When we originally told our friends we were going to open a retro arcade way back in 2016, we got a lot of dismissals. Of course, they had every right to believe the business model wouldn’t work - arcades had been retired since the late 1990’s, and practically extinct by the early 2000’s. Between oppressive taxes and laws aimed at coin-op arcades, home consoles storming households, and the downfall of the American economy, arcades couldn’t keep up.
My husband and I looked at the days of ‘ol and thought, “What can we do to make arcades inviting again?” We traveled around the Midwest, meeting with other crazy folks who were clinging to their belief that arcades had something to offer. Galloping Ghost in Chicago, Game Galaxy in Nashville, Arcade Legacy in Cincinnati, and many, many more gave us great ideas of what to do and what not to do. We also asked ourselves, “What are popular gatherings for like-minded people and what can we glean from those?” We attended convention after convention and jotted ideas down.
Ultimately, we wrote up a business plan that involved an unlimited play arcade based on admission. All arcade machines would be on free play - no tokens. All consoles, retro and new, would be available for guests to play, even offering the true experience of the old CRT. We would offer those consoles and games for sale as a “try before you buy” experience, similar to the golden memories of standing in the electronics aisle of K-Mart playing through the newest video game before your Mom dragged you out. We believed a mall location would be the perfect location - the nostalgia of the “mall arcade” and the free foot traffic were both very appealing. The final cherry on top would be selling merchandise that tugged at the heart strings of adult millenials and Gen Xers. Plush toys from their favorite Saturday morning cartoons, coasters of their favorite video game characters, badges, shirts, etc.
We were a small convention open every day, located in a mall! A paid admission granted you access to SO MUCH and you could take home some memorabilia on your way out the door. We were the entertainment and vendors, all in one place. I remember spending so many late nights talking over the details with my husband - What would our business name be? Which mall should we look at? What games do we want to supply? There are many, many post-it notes scattered in old folders and binders with rough ideas. Of course, all of this seemed a far off goal - I had just graduated college and Dustin was working as a welder. We were putting money away every paycheck to save up for our ultimate goal, but we didn’t see it happening anytime soon. Especially just coming through the 2008 recession.
It seemed like things were going well as we worked and fantasized about our to-be arcade. Then the punches started coming. My mother died unexpectedly. I became very sick and lost about 6 months that I will never get back (as well as an organ). Then Dustin got laid off. Then I got laid off in the same week. We both scrambled to find a job in a piss-poor economy. I found a job - making $10 less on the hour. Dustin couldn’t find another job that would pay him even reasonably well.
“Let’s just open the arcade.” I remember telling Dustin as we sat silently in our living room wondering what the future held. I remember him looking at me like I was a clown. “We have nothing to lose. We’ve lost our jobs - let’s just take all our savings, open, and if it all falls apart, we’ll take our ball and go home.”
We went back and forth about the decision but ultimately we agreed - we had nothing to lose. We had just suffered through a few years of unimaginable loss and for once, we wanted something to look forward to. We began buying up any and all arcade machines we could find. Machines in garages, basements, warehouses, barns, and hell, even a horse pasture. Most were empty or broken. A lot of them had water damage or rats nests. We had 0 experience working on electronics but we did our best. I worked my day job to keep bills at bay while Dustin stayed home and researched books and videos.
I was always so proud of him when I came home and he would be eager to show me what he had fixed while I was away. It made the long days worth it. My days were spent working a 9-5 office job and spending the evenings helping him load machines in the truck, or dragging them up and down stairs, or helping him repair cabinets, etc. On my lunch breaks at work, I researched what it takes to legally open a business. What paperwork do I need to file? What laws do I have to adhere to? What fees am I going to need to pay? I quietly opened social media accounts and emails, made contacts, and filed forms. Meanwhile, Dustin was watching Randy Fromm videos, reading books, watching Youtube videos, collecting tools, making deals on machines, and picking the brains of folks that were in the industry.
