Trading Card Spotlight - Ken Graham

| Trading Card Spotlight

Our next Trading Card Spotlight features Ken Graham who currently is displayed on card number 885, from the Superstars of 2014 Collection.  Ken is a massive arcade preservationist.  Early in his career he worked at Williams Electronics as a programmer, this is where he learned the hardware engineering of computers and arcades.  He would use this knowledge to not only fix his own machines but also to offer his time and experience to restoring broken arcades in other locations as well. Ken along with three others have opened an arcade called the “The Game Preserve” where people of all ages come to enjoy the fun of retro arcade and pinball machines.

What arcade games do you play today and what are your favorite genres of games?

My favorites tend to be shooters. Robotron, Stargate, Smash TV. But I’ll play just about anything. It is probably easier to list the genres I tend not to play. Drivers (probably because I was already driving a car when the video driving games started to come out. Yes, I am that old). Fighting games (Street Fighter came out the year I was becoming a father, so quarters for arcades was a luxury). Pattern games like Pac-man, Ms Pac-man, Donkey Kong. I just don’t have the patience to learn all the patterns. That’s probably why I tend not to play Fighters, I hate learning all the button combos. I am a button masher.

Do you remember when you played your first arcade game and what do you remember about the experience?

The first arcade game I remember playing was a Whack A Mole game. I think I was about 3 at the time. I was really not very good at it. I mostly stared at the animals popping up and having my Dad try to help me hit them.

The first pinball game I remember playing was a cowboy and indian themed EM. It was at a little campground in northern Minnesota. They had a little general store that sold basic foods and snacks and they had two pinball machines. The other one was a card game themed machine. As I recall, they were both 10 cents per game of 3 games for a quarter. I blew a lot of my allowance on those machines when we would go camping there.

The first true video game I recall playing was Space Invaders. There was a bowling alley in the basement of Apache Plaza in Saint Anthony Village, Minnesota and it was split into two sides with a hallway in between the sides. One day, the wall was opened up and there was this little arcade on one side. It had a couple of EM pinball machines and an EM shooting game and 3 Space Invaders games. My friends literally had to drag me out of there by force.

What are your opinions about today’s generation of arcade games?  How do you compare them to older, classic games?

First of all, I don’t think it is fair to compare the modern super high definition ultra-reality in your face games with the older classic games. Gaming is always on the bleeding edge of technology. When I worked at Williams, we were not that far removed from games that were basically a single pixel moving around and bumping into things that were four or five pixels. Suddenly you had recognizable shapes on screen that you could interact with. They challenged the player to use their imagination to fill in the spaces in the world. Modern games try to be an extension of reality with augmented reality games like Pokemon and some of the dinosaur and zombie games you can play on your phone. The arcade games likewise try to use wide screen or multiple screens to immerse the player in that universe and they try to make it as photorealistic as possible.

I think it is a real testament to those pioneering programmers that people not only want to still play their games, but that they want to play them on the original hardware or as close to the original hardware as they can get.

What is your hardest arcade/pinball game that you have worked on in your career, what made it difficult to fix?

The hardest pinball machine I’ve had to work on was probably a No Fear machine. It had been in a laundromat for a couple of years and the previous owner had done zero maintenance. So, it was a seemingly endless cycle of something is broken – diagnose it – buy parts – wait for parts – replace parts – something is broken. It took probably 2 years before it was running 100%. Then I started cleaning up some of the worn-out bits. I replaced the ramps, replaced the bulbs with LEDs and added a ColorDMD. It looks great and it is one of the more popular pins at The Game Preserve.

The hardest video game was probably a Blaster board I was sent to repair. After two years of working on it part time, I sent it back to its owner. I was never able to get it to boot and play reliably. It was one of the few boards I have taken on that I was never able to get running 100%.

When did your arcade open and how was the initial reception? 

The initial Game Preserve location opened in January 2013. We had a good turnout from the Houston gaming community. Unfortunately for that first location it was in a secured office/storage facility and you needed the gate code to get in, so that detracted from the ability of casual people to just wander in. In addition, only the office (400 sq. ft. of the 1800 sq. ft.) was air conditioned. That made it very uncomfortable during the summer, especially here in Houston. We stayed in that location for approximately 1 year.

