The Arcade Strikes Back!
VRsenal Combines Proven VR Platform With Star Wars IP to Bring Balance to the Biz
by Bobi-Wan Kenobi
(aka Bob Cooney)
There’s a disturbance in the force. The Covid-19 menace isn’t a phantom, but a true danger to the location-based entertainment industry’s very existence. Under this threat, an unlikely alliance formed. And it’s bringing a new hope to entertainment centers all across planet Earth.
Our story unfolds back in 2016 when VRsenal first appeared on the amusement scene at IAAPA. Their Holocube was one of the earliest location-based virtual reality products to appear on the family entertainment center landscape. Holocube was a 4-player VR system that predated Hologate, which launched with tremendous success a year later.
“We sold quite a few Holocubes that year,” said Ben Davenport, co-founder and CEO of VRsenal. “But after installing them, we quickly realized that the staffing cost of an attraction requiring an attendant was a problem for operators. There are quite a few still running today that we continue to support, but we knew for VR to scale we had to solve the labor problem.”
Unattended VR was something that most people thought impossible. But the team at VRsenal was single-minded in their pursuit. Their first attendant-free VR attraction was with Punch Bowl Social, a restaurant entertainment chain based in Denver. PBS wanted a VR lounge where people could hang out, play VR games, eat and drink with their friends. They approached VRsenal to develop a solution. The result was a successful room-scale VR social attraction inspired by karaoke rooms.
But the VR lounges at PBS still required operator intervention at the beginning of each hour-long session. Also, the space requirements were higher than most entertainment locations wanted to devote to a single-player attraction.
The VRsenal team knew what their next step would be.
“We wanted to build an automated virtual reality arcade cabinet that could go into every game room,” added Davenport. “People kept telling us it was impossible, but that just spurred us on.”
VRsenal unveiled its flagship product at IAAPA in 2018, right when VR was at the peak of its hype cycle. They exhibited three games running on a visually stunning, fully-automated arcade cabinet. When the dust settled from the show, Beat Saber had created by far the most interest.
“We tested several games in 2018,” Davenport said. “Fruit Ninja did well with one demographic, and Predator VR did well with another. But Beat Saber appealed to everyone – young, old, male and female. When people stand in line to play an arcade game, you know you have a hit.”
VRsenal’s cabinet was the talk of the show that year. From the hologram signs spinning at the top, to the motorized, self-retracting headset, VRsenal finally delivered on their vision of unattended VR.
It wasn’t without its bumps and bruises. Like many start-ups, despite lots of testing, early versions shipped with design flaws. But according to their customers, VRsenal did an excellent job of supporting those first units. “They flew one of their lead engineers to my site and replaced and upgraded the components until I was satisfied,” reported Michael Getlan, a longtime industry veteran and owner of Fun Fuzion at New Roc City in New Rochelle, N.Y. “I was impressed with their commitment to getting it right, and now the game has been rock-solid.”
Beat Saber turned out to be a big win for both VRsenal and the amusement industry. According to reports, it quickly became one of the top-earning games at almost every location in which it was installed. Soon Main Event, an operator of over 40 bowling-centric FECs, committed to rolling Beat Saber out chain-wide. They even ran a “Saber Day Weekend” tournament to celebrate Labor Day 2019.
“VRsenal’s Beat Saber is the most reliable virtual reality attraction we run,” said Chuck Taylor, the new vice president of entertainment at Main Event. “Players of all ages love it. It generates substantially more revenue per square foot than any other VR attraction we offer. There seems to be a huge appetite to play self-attended VR among our customers, even after factoring in concerns about Covid-19.” (For more on this, see the sidebar.)
At the start of 2020, VRsenal found itself in the catbird seat. Beat Saber was the talk of the show at IAAPA 2019, which saw even longer lines of players waiting to try it out. The company had shipped over 200 units as they approached Amusement Expo in March, poised for a break-out year. Then, the coronavirus hit, and sales of Beat Saber, like all arcade games, slowed to a trickle.
