In another of his occasional guest features for Arcade Heroes, industry specialist Kevin Williams is back and checking out the explosion of innovation and installation in a very crowded London entertainment and hospitality scene, heavily influenced by amusement. Given that the site here started in the UK, it’s fitting to see how things have developed as entertainment adjusts to today’s challenges.
KWP: It would be impossible to ignore the growing investment in social entertainment spaces across the international landscape. Venues are springing up that offer fun, drink, and food for both young and old patrons. The past lockdown has incubated a fever to socialize again, and the new regional entertainment scene has blossomed. This rebirth in entertainment venues fueled by the deployment of the latest amusement pieces; For a snapshot of this investment from a UK perspective, here’s what we saw in visiting some of London’s latest offerings.
The first stop on this whistle-stop tour of new venues was at ‘Gravity Wandsworth’. Branded by some a “department store of fun!,” a previous Debenhams store has been converted into a leisure entertainment space. The developer, Gravity Active Entertainment, is better known for their trampoline parks but have sensed the changing tide and pivoted into developing their own “Eatertainment” brand. The former department store has been configured into a Mixed-Use Leisure Entertainment (MULE) venue. This comprises E-Karting, a dedicated amusement floor, and new social entertainment elements.
Social entertainment – also known in the market as “Competitive Socializing” – offers traditional entertainment with a more food and fun approach. Thus, Gravity includes Augmented Reality (AR) bowling and darts. This is also supported by Electronic Gamebox – a mixed reality (MR) immersive game that uses the players’ body movements to control the game action. The Gravity operation includes extensive cocktails and dining – the site even boasting robotic servers. The amusement floor is a modern approach more familiar in the US market with strong theming and lighting. Along with the traditional amusement, the prize and redemption area are supported by the new ‘GamerGreen’ app for instant prize redemption. All-in-all, it would be a unique offering on the American scene, let alone in the UK market.
The venue operators are learning the ropes of this style of approach to entertainment, as demonstrated by their approach to game selection and placement.The amusement floor includes a smattering of VR, with the likes of LAI Gaming ‘Virtual Rabbid’s’, Raw Thrills ‘King Kong’ and UNIS ‘Ultra Moto VR’. But the operators intend to take their VR offering to a new level with the installation of a HOLOGATE attraction. Space was also being cleared for the installation of a VR Arena and VR motion racing simulator. This is an example of the operator constantly changing the offering to find the right mix. Since the last visit it was noticed that a lot more video amusement pieces had been placed, not just on the amusement floor, but peppered throughout the other floors. Examples include pinball near the mini-golf and bowling and video arcades around the E-Karting track. This coming as Gravity announced plans to open a second venue based on this format in Liverpool for 2023.
These elements represent a new aspect of the entertainment deployment for the older (non-FEC) style audience. Competitive Socializing offers a fun ‘food and drink’ atmosphere for groups of young adults (the origination of the “Eatertainment” description). Even before the pandemic, the growth on social entertainment venues was on the rise, and a new breed of entertainment operator has rolled out concepts, many of which comprise an amusement component. Only a-stones-throw from this Gravity location, and another example of the new Competitive Socializing mix was visited. The ‘Boom Battle Bar’ is a chain of venues that offer a chaotic blend of active entertainment, drink, and sharable hospitality. For their entertainment selection, the space highlights the likes of axe throwing, AR darts, a mini-golf attraction, pool tables and shuffleboard. But not to be lost in that mix are a growing number of amusement machines.
The management has been looking at expanding their machine coverage as they were proving popular. It was interesting to see the sudden appearance of amusement pieces in these venues; The Boom Battle Bar concept had not originally had a strong amusement component, but now more and more hoops and shooting games are being fielded. As with Gravity, the operations teams have finally appeared to concede to the secondary and tertiary revenue value of these placements.
The deployment of amusement machines begs the question of what has happened to the traditional arcade facility approach in the capital. Many of our readers will be familiar with the closure of one of the most famous amusement venues of the city – that being the ‘Namco Funscape’ at London’s County Hall, after 25-years. While the remaining Funscape in the suburb of Romford is still operational, as are the other chains across the UK, that was still seen as a blow to the arcade scene and the traditional amusement business model.
