Innovative Locations: Electric Gamebox’s Will Dean on Making Digital Gaming Social Again

Visionary entrepreneur Will Dean, whose previous work includes co-founding the international team-based obstacle race, Tough Mudder, joined ARCO/Murray on the Innovative Locations webinar series to talk about his latest concept Electric Gamebox, a virtual gaming destination that doesn’t use VR glasses. After proven success in the UK, Dean, who is co-founder and CEO, is partnering with national design-build firm to grow the concept across the U.S., from California, Colorado, Illinois, Georgia, Texas, Utah, and Virginia. Today, Electric Gamebox has three locations in the UK and one in the U.S. in Dallas, Texas.

Watch the whole episode here:

Will, very excited to have you on the show today. Can you tell us about the concept for those who aren’t familiar with it?

Will Dean: It’s an interactive smart room with immersive gaming. A ‘Gamebox’, as we call it, sits in a 11’x 11’ space, and you and your friends wear a tracker on your head and it follows you around the room with sensors we have in the walls, and projections around you show you the visuals of the game. The idea is that you step into a video game, you’re not just playing the video game on a screen– you and your friends are part of the video game and go on a journey together.

What was the inspiration for a concept like this?

WD: A couple of years ago, I started to see the development of escape rooms and also location-based VR. And at the time, I thinking about what I would do next, and when it’d be the time for a new challenge as an entrepreneur. It was very clear that the retail environment was changing. I saw this kind of booming desire for immersive experiences, and going to a new shopping mall in London, and half of it was restaurant. I remember thinking this is weird. I mean, there is a limit to how much food that we can eat, and this place seems to be geared up to do nothing but try and force me to eat more.

It struck me that there’s an opportunity to create this interactive room. And I like this idea that you can still take people on a journey, but it’d be more interactive than a traditional movie or something like that.

When I tried out VR for research, my personal view is it had a couple of big problems. The first one was the hardware is expensive. I remember going to a location-based VR experience in LA as part of my research and there was a family there who’d brought their little boy with them who I guess was like 8 to 10 years old. The mother turned to the little boy as they’re putting on their headsets, and she said, “Be careful, don’t break it, it’s expensive.” And if you’re nine years old, you may as well be told, “I told you we were going to have fun, but I didn’t really mean it.” Not to mention, it takes a while to get all the gear on. So, I really liked the idea of visors which take two seconds to put on, and then you’re in the room.

But more importantly, from a consumer perspective, VR just wasn’t that great. It was clunky, and once you put the headset on, you’re not with your friends. That always struck me as being a big, big problem. So my thinking was, I wonder if we can create this interactive, smart room. And I think if we can get that right, we’ll be able to have a whole bunch of different games.

Some people say it’s very different from your last business [Tough Mudder] but it’s pretty similar. It’s all about creating team challenges and getting people to do things together as a group. I’ve always tried to focus on creating things that bring people together, and this idea of collective achievement and shared memories was really the inspiration.

So in 2018, we built a really simple prototype. We took the video game Pong– literally the simplest video game you can think of. And you had two players running up and down in a room where they were controlled by the paddles. It was super basic, but it was kind of fun. And that was enough to convince me that we had something.

How many Gameboxes are there in a location and how many players do you see coming through and playing a game at one?

WD: So, it varies a bit, but we typically have about 10 Gameboxes on a site. So, you have the check-in area, with reception and lockers. And then you’ve got 10 identical rooms. Most people book online– you get some walk up, but mostly booked online. And so you’ll arrive and say, “Hey, I’m here”, and they’ll say, “Great, yep, you’re in room 2” Then you drop off your bags, put on your visors and head to your room. You have a minute of instructions and a safety briefing, and then you’re playing. That was very important to me, because some VR locations it’ll be 15 minutes of getting ready and 10 minutes of playing. That didn’t seem like a great ratio to me. So our experiences are typically 30 to 60 minutes long, and you’ll have two to six people in the room.

