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Hollywood Debuts Arcades Aimed at Virtually Everyone

By Daniel B. WoodStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 14, 1997



UNIVERSAL CITY, CALIF.

Do you love to surf the Internet, but tire of time alone with a "mouse" instead of your spouse? Do your kids' video games leave them more inactive than interactive? Has the family drive been replaced by a CD-ROM drive?

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Take heart, says a new group of top Hollywood studios. A more family-inclusive - and upscale - form of high-tech amusement is cropping up in American cities faster than a laser-zapping cyborg.

Computer and arcade games are often solitary activities. The new mini-theme parks are designed to lure groups of adults or families to spend an evening together, like a bowling or movie outing. "We want to do no less than change the way America interacts," says John Snoddy, former Disney "Imagineer" and designer of GameWorks, a mega-arcade that will open tomorrow in Seattle. One of a hundred such complexes due to debut worldwide by 2002, the building is a mini-mall-sized labyrinth of video games, virtual-reality "rides," and performance arenas surrounded by walkways and restaurant-packed mezzanines.

Hollywood hopes to attract more deep-pocketed people into silicon-based play. Costing about $20 million each, the GameWorks sites will be cyber-linked to each other, creating a self-contained worldwide network where participants can meet and compete electronically with those in other cities. The idea was conceived by Steven Spielberg, executed by former Disney designers, and backed by Mr. Spielberg's new studio, DreamWorks SKG, Sega Corp., and Universal Studios.

"With Spielberg's name, money, and talent behind this, we will see a whole new dimension to arcades that will take them to another level ... including that of a total package for the family," says Tim O'Brien, editor of Amusement Business magazine. The concept is part of a trend to build urban entertainment centers with the hope of rehabilitating the flagging, but still strong $8 billion arcade business. The business has been flat since 1990 with the growth of home computer games.

Other Hollywood film companies are moving in the same direction. Sony Corp. is opening an urban-entertainment center in San Francisco next year, Viacom will put Star Trek-themed entertainment areas in Hilton casinos starting in July, and Disney opened the first of 100 centers known as Club Disney last month in Thousand Oaks, Calif.

The Disney Centers are aimed at young families with children aged 4 to 10, while GameWorks says it wants younger adults during the daytime and 20-to-30-year-olds after dark.

"This is a change in attitude by companies going after the American entertainment dollar," O'Brien says. "Instead of giving up a day or a weekend for a theme park once or twice a year, or feeding quarters into old-style arcades every week, these both represent a new way of attracting groups of people for several hours at a time, regularly throughout a year."

As seen at design headquarters here at Soundstage 35, Universal Studios, several new attractions at GameWorks blur the old line between arcade and theme park, video game and sports contest. Exhibit No. 1: Vertical Reality. Twelve players, strapped into seats, shimmy up a pole as each contestant successfully shoots a video cyborg with a "cybergun."