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Interview With Joseph Johnson, Owner of a Colorado Springs VR Arcade

After looking into local VR arcades in my area, I found one- Epic VR– based in the nearby Citadel Mall of Colorado Springs. After a brief email exchange with the owner of the place, I scheduled an interview with him in the middle of October. VR arcades offer quite a lot for people who can’t afford to buy full-fledged gaming setups and VR headsets, but still want to dip their toes into the next level of immersion in gaming.

For this reason, I decided that an interview with the local owner of a VR arcade could prove educational, both for myself and for you, our readers.

The interview was set for 10 AM, prior to opening.

I arrived in the Citadel Mall at 9:30. After some searching around, I managed to find the place.

Prior to the interview process proper, I was able to tour the facilities and try out a few of the VR installations in place. My experiences with the Oculus and Vive at the location went fairly smoothly. There was plenty of room in each playing area for roomscale VR, and aside from initial configuration for the size of my own head, there weren’t any issues. I imagined that once this place did open up later in the day, it would be seeing quite a lot of business.

The location had plentiful seating. Me and the owner, Joseph Johnson, sat on one of the couches for a laid-back interview.

The interview went amicably, and I walked out with a pretty decent idea of how much it costs to start up a VR arcade, as well as how successful they can be, even in mountain towns like Colorado Springs. Keep reading for a transcript of that interview.

The Interview

Unbolded text is speech from the interviewee- bold text is speech from the interviewer.

My name is Joseph Johnson, I’m the owner of Epic VR. (pictured below)

Image courtesy of Epic VR.

For the sake of politeness, I’m Christopher Harper. I’m a journalist for VR World, here to interview you today. First question: what gave you the idea to start a VR arcade?

My friends bought these machines, we call them the eggs. They’re from NINED. My friends went to Los Angeles and they tried a demo of them. We had heard of another company, in San Francisco or San Diego, that he said was doing pretty well with just these. So he went, investigated it and bought one. He had plans to open it in some of his malls, but it ended up that none of his leasing directors wanted it.

Image courtesy of Epic VR.

Me and my business partner were thinking about opening one as well, and I ended up buying one of the Vive headsets for my house, just to play around with after work. I loved it so much and I said, ‘You know, my friends can barely afford a PlayStation 4.’ Those are only $400 or $350, I don’t think many people can afford a thousand dollar gaming computer, minimum, and another eight hundred dollars for a VR headset. You’re looking at about two thousand dollars.

So, I saw an opportunity, and I’d like to give people an opportunity as well, to do things that they sometimes can’t afford. So we tried to make it affordable, where people could come in and play anytime.

I certainly agree. The barrier of entry to VR is currently pretty high, though on that note I guess I have another question: how sustainable do you think VR arcades are in the long run? Like, the arcades of old were densely-populated and did great business, until home consoles were able to meet and exceed their capabilities. How long do you see this venture lasting, especially once VR headsets become more accessible?

Probably four or five years from now is where I see it. We already have competition with the PSVR, so it’s already becoming a competition. The PSVR is still five hundred dollars, though, and with all the other things you have to buy, you’re looking at a thousand dollar minimum to really get into it. With the PlayStation 4, the games, the headset, the room, you know?

In the future, where do you think VR gaming is headed? Do you think that is eventually going to be one of the main ways, if not the only way, we play games? Or do you think it’s gonna remain niche, at least for quite a while?

It depends on the game development, actually. Personally, I look at Steam and Valve as being a little lazy. They’re the biggest game company in the world, the amount of players they have is four-to-five times the amount of PlayStation and Xbox combined, Steam has three-to-five times more of the players, and stuff like that. With them being so lazy, and not getting on top of the ball, and even letting PlayStation steal some of the main titles right now, I can’t really answer that question as well as I’d like.

Hopefully, it will start to pick up, you know?

How long have you been in the industry as someone who runs something like this, or as an enthusiast?

Just about six months, not long. But, you know, you learn as you go.

Makes sense.

I’m a big fan of VR, you know, just because it’s so awesome. That’s why we named it “Epic”, I mean, “Epic” is the word that most people use today. Call it cliche, if you will, but it is the most epic experience you can have gaming. And I think it’s gonna revolutionize the industry.

Going back to your previous question, I think it’s going to revolutionize gaming. I think it’s going to be the main way of gaming, make them more interactive with the games. They’re no longer just playing the game, they’re more interactive and immersed with it. And not only that, the health benefits of it: there’s a story of a guy who lost fifty pounds in a few months just playing VR.

Pretty interesting how life works, sometimes.

How were you able to get the funds to start this place up? You have a pretty good number of setups in here, you said yourself about $1500-$2000 each. How much did you have to start up this business?

That’s all depending on the person. A lot of VR arcades are starting with four or five, we start with ten. We’re right across from GameStop, we know there’s a lot of gamers in Colorado Springs, so we wanted to make sure our customers had sufficient machines. It cost about $90,000, about $15-20,000 into the mall and renovating this store since it used to be an old shoe store. About five thousand dollars of that was me making mistakes, learning, doing the construction because I didn’t hire people.

