On a scorching July day in Los Angeles, the normally bowtie-bedecked co-founder of Two Bit Circus, Brent Bushnell, was taking a group of guests on a tour through the virtual reality inflected extravaganza of an indoor amusement park that, at the time, was still very much a work in progress.
But in a few short weeks everyone in Los Angeles will get the opportunity to take the first peak at what, for Bushnell and his co-founder Eric Gradman, has been a years long quest to reinvent the funhouse for a new generation of amusement seekers.
The story of Two Bit actually begins in 2008 in a warren of lofts and artist spaces on the outer edges of downtown Los Angeles, where Gradman, Bushnell and a merry band of pranksters would experiment with all the new gadgets and gizmos that earlier generations of tech designers and manufacturers were bringing to market. In the tradition of the best hardware hackers Bushnell, Gradman and their motley crew (crue?) were looking for ways to combine nascent sensing, projection and visualization technologies in experiences and events that would delight and amaze.
“It was eight to ten of us just hanging out and sharing projects that we were working on,” says Bushnell. At the events, called MindShare, which were hosted all over downtown LA, Bushnell and Gradman were called in to be the “brain trust that was tasked with coming up with fun ways to screw with an audience,” Bushnell recalled.
Those experiments around screwing with an audience began to take on more of a shape when Bushnell and Gradman began incorporating narrative elements into their games. One of the last experiences that the two did for fun was “The Versic Institute of Counter Espionage” — itself an early escape room that included aspects of immersive theater that took place across the brewery complex where everyone lived and worked. “This whole thing was basically a high-tech scavenger hunt,” said Gradman.
Eventually, the popularity of the games and events that the two created gave them something of a reputation in Los Angeles and that’s when corporations came calling.
“Phase one was us bringing our stuff to other people’s parties and phase two was us building using other people’s stuff and take it to other things,” said Bushnell of the company’s early years.
Their first paid job was providing the entertainment for a big Microsoft launch in LA around the gaming conference E3. Other gigs followed for companies like Intel, Warner Brothers, where Gradman and Bushnell were able to build games and create experiences that drew inspiration from the old carnie and Coney Island boardwalk games of skill and combine them with new technologies to create an experience that was both digital and physical.
“In the beginning we did temporary installations because our biggest struggle was that no one understood what it was that we were building,” Gradman said. “We had to convince people that this is what they wanted. Now, many years later people are starting to acknowledge the fact that tech is changing the way we have fun.”
For Bushnell, that spirt of invention runs in the family. He’s one of the eight children of famed Atari (and Chuck E. Cheese) creator Nolan Bushnell, and has spent his life literally growing up around games, gaming, and the wild world of amusement parks, carnies, hucksters and showmen.
Indeed, Bushnell himself gives off the air of a twenty first century PT Barnum — or a real life Willy Wonka creating a technology-based wonder factory for kids of all ages. Think of the Two Bit Circus venue as a cross between a steampunk Dave and Busters and a more grown-up version of his father’s Chuck E. Cheese franchise (although the younger Bushnell likely wouldn’t want it described it that way).
Lost in the funhouse
Entering the Two Bit Circus the first things that visitors see is a circular bar in the center of the converted warehouse space that will serve as the testing ground for Bushnell and Gradman’s global ambitions (and more on them later).
To the left is a Midway arcade that’s filled with updated version of Coney Island style classics like “Demolition Zone” where two players swing a physical wrecking ball at a virtual skyscraper to see who can cause the most damage; or “Big Top Balloon Pop” 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. Classics like skee ball are also available unadorned and timeless (really, who messes with perfection?).
Behind the Midway is a purpose built robotic bartender that banters with patrons who sidle up to watch the automated cocktail maker work its magic. Named Guillermo del Pouro, the robot behind the bar will mix up classic and virgin drinks for teetotalers and tipplers alike.
As patrons head to the back of the establishment they can find the story rooms, which are virtual reality enhanced escape room-like experiences where would-be adventurers can explore secret Aztec temples, hurtle through space and explore strange new worlds in the game “Space Squad in Space”, or try to survive a trip down a haunted river in the bayous of Louisiana.
“About 80% of the games are purpose built,” Bushnell said of the diversions that are on display for would-be circus goers. Some of the games, like Space Squad in Space rely on episodic content so players can advance through multiple levels and are rewarded with repeat game play. Others have a more discrete storyline.
