Allow me to set the scene. It’s 1994. You go to your local mall. You step inside a store front next to Virgin Records. The inside is decorated like a alternate history 1800s explorers lounge. You walk up to the counter and pay $8 ($15 in 2020, adjusted for inflation) for a game. You have a choice between two games: “Battletech” or the racing game “Red Planet”, and you choose the latter. When your scheduled time arrives you are lead through a false bookcase into a backroom decorated industrially with bare concrete and chain link, and are shown this training video. You’ve already seen it half a dozen times but they make the whole group watch it if anyone among you was new. It’s the role Weird Al was born to play.
After the group playing before you exits their pods to head towards the debriefing area, you slide yourself into the sometimes still warm seat and roll the cockpit door closed.
Exterior of a 3.0 pod:
Interior of a 3.0 pod:
The Past: Early 90’s Origins
@7:09 “What it it fails?”
Well, then we’ll have the world greatest home entertainment system to put in one of our basements.
I am old. And “Virtual World Entertainment” only ever had locations in a few areas, so you may never have heard of it. So to give us contemporary context, lets start with these articles from 1993, explaining the launch of (Tim) Disney’s new venture:
The second article makes the point that at the time how to describe what was “VR” was still an open question:
Another problem is that the industry is still arguing over what exactly qualifies as virtual reality, as opposed to simply a souped-up video game. Some companies insist that true virtual reality games require players to wear elaborate headsets for total immersion in an artificial environment.
I think today that we’ve largely (sadly, IMO) settled on the “VR requires a headset” definition, but it wasn’t always so. And even though this system did not use a headset (they cite motion sickness, but I’d have to believe its more likely that the tech wasn’t there and building mock cockpits was more feasible for a few reasons) it still got the thumbs up from “virtual reality” enthusiasts for being a quality product carrying that label as opposed to the ocean of trash trying to take advantage of the popularity of the term.
The Virtual World and Iwerks products stand out among so much junk now being passed off as virtual reality, says Ben Delaney, publisher of CyberEdge Journal, a Sausalito-based virtual reality magazine. “I’m willing to approve of them because they’re really virtual reality,” he says. “I like them because they’re fun.”
But Tim Disney didn’t invent this idea. Virtual World was founded in 1987 and opened its first location in Chicago in 1990, soon three japanese locations followed. By the time Disney bought the company in December of 1992, it was already possible to play international mech battles between the locations. Amazing when you consider the period: this was still pre-Doom.
What Disney brought to the table was money, and a very Disney sense of the importance of theming. The rarest most obscure book I’d like to get my hands on is the extremely out of print “The Virtual Geographic League Our First Fifty Years 1895-1945” (published in 1993) the “lore bible” for the fictitious VGL that served as a frame story for why you were getting zapped across time and space in a box made of plywood.
The adventure begins with the company’s fictional Virtual Geographic League, founded by inventors Alexander Graham Bell and Nikola Tesla in 1895 and devoted to exploring alternative universes. The League has a 100-page book detailing its history and is the basis for merchandising tie-ins and plans for possible feature and TV projects. A first-look deal with a studio reportedly is in the works.
“Telling the story is as unique as the technology,” said Fink, a former Disney vice president and a VWE exec VP. “Anyone can do the technology with money, but we have the story.”
With their “theme park” experience, most store fronts got the special “environmental storytelling” touch you might find while waiting in line for a featured attraction at a Disney park. It was the first time in my life I’d ever seen anything like that done, and it had a very charming effect on me.
The VGL was important because at the time of Disney’s purchase, Battletech was the flagship experience for the pods, and they wanted to try to capture a more diverse audience than teenage boys. In pursuit of this they developed the VGL, the racing game Red Planet, and a never released cooperative submarine game (called “Hull Pressure” in the above Variety story [later demo’d in 1995 as “Voyage To Atlantis” and then never seen again.])
The centers are furnished Victorian-style to support the theme of the Virtual Geographic League, a fictional group said to have been founded in 1895 by Alexander Graham Bell and dedicated to inter-dimensional exploration. Disney says the concept is helping broaden the audience for Virtual World: About 25% of customers are women, and the average age is 25.
