Category Archives: Game Industry

L.A. Game Night At The Scum And Villainy Cantina

You know how you never see the tourist spots and landmarks in your own home town? Such was the case with me and the Scum and Villainy Cantina, a Star Wars themed bar located on Hollywood Blvd in the heart of Hollywood. Although I work only two blocks from this “friendly, neighborhood geek bar” where comic book fan and filmmaker Kevin Smith hosts the weekly podcast Fatman Beyond with his cohort Marc Bernardin, I never seemed to find the time and energy to stroll over to this otherworldly watering hole to check it out. Until last night, that is.

I came at the invitation of Redd Yoachum, the owner of the Los Angeles based music production company Redd Rock Music. I had met Redd the previous week when we were both on a game industry panel at the Art Institute of Hollywood. Redd is a passionate gamer, and coming from the music industry, he was enthusiastic about the idea of promoting indie game developers in the same way that indie bands were promoted. So, he started going to game development meet-ups around the Los Angeles area and invited them to show off their games at a monthly event, L.A. Game Night, that he holds on the last Sunday of the month at the Scum and Villainy Cantina, which is owned and operated by Redd’s long-time friend J.C. Reifenberg, a filmmaker who turned his love for Star Wars into a gathering spot for all fans of fantasy and science fiction.

The evening I attended was the fifth meeting of L.A. Game Night, and the venue did not disappoint. In one small step, I made the giant leap from modern-day Hollywood Blvd to a cantina from a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. After passing by the droid detector, I found myself in the middle of a Mos Eisley cantina, where alien concoctions were bubbling behind the bar and I expected intergalactic smugglers and bounty hunters to be having secret discussions in the dark alcoves along the wall.

However, I was here for the games, and again, the event did not disappoint. Here is a rundown of some of the indie games I sampled.

LIttle Bug is bittersweet adventure platformer from Buddy Systems Games in which I coordinated two playable characters who share a physics based swinging mechanic in real-time. I played both as Nyah, a little girl who walking home from school when she’s suddenly cast into an uncanny world where dangerous spirits linger restlessly in bottomless canyons and moonlit desert, or her spirit light. While Nyah can walk on the ground and collect treasures, her light can fly in any direction — and I could them both in tandem at the same time. By forming a telekinetic beam between them, I created a powerful connection that can swing Nyah to new heights, destroy barriers, thwart spirits and light the way to secret locations. I especially enjoyed the foreboding, atmospheric landscape. You can find out more about this game on Little Bug on Steam.

Reiko’s Fragments is Pixel Canvas Studios’ fully immersive VR experience in which I donned a Vive headset to explore the harrowing hallways and daunting rooms of a creepy house inhabited with puzzles and clues while evading the terror of those who inhabit the house with you. I used the handheld controller to collect the fragments of your lost memory to discover the truth behind the identities and story of the doll, ghost, and your own self. I was impressed with the number of items with which I could interact and engrossed by the story about the tragedy of what happens when the pieces of a family become fragmented, of the freedom we have to make choices, and of the consequences we cannot be freed from. Some of the jump scares were especially… scary. Joey Lee, the game director and studio founder, told me afterwards that what I played was just a tiny vertical slice of the game. The full game, which uses the Unreal engine and is displayed at a rate of 120 fps, is a full two hours long. You can find out more at Rei-ko’s Fragments.

After such a harrowing experience, I needed some libations to calm my nerves. I sidled up to the bar and scanned the drink menu: Asteroid Field, The Mind Trick, Grabthar’s Hammer, as well as food items like the Falcon Burger. I couldn’t decide and so I asked the barkeep to name the most Star Warsy drink on the menu, and she recommended I try the “Wretched Blue Milk” a concoction made with rum, coco lopez, blue curacao, and pineapple juice, and served with a green glowstick. It tasted like a pina colada, which was 12 parsecs from wretched to my tastes.

