Magazine article Newsweek

Good-Bye Pac-Man: Steven Spielberg Unveils the Video Arcade of the Future; but How Much Will You Pay for Virtual Fun?

Magazine article Newsweek

Good-Bye Pac-Man: Steven Spielberg Unveils the Video Arcade of the Future; but How Much Will You Pay for Virtual Fun?

Article excerpt

Steven Spielberg unveils the video arcade of the future. But how much will you pay for virtual fun?

IN THE BEGINNING THERE WAS JUST pinball. Then, Pac-Man and Donkey Kong. You got some quarters from Pa, elbowed your way between the juvenile delinquents and flippered or joysticked your youth away. Now comes the video arcade of the 21st century. Its calling card? Vertical Reality, an interactive game designed by Steven Spielberg, the ultimate Gameboy. Vertical Reality consists of an enormous central column of three video screens, rising 25 feet to the ceiling, that replicate a skyscraper. Twelve players, arrayed in a circle, are strapped into seats that climb up a pole. Each player gets a cybergun to kill cyborgs (probably clones). The more killed, the higher you go; if you're hit, you plummet a level. The winner makes it all the way to the top to get a shot at Mr. Big (probably looks like Michael Eisner)--and gets the full free fall. Wheeee! On our Vomitometer Scale: a 6. And don't bother with Pa's quarters. The ride costs $4, and it takes only SmartCards.

Vertical Reality is the signature attraction of Sega GameWorks, a 30,000-square-foot high-tech playland and industrial nightclub that opens in Seattle on March 15. It's the first of more than 100 sites that GameWorks hopes to open by 2002--Las Vegas and Los Angeles get sites later this year--each costing about $15 million. That's a lot of SmartCards, but there's more than funny money behind GameWorks: DreamWorks, Universal Studios and Japan's Sega Enterprises are the three partners. "This is going to be spectacular either way, as a success or failure," says Dan Lavin, a games-industry analyst at Dataquest. GameWorks's business prospects are by no means golden, the corporate pedigree notwithstanding. No matter how thrilling the rides, no matter how juiced the technology, the arcade business has been in the doldrums for five years. That's because the $8 billion arcade business has moved to the home and the Mystifying CD-ROM. The same improvements behind arcade games have also amped up personal computers to the point where they're pretty entertaining. And there's no waiting in line behind some smartass 12-year-old who knows all the tricks.

Each GameWorks location will have the marquee toys like Vertical Reality, as well as the more standard fast-cars and killing-machine simulators. You've never been able to blow holes in bad guys in quite so much detail. And there's tamer virtual-reality fare that lets you "experience" siding, with clever video and hydraulic manipulation. But the Seattle site, a few blocks from the Pike Place Market, is as much attitude as hardware. Noise and light, rock videos and DJs, exposed ductwork and wiring--this warehouse chic is supposed to make the place hip. For a place of the future, it has an eerie "1984" feel to it. There seem to be more video cameras around than at a Carolyn Bessette-Kennedy sighting.

GameWorks aims to be more than a mega-wired amusement center. Seattle's has a microbrewery, pizzeria, Starbucks and Internet lounge. Guests will be able to browse the Web (sorry, all sex sites are frowned upon) or browse the room (sending e-mail to that hunk in the corner). …

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