But, while the rest of the industry went into hibernation, VRsenal had just landed a massive deal that would keep their company busy through the pandemic of 2020.
“Beat Saber set such a high bar for us,” reflected Davenport. “How do you follow the most popular VR game ever?”
An Alliance Emerges
“When we saw what ILMxLAB, Lucasfilm’s immersive entertainment studio, had done with its in-home product, Vader Immortal: A Star Wars VR Series, we thought it had a lot of opportunity for an out-of-home, LBE activation,” said Sean Griffin, president of Nomadic.
Nomadic is a publisher of content for the VR industry with a focus on big intellectual properties. Run by former Disney and Lucasfilm executives, they’ve been working to bring a Star Wars game to the location-based entertainment industry since 2019.
Nomadic’s first test paired Oculus Quest headsets with Vader Immortal – Lightsaber Dojo. A standalone training experience adapted from the Vader Immortal series, the content appeared at six pop-up locations in cinemas and shopping centers in time for the launch of Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker. Countless fans got to experience wielding a lightsaber in combat for the first time.
“It was a phenomenal experience,” Griffin said. “Fans loved it. But operating with consumer technology proved a challenge. We had to find the right commercial platform to enable guests’ immersive experience in an efficient package for operators.
The team at Nomadic had seen VRsenal’s commercial VR platform running Beat Saber, and felt it was the ideal solution to scale Lightsaber Dojo to reach the legion of Star Wars fans around the world.
For Mark Miller, executive creative producer at ILMxLAB, the collaborative opportunity with Nomadic and VRsenal was a perfect fit. People loved the Lightsaber Dojo experience in cinemas and shopping centers, but the attraction’s staffing requirements were simply too much for a wide-scale deployment from an operator standpoint.
“When Nomadic told us about the VRsenal cabinets being proven, user-friendly and easy-to-operate, we were like ‘Yes, let’s take a look at this!’” Miller said.
Even with VRsenal’s success with Beat Saber, the volume commitment needed to secure the Star Wars license was a massive risk for a relatively young business. They needed a partner who had shown a commitment to virtual reality and would leverage the Star Wars IP in a strategic approach.
Kevin Bachus, the visionary Senior Executive VP, Entertainment & Games Strategy at Dave & Buster’s, has a history of making sizable investments in games tied to blockbuster Hollywood IP. Their strategy is to negotiate an exclusive window and use TV advertising to drive consumer traffic with their “Only at Dave and Buster’s” campaigns. For example, in 2018, they made a huge splash with their custom, 4-player VR motion-simulator ride based upon Universal Studios’ Jurassic World.
When approached about the Star Wars VR game, Bachus immediately saw the potential. After months of due diligence and planning, they agreed to debut the new game nationwide across 138 locations. This would be the first chain-wide rollout of Vader Immortal – Lightsaber Dojo: A Star Wars VR Experience.
“This arcade game would not exist if it were not for Kevin and the team at Dave and Buster’s,” Davenport said emphatically. “We needed a large volume commitment, and they’re one of only a handful of companies with the scale to do it.”
A Star Wars arcade game doesn’t come along very often. The most recent was Star Wars: Battle Pod, released in 2014 by Bandai Namco. Before that, you have to go back to the 1990s when Sega released a series of games based on the original Star Wars Trilogy. And the original dates to Atari in the early ’80s. Only three companies, each a legend in the industry, have been trusted to bring Star Wars to arcades…until now.
ILMxLAB handled development in adapting Vader Immortal’s lightsaber training sequence into the standalone arcade game. But this is not a solo story. During development, VRsenal contributed their insights from four years of VR arcade game experience, since designing a game that works in a 3 ½ minute cycle is very different than creating a consumer console or VR game. The result is tight, exciting gameplay that quickly leads to the “suspension of disbelief.” That’s key to good VR.