The company “is trying very hard to create gender-independent environments that support women,” said John Latta, head of 4th Wave, a VR industry consultant in Alexandria, Va. “They’ll broaden the participation.”
This VGL conceit helped framed the way they sold additional “titles” beyond battletech, and the evident care put into the VGL lore influenced the way Red Planet itself had some nice but subtle storytelling details that were completely superfluous to the game but added to the atmosphere (like “Employees will be charged for destruction of company property” warnings that appeared at the bottom of some of your displays). Although it might seem silly to put such effort into the VGL, it’s clear the aspiration was that this would be the thing that connects the (many, surely!) games that were to come (and then never materialized).
for example, the launch description of Red Planet:
In 1992, the crack research team at VGL Labs (the true location of which is still a secret) discovered and secured a second destination for Virtual World’s inter-dimensional travelers: Mars, 2053. VGL pilots quickly named this possible future “Red Planet” and set about its exploration, using the paved corridors created by the Colossal Mining Corp.(CMC) to avoid the swirling winds on the surface.
Virtual World puts its Red Planet pilots at the controls of a CMC hover craft same ones Colossal employees use for work and “recreation” (i.e. racing). For their safety, VGL pilots are restricted to closed sections of the canals, where they are unlikely to encounter natives. To make the race even more exciting, VGL pilots have devised a variation of the basic race called “Martian Football,” a team game similar to a roller derby. As in all Virtual World adventures, pilots choose from a wide variety of maps, vehicles, and other variables.
Emphasis added. You can see how it’s kind of funny to say “as in all Virtual World adventures” when the number of Virtual World adventures available just doubled from 1 to 2. Hubris? As it turned out, yes.
The Past: Late 90’s Decline
At it’s peak Virtual World had 26 locations worldwide. As the (particularly multi-player) technology in home computers and traditional arcades advanced (and demand for arcades declined), the company faced a more difficult environment. This period of the companies history is harder for me to track. I am not even sure when my own local store closed. In 1995 the Japan battletech centers began to close and by 2000 there were none remaining. I’m sure the reasons for its failure were complicated and multi-causal, some blame overly rapid expansion. What was at one time a vision of our gaming “future” became an artifact of our past.
Ironically correct foreshadowing at the end of that video:
This new video sport is expected to spread where ever science fiction buffs have the money and the inclination to take part in this fantasy.
That would succinctly describe the dedicated fanbase that would continue to keep Virtual World alive for 20 years after its collapse.
After Microsoft bought FASA’s computer gaming operation in 1999, the centers gradually shut down.
In fact, it was a bad time for almost any location-based entertainment, whether or not it was strictly “VR.” Iwerks opened just two of its proposed 30 Cinetropolis locations before losing so much money it dropped the idea. A much-hyped Sony entertainment center in San Francisco slowly morphed into an ordinary mall. The Dave & Busters chain kept some BattleTech pods running for a while, but even that damned the idea in its own way. VR wasn’t a new medium—it was just another attraction in the back of a restaurant.
The Past: 00’s attempts at symbiosis and a shift to private ownership
In 2007 I was on a third date with a man who would be my partner for the next 7 years, until his death. I was living in Denver, he drove us to the Colorado Mills mall. We parked and I offered a water bottle I’d filled with vodka. He took one sniff and asked, “citron?”. I told him he was correct, and he said he was embarrassed to be correct because he thought it made him look like an alcoholic.
We went inside the Jillian’s Family Entertainment Center, and immediately my eyes fell on a series of pods set up in the center of the large main room, some carrying the VGL logo. Could it be? Could it possibly be?
I’d been in my early teens when my local Virtual World had closed and while it was still a fond memory for me, I hadn’t kept up with what the company had been through since the 90’s. Turns out I had missed a hardware and software generation. The pods at this location exclusively played an updated version of Battletech called Battletech: Firestorm (no red planet, which would continue to be a theme with the “afterlife” of these pods, it just wasn’t as popular). I struck up a conversation with the operator who told me that he was also a fan from the old days, and personally owned the pods in the store, but had an agreement with Jillian’s to run them there. I would spend that year trying to amass 25 “battle report” printouts in order to get a free VGL pin. I achieved 25 missions, but was unable to make one more trip back with all my printouts to collect my reward before I left the state, something that fills me with regret to this day.
