How Two Bit Circus is turning its 21st century carnival into one giant gameAugust 22, 2018
Throw out the term “amusement park,” and it conjures up visions of roller coasters and rides and costumed characters in massive, franchise-themed lands. But inside a warehouse in the downtown arts district of Los Angeles, a company called Two Bit Circus is building its own idiosyncratic riff on the idea, focused on the power of games.
Aside from a sign and some carnival-style light bulbs, the exterior of the self-styled “micro-amusement park” doesn’t seem all that remarkable. It’s a brick-faced building, a few blocks from a Blue Bottle Coffee, and across the street from a popular LA filming location that’s popped up in everything from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off to Agent Carter. But stepping inside the park itself is like being whisked away into another world. There’s a video arcade, a steampunk carnival midway, and a section devoted to virtual reality experiences. There are escape rooms, a robot bartender, and a dinner club for interactive game shows and theatre productions. It’s a dizzying array of options; a tech-infused entertainment utopia wrapped in a circus-meets-Ready Player One aesthetic.
But to see it as simply a collection of games is missing the point entirely. Two Bit Circus is trying to create something bigger: a living, breathing world that’s tied 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 the hidden mysteries of the park’s (alleged) past.
The Two Bit Circus micro-amusement park isn’t just an arcade. It’s one giant adventure game.
The 21st Century Carnival
“We wanted to do our own place, our own bar, as early as 2009,” Two Bit Circus CEO and co-founder Brent Bushnell tells me. Bushnell is the son of Atari and Chuck E. Cheese founder Nolan Bushnell, and as he lays out his vision for the park ahead of its September opening, it’s easy to see the connective tissue between the new venture and his father’s own love of gaming and theme parks.
A decade ago, Bushnell and Two Bit Circus chief technology officer Eric Gradman worked together at Syyn Labs, an art and engineering collective that specialized in whimsical creations like the Rube Goldberg machine in OK Go’s “This Too Shall Pass” video. That project led to corporate gigs for clients like Disney and Google, and when Bushnell and Gradman founded Two Bit Circus in 2012, their new company went to work creating experiential marketing activations, combining virtual reality and physical elements in pieces for the NBA, the Super Bowl, and brands like Intel.
“Finally, in 2013, we were like, ‘Gosh, we’ve done a hundred events for everybody else, all these other branded things. Let’s do our own thing,’” Bushnell says. “And that was where our Carnival came from.”
Two Bit’s STEAM Carnival was a high-tech take on the carnival road show, incorporating custom-built games and steampunk-inspired robotic inventions. (Both Bushnell and Gradman have engineering backgrounds.) The goal of the venture wasn’t just to entertain; it was to encourage children to pursue study in science and the arts. The “STEAM” in STEAM Carnival came from science, technology, engineering, arts, and math, and to make it all as flashy as possible, the duo threw in a liberal dose of lasers and fire stunts. The “dunk tank flambé,” for example, was a riff on the classic dunk tank — though instead of dumping somebody in water, children had the opportunity to roast Gradman in a chamber filled with fire.
The carnival traveled to several cities, but in 2015, the impracticality of moving such an elaborate production turned their focus toward creating a more permanent installation that would eventually become the new park.
Digital, meet physical
Bushnell confesses that the name “micro-amusement park” is something the company conjured up itself. ”What we really wanted to convey is, ‘Hey, this is small compared to Disneyland, but huge for a retail complex,’” he explains. But once inside, the concept becomes a little clearer. The nearly 40,000 square feet of floor space is made up of several sections, not unlike the layout of a traditional theme park. There’s the arcade, filled with a combination of classic games like Ms. Pac-Man, along with custom options like the Hexacade, a tabletop unit that lets six players face off over reimagined versions of Pong and the Tron light cycle race. The midway is a digital-meets-analog take on classic carnival games: purists get their Skee-Ball, but there are also things like Demolition Zone, in which players physically shove a padded “wrecking ball” toward a projection-mapped screen in a race to destroy a building faster than their opponent.