Our focus in the games is always getting the team to work together. So, it’s never player versus player. It’s always group versus environment. For example, one of our most recent games is set in a psychedelic mansion. It’s based very loosely on a 1960 CIA training exercise. The idea is you got to make your way through this mansion, and you keep opening different doors and exploring different rooms. In each room, there’s a challenge, and the goal is to get through as many rooms as you can, but you have to work together as a team to solve problems or to communicate information or to pass pieces of a puzzle to each other, that kind of stuff. So that’s sort of what the experience entails. We have a bunch of different games, some of which are more Choose Your Own Adventure, others more of a general challenge like your arcade classics. So you go online and you book in advance as to which one you want to do.

What kind of demographic breakdowns do you see coming through the doors? Mostly friend groups, or do you see corporate outings and family get togethers, too?

WD: What we see on the weekends, especially during the day– our power users are families, especially with kids from ages of 10-16. One of the things that we’re very proud of which we didn’t see coming at all, we’ve turned out to be incredibly popular with families that have autistic children. And they’ll tell us that it’s very, very hard to find something– especially if they have one autistic child and one child that isn’t—it’s very, very hard to find something that the whole family can enjoy. We’re really proud of that. I don’t pretend we’re curing cancer, but I do believe we make a positive difference in people’s lives. So, weekends during the day, a lot of families, and then when we’re entering into school holidays, that continues through the week at this time of year. What we find on weekday evenings are a lot of corporate team bonding events. Then we’ve also seen on weekend evenings, a lot of young professionals, having things like birthday parties, bachelorette parties, and that kind of thing.

A lot of our audience don’t actually play video games at home. 70% of our tickets sell to women, and the vast majority of those women would not identify as gamers, but our games themselves are not typical video games, right? You’re not blowing the head off an alien or anything like that, you’re working together to achieve a goal.

One of the things that’s really encouraging is a really high repeat rate, over 20% of people that come back again, within one month, which we’re really proud of it.

Do you have the same set of games at each location? How often do you find yourself updating games, either changing existing ones or creating new ones?

WD: We’ve built most of our games in-house. We have an in-house studio that develops themes, and we also work with some third parties to create content. We’re very big on rapid prototyping– to learn quickly, fail fast. We work with in a game engine called Unity, and our own software development kit, which means you can do a lot of things quite quickly. So, we’ll build a super, super simple prototype in the morning, and then we’ll play it. And if we think it’s worth it, we’ll say let’s build a proper practice site, and we’ll bring some people in to play. By then, it’s still pretty basic. You’ll see some clunky graphics, only one or two levels, but very quickly we get user’s feedback from that. The walls, as I mentioned, have touch sensors in them. So, you can prompt people questions about what they liked and didn’t like.

I always tell my team, remember, the only failure is if you don’t learn. It’s like being in school, experimenting as part of chemistry or science or whatever. You have your hypothesis, and the experiment either proves or disproves the hypothesis. As long as there’s learning, it’s all good. So that’s how we approach things.

We have game designs and script writers, because a lot of what we’re doing is narrative-based. Noah leads our team on that side– very, very bright guy, went to Cambridge University. He was part of this famous acting society in the UK called the Cambridge Footlights. The Monty Python guys did it, for example. He’s really into script-writing, and it used to do comedy shows and stuff.

How long has Electric Gamebox been around for now, and how many locations do you have across the U.S. and U.K.?

WD: We launched our first unit back in the end of 2019. We had a great first four or five months, before we had to close in the UK by law for 12 months due to COVID. We had a short window in during summer of 2020 before everything in the UK closed again. We’ve cut the ribbon on our venues in Manchester, and we have a site in Essex. We were finally allowed to reopen in May of this year when the restrictions eased, but for a long time, things have been quite bizarre with us only doing business in the United States, despite none of us having been to the Dallas location ourselves. [Dallas was opened entirely remotely due to travel restrictions on the U.K.]