Our second location was a little better. It was in a small office/retail complex and was approximately 5,600 sq. ft. and it was fully air conditioned. Because it was publicly accessible, we were able to attract a much larger audience. We were in that facility for 1 year, until the landlord decided to knock the whole complex down and put up a modern glass office building.

Our third (and current) location is in a retail space in a retail shopping center. We have 6,600 sq. ft. and it has been a good location for us. We have been there for over 5 years now. Currently we have approximately 120 video games and pinball machines all on free play. Customers pay at the door to play or we offer memberships for a set fee per month.

What made you want to into the gaming industry?

I got into the games industry (the gaming industry usually refers to casino gaming) by accident. I was working as a bench chemist at a now defunct company in Chicago when the brought in some Apple ][ computers to automate some of the lab functions. I sat down and played with one and discovered that the BASIC language on them was very similar to the BASIC I learned in high school. So I started to write programs for the other people in the lab. One of the techs tried to take a computer course at a local community college and was turned down because they couldn’t get any of the professors to teach it. She complained to the head of the adult education and told him that she knew somebody who could teach the course. To humor her I went and talked to the adult ed dean and he hired me. After teaching Beginning Microcomputers for a couple of years, I saw an ad for freelance programmers to write educational software from The Singer Society of Visual Arts (if you are old enough, you may remember them as the “filmstrip company”). While working there, I met another programmer who was also a headhunter and he sent my resume to Williams and I was hired to program Atari VCS cartridges. That led to working on several video game projects during the time I was there.

What is your favorite portable gaming device and why?

The Nintendo Gameboy. It was small. It was lightweight. The screen was clear and easily visible, even in sunlight. The sound was amazing if you had headphones. And many of the games were the kind that you could play for a few minutes while you were killing time. You didn’t need to play for hours to get to a spot to save. I still think it has the definitive ports of Tetris and Dr. Mario.

Do you prefer arcade or pinball games and why?

That depends on the day. There are some days where I will just play video games. Robotron, StarGate, Joust, Smash TV, TMNT, Q*Bert, Gauntlet Dark Legacy, again depending on my mood.

When I am working at one of the Preserves, I tend to mostly play pinball. I don’t play very many full games, but since all the games are on free play a LOT of people shoot a ball or two and walk away. So I finish their games off. BITD, when you paid per game, you would never walk away from a pinball machine until you were sure you weren’t getting a free ball or a free game. With games on free play, people (especially kids) crank up 4 games, shoot one ball and wander off. So, there are always games to be played off.

What is your favorite pinball game past and/or present and why?

My current favorite is probably No Fear. I am finally getting to know how to get into the different modes and how to get decent scores on each of the modes. I am a long way from being reasonably good at it but it really holds my interest. Addam’s family is a close second.

What is a great arcade story that has happened recently?

Not real recent, but I was very interested in watching the results of the Atari dig in that dump a couple of years ago. I thought it was cool that some of those cartridges still worked after being buried for 30 years or however long it was.

What does it take for someone to open an arcade today, and what advice would you give a person who would like to get into the industry?

Opening an arcade is a very difficult proposition today. The ones that seem to survive are either a combination of a lot of hard work by a small group of friends who have day jobs, or they have an alternate revenue stream like being associated with a bar and or restaurant.

If you really have your heart set on opening an arcade, then watch for arcades that are open in your area or in the area near you. How long have they been running? What makes them work? How many machines do they have? What is the mix of video games to pinball machines? How long were they open before they failed?

Then take inventory. How many machines do you currently own? Can you repair all of them? Do you have some really good friends who have the same drive you do with different skills than you? Are you good at business? Are you good at Web site design? Are you good at promoting and marketing? Are you good at negotiating (real estate leases, getting machines at a good price)? Are you independently wealthy? If not, how many hours can you steal from your day job?

It is very difficult to open and maintain an arcade by yourself. That is a lot of hours, a lot of time spent fixing games, finding games and a lot of money for rent, insurance, internet, phones, power (AC and electricity to run the machines).

Do you believe some video games are too violent and lead to violence in America today?

I think there are a small percentage of people (both young and old) who have difficulty separating reality from fiction. How many millions of people have played Doom and watched The Matrix movies? Only two couldn’t separate those from reality and caused the incident at Columbine. I think a lot of the violence in America is caused by a lack of education regarding guns and proper gun safety and the easy access to guns by those who have not been trained in how to use them and the destruction that they can cause.