Club 01 is the park’s 80-seat “interactive social club,” which Bushnell says will host everything from game shows and trivia to theater productions. There is also an array of VR options scattered throughout the park, including motion-simulator VR pods, a four-person room scale set-up from Hologate, and a Void-esque mini-maze installation designed by Asterion VR. Yet another section is devoted to what Two Bit Circus calls “story rooms,” meticulously designed rooms that allow groups of guests to play out a given scenario together. There is a traditional escape room in that mix, in which players try to discover the ruins of an Aztec temple, but there’s also Space Squad in Space, where guests take the controls on the bridge of a Star Trek-style spaceship. The Raft, from Starbreeze Studios and Red Games, pairs VR headsets with a haptic floor as groups fend off supernatural creatures while floating down a haunted river.
It’s a lot to choose from, and that’s without diving into the food options, full bar, private VR / karaoke cabanas, or the robot bartender. (Dubbed Gearmo del Pouro, the creation banters with guests before turning its various gears to mix and pour cocktails.) There’s simply no way a visitor could play everything in a single visit, but that’s not really the intention, either. “You know, from a design standpoint, we really thought about carnival, and circus, and classic 80’s,” Bushnell says. “But fundamentally, the connective tissue is social. This is about making new friends or reconnecting with old ones.”
Nearly everything in the place encourages social interaction, from the emphasis on multiplayer gaming to its communal dining tables. There’s no admission price, either: guests simply walk in and pay for games, experiences, or drinks with a tap card that holds the digital equivalent of tokens. (Bushnell estimates a night out at the park will run around $45.)
According to Two Bit Circus president Kim Schaefer, the park can support between 500 and 700 guests a night, which could easily give it more of a nightclub feel on certain evenings. In fact, while the park will be family-friendly during the day, it will go adults-only after 9PM, with everything from difficulty settings to actual game content able to be swapped out for a more age-appropriate audience. Despite the overall size of the space, it’s easy to see that kind of throughput leading to frustration as guests wait for games or find they can’t book a particular room they’re interested in. According to the company, that’s just one reason why they designed the park to be one big, playable environment.
The movie theater for interactive
“We’re big believers that there’s a shift in entertainment — from one that’s really passive to one that’s really active,” Bushnell explains. The increased hunger for experiences that audiences can step inside and physically partake in is increasingly hard to ignore; it’s everywhere from the continued proliferation of escape rooms to branded activations like HBO’s Westworld experience at SXSW to immersive theme parks like The Wizarding World of Harry Potter and Disney’s upcoming Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge. The way Bushnell sees the landscape, those kind of experiences are all in line with the physical and interactive elements of the new Two Bit Circus park. “Escape rooms, immersive theater, virtual reality, augmented reality; all of these, for me, are in the same world,” he says.
The park will incorporate a number of immersive theater shows, he says, where guests may find themselves interacting with live actors on the show floor while the rest of the park swirls around them. “The thing that gets really neat about running those together is that you’ve bought a ticket for a theater experience and are in the middle of it, and I’m just here as a regular attendee,” he explains. “The fact that you’re going through some weird theater experience kind of makes my visit more interesting, like, ‘What is going on over there?”
Those kinds of real-world, interactive adventures are also featured prominently in what the company’s executives are mysteriously calling the meta-game. “I want the experience of anybody walking into this park, the first thing they’re going to see is the amazing games,” Gradman tells me. With breathless energy and a bright-red mohawk, he comes across as the world’s most affable Fury Road character. “Over time, they will start to realize that this rabbit hole goes super deep, and there are stories that are yet to be uncovered. There are puzzles that aren’t embodied in any one game but are embodied in the facility as a whole.”
Imaging playing an arcade game, he says, and noticing on a subsequent visit that a particular game element is behaving differently, so you interact with it. “All of a sudden, something happens. That screen goes dark, that game ends, and an Easter egg appears,” he says. “You are taken off in a completely different direction. You thought getting a high score in that game was so important, but we’re going to send you someplace new [in the park], and it’s just the beginning of a whole new story.”
According to Gradman and Bushnell, “rabbit holes” into the meta-game will be built throughout the facility. Calling a secret number on a pay phone in the building might lead a guest in one direction; dropping a quarter in a capsule machine could lead another to a multipart quest that takes multiple visits to complete. There are secret passageways and hidden rooms throughout the park, and as guests discover them through the meta-game, the different threads will tie together into one overarching narrative.
“We are writing our own mythology for this place, and building that backstory has been a total labor of love for us for a long time,” Gradman says. “We are totally inspired by carnivals and circuses of decades and centuries past. That history, and all the possible histories, all sort of come together under this roof, and it’s made it really easy to come up with fun stuff: characters that live in the walls, the histories of people who helped build this place before it was even a micro-amusement park. You’ll see that stuff exposed throughout these adventures.”
