards. The Hog is throwing everything into building its community, from opening at 4pm and staying open until midnight to discourage school truancy, to converting one of its offices into a prayer room for Muslim gamers when needed. During the May half-term school holiday, the arcade offered a week-long pass for £20, and Starkey is scouring eBay for games the regulars request – Neo Geo game Windjammers is currently at the top of his shopping list.
“We’re always thinking, ‘What can we do to get more attention, how can we get more people in here?’” he says. “We’re working on some really creative angles for this place: we have a Twitch.tv channel, we want to have a radio station, a clothing range, an exchange shop, a sitcom, maybe even a film. We’re even considering doing a Big Brother show.” He gestures around The Hog. “This could easily be the Big Brother house for two weeks. We’ve got a toilet, a shower, a kitchen area, rooms that could have beds thrown in them…”
“We get 16 gamers, lock them up, close the door…” Lansiquot says. “And watch them tear themselves apart,” Starkey cuts in, smiling. “People would do it, too. They’re dedicated enough.”