Bushnell also noted that there is an element of immersive theater that’s available for anyone who attends the park, regardless of whether they enter one of the virtual reality experiences or not. “There are clues that take you on different experiences in the park,” Bushnell said. “We want to reward the curious and provide Easter eggs for fans.”
Picking up a seemingly random phone located in the park can provide clues to what Bushnell calls a meta-game, which is the adventure of simply exploring the park itself. And through the variety of play options — from virtual reality to classic carnie games, to immersive theater within the park, Bushnell said there should be something for everyone.
“My favorite is the meta game,” said Gradman in an interview earlier this year. “We are in such a unique opportunity because we control the entire park. We can make the entire park feel like it itself is a story with a narrative to be experienced.”
Two Bit Circus also holds more traditional virtual reality and arcade gaming options for folks who don’t want their experiences quite so immersive. There’s a modular virtual reality maze, which is a six meter by four meter physical maze that players navigate wearing an HTC Vive VR headset and a backpack PC. In the maze players can either try to navigate a minotaur’s maze or battle fierce “rabbids” that are preventing a space ship from launching.
Then there are virtual reality pods which will offer an array of gaming and experiential options, while the Hologate four player virtual reality game station offers cooperative and competitive gaming. For people who want a little bit more privacy and a more bespoke virtual reality experience, there are private rooms available for rental.
A food stand offers updates on old street-and-state fair standards and there’s seating in an upstairs area to watch the crowds or by the counter where circus-goers place their orders.
Finally, there’s a section for classic arcade games and the modified games on which Bushnell and Gradman initially built their reputation (including, amazingly, an air hockey game in which four people play simultaneously).
The park, which opens to the public September 7, is free to enter. Classic games and non-immersive experiences will cost somewhere between 50 cents and $3, with immersive attractions costing somewhere in the $10 to $15 range.
While the individual and group games are show-toppers, Gradman and Bushnell are hoping that their 150-seat show-starting venue, Club 01, will be another attraction for attendees of the Two Bit Circus. There, in a room equipped with 75 shared touch-screens where a master of ceremonies will lead the crowd in interactive games and quiz shows. “This is our interactive game show theater,” says Gradman. And Two Bit is actively looking for partners to help develop live content for the shows.
This business is a circus
While the first physical location for Bushnell and Gradman’s dream of a Two Bit Circus is one milestone. The company didn’t raise $21.5 million in venture funding to build one installation. Indeed, as soon as the company closed its $15 million round last January, the executives at Two Bit Circus have been open about their goals.
At the time, the company said the financing it had received would be used to build a portfolio of micro-amusement parks around the world. With each location showcasing cutting-edge tech and entertainment from Two Bit and its partners.
These stated goals were enough to attract some top tier investors including : JAZZ Venture Partners led the round with participation from other investors that included Foundry Group, Techstars Ventures, Intel Capital, Dentsu Ventures and Georgian Pine.
To explore expansion further, the company brought on Kim Schaefer, a seasoned executive who previously ran Great Wolf Resorts to handle growing its location based entertainment business. And it hired the incredibly accomplished virtual reality expert Nancy Bennett to head up the work it’s doing with virtual reality content (which is embedded into roughly 20% of the Two Bit gaming experience).
“LA is a template,” said Bushnell of the companies plans. “This is absolutely designed to replicate. There is, moreso now than at any time in our history, an absolute glut of retail. A fact that’s confirmed by millennials who are looking for new ways to engage.”
For Bushnell nothing underscores that point more clearly than the use of the Oculus Rift. “Nobody used the Oculus at Best Buy, nobody used it because it’s not the right place for it. Our entertainment is going to be a lot more fun and a lot more appropriate.”
Furthermore, Bushnell and Gradman see the circus as a hub for other game developers, and aspiring game developers to test out their wares in front of a live audience. Recalling their hacker roots, the two want locations for Two Bit Circus to be hubs for a broader community of gamers, makers, and builders that are experimenting with new ways to make joy.
Finally, Bushnell wants that vision to have an international reach. “We have a number of our attractions can live outside the park,” he said. “And we have discussions with different locations and … ABsolutely whether it’s movies or video games or particular kinds of hardware the ability to have that kind of stuff live outside the park is very real.” That’s an experience that the founders of Two Bit Circus think they can replicate in sites around the world.