How Indie VR Developers are Bringing Malls Back from the Dead

It sounds crazy, right?

Because let's be frank, malls have been dying for a while. Despite the death of American malls being pretty slow, it's only a matter of time before SOMEONE is going to start bitching that Millennials are killing malls just like we killed napkins, diamonds, and whatever else we're expected to buy with slashed incomes and tripled rents. Real estate speculators are telling investors to get their money the hell out of investment trusts that invest predominantly in malls. In the face of Amazon and our lives being busier than ever due to unrelenting consumer capitalism, we need all that shit we ordered RIGHT NOW without ever leaving the house or putting on pants. And the food courts: who wants nachos covered in something that looks like it came out of Union Carbide at Bhopal when you've got delicious and healthy options on Seamless?

Ergo, those sprawling indoor megaliths that were the center of the universe for suburban American teenagers in the 80s and 90s now resemble the setting for a survival-horror game. But in a twist of fate that you wouldn't even see coming in the most tangled branching narrative ever, indie developers just might be the ones to save these old institutions. Oh yes, YOU, an indie developer who is probably a Millennial thus being two hated birds to be clubbed with the stone simultaneously, just might be the savior of indoor consumer capitalism.

That is, if you're a VR developer!

Virtual reality (VR) is one of the fastest-growing fields in game development and providing immersing experiences for everything from education to marketing. It's not just designed for games either: real estate agencies are using VR to give virtual tours of apartments. Sports managers are selling intense VR experiences so you can be at a live match without leaving your living room. The list goes on.

These experiences can be had at home easily with a VR headset or perhaps in the realtor's office or other appropriate setting. But what sets VR apart from other types of interactive experiences is the simple fact that it can have a lot more horsepower than a PC or console game, with a major offshoot being location-based entertainment (LBE) that takes advantage of huge public spaces. Such as malls, malls that now have tens of thousands of empty square feet.



For many people who grew up in the 80s, going to the mall was just what you did when you had to buy something. "Anchor stores" like Sears, JC Penney, and the like were major destinations while you had hundreds of other smaller shops and specialty kiosks throughout the place. Then there were also the arcades! Long before games like The Last of Us that could take months to finish and the whole debate on friction in F2P economies in the mobile world, you could pop a quarter into a cabinet and play Pac-Man until the ghosts got to you or Tapper until your arm got tired pouring pixellated libations. It was the place to be while your parents were doing something boring like buying new shoes.

Well, arcades are experiencing a rebirth: in VR. All over China, VR arcades are really taking off and it's becoming a global trend. IMAX has plans to open 11 VR parlors around the world and American shopping malls have a fighting chance at returning to their former glory albeit in a different form. IMAX Corporation already opened its first VR parlor in Los Angeles' Fairfax district using experiences created for a room-scale HTC Vive with Starbreeze headsets to offer visitors intense VR experiences such as Star Wars: Trials on Tatooine. The IMAX Experience Centre got over 5,000 visitors shortly after opening and even Forbes is ascribing to the belief that VR experiences, particularly LBE, are bringing malls back from the grave.

So how and why will indie VR developers save the day? (Or rather, leviathan pieces of real estate)

Unlike playing with a VR headset at home where you can tour an apartment with a realtor instead of having to take the time to go out and do so, or order a whole new wardrobe in a couple clicks, you have to actually get up and go out to see a giant and immersive VR experience. You can see sporting events and even concerts in VR at home: but you can't have an experience that requires an entire movie screen or more space than what your home can offer!

And while you're out, hey, chances are you'll pick something up in the mall because you want to get that extra phone cable and don't feel like waiting for a package, or suddenly remember that your child needs a new shirt. And if you're hungry or thirsty after chasing all those VR zombies, you're also bound to drop some bucks at the food court or on-site restaurant. It's a whole chain reaction that results from getting people out to malls to begin with, which just wasn't happening in recent years thanks to different (and for many people, better) options we just didn't have in the past.



But LBEs that take advantage of massive public spaces are just one piece of the puzzle. Remember those cancerous nachos I mentioned earlier? Well, Millennials are going to get blamed for killing yet even more things yet also be told we spend too much money on kale and craft beer. Did you know there's places where you can get kale, craft beer, AND a VR experience all in the same place?! Dude, that's what we want instead of another shitty chain restaurant in these places coughing out their last breath as we place orders from the phone.

The rise of "bar-cade" type establishments (like the mini-franchise of the actual name Barcade) is also spiking real fast just like VR arcades themselves. People love going to neighborhood bar-cades not just in cities and the main drag in large suburbs, but they're bound to pop up in shopping malls at this rate in lieu of McDonalds and Chili's.

The demand for fantastic new VR experiences is going to keep growing because people will want to see something different each time they go. Indie developers are the chief risk-takers who push the envelope in terms of themes, narrative, and gameplay itself: and if our work can get out to thousands of people at IMAX centers or just a few hundred locals every weekend at the local mall's bar-cade, it can even prove to be more financially viable than hitting Steam and for PC games and hoping for the best.