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Onward and Upward: gaming in the public domain

For years, many people’s view of videogame enthusiasts consisted of the archetypal acne-ridden geek, fortified into his parents’ basement frantically bashing away at his joy stick whilst a lone door-mouse looked on in abject terror. Thankfully, this image has now largely been shifted due to a variety of factors such as the enormous success of the industry, the recruitment of the casual market by consoles featuring motion-control and the gradual integration of gaming into the acceptable social environment. It is this last point which is of particular interest as – during the last few years, a couple of notable places have sprung up in Manchester that promote publically social gaming as well as providing a number of other benefits to the gaming community.

Based within HMV’s large Market Street store, the Manchester branch of Gamerbase first opened in 2008 and is a site that covers over 2000 sq feet, boasting 40 high-spec PCs, 12 PS3s, 28 Xbox 360s and two VisionRacer pods. The setup is mightily impressive, both in terms of hardware and aesthetics. The Manchester centre was the second Gamerbase to be set up after the initial success of the first branch in London, and there’s since been further Gamerbases introduced to HMVs in Glasgow, Edinburgh and Reading. Customers can enjoy the facilities on a pay-to-play basis and there’s a stacked gaming library available.

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The centre also serves multiple functions for the industry such as acting as a popular choice among publishers looking to premiere their latest titles. The man in charge of running it is 28 year-old Chris Jones. ‘In a way, it’s what people have needed, there’s been nowhere in the UK that has a dedicated place to premiere games, publishers have a lot of problems hiring out a venue and kitting it out with their own PA equipment and stage gear just to be able to show off a new game and invite all the press down. But, with this place, it’s tailor-made to do exactly that; we’ve held dozens of launch events here and EA support us directly.’

However, the centre’s primary concern is its ever-expanding gaming community and the benefits it can offer them – it regularly runs tournaments with cash prizes, something made possible by the support it receives from developers such as EA.

‘We’ve got advertising from developers on the screens which we get sponsorship for, so they’ve obviously got an interest in us and want to invest as they get a return out of it by us running tournaments for them. It wouldn’t work without EA coming in heavily to advertise so that they get as much out of it as much as we gain. We have a lot of support from them, so when their new game comes out, we’ll run it for free – we’ll just have a number of stations with the game on for people to come in and play for free. Ideally we would love to be free in terms of any kind of pay-as-you-go kind of system, we’re a bit off that yet but we’re getting there…’

Although many gamers will take for granted having the latest available tech, not everyone is in the same position, as Chris explains: ‘The casual gamers will maybe not have a fast PC or a console with Xbox Live on it, so they can just have come here and do that (play) everyday. Generally we look after the casual gamers the most – it’s really important to us that they can get entertainment.’ As well as bringing in customers who discovered the centre by simply browsing downstairs in HMV, there’s also a loyal community that’s been built up since the hub’s inception. ‘We have regulars that come in here everyday. There are all these forums that we never even knew existed and once they all tie then the interest grows – we’ve got this huge united community of gamers in the UK now that have said they’ve never really had anything like this before. I’ve played competitive Quake 3 for the last ten years – there was only really one place in London that hosted events, but now there’s a whole host of them and we’ll just keep getting bigger.’

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Over the years, Chris has seen a change in which systems and games garner the most attention: ‘When we opened – we didn’t actually have any Xboxes, we had 50 PCs but that middle section (where many of the consoles are currently installed) hadn’t been built – it took about a month to get that finished and we weren’t sure whether Xboxes would work – it was literally one of the first centres, at least in Europe, to have consoles in it in a pay-to-play environment and it absolutely took off. Now, it’s way in favour of the consoles, mainly just because of the games, there’s been a real lack of ballsy games for the PC, literally only games like Starcraft and World of Warcraft have flown the flag for it. Apart from the hardcore people who play Counterstrike and games like that – it’s the same as well in the other centres – it’s definitely slid the other way and it’ll just keep getting more and more so. It’s fine because they’re cheaper to get installed and they tend to run everything – there’s no real driver issues or anything like that so it’s more convenient for us, but obviously I’m a PC gamer so it’s a shame – but we do support games like Starcraft and WoW heavily, just to make sure that the people who are into that they can play down here.’

I feel his PC-gaming related pain, but, coming back to one of my original points, does Chris think that any stigma attached to gaming has been lifted and gaming is becoming more socially acceptable? ‘Yeah, definitely, ever since the Wii – I don’t think that’s (stigma) really existed – because it came into the living room rather than it being in the bedroom. Say we had 20,000 members, roughly about 7-8,000 are female as well, I don’t know – if you get your girlfriend involved then suddenly it’s a lot more acceptable – we have a lot of couples who come down here and play games but it’s definitely opened up and its because you’ve seen how big the industry is now: outselling video and music – it’s like a next-gen entertainment, nevermind about the hardware; it’s what people want to do.’

