Bring on the ‘80s and Pac-Man Fever, because Free Play Arcade is opening a new location in Fort Worth's Near Southside. Set to debut in the fall, the arcade will occupy the former home of the Fairmount Music Hall, just off Magnolia Avenue at 1311 Lipscomb St.
“It is one of the best properties we’ve ever seen,” says Free Play president Corey Hyden, who scouted Fort Worth for two years before landing on just the right spot. “With our business model, putting more than 100 games in a location, no matter what we have to be in a pretty big spot. Big enough to support everything we wanted, but not something as big as a former Sears or Conn’s.”
Joining locations in Richardson, Arlington, and Denton, Free Play Fort Worth will follow the formula of its progenitors, with customers paying $10 (plus tax) for unlimited free play on all its arcade games and pinball machines (which are typically coin-operated). Craft beers, pressed sandwiches, street tacos, and other goodies will be available for purchase.
With such an agreeable business model, you’d think that any town would be eager for Free Play to set up shop, but that’s not always the case, thanks to crusty old city codes and outdated thinking on the part of certain city officials, the owners say.
“We’re an arcade that serves alcohol,” Hyden says. “If you look at the laws that are on the books from the ’70s and ’80s, you’ll see that everyone was nervous these newfangled arcades were going to have gambling machines. Back in 1978 [the year 'Space Invaders' debuted, revolutionizing the industry], an arcade was a concerning thing for most neighborhoods, so all the municipalities passed scary laws. And then, of course, we combine alcohol with it.”
Once Hyden explains the philosophy behind Free Play, city officials tend to warm up to the idea, especially if backed by a development district such as Near Southside, he says.
“When we go into most major areas, people get concerned, not sure what we’re doing, so we just explain that we are Pac-Man and beer, that’s our core model,” Hyden says. “All we really want is to have you playing a cool game and drinking a cold beer. These special development areas really help. Instead of just us telling the city how cool we are, it’s us plus the committee from the development district saying they really want us in there.”
Hyden says the biggest draw to Free Play is that all their games, including such popular titles as Donkey Kong, Mario Bros., Mortal Kombat, and Space Invaders, are running the original hardware in their original condition.
“We’ve brought hundreds and hundreds of games to life that were otherwise dead or not being played and brought them to the public,” he says. “We feel that if you are bringing the real product, that’s what people are going to love. That’s one of the reasons we’ve been so successful. People really respond to that.”
The most commonly sought-after games at Free Play are Ms. Pac-Man, which is a faster sequel to Pac-Man that features four mazes instead of just one, and Galaga, which is an outer space shooter where you can double up your ship for more firepower in destroying flying invaders.
Hyden gladly points out these favorites to Free Play customers, but he really loves it when they expand their horizons a bit.
“Everyone always comes in looking for Ms. Pac-Man and Galaga, but then they get into BurgerTime or Gyruss,” he says. “Some of these games are culture icons, like Frogger. They’ll see that and immediately be drawn to it. My favorite part is when they discover something new, like King and Balloon. King and Balloon is a really good old Namco game, and it captures those people who love Galaga. They’re playing a game they’ve never played before or even heard of, and they’re engrossed by it.”
The social aspect of gaming is important to Hyden, as well.
“From the beginning, we’ve wanted Free Play to be a hub of social gaming,” he says. “We’ve had people meet at Free Play, get engaged at Free Play, and then get married at Free Play. It’s really amazing to see this social aspect of gaming take over where people want to play games with each other, and they need some type of gaming space to do it. Free Play has become that.”