Copyright (c) 1997, Roanoke Times

DATE: Monday, March 10, 1997                 TAG: 9703120017
SECTION: EXTRA                    PAGE: 1    EDITION: METRO 


The famed filmmaker looks at life beyond pinball with a new company. Gameworks hopes to open 100 new video arcade sites by 2002

In the beginning there was just pinball. Then, Pac-Man and Donkey Kong. You got some quarters from Pa, elbowed your way between the juvenile delinquents and flippered or joysticked your youth away.

Now comes the video arcade of the 21st century. Its calling card? Vertical Reality, an interactive game designed by Steven Spielberg, the ultimate Game Boy.

Vertical Reality consists of an enormous central column of three video screens, rising 25 feet to the ceiling, replicating a skyscraper. Twelve players, arrayed in a circle, are strapped into seats that climb up a pole. Each player gets a cybergun to kill cyborgs (probably clones). The more killed, the higher you go; if you're hit, you fall a level. The winner makes it all the way to the top to get a shot at Mr. Big (probably looks like Michael Eisner) - and gets the full free fall. Wheeee! On our Vomitometer Scale: a 6.

And don't bother with Pa's quarters. The ride costs $4, and it takes only SmartCards.

Vertical Reality is the signature attraction of Sega GameWorks, a 30,000-square-foot high-tech playland and industrial nightclub that opens Saturday in Seattle. It's the first of more than 100 sites that GameWorks hopes to open by 2002 - Las Vegas and Los Angeles also will get sites this year - each costing about $15 million. That's a lot of SmartCards, but there's more than funny money behind GameWorks: DreamWorks, Universal Studios and Japan's Sega Enterprises are the partners.

``This is going to be spectacular either way, as a success or failure,'' said Dan Lavin, a games-industry analyst at Dataquest.

GameWorks' business prospects are by no means golden, the corporate pedigree notwithstanding. No matter how thrilling the rides, how juiced the technology, the arcade business has been in the doldrums for five years. That's because the $8 billion arcade business has moved to the home and the Myst-ifying CD-ROM. The same improvements behind arcade games also have amped up personal computers to the point where they're pretty entertaining. And there's no waiting in line behind some 12-year-old who knows all the tricks.

Each GameWorks location will have the marquee toys such as Vertical Reality, as well as the more standard fast-car and killing-machine simulators. You've never been able to blow holes in bad guys in quite so much detail. And there's tamer virtual-reality fare that lets you ``experience'' skiing, with clever video and hydraulic manipulation.

But the Seattle site is as much attitude as hardware. Noise and light, rock videos and DJs, exposed ductwork and wiring - this warehouse chic is supposed to make the place hip. For a place of the future, it has an eerie ``1984'' feel to it. There seem to be more video cameras around than at a Carolyn Bessette-Kennedy sighting.

GameWorks aims to be more than a mega-wired amusement center. Seattle's has a microbrewery, pizzeria, Starbucks and Internet lounge. Guests will be able to browse the Web (sorry, all sex sites are frowned upon) or browse the room (sending e-mail to that hunk in the corner). Sort of the ideal date for the Gen-X propeller head.

Michael Montgomery, president of GameWorks, likes to call the arcades ``gathering places.'' For whom, though? The games industry has never figured out how to attract many women. Will they want to hang out with the guys at GameWorks?

Says one Seattle attendant: ``It has to be a very special date: somebody very young.''

The Spielberg name gives GameWorks cachet. And the Seattle opening week will be a bona fide celebrity event, telecast live on MTV and attended by the likes of David Geffen and Spielberg himself.

But the new company has competition. In New York, Skyline Entertainment is opening XS - a combination of virtual-reality games, simulators and cybercafe - this month in Times Square. It is Manhattan's first futuristic arcade, thoughtfully placed across the street from the Disney Store and the world's highest-grossing Gap. The XS slogan - WHERE TOO MUCH IS NOT ENOUGH - probably refers as much to the profit margins as the entertainment ethos.

Skyline plans to open XS outlets in Chicago and Sydney, Australia, this year. In Chicago and other cities, the well-established ``Dave & Busters'' has successfully catered to adults for 15 years: No one under 21 is allowed in without a grown-up. In San Diego, the paramilitary-style Virtual World, part of a national chain of 20 locations, indulges naval specialists who apparently don't get to zap enough villains at work; BattleTech, a combat game that lets you control a 30-foot robotic tank, is a big hit.

GameWorks's biggest competition eventually may come from Disney, Sony and Viacom, which are planning high-tech interactive ventures.

GameWorks hopes each customer will fork over $20 a visit; XS is banking on double that. Even in a great nation where a night at the movies or ballpark now costs double digits, that's a lot of times playing Cyber-Raptor (a convenient tie-in to Spielberg's ``Jurassic Park'' franchise) or Catch & Release (yes, virtual fishing).

The Arcadians are betting these new toys will lure everybody out of the house. After all, even Bill Gates is coming to the big party in Seattle.

LENGTH: Medium:   95 lines

by CNB