One example hoping to buck-the-change is the launch last year of ‘Fun Land’ – opened in London’s fashionable Bloomsbury. The venue comprises of two converted retail units, featuring a classic amusement arcade format, with prize machines joining video amusement – but also some surprise additions of BEMANI dancing stage games and an extensive pinball line-up. The venue includes a VR motion seat system, along with several racing games, unique redemption and kidtainment systems – clearly aiming to restore that more traditional amusement mix family arcade within the area.
The reason for the existence of this venue is the foresight of veteran UK amusement distributor Electrocoin. Sensing the need for this kind of business in the post Funscape closure landscape, they have created an amusement space that also builds on the company’s affiliations. They are both the UK’s exclusive distributor of the STERN Pinball amusement range, as well as the exclusive distributors of the KONAMI and the ‘Dance Dance Revolution’ music game. Well placed sources reveal that they plan to show a new Dancing Stage release from KONAMI soon, where there are plans to use the Funland venue as a test site for new amusement pieces under evaluation by the distributor / owner.
Another example of how the Competitive Socializing approach has changed the amusement placement in the Capital, we can see move to the O2 – a popular live performance arena which already enjoys a bustling entertainment life. Placed in this unique structure are numerous bars and restaurants with an emerging entertainment facility blend. One of those that resides in this space is Hollywood Bowl – one of the UK’s largest bowling facility chains, while the venue in the O2 is nestled under the recently opened TOCA Social – a brand new social entertainment space, offering football simulator pods and cocktails. For the bowl, they have had to cut their cloth accordingly and started a process of updating their business.
The O2 venue still has an extensive amusement floor which is found next to their bar, along with comfortable bowling lanes, but this has been updated with the latest amusement to keep relevant. Another major change has been the discontinuing of their VR ZONE Portal offering. The site had been one of a few to install the BANDAI NAMCO “Project I Can” VR installation (which included ‘Mario Kart VR’). Hollywood Bowl has also changed their business model, and while having a TRIOTECH ‘STORM’ VR motion ride at the site, have focused on more conventional amusement offerings. This also comes as Hollywood Bowl has instigated a process of renovation of their chain of venues, including the recent investment in a £450,000 renovation program for another of their sites in Coatbridge, Scotland.
Moving from a modern interpretation of the amusement facility, we travelled to the center of London, to see two dichotomies of amusement deployment in the modern market. On one side of the token, and first is the ‘Las Vegas Arcade Soho’. This is one of the oldest arcades in London and one of the only ones dedicated to video games in the heart of the capital. It first opened in 1967, just as the mechanical amusement craze was at it’s height, enjoying the transition to video.
Now some fifty+ years on, the site continues strong. Upstairs patrons will find an adult arcade (gambling machines), however in venturing to the basement you are greeted by an Aladdin’s cave of video amusement. The site eventually received some updating by owners Family Leisure, from its previous dilapidated state, but despite the changes it has kept to its arcade heritage. Along side the pool tables are a selection of unique video amusement imports, along with shooters and brawlers. But the space is renown for their dancing stage and other music game horde, the capital’s music game community regularly gathering at this venue. That Las Vegas Arcade Soho can still provide popular amusement fun to a strong community is a testament to the genres resolve, as well as its lasting social impact.
The other side of the token was represented by one of the area’s newest entertainment openings, the ‘NQ64: Arcade Bar.’ Another example of a basement dweller venue, this UK-based retro arcade cocktail bar chain has been on the move in providing their take on the competitive socializing entertainment scene. Embracing the bar side, the venue is proud of their classic-arcade-game themed cocktails, such as “Pacs A Punch!” and “Donkey Kolada.” The NQ64-styling feels like a throwback of what Las Vegas Soho had represented in its heyday, now with drinks and a cool vibe.
The venue populates a sprawling basement location that has been extensively themed with spray can art and blacklight paints. Patrons will find a selection of video amusement pieces from many periods of the sector’s history, joined by screens offering play stations for classic console gaming – All supported by an expansive bar area. Unique elements to the venue included the placement of little alcoves for the playing of the once popular ‘Guitar Hero Arcade’ cabs from Raw Thrills. The nostalgic bar-arcade-vibe is strong, clearly influenced by the emerging popular media such as Netflix’s “Stranger Things”.
