The Arena to The Oasis: Spielberg’s first ambitious video game endeavor

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Jan 8, 2019, 5:24 PM EST (Updated)

A futuristic landscape... Where video game technology is cutting edge... And the best players are celebrated as heroes... A place brought to life by legendary filmmaker Steven Spielberg.

Of course, I'm referring to GameWorks, Spielberg's first significant contribution to the video game industry. The '90s venture was supposed to bring arcades back from the dead and into the 21st century, but this particular corner of the filmmaker's career has always been an unlucky one.

This also sounds like the VR world within Ernest Cline's Ready Player One, with Spielberg's film adaptation set to hit theaters on March 30.

From his '70s pinball machine collection to the various arcade cabinets that have occupied his office, Spielberg has never been shy about being an avid video game player. However, he's never made a substantial mark on the industry... though it's certainly not from a lack of trying. Through the decades, there were several Spielberg-driven games and projects that either stalled in development or received an anti-climatic release.


The Dig? Did not pan out. "Steven Spielberg's Director's Chair"? Did not pan out. Medal of Honor? Okay, it's a classic, one that heavily influenced war-themed games such as Call of Duty. Boom Blox also met its fair share of critical and consumer success. But the E.T. Atari game? We'll point you in the direction of a New Mexico landfill.

Despite his massive contribution to other areas of the entertainment industry, such as TV, theme parks, and cineplexes, there's never been a Spielberg impact in video games that lives up to the reputation of his vision and innovation.

He did come close, though.

In its first incarnation, GameWorks looked like the video game wing of Richie Rich's mansion. When a customer looked left they would see a long row of car and motorcycle racing games. To their right, a neon sign pointing you where to buy french fries. Some games involved races that synced up with other players at GameWorks locations across the country. Another game had two players competing while seated on an elevator-like machine that would lift the winning player up in the air, shuttling the losing player downward. Elsewhere, "The Loft" provided guests with a lounge area for taking a break and, in theory, making friends with other players.

"What Spielberg wanted was the idea of a three-ring circus," Jon Snoddy, the senior vice president of design for GameWorks, said in 1997. Snoddy was tasked with attracting the generation that grew up with video games and populated arcade halls. "So we've designed this as a place for people to go with people and meet other people. Our research shows that that's what our customers want."

Poetically enough, Ready Player One and GameWorks share similar names for their multiplayer experiences, "The Oasis" and "The Arena," respectively. While "The Arena" was conceptualized as the section of GameWorks where the very best video game players would compete against each other, "The Oasis" of RPO is an entire VR world built from scratch where most of the book's events take place.

By 2001, Spielberg and Dreamworks had sold off their stake in the company, four years after it began. GameWorks did not bring arcades back from the dead, nor did it improve their reputation for being dark and unsafe. The arcade industry, which had been in constant flux since the famous 1983 video game sales drop-off, seemed doomed to extinction. While it has held onto a handful of locations today, GameWorks ultimately never came to fruition.

Spielberg shouldn't feel bad that this grand concept never properly lined up with '90s culture and the rate of technology advancement. The decade was filled with other video arcades that faced a similar fate. DisneyQuest failed to extend the corporation's empire into cities that weren’t Anaheim and Orlando. It too was an idea that must have looked like a home run during development, but, like GameWorks, missed the mark of where the future of arcades would eventually reside.

Some cinemas and restaurants still offer a microcosm of the arcade experience. But these days, if you find yourself holding a plastic gun and shooting aliens at Area 51 (and aren’t at a 13-year-old's birthday party), the central factor is probably a simple one: booze, as the country has seen an enormous rise in arcade bars over the past decade. From L.A.'s EightyTwo on the West Coast to Davenport's Analog in the Midwest to, well, Barcade in New York, they've all played their part in effectively saving our beloved video game cabinets.

The original tenets behind GameWorks, including cutting-edge technology and encouraging competition and collaboration among its players, would later be what made the online video game platform the behemoth industry it is today. Developers overestimated their target demo's penchant for arcades that don't serve alcohol, and they couldn't foresee how the gamer's desire to collaborate and interact with other players would be fulfilled with the internet a few years later.

Spielberg's not finishing his career without some imprint on the industry, though. He's financially invested in one of the most hyped VR companies around, and in a few months he's bringing the ultimate video game tribute to the big screen. Finally, in the one area that has eluded him for decades, Spielberg has leveled up.