Despite the economic downturn, HMV Gamerbase has plans to continue expanding, opening up new centres as well as doubling, from 50 to 100, the number of Gamerbase pods (small, in-store stations capable of housing consoles for tournament qualifiers) across the country. There’s also plans to open a mega-Gamerbase next to the Trocadero that would be capable of holding events ‘like the Leicester Square Theatre film premieres’. It’s hard to argue that Gamerbase isn’t a massive boost to the advancement of social videogaming, especially with their current success and the team’s grass-roots attitude: ‘We’re very ad-hoc – we think DIY all the time to try and make it work – we haven’t got a team of guys in an office somewhere who’re cranking out adverts and stuff like that, we’re very independent and we do it all ourselves so we’ll keep working at it.’

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Gamerbase is open until 8pm, but should players want a further slice of social gaming action, they can make a short journey up to an innovative bar that offers an equally impressive gaming experience: Kyoto Lounge. The bar occupies a much smaller space than Gamerbase, but it’s just as aesthetically pleasing and welcoming, plus it has a different appeal as it’s open until the early hours and sells food and alcohol. Sponsored by Scan, it boasts 13 PCs (three of which are 3D), four Xbox 360s, two PS3s and, just for good measure, a Super Nintendo. The PCs are all AMD 965 black editions; contain 4GB DDR3, GTX 285 graphics cards and 24” HD monitors whilst the 3D beasts house Radeon 5770 cards. The consoles utilise 47” HD LCD televisions and the Lounge also has a 1080p HD projector to broadcast gaming and live sports.

Set up by business partners Fardad Izadi, 24, and Arjang Salehi, 30, Fardad explains the intention behind Kyoto Lounge: ‘It was about two years in the making. What we set out to do was create a social gaming environment. We wanted to cater for a wide market but mainly for students initially – we wanted to make sure they had somewhere to drink, eat and play, and to have all these things in one place. The reason we came up with the concept is because, as students ourselves, we’d always find ourselves in someone’s hall (of residence) or someone’s flat but we’d always end up gaming no matter what, and this led to the idea for Kyoto Lounge. Our actual aim is to get more average people, non-gamers, becoming social gamers and that’s what I think we’re achieving – I think we’re on target right now.’ The bar is a very atmospheric place, walking downstairs to its underground location almost feels like you’re entering some kind of covert base, and once you’re inside, the interior could pass as something from Blade Runner.

Kyoto Lounge has built up a healthy customer base since opening in early 2010 and like Chris, Fardad believes this is intrinsically linked to the current generation of motion controlled consoles and peripherals. ‘Yeah, it’s increasing quite quickly I’d say – eighty to ninety percent of the people that have been to Kyoto Lounge once, do come back again, which is really good. Social gaming – it’s the way forward! I think we kind of fall into place – if you look at some of the consoles, you have the Kinect, the Move and the Wii; they’re all really designed to allow a person who’s not picked up a controller before to be able to come and play with ease and on a slightly different level – we try and do the same thing. We try and get people in, girls and so on who’ve never touched a computer before and we get them to play. Games that they can get into – and you’d be surprised, we get a lot of girls playing PCs who’ve never played PC games before – we get them on games like Left 4 Dead 2 and things like that.’

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So, with regards to that point, does he also think that social gaming is becoming more acceptable? ‘Absolutely, yeah – why not? Again coming back to the consoles – that’s essentially the same thing. I think it was deemed to be geeky but now, when people come here for games, it’s an environment they want to be in, because there’s a lot going on: new people and a lot of activities; some people are gaming; some are drinking; some are eating – it’s a nice atmosphere. People come here even if they don’t want to actually game. I think it’s definitely socially acceptable – I don’t think people look at gaming as geeky anymore, they just see people having fun and enjoying themselves.’

As for which systems and games are the most popular, Fardad remains optimistic about the PC’s popularity but concedes consoles have taken over: ‘It completely depends on the person, what they themselves want. But I’d say Left 4 Dead 2 is the biggest game on the PCs, it’s the easiest one to get people to try and they always get hooked and they always come back for it. Guitar Hero is a massive game, I’d say Xbox 360 is the most popular with games like FIFA, Pro Evo, Guitar Hero, Tekken and Street Fighter.’

Kyoto Lounge is very innovative and modern, and its location near the bustle of the Manchester universities combined with its creators’ enthusiasm should ensure its longevity for years to come. Indeed, Fardad has big plans for the Kyoto Lounge brand: ‘We want to open in every city. Every student city. Our biggest market is probably the young professional – they’re probably people that would make the best use of a place like this. The young professionals can’t get really drunk every night they just want somewhere to chill out after work – this is the perfect place they can just have a game then go home. We’d like to expand to every student city and see where it goes from there.’

It’s clear that, at least in the sun-scorched city of Manchester, social gaming environments are not only fully accepted, but are also fully viable businesses in the current financial climate. Look out for an HMV Gamerbase and, hopefully, a Kyoto Lounge coming your way soon, as they both offer a quality social gaming experience that can’t help but feel like a precursor for greater things to come.

The author of this fine article

is a Staff Writer at Thunderbolt, having joined in November 2009. Get in touch on Twitter @p_etew.

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