We finally got to a point where we started looking for locations. We had been casually window shopping empty buildings and “for lease” strip mall spaces, but we never fell in love with any of those spots. During one of our window shopping days, we took a walk at the mall near our house, Washington Square Mall. A mall long forgotten by Simon and now in the hands of a small property management company. At the time, it was anchored by Target and Buffalo Wild Wings. The stores were a blend of mom & pop shops and large corporate chains. A pet adoption store greeted you in the main entrance. Victoria’s Secret was right around the corner. A small Black-owned clothing business neighbored it while Bath & Body Works sat across the hall. There was a jewerly store owned by a Muslim fellow down the hall and Dick’s Sporting Goods looming. It really was a melting pot of people and stores. The architecture of the mall had not been updated, but at the time, it was well kept. The mall never seemed “busy” but there were always people in the halls. It seemed like a safe starting place.
After talking with the leasing agent for the property company, they made us what was a hell of a deal compared to other leases we had been pitched. We would be in an old Spencer’s space that was approximately 2k square feet. It wasn’t much, but once we signed the lease, it was ours. I remember the night we moved in. A handful of friends helped us load machines, unload machines, push machines through a silent, closed mall. The sound of the wheels clicking over the tile floor really echoed through the entire building. We seemed so small in such a huge space. We were small fish in a very large pond.
We never made a big announcement of our opening - we never warned anyone. A few of our friends knew it was coming, but we were so worried it would fail out of the gate, we didn’t want to risk getting hopes up. We had a “soft opening” after announcing to our close friends that we were doing this. A few of them didn’t understand why we were chasing this dream. “Arcades died a long time ago. Now you’re opening a dead business in a dead mall.”
But we had nothing to lose.
Our first day of opening to the public, November 6th, 2015, was very awkward. We didn’t know how to approach customers and we were worried they wouldn’t understand our vision, our concept. All of that awkwardness and nervousness washed away almost immediately. The first customer to come in quickly handed us admission cash (that we honestly never thought to frame) and ran to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. He was so excited to play the game and sat there for an hour, playing the game from start to finish. He came over and shook our hands, saying he absolutely loved it and would tell his friends. Later, two very eccentric men wandered in and lost their minds. Double Dragon! Spy Hunter! Donkey Kong! TMNT! Their thrill and excitement is still burned into my memory. They ran through the small arcade taking video and commentary. “We’re going to share this with all our friends!” We had no idea what kind of snowball we had created.
A couple months into opening, I was laid off my “new” job. Two lay-offs in one year. I gave up. I decided to pour everything into the arcade. If I was going to fail professionally, I wanted it to be due to my failing, and not a company I have no control over. So now Dustin and I were both full-time arcade owners. It was absolutely terrifying. Some weeks, we did great and we had some money left over after bills were paid, however, some weeks, it was slow and we were having sleep for dinner.
There was never a day off. Even the days we were closed, we were at the arcade, day and night, fixing machines, processing video game products, merch, etc. I even made pixel magnets that ultimately fed us. Luckily, our hard work was noticed and customers seemed to double every day - even becoming friends and volunteers. It was an experience we weren’t use to - being helped. We had fought so hard to get where we were and to have people we had never met stick out their hand and say “Let me get that for you” - Man, what a humbling experience.
After about 6 months, the mall made us an offer to move. We were having issues with our space that were insurmountable by both parties, but the mall saw potential in us and didn’t want to lose the attraction. We moved from a space of about 2,000 square feet to a space of about 12,000 square feet. It was an old Gap/Baby Gap location that seemed to go on forever. There were rooms upon rooms, a back stock room that was the size of a warehouse, a hidden office, and so much potential. It was also a huge step up. Dustin always says that’s when we started punching above our weight class.
We decided to start incorporating tournaments and events into our “convention style” arcade. One side of the store was all arcade, console, and merchandise, and the other side was saved for events, Super Smash tournaments, LAN parties, Fighting Game tournaments, and many, many birthday parties. This was also about the time my father’s health took a steep turn. I had moved him into my home so I could try juggling taking care of him and running the arcade. He was always impressed by the crazy things Dustin and I did and although he couldn’t really do much to help, he would show up for moral support.