How did we get here?
In 1999 Nick ‘PropWash’ Smith would purchase his first 5 pods off of usenet. In 2005 he would go on to purchase Virtual World Entertainment. Again, finding more than the most vague infomation about the period in the companies history from 1995 to 2005 is difficult, but what I can glean seems to indicate that Virtual World, sometime prior to its sale in 2005, had reached a deal with Dave & Busters to lease them pods, but that lease expired around 2005 and Dave & Busters declined to renew it as they were moving away from games that required an attendant. The public sale of pods by Virtual World following the end of this lease agreement released a large number of pods into privately owned hands. Some of those new private pod owners, with the full blessing of Virtual World’s new owner, tried to keep the games alive for the public however they could.
At the time, these simulator pods were state of the art arcade games that an investment firm would have seen no value except to sell for scrap. Some pods almost certainly were scrapped, but a concerted effort from Virtual World owners and a dedicated player community managed to save most of these pods from the scrap yard.
The development of the Tesla II cockpit is also something I’m not able to find much information about. I’ve seen it implied that they were much more expensive than the 3.0 cockpits because they were more complex (seven displays, for example), I’ve seen it implied that the Tesla II cockpits were cheaper than the 3.0 cockpits because they relied on off the shelf parts instead of proprietary hardware. I’ve seen it implied that the production cost for the new cockpits combined with the untimely loss of Dave & Busters agreement put Virtual World in a worse financial position (it was already bad before that). I have no idea when they started or stopped production of the Tesla II, or how many were produced.
Post 2005, with VWE under new ownership, you begin to see the first of the privately owned versions of the “battletech centers”, a trend that has barely managed to limp into the present day.
The Past: ’10s and going your own way
By 2012 I was living in Bremerton, Washington. I’d joined the Coast Guard. My boyfriend had moved out to the west coast to be with me but Don’t Ask Dont Tell had only recently been repealed, so my home life and my work life were very separated, and my work life took up a lot of my time. I was escorting nuclear submarines through the Puget Sound and out to sea to dive, and would sometimes be gone for weeks. But we would try to take a trip out of town together once a month, and ever since running into the pods years ago I was aware there was still a scene, so we took a trip to The Airlock in Kirkland, WA and rented a hotel for the weekend.
Of course you dont just show up at one of these places and say “hay I’m going to be here for the next 48 hours” without it being evident you have some kind of relationship with this enterprise. Again, I got to talking with the proprietor. I offhand mentioned the guy who had run the pods in Colorado, and he knew him by name. The community has always been tight knit. These places are ostensibly public businesses financed by birthday parties and businesses looking for team building exercises, but in reality if you go there at 2am after it’s officially closed, you’ll often find illicit meetings of the people it exists for and who derive the greatest joy from it.
The proprietor knew I was there JUST FOR THEM that weekend so one night after the customers had left he offered to load up Red Planet on the pods. Just for me. Because from speaking he knew that that was more my primary interest. At some point they’d visually upgraded it, I’d never known. I have no idea when. I hadn’t played it in 20 years. It was a delight, that night, to boost through the canals of Mars again.
(an updated version of the “dooly trainer” video I discovered during research for this post where they replaced the game footage with the updated Red Planet graphics. love the “as requested by the Montreal site” in the video description. You can see how at this point they were trying to build on the grave of something that had a lot of money, once.)
Only now as I write this am I reminded of the Internet cafes of my youth. These places wernt just arcades they were community centers. But only for a very specific community. And as welcoming as everyone was, and as unique as the experience was, creating new customers as devoted as the old die hards was going to be difficult.
An article from 2013 lists 6 active sites.
And it is at this point I should mention what has become the primary business model and the primary way new users come to experience the pods: convention tours.
