Unless you’ve been living in a cave you can’t have failed to notice: live action and digital world games are now a big thing in Bangkok. But while there are many choices, including a glut of outfits offering state-of-the-art VR and laser technology, only a few are truly capturing the imaginations of players—places like Maddox House, a new addition to the Bangkok laser game scene; Tatami, a bold move to get more people familiar with VR and other social video games; and Escape Break, an innovative, adrenaline-filled variation on the escape room format.
The escape game format is growing in popularity. One of these with branches in both Bangkok and Samui is Escape Break, where each of its rooms offer a different scenario. “Once you get in there you search around for clues to solve a puzzle to open the door or padlock to progress to the next level,” explains business developer Danial Hodder. “And you have to do it all within a 60-minute time limit.”
The age range is flexible. Anyone over seven can play explains Hodder, and, when asked if any elderly people have tried their luck, he mentions a recent example. “A few months ago we had a guy call up and said his dad is pretty old and not very mobile and we were like, well no problem. And when they came the father had a great time and loved it.” Although they try to be flexible with the players, he adds, “We don’t encourage customers to do it alone because some games do require two or more people.” Four to five players is the ideal range before it ends up in “utter confusion.”
Looks can be deceiving as the Bangkok branch is much larger than you imagine. Walking out the elevator for the first time, the sheer scale of its location doesn’t hit you immediately. Hodder is quick to point out there are seven rooms with five games and in Samui there are four rooms with four games. The Samui branch is very popular when it rains “with very few vacant spots all day.” Since each game requires a backstory and clear explanations of the rules, staff training is crucial. “All our games come in both languages but at the Samui branch, everything is in English, while at the Bangkok branch, some games can be played in Thai with proper conversion of instructions and videos.”
What makes Escape Break different from the competition is, explains Hodder, the context. Other escape games tend to just chuck you in the room and give you a walkie-talkie to communicate with the outside world, something Hodder thinks “lessens the isolated experience.” Escape Break offers clues in two ways, via a TV or, if really necessary, a staff member comes in to give you the clues personally. He prefers the former. “Clues on the TV make it harder because you have to process them for yourself. You see them without any explanation.”
Laser games are another popular trend in Bangkok for those seeking an action-filled, adrenaline-pumping experience. With many places around Bangkok offering a chance to play, it takes a truly special place to stand out amongst all the others. Founded by a group of friends, including young entrepreneur Akarawin Taechaubol, Maddox House, although relatively new, is arguably the best laser game location in Thailand.
When asked what inspired him to venture into the laser game business, Jimmy, as he is known by friends, recalls a past experience. “I went to Lazgam and played laser tag there, which cost 350 baht for 10 minutes, and that was it,” he says. And very quickly another lightbulb went off—“I realised that businesswise a laser tag setup does not cost much and the decoration costs are very low.” But Jimmy and his partners knew that in order to break into this market they had to be a class above the rest. “We flew to Shanghai to the games expo and found the best equipment there,” he recalls. Now Maddox House is proud to say that it has the best quality equipment. Asked what makes its equipment better, Jimmy replies, “The accuracy is 100 per cent because the gun does not shoot lasers but the armour lets out a signal that when you shoot it captures the signal.”
At Maddox House it’s clear that real care has been placed in all the small details in order to make it a truly exceptional place for laser zapping. The arena, Jimmy says, is one of the biggest on the Bangkok market and includes paintwork by a proper artist. “We also have bases which is quite unique; here it’s more team based and with different game modes and teams,” he adds. The amazing features unique to Maddox do not stop there, as there are also “different types of guns like machine gun and nuclear, which kills the entire arena, and also a cool shotgun.” One of its game modes requires teamwork to defeat a war bot that moves around the arena. “The warbot is there and you shoot the designated balls before shooting the war bot itself,” he says, which makes it sound like an action scene from the Terminator series.
Market-wise, Maddox is in a league of its own. Jimmy recalls a time when a competitor came to play and “left saying that ours is much better than theirs!” The philosophy and vision behind Maddox actually began a while ago. “I enjoy having a space where me and my friends can go hangout and that’s why we have a pool table, darts, beer pong and a punching bag game to help vent your anger.” The doing-it-for-enjoyment philosophy of Maddox House is also reflected in the pricing. “We have not priced ourselves high and have many promotions,” he says. “We do this because we enjoy it.”
To fill those moments between games, Maddox House also has a bar offering drinks by Zimplex, a Phuket bar specializing in futuristic molecular cocktails. Of the collaboration, Jimmy says proudly, “Zimplex hasn’t done it with anyone else and they use special recipes that we don’t even know.” Music-wise, no detail has been spared either, with playlists coming courtesy of Bangkok hip-hop club circuit legends DJ Ono and DJ Buddha. Plans for the future are not yet set in stone, but Jimmy hopes to see the business flourish. “Our advantage is that we have a playroom, our equipment is the best and our suits are lighter. This allows everyone to play better and have a more enjoyable time.
For most of us, virtual reality is a brave new world we have yet to explore properly. One of those companies helping people to do so is Tatami.
It all started with Hunter Williams’ dream of recreating the friendly atmosphere of playing video games with friends during his high school and college years. “Basically back in high school and in college, going out and playing video games with childhood friends and people who live close together was the norm,” he recalls. Once Williams graduated he found that things were no longer the same and that the development of technology went hand in hand with online gaming. “After graduating there was nowhere for you to go hangout, just usually bars and clubs but not places for activities, and playing online at home by yourself is not as fun.”
Like many great ideas, Tatami began as a hobby, a side project for Williams and other people who shared his passion for a social atmosphere. “I had moved to Thailand already and found some people interested so decided to give it a go,” he remarks casually. The name Tatami came about by chance. “There’s a lot of VR cafes but we didn’t want a brand just for VR. A marketing friend came up with the idea of something green and Asian, so we thought of bamboo and then settled on Tatami.” While tatami is a Japanese floor mat, from a gamer’s perspective the name sounds similar to Atari, a games powerhouse similar to Nintendo.
When it comes to VR, Williams is a fount of information on the pros and cons of the many different types. There is the Samsung Gear, which he describes as “putting your phone in a box and only being able to look around, not move.” Another more common instance is Google cardboard, “a plastic VR box that functions with YouTube’s 360-degree feature for which you need a good phone and signal to function.” Proper, fully-functioning VR includes the more traditional HTC Vibe and Oculus Rift. “Oculus was mostly seeded play but now they both can achieve room scale, which is when you walk in the game and become fully immersed in the game world itself,” he says coolly.
Since Tatami is still new, the logistical side is not yet nailed down. “We don’t have a physical space where people can come and play yet,” says Williams, “but setting up events at co-working spots like Draftboard and starting off free is still our main goal.” This reflects his vision of creating a space to bring people together and socialise through technology, similar to how he grew up. Tatami is still a side project because they don’t want to grow it too fast before they build a solid customer base. Meanwhile, Williams is fully immersed in games and technology. “I also run a development company that works on its own games.”
Tatami is not all about VR though; other games consoles are an important component. The Nintendo Switch, was available at the last event alongside PS4 and Xbox, Williams says, highlighting Tatami’s diversity. “With VR we personally do a lot of The Lab which is the introductory game by Steam and Valve to allow people to get into it; its the archery one where you shoot trolls and defend the castle,” he laughs. Since VR is still a new experience for most people, easing people into it is crucial, he explains, as “there are still many issues like helping people getting used to the motions.” All in all, Williams wants Tatami “to be a place where you can socialise and play games and enjoy yourselves.”