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To Gameworks, We Barely Even Knew You...

Updated: Jun 30, 2022

In July of 1997, I was an intern for Boeing in the Greater Seattle area amidst one of the most peculiar openings that the gaming industry seemingly barely heard. Gameworks, a luxurious arcade even for today's standards, opened the doors of its first site a few dozen bird flaps away from the HQ of Microsoft itself. Unfortunately, in December of 2021, Gameworks closed all of its doors with very little fanfare.

As an unashamed video game nerd, I made it my personal pilgrimage to hop on a bus as many weekends as I could to go and bathe in the tokens and spectacle of it all as often as possible. If you’ve never been to or even seen a Gameworks, think of it as a Dave & Busters without all of the carnival ticket games. At the beginning, Gameworks was a true arcade for adults despite starting near the end of arcades’ lifespan. Like a Barcade on steroids, the larger Gameworks sites (I’ve only been to Seattle and Miami locations) were multileveled arcades filled with new and retro arcade games. At a certain point in the night, the kids were ushered out and the bar drinks would flow. All the while, music would pump throughout the venue. There would even be a DJ spinning after hours as well.

I remember seeing a huge interactive arcade game, called Vertical Reality, akin to a drop tower ride at a carnival. Players would strap into a seat with a lightgun facing a huge multilevel screen. The players would then compete to reach the top and beat a boss. If they got hit too many times, they would drop down a level. All the while, the operator would try to commentate what was happening as a way to entice others watching to play next.

Looking back, this probably was Gameworks' attempt at becoming an indoor theme park. Interactive rides like this were probably the original idea. Nowadays, smaller venues like go-cart tracks and amusement centers will reserve space for activities like Laser Tag or Virtual Reality gun games. Experiences like this take up a LOT of space and need operators to manage exclusively. I'm certain this kind of a focus would be very costly!

Also near the entrance was a large 4 bay of networked pods that allowed you to play the space combat game Descent multiplayer. I remember trying it out and liking the immersive pods and flight controls. Of course, like most of the larger arcade games there, it was a bit too expensive for the fun that was had when played.

Gameworks also featured your traditional arcade fighting games, driving games, light gun games on multiple floors. On one level there was even a more casual lounge area with couches and comfortable loveseats where you could sit and chat. Sprinkled around this area were ‘old school’ games like Ms Pacman, Donkey Kong, and Mario Bros. There was even a huge projector bowling styled game called Hyperbowl as well. Hyperbowl would proceed to steal a lot of my time, money, and sweat as the idea was to use a bowling ball sized trackball to control a video game bowling ball on the projector screen. A literal arm workout from trying to spin the ball and change its direction, Hyperbowl as actually a brilliant lounge style game to pull out the laughs, giggles, and sweat.

In a way, games like Hyperbowl and the ultra retro games in a lounge area seemed to be a makeshift Barcade attempt. This seemed to be a good idea at the time but the owners really didn't lean into it. There needed to be gaming culture related mixed drinks and appetizers to provide guests with the desire to return. In my eyes, this level or area would have been perfect to place a Rock Band themed karaoke stage. It would have taken up a bit of space but at least it would have been unique.

I suppose the theme of 'some games were just too expensive' should have been a sign as why I never really remember going there and seeing a packed house or anything resembling a significant crowd. Debuting at a time when the Sony Playstation wasn’t even 2 years old and the Nintendo 64 had just been released, gaming was seeing a host of changes as an industry. Goldeneye 007, Final Fantasy VII, Diablo, and Tekken 3 were capturing the hearts of gamers across the world and arcades were NOT a major part of their rise (if you discount Tekken 3 of course).

Now that Gameworks is no more, it is wild to think that it was intended to be more of an indoor theme park that evolved into more of an Esports lounge over time. As the years went by and competitors like Dave & Busters entered the market, it was clear that Gameworks’ strategy was a bit too focused on core gaming and arcades rather than the carnival game + family restaurant strategy that Dave & Busters’ seemingly nailed. D&B grew and spread to large malls all over the country while Gameworks remained a tiny blip in comparison. The COVID lockdown managed to stomp out any embers of a change or rebrand as the company dissolved in late 2021.

Years ago, I wrote for a now defunct gaming site called where I authored a series called “Tales of the Arcade”. I would try to recall the days when arcades ruled and spin stories of what I loved about them. Looking around the landscape not many true arcades remain. Personally, I deem Dave & Busters’ styled arcades as ‘arcade-lite’ as their focus is carnival ticket games that you play in order to earn prizes. I’ve resigned myself to the reality that in today’s gamescape, that is the model that makes profit.

No one really desires to leave the house to do their gaming anymore. While there are a few cabinets that do wow the senses and escape the ‘carnival’ style, there are few to none that draw a crowd in the way cabinets like Mortal Kombat, NARC, Street Fighter II, TMNT, and Xmen did.

Regardless, I still hold onto the dream of owning a multi-level spectacle of an arcade like Gameworks. Complete with a DJ, Battletech gaming pods, a restaurant with good food and appetizers, a bar, and an experience that one can’t get sitting in a gaming chair in front of their gaming monitors.

Why couldn't there be a karaoke sized Rock Band (no not Guitar Hero) sized setup with drums, custom durable guitar controllers, microphones, and Keytar? I'd have a whole section of Dance Dance Revolution games and look-alikes. There'd be a huge section for 80s arcade classics with shmups, brawlers, other games. Then a massive section dedicated just to fighting games. Last but not least, I'd love to have a floor dedicated to pinball machines both new and old with tournaments and such to keep the players comin'.

The scale of powering a place with this kind of footprint would be obscene, but the appeal has to be there. Why there isn't a place like this in touristy theme park places is beyond me. Give me enough money and I'd design a whole theme park around arcade games!

Dare to dream I suppose!

Eitherway, Gameworks was a dream that felt as if it never truly got its feet of the ground. As if it was a great idea that came to fruition a tad bit too late, Gameworks was an idea that didn't really capture gamers' imaginations.

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