I have little to say compared to the importance of the idea to the continued business profitability of the pods, because the idea is fairly obvious and self explanatory. One of the downsides of hosting the pods at conventions, as it was when I used the pods in the ’00s, is that the highest level of difficulty where it actually monitors the heat of your weapons (and your weapons can jam), is unfair and unplayable to the casual audience. Therefor at conventions they play a simplified version, which can be unbalanced if you know what you’re doing. The use of this “true mode” is restricted to the underground cabals of hardcore players.
Of interest is that the physical design of the pods intended them to be installed in one place and then never moved. Many alterations have been made to the pods by these “touring companies” to make them more suitable for travel.
As we age with our hardware, you can find stories like this one all over. The situation concerning the pods is not dissimilar.
His aim is to get all of his BattleTech pods fully refurbished and set up in an arcade somewhere - but finding a suitable location has proven difficult, mostly because the machines are so big. “Arcades that were interested didn’t have space, and those that had space weren’t interested,” he says.
The other problem is that it’s becoming increasingly hard to maintain these ageing machines. The Tesla pods aren’t too bad, he notes: “It’s the same components you’d find in any arcade machine. They basically just run on Windows PCs.” But the older 3.0 pods are a different story. “They have two pre-VGA CRT monitors, which are very hard to get hold of now. And they use a proprietary card that loads all of the software. I have three cards, and there may be three more in existence - but once they fail, they’re just expensive paperweights.”
Relying on conventions for your business comes with its own problems.
Here is a recent account I can find for currently running “battletech centers” (updated in May)
Which is different that the wikipedia list of current battletech centers (updated in May)
As more of these private businesses fail, there is now a community of collectors there to purchase their pods. It is the generosity of the owners that keeps them accessible to the public. Over a long enough time span I expect all remaining pods to fall into the hands of enthusiasts who do not have the same interest in creating a public facing business. But here’s the thing: they’re still going to need friends to play with. One of the notable things about that early reporting about Virtual World is how many times it goes out its way to note that you’re playing LIVE with REAL OPPONENTS. If you love this game an you want to play it right, you cant do that without having some sort of community of players, and I think that drives the general openness of the community, wanting people to also get involved in it.
With the closure of storefronts, and business who present these to the public switching to a event based business model, and most people who own pods keeping them in private collection, most of the time most of the pods these days can be found in a setting like this.
An aside: Escape The Room
“Escape the Room” flash games, to physical escape rooms, to escape room VR experiences: something full circle is happening.
Though not everyone got to experience it in its heyday, Virtual World lurks in the Jungian subconsciousness of a certain kind of gamer of a certain age. I’m not anyone affiliated with games or the games industry so I’m talking out of my ass, but the “cockpit” concept of VR seems like something that carries over very easily to our modern conception of VR.
The Battletech Relationship
From beginning to end, Virtual World is nearly inseparable from Battletech. It was their most popular product. I have to imagine they might have not been so long lived if not paired with such a franchise with its own pedigree, but at the same time I dont think it would have been launched at all without that relationship. The fact that Battletech is still relevant in its own way in 2020 is beneficial to the VW community, but also I think many a battletech fan was spawned from their experience with VWE.
Which leads me to Red Planet. The red headed stepchild of the red headed stepchild. It’s a game that can ONLY be properly played on these pods! It had a standard racing mode but had a much more (in the community, not with casual players [but there are literally no “casual players” of this game anymore]) popular “martian football” variant that I love deeeeeeeeeeeeeeply (but have only been able to actually play a few times in my life). Iwont take my time here to describe the rules of to you. Except to say that nearly 30 years ago there were hardcore groups of people meeting at my local mall screaming “BOOOOOOOOOOOOOOST” as they scored enormous points by blocking a fast “runner” carrying a “football” with their barge of a “blocker” running defense because it computed scores based of the relative velocity of impact when you blocked a shot. And I am 95% certain that outside of extremely rare and exclusive private parties, that shit will never ever happen again in the history of humanity. And you must understand how sad that makes me.
