When teen-agers line up three deep to play "Pole Position" at Rockville Putt-Putt Golf and Games, it isn't because the electronic amusement will help them with next year's algebra class or driver education.
No, "Pole Position" just happens to be the most popular video game in the country right now. And it isn't just for kids. To those adult arcade owners who can afford the $3,000 toy, it is a cash-producing godsend for an industry spoiled by its own success.
"'Pole Position,' 'Turbo'--we try to have all the latest games," said Alan Fluke, the 25-year-old manager of the 50-game arcade and miniature golf courses on Rollins Avenue.
"In this business," he said, "if you don't stay up with the new games, you're sunk."
Suburban Maryland's video game purveyors aren't on the skids yet, but they do say business has dropped dramatically since 1980, when the quarters poured in for anyone with the sense to install a video game in a store, theater or, yes, even a doctor's waiting room.
Zapped by the home video market and competing in a field in which some games are obsolete as soon as they leave the factory, arcade operators from Rockville to southern Prince George's County say their gross receipts have dropped by as much as 25 percent since last year. Sales of new games, meanwhile, have declined by 40 to 50 percent for some game distributors.
"In the boom two years ago, everybody thought they could make a quick buck, and some did," said Fluke, a Rockville native who has worked at Putt-Putt since he was 16. "But the cost of a game has gone up $500 since then. Nowadays, you're going to survive only if you have a good reputation and atmosphere, and the buying power to get the good games."
But even that may not guarantee success, industry experts say. Receipts from the games at Putt-Putt, which relies heavily on families for its business, have dropped 10 percent since last year, Fluke said. And that's despite the wall-to-wall crowds that pack the clean, well-tended game parlor on Friday and Saturday nights.
By contrast, Game Time, an arcade just north of Fluke's that neighbors described as poorly maintained, went out of business three weeks ago, according to the building's landlord. A spokesman for Potomac Vending Co., the Gaithersburg firm that operated the arcade, would not comment on the closing.
"The arcade business is going through a shakeout period," said Phil F. Faris, a spokesman for Bally's Aladdin's Castle Inc., the nation's largest arcade chain. "Some arcades will survive it; others have already failed."
Bally, which has arcades in Landover, Hyattsville and Frederick, has been hurt by "the saturation of games into malls, 7-Elevens--everywhere," Faris said. Revenues at Bally's various arcades are off "anywhere from a couple of points to as much as 30 percent," he added.
Ironically, the crunch has come at a time when more people than ever are playing video games. "The home market has taken the curse off," said Paul Emerson, a Washington area distributor who maintains nine electronic games in the Skyline Restaurant in Morningside near Andrews Air Force Base.
"The aversion to the machines by parents is less critical now than it used to be," Emerson said. "Parents around here understand that video games are not evil, not debilitating to kids." His own game sales, however, have fallen 50 to 60 percent since last year, he added.
Because 12- to 24-year-olds make up roughly 70 percent of all video game players, teen-agers will make or break most arcade owners, the operators said. One described them as "the world's most fickle clientele," capable of wearing out a new game in weeks or losing interest in one as soon as it arrives.
At the same time, teen-agers frequent the suburban shopping malls where the most successful arcades are. (Landover Mall and Prince George's Plaza both have Aladdin's Castles.)
"That's where atmosphere becomes the key," Faris said. "Parents are asking themselves where do I want to play and where do I want my kids to play."
Some Montgomery County high school students seem content with one of the craftiest video game promotions around: an arcade-on-wheels.
"There are too many operators," declared Bette Forman, 40, a Bethesda resident who parks her Pac-Van of 11 games outside Walter Johnson High School during lunch hours. Six months after jumping into the crowded video business, Forman has roamed the county to parties, fairs and, of course, the high school crowd at lunch.
For $100 an hour, a group can have unlimited turns at the games in Forman's renovated school bus.
"I try to keep the games current," Forman said, "but sometimes 'current' is six months old."
Arcade owners say they expect business to pick up again in June, with schools closed for the summer and tourists flocking to Washington.
Some Montgomery County operators said they were irritated at proposals before the County Council to charge operators a $50 license fee for each video machine and to increase the "amusement tax" from 7 to 10 percent of gross receipts.
"Both ideas are ridiculous when you consider how rapidly games depreciate," said one operator, who asked not to be identified. "Fees like those would be kicking us while we were down."