It’s a scene straight from a 90s arcade.
A group of guys clutching greasy fries and icy sodas fixating wide-eyed on a screen where their friend is manically shooting the limbs off zombies. The gang have bought credit for an hour of gaming — surely more than enough time for bloodshot eyes and pounding headaches.
But maybe, just maybe, they’ll clinch the glory of a high score too.
There is, however, one change from the joystick and buttons of the traditional games arcade. The giant coin-operated machines with a 2D screens are gone – in their place, virtual reality headsets and hand-tracking controllers link up to high-powered computers.
Once a thriving multi-billion dollar business, the arcade industry plummeted when video game giants such as Nintendo, Sega, Sony and Microsoft released cheap home consoles. Yet the launch of virtual-reality hardware — still prohibitively expensive for the average individual to buy — could see a resurgence of the pastime.
Keng Thongchua, a 33-year-old Thai software developer, opened the VR1 cafe in Bangkok in December just a few months after seeing the technology at a Las Vegas consumer electronics show.
He installed six gaming cubicles, with a couch and screen for friends to follow the action. The most popular game, he says, is Arizona Sunshine, where up to four people in headsets can fight their way together through zombie hordes in the American west.
“At first we thought we would just have young people,” Thongchua said. But his clients are more varied than the teenage boy arcade stereotype.
The daytime sees parents with younger children. At 3pm the high-school students arrive when classes finish. “From six to nine we have the office worker. And late at night, we get the people who want to hang out but not get wasted in a club.”
There are two high-quality sets on the market at the moment — the Vive, made by Taiwanese company HTC and US developer Valve, and the Oculus Rift, which began on Kickstarter and was subsequently bought by Facebook for $2 billion.
Thongchua says that the huge sum – more than the cost Mark Zuckerberg paid for Instagram – kicked him into believing in VR.
So far, business is going well. Paying the equivalent of £15 for an hour, customers can shoot aliens, use Google Earth VR to ‘walk’ around the planet or sculpt in an art-focused game.
HTC has noticed the potential, so much so that it is working with arcades to install and run VR experiences and bill them accordingly. This should allow game developers and HTC to profit from licensing.
“New venues are opening up everywhere, from brand new standalone locations to dedicated spaces in movie theatres, shopping malls and even casinos,” said Jenna Seiden, who is heading the Viveport Arcade initiative. “It is a big part of our strategy for getting more people to experience VR.”
The programme starts next month, launching first in China where HTC says more than 1,000 VR arcades are operating. Imax has already signed on as a partner.
“We believe that for many people their first introduction to VR will be out of the home and therefore we have been both learning from and supporting many of these location-based entertainment initiatives, such as VR arcades, for the past year,” Seiden said.
Prices keep the new technology out of most consumers’ homes. A full retail Vive set is £759 and that does not include a computer, which can easily cost over £1,000 if it is to include the demanding graphics card needed to run some games.
But the market is competitive and Oculus has already dropped its price after only a few months by a fifth in the UK and a quarter in the US.
There are also cheaper versions of VR, such as Google Cardboard or Samsung Gear, but they use mobile phones as screens, which have lower quality visuals.
Playstation, too, has released a VR set that retails at around £500, depending on what you get. It has a lower screen resolution and games run off a five-year-old console that lacks the processing capability of a top-range PC.
The VR arcade industry could suffer the same fate of its predecessor if the technology continues to cheapen.
For now, office worker Shawn Kangwanshirathada plays in Bangkok’s VR1 cafe every couple weeks, enjoying the arcade revival while it lasts.
He used to play Street Fighter as a kid in the 90s, bashing buttons furiously to win a virtual brawl. Now his work colleagues play Elven Assassin, a game where you use a longbow to shoot rampaging orcs.
“It’s a unique experience. The first time I put it on, I couldn’t believe it. The feeling, it’s almost real. Especially games when you feel like you’re falling down,” he said.
“With the archery, you can get some pretty good exercise.”