When I'm playing a multiplayer game, I'm typically in a room by myself, screaming like a madwoman into the digital ether as I try to rally my team on to victory. It elicits a weird feeling of loneliness even on the most crowded team. A new startup called ESC Games is hoping to dispel that feeling of populated isolation by bringing you and 29 of your closest friends together to play in person. I got a little taste of the magic and I have to say, I'm intrigued.
ESC Games is billed as the world's first video game theater, and it's exactly what it sounds like. The company takes a 750-foot space in a kiosk at the Westfield Garden State Plaza in Paramus, New Jersey, and projects video games onto an 11 x 30 foot LCD screen while 30 people compete on up to six teams for superiority. For $5, eager gamers get 30 minutes to play three rounds of a collection of minigames.
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Lights, Camera, Game On!
As with traditional games, the ESC experience lives and dies by its audiovisuals. To that end, the overhead lights pulse along with the action while the surround-sound system pumps in fun effects. They even have an emcee narrating all the action. At the end of every round, a spotlight highlights the player(s) who nabbed the highest score.
My New York City demo offered a e downsized version of the experience, but it was no less effective. At the start, all players pick up a controller and go stand on their desired numbers. When it's game time, the touchscreen game controllers come to life, instructing players to enter their number and hit join. From there, players are placed onto color-coordinated teams and the emcee starts the game.
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Get a Grip (On Your Game)
The controllers are fairly simple to use since they're basically an iPad placed into a custom case. The bulky gray cases aren't the prettiest things I've ever seen, but they definitely help the devices from meeting any unfortunate accidents. They also have an embedded proprietary chip which allows everyone to join the games.
For many of the games, you swipe to move or press the screen to activate a special move. The swiping isn't as precise as I would have liked as I found myself overshooting my objective several times. It's not game breaking, but it can quickly induce rage-quitting among some of the more hot-headed gamers out there.
ESC currently has 12 games available, including two published by Warner Bros. Studios. Unlike the shooters and fighting games I play at home, ESC Games focuses more on casual titles that are easy to play and have a low learning curve. For example, during Robot Basketball, I controlled a rotating vacuum that traveled around on a track. My job was to press down on the left touchscreen controller to suck up a ball and release it at the right time to score a basket. It's sounds simple, but my vacuum was rotating of its own accord, forcing me to correct the trajectory with the right side of the tablet, all the while the other team can steal the ball in my possession to try to make their own baskets.
The games, while casual, definitely will bring out your competitive nature -- at least it did in my case. During Pixel Prison Blues, I and my five fellow officers were tasked with rounding up the inmates running amok and stealing cash before they made off with the last money bag. With two outlaws for every police officer, we had quite a job on our hands.
The Will to Win
My team tried a quick strategy, which the emcee wryly noted failed spectacularly. He did, however offer some helpful advice, which almost helped us stave off a complete shutout. Tired of losing, I shouted that two cops should cover each zone, which gave us a better chance to contain the inmates. The emcee even congratulated us on our teamwork, which really got my blood pumping. Maybe I would make the high score this round or at least be recognized for keeping my cell block locked the longest.
We almost had it, but two of the guards got impatient and went chasing after the inmates, which allowed enough of them to escape to overwhelm us in the end. The coveted spotlight went to three other players, while I sat in my defeat, cursing out my team in my minds. I'm only a graceful loser on the surface.
Overall, ESC Games is definitely onto something. For $5, gamers of all ages and skill levels can come out and have a good time and actually play together. While the only location is currently in New Jersey, I'm hopeful the company will be expanding into NYC and other parts of the country sooner than later.