It’s a more ambitious vision than just a high-tech gaming center; it’s Two Bit Circus ostensibly positioning its park as the de facto destination for all forms of interactive entertainment, many of which are just starting to seep into the mainstream. “I think of this as the movie theater for interactive,” Bushnell explains. “A movie theater changes and updates regularly. Unlike your bowling alley and your mini golf, which is pretty much the same, we really look at this as a platform that is evolving and changing.”
The flexibility of software
Of course, none of that grand ambition matters unless the games are actually fun to play. But from the sneak peek I had while the park was finalizing construction, things are well in hand there. The carnival midway games are surprisingly challenging and addictive, and I worked up a sweat trying to help my team win in Rail Race, a game where pairs of players have to pump railroad car levers in unison to push their car to the end of the line. A four-person match of Battlezone VR in the motion-simulator pods was a blast (and would be even more so with some trash-talking friends and a cocktail), while tackling Space Squad was a great mix of tongue-in-cheek role-playing and collaborative button-pushing.
One of the most entertaining games was an old Two Bit Circus staple called Button Wall, 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. And while the company does see events like e-sports tournaments in its future, this isn’t a place dedicated to the hardcore gamer; these are casual diversions, intended to be played with friends looking for a fun and lighthearted night out.
From a curatorial perspective, once the park opens, the company will have the ability to refine the available options based on what works best for guests. Those credit tap cards will help the company understand what each guest’s personal habits and tastes are, which will help it to figure out which games aren’t resonating. Then, as the company gets a better read on individual guests, the meta-game rabbit holes can be used to direct them toward the games that they’re most likely to enjoy, or even be deployed to help direct audience flow away from a particularly crowded area.
“Because we’re building this place from scratch, we’ve had the opportunity to develop technologies that make it easy for us to do our jobs: make crazy games, make crazy experiences, but also for partners to do the same thing,” Gradman says. The entire park runs on a platform called Walnut, which gives game designers API access to the building itself. “Environmental features like lights, like tap cards, features like sound; making the bar do interesting things,” he says. Imagine hitting a new high score in a game, and having the lights — or the sound system — of the entire park respond. “All of these features are exposed through software so that developers who are used to writing software for APIs can treat this entire building like a giant iPhone, full of stuff they can put to use in their own experiences.”
Two Bit Circus’ micro-amusement park is certainly not wanting for creative or exciting ideas. It may come across as a glorified Dave & Buster’s at first glance, but even a month before it opens, it’s obvious that there’s quite a lot more there. The focus is ostensibly on gaming, yes, but the company is essentially trying to create the ultimate location-based entertainment destination: a playground that can offer any and every kind of immersive experience available. In that sense, it’s a place designed to facilitate the evolution of what the company clearly thinks is the future of entertainment — so much so that it moved its corporate headquarters and a rapid-prototyping lab onsite so it can experiment with as much flexibility as possible.
That flexibility may ultimately be the park’s most useful advantage. Location-based entertainment centers in the US and abroad are already on the rise. Companies like The Void and IMAX continue to open new VR locations, new players like Dreamscape Immersive have begun to come to market, and Void co-founder Ken Bretschneider will be opening the fantasy-based interactive theme park Evermore later this year. But each of those is a bet on very specific flavors of immersive entertainment. Two Bit Circus’ breadth of experiences amount to a bet on the larger trend itself, giving the company room to pivot, iterate, and evolve while still having the handy framework of a traditional video game arcade to fall back on as a business model and selling point.
What’s left to discover is just how audiences will respond. Should things go well, the company already has plans to spread out across the country with multiple locations that would expand its reach and offer even more opportunities for people to connect and play across locations. But despite all of the technological innovations, the APIs, the quests, and carnival-meets-steampunk visuals, Two Bit Circus also seems to see the key to repeat visits and future success in something much simpler: its ability to use all of these different elements to tell a compelling narrative.
“Consider the tremendous number of different ways we can tweak this place in order to give that story,” Gradman says. “We can change the facility. We can climb a wall and paint anything we want. We can hide stuff in plain sight. We can put stuff behind doors that you need a key to open. We can put stuff inside of games that you have to play really obsessively to reach the point where you’re actually able to uncover that information… We just have to build the story framework to give people the sense that there’s just more and more and more, and they will come back again and again and again.”