LOS ANGELES—A new kind of entertainment is opening next month: a large, carnival-like arcade filled with VR headsets, brand new arcade cabinets, holograms, escape rooms, a robot bartender named Guillermo del Pouro, hidden passages, and more.
It’s called Two Bit Circus, and it’s run by a company of the same name. Founded by Eric Gradman (a computer programmer who has also worked as a circus performer) and Brent Bushnell (an engineer who is also the son of Atari and Chuck E Cheese’s co-founder Nolan Bushnell), Two Bit Circus is something of a staple in the LA scene now. Their previous individual installations have appeared at nightclubs, corporate events, and more.
But the company is also a branded experience studio—a sort of VR carnival ad agency that has produced installations and pop-up events for brands like Disney, Google, Intel, and the NBA. The team even organized an E3 event for Microsoft, and the founders worked together to create the Rube Goldberg machine in OK Go’s “This Too Shall Pass” music video
Gradman and Bushnell told Ars they wanted to start this project to do their own thing, not just rep other brands. This space is Two Bit Circus’ first attempt at launching a series of venues across the country that the founders hope will revive both the arcade and the carnival for digitally savvy audiences of adventurous 20-somethings and families. (At least, the space will be family friendly until 9pm, at which time it will shift gears for adults.)
I took a multi-hour tour of the still-under-construction space, played several of the games, talked with the staff, and took lots of pictures.
The venue is broken into several sections:
- The Midway: A digital take on traditional circus games and attractions
- The Arkane: An arcade full of pinball machines, multi-player digital games, and arcade cabinets both old and new
- The Arena: A set of VR booths for playing a bunch of popular VR games, including multiple Battlezone stations
- Story Rooms: A set of room-scale experiences like escape rooms and a Space Team-like starship bridge simulator
- Club 01: An interactive theater for dozens of attendees to participate in software-driven variety and game shows with live hosts
- A dining area: With a menu of food, snacks, and drinks prepared by a chef specifically for the menu
The Arkane features not just classic arcade games, but new cabinets unique to the venue called “Skidoos.” These can load up third-party games, and Two Bit Circus has an API that will allow indie developers to make games for them. (There’s even a Unity plugin.) The company plans to rotate games in and out over time.
The entire space runs on software called Walnut, which ties in with that API. The software can also be used to control the venue (or multiple venues, if the company launches more in the future) with lights and more. This ties into the idea that Two Bit Circus is not just an arcade, but an explorable space that tells stories itself. There are vending machines that spit out clues to find secret passages, and so on. Much of this can be managed with the venue’s software.
The idea of a VR arcade isn’t new (or even uncommon), but Two Bit Circus is a much more robust operation that adds live performance, circus attractions, escape rooms, and more. Entry will be free, but the venue will charge for games, food, drinks, and room rentals—just like a Chuck E Cheese’s restaurant. Two Bit Circus hopes to eventually open additional spaces in new cities, scaling the concept across the United States.
Two Bit Circus will open to the public on September 7 in the arts district near downtown LA.