When I finished downing my drink, I discovered that games were not the only interactive entertainment on display this evening. Tales From The Bloodstream is a web comic set in a gritty world of rivers, pirates, revolutionaries and gangsters, It follows the lives of its inhabitants and their struggles, the most common being just making it through the day alive. (Sounds like life outside on Hollywood Blvd.). It contains themes of politics, child abuse, conspiracy, religion and drugs but at its heart it is an adventure with a positive message about overcoming adversity and the search for family. Creator Kevin Hill told me that he worked as an artist at Activision during the same time I also worked at th game publishing company, but several years ago he began developing his own graphic digital novel, which at its heart it is an adventure with a positive message about overcoming adversity and the search for family. You can see the latest episode at Tales from the Bloodstream :: The Long Game 0022 | Tapas

Throughout the evening, Redd and his crew interviewed the indie developers for a video live stream (available at www.twitch.tv/la_gamenight) and that he films a live-streamed podcast at 5pm, one hour before the event itself, which runs from 6pm to 11pm. If you are someone who loves video games and wants to check out the latest on what indie game makers in the LA area are developing — or even if you just want to play a classic retro console games with someone cosplaying a Wookiee while you are sipping a “Bad Feeling About This”, come on down to this wretched hive of Scum and Villainy on the last Sunday of the month. You can find out more at LA Game Night | Patreon.

 

 

 

Two Bit Circus’ “Micro-Amusement Park” Levels Up Location-Based Entertainment

Last week I was invited to a sneak preview of Two Bit Circus’ “micro-amusement park,”  a carnival-themed high-tech entertainment center. Having experienced the company’s story-based escape rooms, I fully anticipated an immersive and fun experience, but I did not expect it to surpass the high bar set by The VOID’s “Secrets of the Empire” Star Wars virtual reality attraction. Color me wrong.  Two Bit Circus surpasses The VOID in both breadth and depth.

For those of you who are not familiar with Two-Bit Circus, this location-based entertainment company was founded by Eric Gradman. a computer programmer who has also worked as a circus performer. and Brent Bushnell,an engineer who is also the son of Atari and Chuck E. Cheese’s co-founder Nolan Bushnell). Known for developing innovative technology-based entertainment for a variety of large-scale events and businesses like Warner Brothers, Nickelodeon and Intel, Gradman and Bushnell decided to open their own entertainment venue combining the nostalgia and spectacle of an old-time carnival with the latest in immersive technology combining arcade games, virtual reality, escape rooms, food, drinks and more in a 37,000 square foot brick building located in Los Angeles’ downtown arts district.

Although admission to the venue is free, individual games cost between $1 to $3 to play, while the virtual reality and story room attractions cost between $7 and $25 to experience.  I had already purchased $50 worth of Two Bit Circus’ virtual currency, called “bits,” online, and when I approached the greeting desk, I was issued a digital tap card loaded with my bits and then asked to sign a waiver before trying any of the virtual reality attractions.

Like any first rate amusement park, Two Bit Circus is divided into several themed locations.  My first stop was The Arkane, an arcade area behind the welcome desk filled with pinball machines, multi-player digital games, and arcade cabinets.  Some of these are classic games like Ms. Pac-Man and a four-player air hockey table, but the rest are original games, including Button Wall, a game developed by Two Bit Circus in which two players use their arms, legs, heads, and any other available body part to smash a series of buttons while trying to block their opponent from doing the same. Being a party of one, I tried my hand at a Two Bit Circus’ trackball-based game Wiffle Waffle, where I spent a tasty few minutes launching waffles at targets for points.

All well and good, but I was here to experience the virtual reality offerings.  I next headed over to the Arena, which featured a variety of single player and multiplayer virtual reality set-ups.  To the left there was a cluster of VR pods, with motion seats manufactured by D-Box. These motion simulators offer three immerse experiences, the most popular of which was a four-player VR version of the Battlezone tank simulator, complete with a leaderboard to encourage competition. Another offering was Space Flight: An Orbital Emergency, an experience offering stunning views of Earth in zero gravity… until disaster strikes.  However, with this venue being a micro-amusement park, I paid $7 of bits for a time slot with Rabbid’s Coaster, a 3-minute madcap, trackless roller-coaster ride through a desert canyon accompanied by a wacky cartoon rabbit. It was more of a passive experience that didn’t make use of the armrest controllers, but I found it to be fun baby-step before trying out the more interactive VR attractions.

