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I Visited a Virtual Reality Arcade. Here's What Happened.

Zombies are especially scary when all you have to defend yourself is a plastic gun.

James Temple for Re/code

If you’ve ever been to a video game arcade, you probably wouldn’t be surprised by most of what you saw at the Dave & Buster’s in Milpitas, Calif. There are flashing lights aplenty, greasy fried food and — of course — a room for redeeming “tickets” (these days, digital credits) for cheap toys and candy that cost way less than the price of admission.

In one corner, though, next to cabinets for Pac-Man Battle Royale and PGA Tour Golf, is a roped-off area for shooting zombies.

The black-carpeted section of arcade real estate belongs to VRcade, a Seattle startup test-piloting its titular business: Making virtual reality games available, for a price, to people who don’t or won’t have them in the home.

We’ll analyze this idea in more detail in the near future, but VR arcades might find success for one simple reason: Money. A high-end VR experience such as the Oculus Rift might cost $1,500 or more if you don’t already have a gaming PC at home.

So, did it work?

For the most part, yes. VRcade currently offers two games: A self-developed title, Time Zombies, and a shooting gallery developed by Zero Point Software based on its existing game Interstellar Marines. Each experience was five minutes long for $5, but only about two to three minutes of that is gameplay; the rest is devoted to making sure the player is comfortable with virtual reality.

I was instructed to don a wireless headset, developed in-house at VRcade and weighing about the same as early Oculus Rift prototypes. Only after I was in the headset, looking around at a virtual world, did an attendant hand me my weapon: A fluorescent yellow-and-orange gun, made by Trinity VR.

Inside the headset, the gun appeared to be a lot less toylike, either gray-blue or black depending on the game. Sensors around the room tracked both my head and the gun, meaning I could walk in a limited range while moving and firing the gun independently.

“Nice choice,” the arcade attendant said when I decided to play Time Zombies first. VRcade co-founder Jamie Kelly had warned me beforehand to make sure I could hear the game, and now I understand why: Dave & Buster’s is a loud place, with hundreds of beeping machines competing for its customers’ attention. I was mostly able to tune out this cacophony, though I may have an unfair advantage there, because I’ve tried so many VR demos at conferences and trade shows.

Time Zombies was good preparation for a zombie apocalypse — specifically, for the fact that I would not survive in one for very long.

In the game, I had to spin around in place to ward off dozens of hungry zombies. “It takes two shots to kill, or one shot to the head,” the attendant said.

Funny thing, though: Headshots are difficult when you feel like something is actually coming at you. The game repeatedly warned me not to waste my ammo, but I ignored it out of survival instinct. And while at first I was able to keep my arm extended and my aim more or less steady as I walked around the virtual zombie-infested courtyard, I soon found myself unconsciously clutching the gun closer to my chest, feeling claustrophobic as the brain-eating demons closed in on me from all sides.

“Nice try, man,” the attendant said as he pulled off my headset and returned me to a world where the most serious threat to my life was a $12 plate of appetizers. “You got mauled.”

More my speed was the calmer, easier Interstellar Marines shooting gallery, which reminded me of one of my favorite 1990s arcade games, Police Trainer. Like Time Zombies, the wireless tracking of the gun was impressively snappy. However, the experience was a bit less impressive because it was simpler and didn’t take full advantage of my wireless freedom to walk around.

In summary, the technology worked great, for a demo. But I’m hesitant to say with certainty that I will make a return trip to Milpitas soon. If there were more than two gun games to choose from, I might have felt differently; Kelly said VRcade expects to make hardware or software updates about once a month.

Other than new games, though, there is one thing that might get me back in the door: Peer pressure. In an arcade, you’re paying more for the social experience than the game. I deeply regret that I was off playing something else when one of my Re/code colleagues, who shall remain nameless, was frightened enough by Time Zombies that he fell to the floor.

And really, $5 is a small price to pay compared to an embarrassing and everlasting Instagram post of that.

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