Entertainment

Virtual reality reinvents the Japanese arcade

Jess Joho Author, Kill Screen

Arcades died out in many countries decades ago. But with the advent of virtual reality (VR), many are speculating a resurgence in arcade scenes around the world, with Japan leading this trend. Japanese arcade operators bring a more inclusive and accessible approach to the VR arcade scene, which embraces more people to join in – even the non-gamers.

Around the world, the word “arcade” tends to conjure images of halls with cabinets playing traditional fighting and competitive games, where gamers can congregate to test their skills.

Meanwhile in Japan, where the arcade never died, the tried-and-true formula for a successful arcade invites a wide spectrum of audiences to play instead of just gamers.

VR ZONE Project i Can, Diver City, courtesy of Bandai Namco
VR ZONE Project i Can, Diver City, courtesy of Bandai Namco

According to Jim Bulme of JapaneseArcade.com, the typical Japanese arcade is strategically laid out to attract both gamers and non-gamers, families and young people, even though they may be stacked with traditional gaming content. While including crane-arm machines with popular Disney and Nintendo kids toys, they also feature gambling simulators like Pachinko and bars where adult players can enjoy a drink.

With the prospect of VR now reviving arcades around the globe, Japan’s contrasting approach to public play appears clearer than ever. Arcades elsewhere remain catered exclusively to gamers.

For instance in the U.S., Washington-based company VRcade brought their technology to the closest surviving relative of the American arcade, an adult games and entertainment centre called Dave & Buster’s. In Dubai, a 15,000 square foot facility called Hub Zero will open in Summer 2016, that caters exclusively to gamers, with a Virtual Arena featuring survival-horror shooting games like Time Zombies and Interstellar Marine’s Bullseye.

VR ZONE Project i Can, Diver City, courtesy of Bandai Namco
VR ZONE Project i Can, Diver City, courtesy of Bandai Namco
VR ZONE Project i Can, Diver City, courtesy of Bandai Namco
VR ZONE Project i Can, Diver City, courtesy of Bandai Namco

While others are catching up to understand the importance of inclusivity to a thriving VR arcade scene, Japan’s first major forays into the space appear ahead of the curve.

Bandai Namco’s VR Zone Project i Can, which opened in April, is strategically located in the popular Diver City shopping complex in Tokyo, where it can attract casual customers who don’t typically game.

Yukiharu Tamiya, the project head of VR ZONE, said he sees much more potential in VR to attract larger swaths of the general public than traditional gamer-oriented arcade titles.

“We do not consider the contents of VR ZONE Project i Can a ‘game,’ [but rather] a new form of entertainment,” Tamiya said.

Supporting the viability of this approach, so far the majority of VR ZONE visitors consist of families, friends, and couples experiencing virtual reality for the first time.

The top floor of Tokyo’s famous Sunshine 60 skyscraper also recently transformed into its own take on the VR arcade, where attendees can be shot out of cannons or flown across the city on a virtual roller coaster.

According to Kevin Williams, an expert on out-of-home interactive entertainment, Sky Circus exemplifies Japan’s more inclusive approach to arcades, with “the observatory offering a number of themed VR attractions aimed at a younger and more diverse demographics, like young women.”

Similarly, Tamiya explained that Bandai Namco also hopes to position virtual reality as less an extension of games and more like a high-tech theme park, where families and friends can experience the thrills of a virtual world without any prior gaming experience.

Certainly, the oft described “presence” evoked by virtual reality lends itself to a more accessible and physical entertainment experience, diverging from the competitive spirit of traditional arcade games.

Echoing the warnings typically seen on real-life roller coasters, the sign above VR ZONE advises users to “please contact a staff member if you feel sick while engaging.”

The two most popular titles at VR ZONE, Fear of Heights: The Show and Hospital Escape Omega, often draw terrified screams from users, startling some of the other mall-goers.

VR zone Project i Can, Diver City, Hospital Escape Omega, courtesy of Bandai Namco
VR zone Project i Can, Diver City, Hospital Escape Omega, courtesy of Bandai Namco

“Seeing how well VR ZONE Project i Can has come so far, we are planning to further expand in business,” Tamiya explained. “But we do not, however, plan on simply introducing VR activities into arcades.”

If Bandai Namco had its way, the Japanese public would eventually be able to choose between visiting either the traditional arcade or an entirely separate complex that focuses on “VR activities,” offering an even more accessible and inclusive atmosphere for non-gamers.

Though representatives from other major Japanese arcade operators declined to comment for this article, according to lead coordinator of the IGDA (International Game Developer Association) Kenji Ono, it’s only a matter of time before VR transforms other major arcade arenas.

VR ZONE Project i Can, Diver City, Hospital Escape Omega, courtesy of Bandai Namco
VR ZONE Project i Can, Diver City, Hospital Escape Omega, courtesy of Bandai Namco

“Sega, Capcom, and Konami are doing research and development in the VR arcade market, but need more time to see results in the market,” he explained.

While VR arcades around the globe continue to emphasize gamer-oriented content like competitive shooters, it appears Japan will show the world again why inclusivity matters.

If the shouts of fear and delight emanating from the VR Zone Project i Can on the third floor of Diver City are any indication, virtual reality will not only create an entirely new form of public play for Japan, but also around the world.

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