Next, I reserved a time for a single-player experience at one of the Flex VR stations, where for $10, players use a tethered VR headset and hand-held controllers to play one of three games: Beast Pets, a first-time, family-friendly VR activity involving baby dragons that act like flying puppies; Space Pirate Trainer, a sci-fi shooter for wannabe pirates; and the one that a Two Bit staffer recommended to me, Beat Saber a rhythm game in which I was to smash the colored boxes hurtling toward me in time to the music. The wand controllers I was holding looked like red and blue lightsabers through the virtual reality goggles, and I had a blast as a dancing Jedi for the ten minutes I played the game.

I was now ready for a multiplayer VR experience, so I next reserved a time slot at the Hologate, where two-to-four players used tethered 90 frames-per-second headsets that make every motion feel real, with no lagging, buffering, or motion sickness.  As usual, there were three choices of games to play, each being $10 for ten minutes: Cold Cash, a family-friendly shooter where the weapons are virtual snowballs, Samurai, where players join together to fight an onslaught of enemy robots with a variety of weapons; and the game I chose, Samurai: Arena, a head-to-head version of Samurai.   My three competitors and I materialized into an alien landscape when we put on our headsets, and we used hand-held gun controllers to blast an imposing number of Asian-themed creatures running and flying toward us. Not only was it a thrilling experience, but I was proud to land the top spot on the leaderboard.

For those who feel intimidated playing cooperatively or competitively with strangers, next to the Arena were four private, karaoke-style lounges called “Cabanas” where for $120, three-to-six friends can spend an hour enjoying catered treats and a wide selection of VR games ranging from the family-friendly Cow Milking Simulator to games for older players, like Cyberpunk Motorcycles.  But that was more than my bit budget allowed, so I headed over to the Story Rooms that I originally knew Two Bit Circus for.

These Story Rooms are impressively designed rooms that allow groups of guests to play out a given scenario together. The “Lost City” room is a Raiders of the Lost Ark escape room experience for four-to-six adventurers to spend an hour puzzling to find the ruins of an ancient temple and locate its missing treasure.  I’m told that the room, which costs $35 to book, features an ore cart on a mining track and a very scary mummy. Another room, Space Squad in Space, is a Virtual Reality experience in which four-to-six spacefarers take the controls of a Star Trek-style spaceship and work cooperatively to complete a mission. This one is $20 for 30 minutes and uses episodic content so players can advance through multiple levels to encourage repeat gameplay experiences.

Again following a Two Bit staffer’s recommendation, I joined a group of three other explorers for the $15, 15-minute story room The Raft, taking us on a harrowing trip down a haunted river in the bayous of Louisiana.  As I donned the VR headset, I was tickled that my companions took on the appearance of backwater bayou-dwellers.  The haptic floor was transformed into a creaky wooden raft, with an enormous gatling gun on each side, which we used to fend off a variety of supernatural creatures, including giant walking trees and an especially terrifying monster at the end.  Not only was the experience, developed by Starbreeze Studios and Red Games, impressively immersive, but the shooting game itself was well designed, with the added element of the need to use the raft’s sole fire extinguisher for putting out fires set by the bayou beasties.

Although I proved to be the least accurate shooter of the group, my fellow rafters invited me to join them in another story room, but I had to decline because I was on a mission to sample each of Two Bit Circus’ types of experiences. Instead, I used $7 of my remaining bits to go into the adjoining VR Maze, a modular six-meter by four-meter physical maze designed by Asterion VR that is transformed into a virtual environment through HTC Vive VR headset and a backpack PC.  My choices for this 5-minute experience was either to battle fierce “rabbids” that are preventing a spaceship from launching or enter the Minotaur’s maze to fight off venomous spiders and arrow-shooting skeletons.  By now I had progressed far beyond Rabbids, so I chose to engage the Minotaur.

I had tried out The VIBE’s “Secrets of the Empire” virtual reality experience and thought that was the pinnacle of immersion, but I have to admit, when I stepped out from a castle hallway onto a treacherous wooden balcony along the castle’s outer wall and felt wind blowing in my face and the piercing of arrows fired from an army of skeletons across the rocky chasm, it was far scarier than anything I experience in “Empire”.  There was even a swinging pendulum trap and a series of floor pits that I had to navigate before reaching the Minotaur.