So, I’d probably say around that, you know. I got about $90,000 in. My partner and I each put up our money.

What did you do before this? Have you owned a business before, or did you just have the money to start one after working for a long time?

I have a business here in town called the Monkey Train. It’s for kids, I’ve owned that business for the last five years, just trying to make it profitable and focus on customer service and things like that. It’s been pretty awesome, Colorado Springs has been really nice to me. We’ve tried a few other businesses along the way- normally we do things for Christmas, or stuff like that, you know?

I see. How often are all the headsets in here occupied?

If it’s a Saturday, it’s pretty much full from 2-3 PM to 6-7 PM.

What would you say was the most amusing experience you’ve had running this VR arcade?

It’s pretty funny, customers always think they’re right, even if they haven’t tried VR before. I had a dad in here and he kept insisting I put his son on this zombie killing game- his son was a gentle ten-year-old, so when I finally put him on there and warned his dad that if anything happened, it was on him. His dad said they play Call of Duty Zombies and other games together all the time, and I just said alright, man, I tried to tell you VR is a lot more immersive…

Ten minutes later, the kid was crying and had peed all over the floor. His dad was flabbergasted. It’s happened before. I tried to warn them.

Do you have any interest in Augmented Reality?

As you can see, we have a lot of empty space in the facility. We thought that if we weren’t going to add more headsets, we could add the Void VR. They basically put up walls with computer-generated environments and characters. You walk with a wireless headset and gun or sword or whatever you got, and thanks to the walls it’ll look like you’re walking through any environment. They even have temperature adjustment depending on the environments…that was my idea, we could do something like that with the space here.

Unfortunately, the wireless part of that is upwards of half a million dollars. Which I don’t want to pay for.

Yeah. Sounds a little wild. Do you make a profit running this business?

It’s okay. It’s not a $90,000 business- if someone came in tomorrow and said they’d give me double what I spent to make it, I’d say yes. That being said, it is profitable, it does make money over the long term, yes. I especially think if the new Call of Duty comes out for VR, I’m good.

Thirteen-year-olds will swarm in here before you can blink.

Try twenty and twenty-five! That’s the usual demographic here. I already have Arizona Sunshine, and most weeks my arcade is full with people playing that for the multiplayer. It’s a multiplayer zombie-killing game with 1-to-4 players, with a horde and campaign mode. Four-to-six hours to beat.

Interesting. You ever had someone get nauseous or sick in here?

Oh, yeah. It happens from time to time- mainly on the NINED eggs. Not so much on the headsets.

Have you tried anything with room-scale VR and props? There’s a demo I saw forever ago with a long, wooden plank in the middle of the room. People wearing a VR headset would be walking over a very similar plank, but instead, they would see it as being laid over the edge of a building. So they’d get vertigo and desperately trying to keep balance on the plank, even though in reality it’s just a plank they can walk across comfortably.

The immersion aspect of it brings out that sense of vertigo.

We have a game called The Climb– it’s about the closest I have for something like that. We do offer room-scale, but not something quite like that. We may add VR treadmills one day for added immersion.

Sounds cool. I think there’s one main question left to ask. What do you think of the state of tech as a whole? Where do you think we’re going?

I don’t know, man, that’s a good question. I think everything’s going AI. I think it’ll go better for us when people realize that if robots can work, we don’t have to.

I think the home of the future is going to be a complete smart home- you’ll be able to talk to a voice anywhere in the house to adjust temperature, to make you drinks, so on so on. Maybe not too crazy at first- this will be costly, and realistically speaking, this is America, most people won’t be able to afford this stuff.

But, eventually, I feel like the technology is gonna be there where we have these amazing homes where we live what was previously only possible in Iron Man or something. I think with VR if it’s able to take off, people will have entire rooms in their houses set aside for room scale VR. I don’t see that happening anytime soon, but I feel like it would be a safe bet in maybe a decade.

We’re going to have people who just have a room in their house, just for VR, just for gaming. These things are so much more immersive, take up so much more space, and real enthusiasts are going to want it. These things are gonna take the place of your typical “man-cave”, to speak, because that’s a similar concept.

I think augmented reality is going to take over virtual reality, ultimately. People will be able to do all kinds of crazy things with it.

I see. Well, looks like we’re just about out of time now. We ran through every question I had, plus quite a few more. It was good speaking with you.

You too.

Parting Words

I walked out of the interview feeling good about what I had learned. From what I could tell, VR arcades like Epic VR have a future ahead of them. While they may eventually go the way of classic arcades and start dropping off once VR gets more consumer-accessible, for the next five years or so it’s likely that they will remain popular options for people who want to experience virtual reality gaming and all that it has to offer. What do you think, though? Do VR arcades have a long-term future? Do you agree with Joseph’s industry insights as the purveyor of a VR arcade?

Comment below and let us know.