Seattle Plugs Into GameWorks


GameWorks executives chose to debut their high-tech video arcade in Seattle because it would create a bigger splash here than in Los Angeles or New York. But they didn't bargain on actually getting wet.

On March 15, the afternoon rain fell like steel spikes as valets desperately tried to squeegee the red carpet for the bevy of Hollywood stars and entertainment moguls who feted the opening of the nation's first GameWorks entertainment center.

More than 30 reporters and television crews from all over the nation waited for the black Lincoln Town Cars to pull up and discharge their famous passengers, whose enthusiasm outshone the dark clouds.

There was actor Will Smith, rapper Coolio, Gillian Anderson, star of the television series "The X-Files," and DreamWorks SKG partner Jeffrey Katzenberg, among others.

Microsoft head Bill Gates, whose company owns a small stake in GameWorks, arrived about two hours late and inspected the games with a bemused expression. It was certainly a lot to take in, even for someone well acquainted with the latest computer gadgetry.

Upon entering GameWorks, which was thought up by DreamWorks partner Steven Spielberg, one's audio and visual senses shift into overdrive.

It has a neo-industrial feel, with fake pipes and wires hanging from the ceiling. House music thumps while television sets display different videos in every corner. It is completely dark, except for the glow of more than 250 video screens.

In the center of the two-story complex, players sit in chairs and fire a weapon at alien invaders on the video screen in front of them. Along one wall, patrons can hop into little plastic cars and race one another on giant monitors.

In one game, Vertical Reality, guests are strapped into a seat that climbs up to 24 feet as they try to shoot bad guys on screens in front of them. If they succeed in killing off the enemy, the seat rises. If they get shot themselves, the seat plunges quickly, giving players quite a jolt.

These games are located in what's called The Arena. Off to one corner, in what GameWorks officials call the The Loading Dock, the newest games are unloaded straight from the delivery truck. Most of these are based on race cars, but there are also games in which players fire plastic guns at computer-generated hoods, and ones that simulate boxing tournaments. The most popular, Tokyo Wars, creates a running tank battle in the streets of the Japanese capital. There is even a simulated sport fishing game.

Upstairs, at The Loft, patrons can choose from several beverage establishments and a pizza restaurant. More-contemplative patrons can sit in overstuffed armed chairs and log into the World Wide Web in the GameWorks cyber-living room.

"It tops our expectations," gushed Mr. Katzenberg.

Mr. Gates, ever conscious of copyrights and intellectual property, asked him: "If you put somebody's PC game in here, who pays who?"

Business considerations were far from the minds of most of the 300 or so guests on opening night, who arrived by invitation only. Like kids on Christmas morning, patrons of all ages ran delightedly from game to game, trying to play each one before the end of the evening.

To add to the frenetic atmosphere, MTV taped a live segment, featuring concerts by Grammy Award winners Beck and Coolio.

But the real stars were electronic, and the venture's continued success will depend on whether future guests will be willing to shell out the $4 necessary to play some of the video games. Even the least expensive cost $1 for only a few minutes of play.

While the debut gala courted the MTV generation, GameWorks will try to discourage the hordes of teenagers who almost certainly will flock there en masse.

"One of the challenges we have is making sure we don't become a young-teenager hangout. Gangs are not welcome," says Michael Montgomery, president of GameWorks. "We hope to create an upscale venue, one that is enjoyable, especially to females."

Besides plenty of security, GameWorks will allow guests at peak hours only if they pre-purchase a set amount of games. At the door, visitors will buy a debit card for, say, $25, that will enable them to play every game in the house. No coins or tokens are used.

A joint venture between Sega Enterprises, DreamWorks SKG, and Universal Studios, GameWorks is expected to lure about 750,000 visitors a year who will spend an average of $20.

If that pans out, some quick math shows that GameWorks would generate a cool $15 million annually, although company officials refuse to speculate on future earnings. A solid bottom line seems a pretty safe bet considering the crowds that stretched half a block when GameWorks opened its doors to the public.

And they weren't disappointed.

"It was cool," says Savoy Sanchez. "I guess it was a little expensive, but it's the best video games I've ever seen."

Indeed, customers seemed to think $1 or more for several minutes of fun was a pretty good deal, considering the technology involved.

"As inflation goes, it's worth it," says Zain Smith, noting that older video games such as Pac-Man and Asteroids cost 25 cents when they hit the market more than a decade ago. "Here, you're paying for cutting-edge technology."

"It was awesome," chimes Angel Ceballos. "And I really like the debit card."

Would they come again?

"Definitely. And next time, I'll bring my daughter," says Mr. Smith.

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