By now I needed a drink.  The steampunk robot bartender, name Gearmo del Pouro, wasn’t on duty that night, so I got a pint of Guinness from a friendly human hostess. I also sampled some of the gourmet carnival-inspired food prepared by a chef specifically for Two Bit Circus.  The baked corn dog and garlic fries I picked up from the food counter were an especially good deal for $5. As I was returning from my repast, I saw a face that I recognized: that of Walt Disney Imagineer and Jim Henson puppeteer Terri Hardin. I knew her from an article she wrote about working on Disneyland’s Captain Eo 3D attraction, and so I introduced myself to her.  We both raved about the wonderful experience that Two Bit Circus had created.

However, it wasn’t the virtual reality experiences that interested her, but the digital take on traditional circus games along a section I hadn’t visited yet, The Midway. “Big Top Balloon Pop” is a game for up to four players where contestants have to color match balls fed to them and toss them at colored balloons in front of them to pop as many balloons as possible, while “Media Pollution” is movie/tv themed photo booth where large television screens are placed in front of people’s faces for taking selfies. “Rail Race” involves contestants pumping up and down on a train motor, racing to get a digital train across a track.

Some of the games are surprisingly physical. One such game is  “Demolition Zone,” < in which two players swing a padded “wrecking ball” toward a projection-mapped screen showing a virtual skyscraper  in a race to destroy a building faster than their opponent. But there are also games like Skee Ball for those who enjoy the carnival classics,

If this sounds so far like simply a high-tech Chuck E. Cheese for adults, this rabbit hole goes much deeper.  The overall goal is build social games and experiences that aim to inspire, engage and reinvent the way people play.  A big example of this is Club 101, Two Bit Circus’ 100 seat, interactive game show theater.  I didn’t have a chance to see it for myself, but I understand that cafe table has a touchscreen console that will allow the audience members seated there to communicate with the live host and other guests during the hour-long show featuring bar trivia, games, and interactive performances. There’s no admission price, either: guests simply walk in and pay for games, experiences, or drinks.

As I was taking all this in, I ran into Aaron Pulka, Two Bit Circus’ Head of Production.  I asked him how long this took to put together. Pretty fast, it turns out. He told me that when he joined the company 16 months ago, the venue was just a collection of ideas, and the following months were spent curating which ones to pursue so as to achieve the right balance.  

While many of the games were developed by Two Bit Circus, others were created by third-party vendors.  For example, the arcade features cabinets that can load up games developed by indies using Two Bit’s API with a Unity plug-in to help game developers create a stable of games that can be rotated in and out over time or even switched up depending on whether the venue  rented out for a corporate event or a kid’s birthday party.

When I said that it must take a lot of computer servers to run all this, Aaron explained to me that entire space runs on software called Walnut, which ties in with that API. The software can also be used to control the entire building, including lights, sounds, tap cards, everything.  Wait! What? Well, it seems this rabbit hole goes deeper than you would imagine.

Two Bit Circus’ goal is to create a giant, living meta game that ties together through communal gameplay, secret quests, and live actors, where guests may show up to play an arcade cabinet, but could soon find themselves pulled into a real-life story that will allow them to uncover hidden mysteries. Calling a secret number on a pay phone in the building might lead a guest in one direction; dropping some bits into a certain arcade game could lead another to a multipart quest that takes multiple visits to complete. Supposedly, there are secret passageways and hidden rooms throughout the facility, and as guests discover them through the metagame, the different threads will tie together into one overarching narrative.

That sounds like heaven for gamers like me.  While Two Bit Circus may not have the budget of a Disney or a Universe, they make up for it in imagination and audacity. The next time I have thirty dollars to spend, I’m not heading over The VOID to spend thirty minutes playing Secrets of the Empire again.  I’m heading over to Two Bit Circus to spend an entire evening playing a variety of equally sophisticated games that will lead me on a grand,far-reaching adventure in an ever-changing landscape of immersive entertainment.