Blaming video games is an easy target because there is a gut reaction to some of those games. Rarely does anyone bother to consider the copycat factor. Back in the 1980’s California had a wave of freeway random shootings. The TV stations were all about those stories. They would break in and talk endlessly about how many were hurt, how any died and how no one was getting caught. And it escalated. There were sometimes 20 or more a day in the Los Angeles area. Then a local minister went to a TV station and asked them not to publicize the shootings. They reluctantly did. Several other stations stopped airing the shootings, finally all the stations voluntarily stopped. In a few months, the shootings stopped.

In the current raft of violence and looting surrounding the George Floyd tragedy, I wonder how much of that would have occurred if the news and social media had focused on the peaceful marches and didn’t show hour after hour of looters running out of stores with big screen TVs.

Which company today, in your opinion, makes the best games and why?

Good question. I am not very current on modern games. I collect classic video games and pinball machines. So, while I have bought several new Stern pinball machines over the last few years, I am not really very well versed on new machines.

Do you like it when consoles make home versions of the arcade games?

Unlike a lot of people, I think the home versions of the video games actually helped the arcade versions. It gave mediocre players (myself included) a chance to hone their skills, at least a little bit so that they enjoyed the arcade versions more. That being said, the home format allowed for a lot of flexibility that is not available in the arcade. Being able to save your place allowed for much longer gameplay at home as opposed to the arcade where 3 minutes for a quarter was the ideal.

Did you ever think when you were younger you would be on a video game trading card? 

Since I didn’t even know there were video game trading cards until I was approached by Mark Hoff, I would have to say that I never really thought about it.

Have you ever received any media coverage for your appearance on the Trading Card?  If so, where?

I have never received any direct coverage for it. I have occasionally had people ask me to sign one of my cards, but that is about it.

When did you first meet Walter Day and where was it at?

I first met Walter at one of the Houston Arcade Expos. I believe it was 2011, but I can’t guarantee the date.

If you could describe Walter Day in one word, what would that word be and why?

Gentle. I almost said calm but that really doesn’t fully do justice to Walter’s inner peace.

If you could only own one arcade game in the world, what would it be and why?

I could cheat and say one of those XXX–in-one multicades, but to honor the spirit of the question, Robotron. For some reason Robotron is my go-to game when I can’t think of what else to play. When I was younger, I could put up 1.5 million-point games all the time. Now, I am lucky if I can get 300,000. Robotron is one of the three dedicated arcade video games left in my house (the other two are Sinistar and Mystic Marathon). All of the others are out for play at one or the other Game Preserve locations.

become a much greater force. Being able to challenge players in other centers or even at home will become more prevalent.

There will continue to be bars with games. With the current 80’s nostalgia giving way to 90’s nostalgia, there will probably be fewer games in bars but I don’t see that ever completely going away.

The stand-alone arcades will need to find a way to build up a large loyal customer base or they will go the way of the dinosaur. Having tournaments and memberships to guarantee an income stream will become more important.

I don’t think arcades will every fully disappear as long as they remember that first and foremost, they are social clubs. It is a place to gather with like-minded individuals to enjoy each other’s company and occasionally blast aliens in your Defender ship, or to send a small steel ball whirling through ramps and into toys or whatever it is the newest games bring.

Where do you see arcades in the next 10 years?

Arcades are going to continue to evolve over time. There are going to be different types of arcades.

The large family entertainment centers with the latest and greatest games that you can’t get at home will continue to showcase the cutting edge of arcade games. Social games and virtual reality games will become a much greater force. Being able to challenge players in other centers or even at home will become more prevalent.

There will continue to be bars with games. With the current 80’s nostalgia giving way to 90’s nostalgia, there will probably be fewer games in bars but I don’t see that ever completely going away.

The stand-alone arcades will need to find a way to build up a large loyal customer base or they will go the way of the dinosaur. Having tournaments and memberships to guarantee an income stream will become more important.

I don’t think arcades will every fully disappear as long as they remember that first and foremost they are social clubs. It is a place to gather with like-minded individuals to enjoy each other’s company and occasionally blast aliens in your Defender ship, or to send a small steel ball whirling through ramps and into toys or whatever it is the newest games bring.

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