My dream, my magic wish, would be for VR emulation of the 3.0 and Tesla II cockpits, allowing for the future preservation of the experience without the hardware.
Legacy: Future: Preservation
If Frank Cifaldi ever reads this I’d love to know if the Video Game History Foundation has any stuff relating to Virtual World Entertainment, and if the organization has given any thought to trying to preserve larger forms of unique hardware like the pods, for example.
LBE is in an interesting subject when it comes to games preservation. Especially when it comes to trying to enjoy physical spaces that were designed to let you inhabit the environment but no longer exist, like the design of the Virtual World storefronts. It’s outside of their purview as a “video games preservation” organization, but if we speak more broadly about “games preservation” towards LBEs like “escape rooms”, how do you preserve a physical room and a physical experience so that it can be enjoyed later? Again I think VR might have an answer.
But if we look at the trends as they stand, Virtual World and its enthusiasts are not long for this earth. And as much as I’d love to have a solution for that, I dont know what it is. Currently it’s held aloft by people like me who feel a strong connection to it (but unlike me have money), but they’re going to die out someday.
Coda: The Only Other Thing I’ve Ever Seen Like It
Closed social clubs: The future of LBE?
This could easily be its own post. But I feel its relevant when talking about LBE, I love pinball and if I’m going to write this much I might as well mention it, and I want to give you a special prize for reading all this bullshit. In the table I presented in the Preset setion, you can see how thisis trending towards “private” clubs with “secret” owners. Allow me to present you one vision of the present, and possibly the future of LBE.
In 2016, I took a trip to New Orleans. The previous year I’d gone on a circumnavigation of Iceland. I tried to take one trip a year. I arranged this trip to NOLA hoping a woman I liked would agree to accompany me would join me but she turned me down, I went by myself anyway. I’d picked that week so that I could catch a Floating Points concert during their US tour, since they wernt passing near me.
I am used to this game “hit the ground and find things to do in a new place”, but this time I was also like, fuck it lets try to buy some drugs in a strange town. After getting ripped off twice in the french quarter, I met a guy outide thei concert who sold me some good stuff, but I couldnt help but be a dick.
We made the transaction and as soon as it was done I told him I was technically a federal law enforcement officer. He flipped out because he thought he was in trouble and I told him it wasn’t like that, I just thought he might appreciate the irony of the situation. He didn’t think it was very funny.
The concert was great but I’d come to NOLA with one mission, to seek entrance to The Pinchurch, a private arcade full of pinball machines in a secret location inside the city. I knew if I could find The Mystic Krewe Of The Silver Ball I’d find my entrance. So one afternoon I staked out a business location that had pinball machines that were serviced by them (locating pinball machines in any town I find myself in is an important life skill I have honed). Sure enough, as I slowly at my lunch and enjoyed the three machines at the establishment, a guy showed up to service the machines. I struck up some conversation and after telling him I was from out of town and desperate to visit the Pinchurch, he gave me he business card and told me to call him on Friday.
I had to jump through some hoops to dig up this video and re-upload it, but I now present you some inside footage of the Pinchurch. It would be hard to tell you how rare and special this is without it sounding like self-aggrandizement. Please excuse my excitable nature in the video, there was a open bar and I’d been doing a lot of coke, and I was just stoked on having accomplished my mission.
There’s way more I could say about the pinchurch, it was a very interesting environment. It’s a secret location rigged up to do live video broadcasts and stuff. Members pay dues. Very neat. But what I’m getting at is that with every business that fails to keep these pods running,more and more they are falling into private hands. And I do not think its preposterous to want to visit a “secret arcade” in a town you are visiting and have to perform some slight of hand or need a introduction to get there. That’s already a real situation for some things. “Location based entertainment” where the location is a secret is already a reality. I have no value judgment about that situation but that seems to be where things are heading. Hurmorsly, since the community is battle tech affiliated, they referr to the proprietary hardware for the pods as “lostech”.
But eventually all the pods will be “lostech”, as far as public access is concerned.
what if it fails?
well, then we’ll have the world greatest home entertainment system to put in one of our basements