This is just one of many examples of several retro-arcade offerings that mix the nostalgia for video gaming with a social flavour. The capital also has ‘The Four Quarters’ – part of a chain of facilities (two of which are in London), mixing classic arcade gaming, cocktails, pizza, and music; Even retailers are incorporating a neon arcade styling to their facilities. Also in Soho was the “EL&N London” pastry and coffee bar, that included several stylized amusement machines in their venue design. An influence on these social amusement placements is their focus on creating “Instagram-able” moments.
Upon travelling to the London suburb of Croydon, we were greeted by another good example of the continued amusement investment in entertainment space. Moving with the times, the Tenpin bowling facility chain has followed a growing trend of investing in renovations, placing some $300,000 into upgrading their local facility. The site presents a mixture of bowling lanes and amusement, enhanced with new seating and hospitality options, along with updated décor. On the day of the visit, the facility was packed with families enjoying the amenities – a perfect example of the popularity in not just the bowling, but also the amusement.
On a personal note, the newly updated facility was one of a few on earth still operating the very popular Hughes Rediffusion ‘Venturer S2’ simulator. This was a ground-breaking immersive entertainment amusement piece launched some 28-years ago, and is still going strong. The simulator was developed by the author, in conjunction with the team from SuperX and Hughes, and it was great to see the 2-rider simulator system still very popular with the target audience.
On the technological flipside, the facility also features a newly installed TRIOTECH ‘STORM’ VR attraction, likewise being played avidly by the young patrons; These titles are also supported by a perfusion of the latest Raw Thrills titles. Not just bowling & arcade games are on offer however, but Karaoke-pods and some skill gaming (looking at that older audience).
Tenpin is proactively maintaining their relevance as competitors take notice, as was reflected in the announcement of their next facilities (Tenpin Coventry and Tenpin Bexleyheath) receiving upgrades, soon to be followed by the rest of the chain in a move to stay in the game.
The new explosion in entertainment venues, with a perfusion of new openings has seen even greater investment into attractions and amusement hardware. Though the amusement trade at large still seems to have been slow to capitalize, let alone recognize this new-found popularity. While secretly seeing an increase in business after the privations of the last few years, most of the trade seems slow to invest in this new growth, with many tired third-hand cabinets spied in operation at these venues, as operators fight for new stock.
It feels as if the traditional amusement trade has become standoffish about the growth in what some call the “Bar-Cade” scene, mixing hospitality with entertainment. Uncertain of the unique requirements of the competitive socializing sector, while still more focused on clearing outdated warehouse stock and addressing issues in the supply chain impacting traditional business.
Anyway, this is only a snapshot of the popular London scene and have left off the sudden explosion in VR location-based entertainment venues in the capital, such as with ‘DNA VR’ or the growth in new enthusiast retro-arcade venues, such as the dive bar ‘Pimp Shuei,’ the amazing ‘Freeplay City’ or the appearance of new eSports competitive gaming establishments such as ‘BELONG’. Maybe in a few months we can take another look in this scene if there is an interest but this ends the first in an occasional coverage during our international travels of city base amusement developments.
About the Author – Kevin Williams is a widely-respected specialist on entertainment and technology assisting international clients in developing immersive and interactive entertainment technology and facilities. Kevin is Co-Founder and Technology Director for Spider Entertainment, a global leader in Out-of-Home Entertainment for retail destinations and beyond. Along with advisory positions with other entrants into the market he is founder and publisher of the Stinger Report, “a-must-read” e-zine for those working or investing in the amusement, attractions, and entertainment industry. Kevin is a prolific writer and provides regular news columns for main trade publications. He also travels the globe as a keynote speaker, moderator and panellist at numerous industry conferences and events. Author of “The Out-of-Home Immersive Entertainment Frontier: Expanding Interactive Boundaries in Leisure Facilities”, the only book on this aspect of the market, the second edition is scheduled for a 2023 release.
Kevin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.