Players get to choose from a large selection of lightsabers, including Darth Maul’s double-bladed saber and Mace Windu’s amethyst plasma blade. Wielding their chosen weapon against droids and stormtroopers, players also use the Force to grab and throw enemies and objects. Ultimately, players face off in an epic battle with Darth Vader himself.
Miller is keenly aware of the power ILMxLAB’s game has to thrill players of all ages. “Villains don’t get any more iconic than Vader. Being on the same stage and getting to interact with him was quite an experience. I can’t wait to watch a bunch of kids lining up to play it. That’ll be awesome.”
Additionally, Miller says ILMxLAB continues to be bullish on the location-based VR business, despite the pandemic. “A whole portion of our business was dedicated to LBE and I don’t see that going away. It’s far too compelling to be able to add 4D effects, and the graphics quality like VRsenal gives you, to create a better experience than you can get at home, and it’s just going to continue to get better. We have some great projects in LBE, theme parks and even the museum space. It’s a big part of our business going forward.”
Game development was completed this summer, but the pandemic delayed the release. With a majority of their locations again open for business (105 at press time), Dave & Buster’s began rolling out Vader Immortal – Lightsaber Dojo: A Star Wars VR Experience on Oct. 22, giving customers a reason to get off their couches and back into arcades again. (Bachus says the game –– exclusive to D&B until the end of this month –– will also be found in every other one of their locations throughout North America as soon as each is allowed to open.)
For Bachus, the launch of Lightsaber Dojo is an opportunity to move past some of the pandemic’s challenges.
“The reaction has been extremely positive,” he said. “It works on two levels. One is for people that are Star Wars fans. The idea of taking on these iconic roles and interacting with these iconic characters is a dream come true. But for other people who maybe aren’t hardcore fans but who like the movies, I think it works for them just based on the basic fundamental gameplay. It’s a really fun game.”
Vader Immortal – Lightsaber Dojo comes along at just the right time for VRsenal, too. Beat Games, the developer of Beat Saber, was acquired by Facebook last year and recently announced they were ending all licenses for location-based entertainment use. Once VRsenal sells out of its remaining inventory by the end of 2020, there may never be another Beat Saber arcade game. (That’s a shame, as it’s one of the most fun games out there.) Thankfully, VRsenal negotiated perpetual license rights for each game manufactured, so the lucky operators who own the VRsenal Beat Saber arcade cabinet can run it for as long as they like. (Interestingly, with only about 200 Beat Saber games in existence, those first units look to become incredibly valuable.)
According to Global Web Index, one in three internet users in the U.S. identifies as a Star Wars fan. Considerng the franchise’s massive appeal, it’s hard to imagine Vader Immortal – Lightsaber Dojo not being a success for VRsenal. Which begs the question: How are they possibly going to follow this one up?
“We like to keep surprising people,” Davenport said. “We’re already well into developing our next products. We think there’s lots of room for us to do even more amazing things with VR. We haven’t even begun to scratch the surface of what’s possible.”
VRsenal’s U.S. distribution network, including Shaffer Distributing, Player One Amusement Group, American Vending Sales and other leading full-line amusement distributors, is now taking pre-orders. Vader Immortal – Lightsaber Dojo: A Star Wars VR Experience begins shipping in North America on Dec. 1, 2020. The game is available for immediate delivery worldwide outside North America.
Location-Based VR on the Rise Post-Covid
Along with the coronavirus came a fear that players wouldn’t want to put VR headsets on their faces in a public venue anymore. But reports from multiple sources show that VR has come raging back to life as locations reopen. VRsenal tracks play data across all their units, and locations are already averaging 83% of what they were pre-pandemic. Other VR manufacturers like Hologate and Virtuix have reported similar findings.
VR headset hygiene was an issue before the outbreak. VRsenal observed that one player in four used the self-service alcohol swabs to wipe the headset before each game. That percentage has increased, but the focus on hygiene has shifted to the entire location. There’s a presumption among consumers that operators keep everything clean; otherwise, they’re not walking in the door.