We launched in the US in December, and the traction we’ve had so far in Dallas has been just fantastic. It was sold out every weekend. Then in spring of this year, we announced our partnership with Brookfield Properties, one of the largest property companies in the world. They’re a super innovative, entrepreneurial group of people, which is not always the case of a company as big as them. These days they have over half a billion under management. So we’re opening 10 sites initially, and if those 10 go well we’ll add another 20 with them. Focus on the US is a big, big part of our expansion. Obviously, it’s a larger market than the U.K. from a real estate perspective, and less regulated than Western Europe. Thereafter, we look at the US and say it should be over 100 stores for us. And then we’re also starting to look at expansion elsewhere in the world so that we have a concession or franchise business model. We have a lot of inbound interest from the Middle East, so international expansion will be a big part of business as well. But yes, the medium term focuses definitely on the US.

Do you think every Electric Gamebox is the same size with the same amount of rooms? And what makes a perfect site for you?

WD: Our locations in the UK are very different from each other. One is in central London, it’s right in the middle of town, and very near the Tate Modern and major stations, and it does well with young professionals as you’d imagine. Then our Southbank location, it’s near stuff, but you don’t really get very much foot traffic and it’s more on the outskirts, and we see a lot of families coming there because they’ve pre-booked their visit. Then we have our location in Dallas at Grandscape where we initially started doing a lot of walk-up traffic, particularly at weekends.

The aspiration, of course, is to be not just in the top 30 markets in the US, but the top 100 markets in the US. I saw a lot of businesses in the immersive entertainment space that were designed to work in New York and LA, and maybe London and Tokyo, but not many other places in between, because it’s a high price or it’s a complicated concept. We didn’t want to do that. We wanted to build something that has mass appeal, not just because that’s good for business, but because, for me, personally, I want to fill up time creating the product that’s impacting possibly millions of people. So in terms of the location, obviously what we’re doing with Brookfield is largely Moore’s Law– a mix of urban and more suburban locations. And we’ll learn a lot from that.

We’re looking for about 2,500-3,000 SF, and that will allow you to have somewhere in the region of 8 to 12 Gameboxes on site. We’re also doing some experimentation where we’re putting in some of our Gameboxes into a movie theater chain in the US, which is cool. So we’ll see how that does. It’s a different demographic. We’re still figuring it out.

We’re doing some partnerships with other malls, but we’re also doing a lot of urban life. Our COO is in Chicago right now looking at a bunch of urban locations there. We’re looking at doing some fitness center locations, some concessions, etc.

Do you think an F&B component will ever be a part of Electric Gamebox in the future?

WD: Never say never. I think one of the things that we observed a lot when we were going into shopping malls was, there are already so many great food options already on site. We saw people come to our location, and then everyone would want to go out afterwards. A big appeal for us when we were doing the deal with Brookfield was the fact that we could say, look, half of all the people coming to our location have never been to this mall before and 95% of people are going to stick around to get food and beverage after. They could see that all of the other tenants would be excited to have us there, too. Still, we’re certainly looking at that, especially in the context of private parties and corporate groups that want to book out the whole space. But there are downsides to doing F&B as well– they require a lot more inventory space, and you have to worry about teenagers sneaking in with fake IDs, all that stuff.

How are you anticipating staying ahead of that those trends and making it, you know, an easy answer for any evening out on a recurring basis?

What knowledge would you want to impart to other entrepreneurs and new concepts just entering the location-based entertainment space?

WD: There’s a lot I could say, right? Having spent the last 15 years of my life as an entrepreneur, I think some of this might end up sounding a bit cliché, but most clichés are clichés for a reason. I’d tell people that when it’s good, is never as good as you think it’s going to be, and when you’re down it’s never quite as bad as you think it’s as you think it is. The journey of being an entrepreneur and building something, there are so many highs and lows that you need to keep perspective. When it’s your career, when it’s your money and everything is on the line, it can be a challenge, but I always remind people that resilience is a huge part of it. If you’re building something that’s making the world a better place, you should be pretty proud of yourself.