We hosted a huge Super Smash Bros tournament, Outfoxx’d, that had over 400 people in attendance. We packed the venue space with people and TVs. Dustin and I balanced on a table with a ladder to install projectors from the ceiling so people could watch stream stations live. We hosted an overnight LAN party - we didn’t sleep for two days, but we had so much fun. We took our show to conventions to spread the word about the arcade and events. We had arcade personalities visit for tournaments, like Brian Colin and Daniel Pesina. We ended up bringing a couch to our office as we many times stayed over night - it was easier when we had one event after another. We also still had to run the arcade and keep the machines working. We met hundreds of people through the arcade we now consider beloved friends. It seemed like the snowball wasn’t stopping.
The last birthday I celebrated in that venue was with my father (our birthdays were just days apart). He was diagnosed with lung cancer a couple days later and I lived at the hospital and ultimately hospice with him for two weeks while he died slowly and painfully. Dustin was alone to keep the arcade afloat during that time. We weren’t comfortable hiring anyone, so we were the owners and employees. The show had to go on, with or without me there.
The weekend after my father died, we hosted another huge tournament that was scheduled months in advance. I had to show up, put on a smile, and keep the arcade rolling. I look back at the pictures and I’m there, but I honestly don’t remember a single thing from that weekend. It was like I was on autopilot and unfortunately, that’s where I got stuck for a couple years. I suffocated my grief with work. It went from working hard because I wanted to see Dustin’s dream succeed to working hard so I wouldn’t feel anything. It was really straining on our marriage - Dustin had a shell of a wife and I felt nothing but sadness and anger.
The arcade kept growing, more machines were making it to the floor and collecting in the warehouse. More events were being booked for the calendars and I stopped sleeping. I stayed up all night going over spreadsheets, editing photos, or working on control panel overlays. Sometimes I just drove around on country roads listening to music. During the day I would run the arcade desk or TO an event. I started having seizures from lack of sleep. Dustin had to take me to the ER on multiple occasions due to grand mal seizures that would cause me to bite my tongue, drool, and lose complete grasp of reality. That’s really when I hit my rock bottom and unfortunately, I was dragging Dustin down with me.
At the same time, the arcade was still thriving. It was starting to become recognized from people states away and now even catching the eye of Simon. I remember the day the two leasing men stopped by the arcade. They quietly toured the arcade and I nervously watched them, wondering what they were thinking. When they circled back around to the desk, they said they wanted us at their malls. They had two locations and were willing to bid against each other to give us a deal that would work for us. We were stunned. We were the prettiest girl at the prom and these two men were fighting over us. Wild. They courted us at both malls, offering us different spaces at different price points and always trying to undercut each other. Eventually, we made a deal with Castleton Square Mall and our new lease was on the books. We only had a few months to get our shit together and get moved in.
At the time, we had money saved up, but not enough for what we wanted to do. We wanted this space to be THE space. We wanted to blow the socks off these guys who had given us the Golden Ticket. This was the largest mall in the state and we wanted to make a big impression. We were put in contact with the Small Business Association, the SBA, and jumped through flaming hoops to take out a small business loan that would get construction going. We were supposed to sign the paperwork the week of Christmas and have the last week of December to get construction started, however, Trump was pulling stunts that caused the government to shut down, including the SBA. Our paperwork was put on hold indefinitely and we were left out in the cold. Castleton was very gracious and let us kick the can down the road but it was insanely stressful. We had already closed our previous location and now had zero money coming in.
The SBA finally reached out on January 3rd, Dustin’s birthday, ready to sign all the documents and get the money straight to our contractors. Now we were on a time crunch to move over 100 arcade machines during one of the worst cold snaps Indiana had even seen. We could only move machines after the mall closed, so we were working in the dead of night, in several feet of snow, with negative temps. All the volunteer help we had acquired previously backed out, and I didn’t blame them. A couple very determined people stuck around and helped, but I would never wish that experience on anyone. Between machines slipping off an icey liftgate, pushing machines through snow that kept accumulating, and losing the feeling in our hands and faces, it was miserable. All we could do was pray that this would pay off.
