Those of us old enough to remember the arcade’s heyday in the 1980s and early 90s would be forgiven for getting a slight sense of déjà vu upon hearing the news that HTC have lofty ambitions for their Vive Virtual Reality (VR) platform that involve opening large numbers of arcades across the US, China and Europe by the end of 2017. But aren’t arcades dead? Well, aside from a sizeable dedicated fanbase keeping them ticking over in the streets of Japan, you would be largely correct in noticing their massive decline in the west. However, HTC seem to be banking on this being their ticket to fire VR into the mainstream, and when we consider the parallels between today and the coin-operated glory days of the arcade, it’s possible to see a compelling case.
The most obvious barrier to VR’s success is the dauntingly-high entry price. HTC’s own Vive weighs in at almost $800, meaning that we are firmly into four-digit territory by the time we’ve added the kind of powerhouse machine required to drive it. It’s not difficult to see that having a literal ‘shop window’ in town could provide users with the kind of hands-on access that is needed to build a major user base. Furthermore, it will not have escaped HTC’s notice that arcades were thriving when the experience they offered couldn’t be replicated in the home. With the explosive rise of console and home PC gaming, arcades lost out as their unique selling point was slowly eroded by improvements in home tech. HTC will be hoping that the new experiences offered by VR, coupled with the sheer expense of replicating it in the home, have potentially recreated the decades-old scenario in which gamers were previously willing to pump quarters into machines that far exceeded the experience they could get in front of their TV.
At their Virtual Reality Developers Conference in San Francisco last week, HTC revealed several arcade-centric titles including 'The Brookhaven Experiment' which promises to project gamers into the thick of a nightmarish zombie survival encounter and 'Everest VR,' a climbing simulator complete with vertigo-inducing pitfalls. In order to make their VR dreams a reality, HTC’s Viveport M platform is already in development (looking to further capitalize upon their developer-friendly profile), and by the end of the year, they plan to have a number of Viveport Arcade installations deployed in the USA. This follows the recent launch of Viveland in Taipei (a VR ‘theme park’), along with partnerships with internet cafes across China. It is thought that partnerships with malls and theaters in the US are most likely. While this may seem like a bold gamble from HTC, there may indeed be a market to take advantage of. UK outlet GAME recently courted controversy after daring to charge customers for 10 minute sessions on (the significantly cheaper) PlayStation VR, suggesting that there may be a ‘try-before you buy’ audience waiting in the wings.