Arcades and virtual reality are a natural fit

Whether industry leaders and virtual reality production agencies like it or not, VR appears to have found a home in arcades. The VR/AR Association, a global community of leading minds in the immersive technology sector, estimates that there are more than 400 virtual reality arcades in cities around the world. Arcades are now considered a vital and practical access point to VR.

But are arcades virtual reality’s final destination? Are they too niche, too likely to be a passing fancy? Does VR’s presence in arcades set the industry up for long-term failure?

The original ‘golden era’ of arcade video games spanned roughly 1979 to 1983. During that period, arcades were an international phenomenon. People of all ages flocked to arcades to socialize, compete, and while away the hours.

Virtual reality shares several characteristics with the arcade games that dominated the early 80s. In particular, the technology is cutting edge and the price of individual units is too high for most gamers to afford their own. That combination makes VR a natural fit for arcade-style settings that let consumers enjoy top-end experiences without paying an arm and a leg for an HTC Vive, for example.

The Void, a Utah-based company that combines physical mazes with free-roaming virtual reality, proves that destination VR gaming can work, and work well. It now has locations in New York and Toronto, in addition to its home state.

Recently, The Verge’s Bryan Bishop tried out Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire, a collaboration between The Void and Lucasfilm’s immersive entertainment division, ILMxLAB.  Via VR headset, the game takes you to the molten planet Mustafar, where you must blast, puzzle, and fight your way to recovering Imperial intelligence vital to the rebellion’s survival.

Bishop loved it.

“For mainstream audiences,” he wrote, “Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire may be the first time virtual reality actually delivers on the Holodeck-esque potential it’s been promising all along.”

With companies like The Void leading the way, destination VR gaming has introduced consumers to virtual reality and exposed them to the best experiences on the market. If boosting awareness and demonstrating VR’s potential are arcades’ purpose, then they are succeeding, and virtual reality production agencies can give thanks.

Golden era arcades did the same thing for video games. Today, the global video game market is worth well over $90-billion dollars; arcades, at least in North America, are all but dead.

It’s unclear whether VR gaming can emulate the success of the wider video game industry, though. The fundamental components of arcade games – a screen and a controller – were fairly easily reproduced on a wide scale and distributed at a reasonable price. The costs associated with personal VR gaming are sure to come down, but can home virtual reality gaming platforms ever replicate an experience like Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire? Or has VR gaming already reached a premature peak?

While virtual reality production in marketing continues to thrive and VR headset sales creep upwards, VR arcades will continue to help bring the technology to the masses. Whether VR gaming follows the path forged by the wider video game industry, though, remains to be seen.