We eventually got the new space “installed” and ready for open two weeks late of our originally planned date, but my God did that space look awesome. Graffiti on the walls, LEDS lights creeping up the brick, and arcade machines packed back to back - it was amazing. Opening day at Castleton brought back that awkward feeling, like being the new kid at school. Are people going to like us? Are people going to follow us here to the new mall? Will new people understand our concept? We re-opened in March to a huge line of people eagerly awaiting the opening of the arcade. I remember vividly hearing a guest in line “sing” the Space Odyssey theme while the gate slowly crept up. It was insanely humbling.
Knowledge of the arcade began to spread like wildfire and we were now open every day. No days off. No down time. I was still never sleeping, struggling with seizures, and at this point stopped eating. Dustin & I knew I had to get help if I was going to keep the arcade running smoothly. I ended up starting therapy, doing EMDR, taking anti-seizure meds, and eating on a schedule so I couldn’t forget to eat. In fact, I am still doing most of those things, 3 years later. It’s not an overnight fix, but it helps when you stick to it. A lot of the first year at Castleton is simply a blur to me, due to the autopilot and anti-seizure meds.
As soon as we felt we had a handle on things - our marriage was stronger than ever, our business was booming, and we finally hired a couple employees - COVID hit the United States. Almost a year to the day that we had opened in Castleton, we were the first business closed in the mall. We had just started proving to all the nay-sayers that an arcade doesn’t have to die in this climate only to get shut down. Like everyone else, we assumed the shutdown would be a couple weeks at most. But it slogged from a couple weeks, to a month, to a couple months, to the point where we had no idea when we would re-open.
Although Simon was very gracious to us, not every company was that way. We had to pay all our bills at the warehouse even though we were not allowed to go there. We had to pay all our utilities at the arcade even though we were not allowed to go there. And on top of that, we still had to pay our bills at home. We had money saved but burned through it within a couple months. We watched businesses shutter all around us. We felt surrounded by a looming cloud of bankruptcy. We were one of the thousands of businesses to scramble for grants and loans, all of which were given out randomly. There was no rhyme or reason to who got what. It was purely a lottery of luck. We had several inside sources that would tell us when grants or loans would start accepting applications and we would have ours submitted the minute it opened, but alas, it never seemed to matter. It was a mad scramble.
We sold everything we could to make sure the arcade could stay alive. We basically gave it CPR selling our personal collectables, consoles, games, or time. Dustin began offering service work to folks with arcades at home. I spent most of my time filling out loan application after application. Come June of 2020, we were starting to believe it was time to put the arcade to rest. The SBA was in constant contact with us and they were always so empathetic to our struggle, but their hands were tied by red tape and a useless government.
“Maybe it’s time to take our ball home, Dustin. Maybe we just sell off all the arcades and call it quits. It’s been a good run.” I remember feeling so desperate.
In the final hour, a friend loaned us money. “Don’t let it die.”
The SBA finally came through and got us a loan. “Best of luck.”
We got a second wind and we weren’t going to waste it. Simon was finally allowing us to enter the mall, even though we couldn’t open, so Dustin and I decided we would have to make a strong comeback. After all bills were paid, we spent the rest on renovating the arcade. You thought it was cool before? We’re going to make it even cooler.
Let’s make it darker and let’s make it louder. Let’s offend everyone.
We added neon lights. We added more arcade machines. We added the new Playstation 5. We expanded the merch we offered. We upgraded all the lighting in the store. We bought pinballs. We took a complete gamble and spent all the loan money making the location something people would want to come back to once we were allowed to re-open. We went back to working every day and every night to make sure everything was perfect.
We re-opened a dead business during one of the worst economic experiences the world had ever seen, but we were determined that people would want to forget their woes and would get lost in the reality that is the arcade. Boss Battle Games re-opened on July 4th of 2020 to a very lukewarm reaction. The government had us in a choke hold for restrictions. Customers and employees must wear masks. Businesses can only allow a handful of people at a time. Surfaces must be sanitized constantly. Hand sanitizer must be available every so many feet. At the same time, half of our customers were too scared to enter and the other half were boycotting us for mandates we had no control over.
Ultimately, for the rest of 2020, we did 20% of our normal business while bills stayed at 100%. We had to let our employees go, we just couldn’t afford it. We went back to working every day by ourselves. We ran the arcade during the day and stayed overnight to do repair work. I went back to not sleeping.
Then one of our friends took his life. It was absolutely devastating and shocking. He had been our friend for years. We watched him grow up from our very first arcade location, when he was just a young teen. He had grown into an adult and spent so much time at the arcade, it was only fair we gave him the job when we moved to Castleton. Unfortunately, he had demons no one could or will ever know about. The isolation COVID caused and the seemingly desolate future broke him. Losing him broke all of us. It was unexplainable and didn’t seem real.
At that point, the end of 2020, Dustin and I were ready to pack it up. It seemed like we had gone from having nothing to lose, to losing everything. I had lost both of my parents, our arcade was taking on more water than we could handle, we had lost such a great friend, and we had lost time we would never get back. We agreed that we would live out the last of our lease and if we didn’t see a heartbeat by then, we would officially declare the arcade dead. We would sell everything, pay off the loans, and start from scratch.
January of 2021, we saw a glimmer of hope. A small heartbeat. We had a normal month. In fact, we had a great month. We assumed it had to be a fluke. The next month was the same. And then March we had our best month ever. EVER. Our best month ever after being open 5 years. It was like a medical drama. We had given the arcade CPR for months and months with no signs of life, only for it to spring back, seemingly out of nowhere. A miracle.
Our lease was up and we had to make a decision. Do we gamble again? Do we sign another year? Do we risk it?
We have nothing to lose. We’ve lost it all already.
We signed on for another year. For Benson. We agreed we would keep the arcade going for him - he wouldn’t want us to give up.
We brought on a couple employees and began kicking ass and taking names. Every month, better than the last. Each customer that found us told their friends. Their friends told their friends. It was a snowball and it was gathering mass fast. You would think we’d be ecstatic. We did it - We survived. But survivor's guilt is a real thing. We watched so many arcade owners close their business. We watched other small business owners close up shop. And we wish every day that our friend would have just held on a little longer.
As I write this, in August of 2021, there is still political turmoil occuring and the Delta Variant is burning it’s way through the population, but Dustin and I are firmly millennials. We grew up during a great economy, only to watch it crumble when we watched 2000 people die on live TV. The economy never really got any better. In fact, most things didn’t get any better. So, we’re accustomed to disappointment and trauma at this point. We are hardly optimistic about the future, but we are working like hell to make sure Boss Battle Games survives.
And every single person that walks through the gate is a blessing to us. Every dollar made keeps the arcade going. This isn’t just our livelihood, this is a safe place for the outcast kids. This is a meeting place for long distance friends. This is a place where people have gotten engaged. This is the place where tournaments were won. This is a place where life-long relationships are made. This is the last place I spent a birthday with my father. This is the last place Benny visited before he died. This is a place where everyone can escape the cruel current reality and enjoy the safe, exciting childhood they had in the 80’s and 90’s. We created the place of welcoming we had intended years ago.
Thanks for sharing the past 6 years with us. There are a lot of details I missed, but I could write a book about the adventures we’ve been on. I know Dustin has his own side of the story too. I hope to see you at the arcade sometime soon and we can chat about anything. Games. The future. Movies. Whatever.
My name is Phylicia! I also go by Arcade Empress if you find me online in games or other forums. I am the Empress of Boss Battle Games (I'm serious, it's my legal title!) and wife/best friend to Dustin/Zoex/Emperor of Boss Battle Games. Together, we've been cutting years off our life to keep this arcade running as smoothly as possible and while growing it and adding new and exciting things.