Tim Harader was so fascinated by Virtual Reality gaming a couple of years ago that he left his job as a business-development manager at Microsoft and, along with his wife Page, opened Portal, a VR arcade and lounge in Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood.
“I had originally started the Ballard location as a way to make extra money for college for my kids,” he explained. “The idea was that I was going to get that up and running, have somebody manage it, and I would keep my job. Because I got excited about it and was working crazy hours, something had to give. I thought, you know, I’m just going to go for it. I wanted to take a chance.”
The Seattle space, which opened in the spring of 2017, offers 10 gaming booths, accommodates up to 50 people, and is located in a 2,500 square foot storefront along busy Market Street.
This weekend, the Haraders will open a second arcade, this time on the Eastside. The new spot, located at 2105 140th Ave. NE in Bellevue, will be 1,000 square feet larger, include 12 gaming booths, accommodate about 130 people, and offer a separate room for group events, such as birthday parties or company gatherings.
Grand opening festivities begin on Sat., Dec. 15, at 12 p.m., and feature half-price booth rentals and the opportunity to don HTC VIVE headsets to compete for prizes against KISS-FM morning host Anthony in a Beat Saber tournament.
Last week, Tim Harader took a break from helping to build out the Bellevue space to talk about the growing interest in VR arcades and what visitors to the new Eastside VR Portal Arcade and Lounge can expect.
Q: How did you become interested in VR and decide to open Portal?
A: I had tried VR and I was just blown away by it. I had an Xbox, but only because I worked at Microsoft for the Xbox group, in business development and marketing. I was never a big gamer.
When I tried VR, the interesting thing about it was that it wasn’t just for gamers. It wasn’t a technology that you had to know a lot about to enjoy. It was all about being transported to a different world. The fact that that would appeal to anyone of any age, any background, was really attractive to me. I thought it would be really cool to have a place where people could come do this without having to buy (a VR system).
Q: Operating a VR arcade seems like an unconventional business. When you opened Portal in Seattle, did you know what to expect in terms of business and revenue?
A: It’s a very unconventional business. Not only are there not a lot of VR arcades, but the ones that have been built are more like retail spaces. You come in, you play, and you leave. There’s no spectator element or social element. You can’t hang out.
We wanted to build a very social space. We serve prepackaged snacks, soda, and beer. People can just relax. It’s common for a parent to come in with their tween or teen, sit and do some work on their computer, have a beer, and relax while their kids are playing. It’s not a loud environment like a traditional arcade. It’s relaxed because everyone has headphones on. All you hear is the ambient music that we play. Sometimes, you will hear people laughing and screaming as they play. If they are playing something scary, people scream. That’s really funny.
Also, in any space where you are providing a service, it’s all about the utilization and density of the usage. I knew I had to hit a certain density in order to make it a sustainable business. We charge by the time slice, so you can only fit so many time slices into a day. Multiply that by the number of available slots, and it’s pretty easy to come up with what you think your revenue is going to be.
Still, that was kind of hard because I had to figure out if I was going to be 30 percent busy or 80 percent busy. I didn’t really know. I needed to hit 30 percent utilization to break even. We have done better than that. It’s been great. It started slow and then it’s kind of built. Now, it’s very steady, very predictable. I’m expecting Bellevue to be the same.
Q: When I think of arcades, I think of the 1980s with Pac-Man and Donkey Kong. Are VR arcades the next iteration of that?
A: This is different because it’s a more intimate experience. It’s not just fun. It can be kind of an emotional experience, as well. When people first start playing VR, they get emotionally and physically tired very fast. It takes some time to build up your stamina because your brain is working in ways it hasn’t worked before. It’s trying to figure out why it is that it sees and hears something that it knows is not really there. When you go a step further and can interact with that thing, it confuses you even more because your brain is saying: Wait. Is that there, or is it not there?
We’ve got this great experience in Ballard called “the plank,” which we are going to have in Bellevue, as well. You get in an elevator and go up 50 stories. When the elevator doors open, there is nothing but a plank 500 feet above the street. You have to walk out on the plank, which kind of wiggles a little bit. We built a physical plank that is only a few inches off the ground and it’s a little bit wiggly. Your brain is really fooled. You can’t believe it’s so real. We usually ask people to step off the plank. There is that moment of hesitation when you take one step off, before you feel the ground, where you are just not sure if you are going to fall all the way down. It’s fascinating.
Q: What kind of games do people play at Portal?
A: It’s such a wide range of games. Of course, you have the first-person shooter games, where you have a gun, a bow and arrow, or a certain shield and you are fighting the enemy. Those are single-player or multi-player — you either cooperate with other people or play against them.
We have a lot of escape rooms where you are in a location and trying to figure out how to get out or move onto the next step. Those are single-player or multi-player, so you can all be in the same room, looking at each other’s avatars, talking to each other, and trying to figure out the puzzles and escape the room. It’s a lot of fun.
(Another experience) is where you are in a hang glider and on an island course. You lie down on a platform and you’ve got a bar just like a hang glider. You move by controlling the bar. You go through as many hoops and rack up as many points as you can during your time. It really feels like you are flying. It’s really cool.
We even have a VR museum with a collection of works of art from different museums around the world and all in one place. You walk through it and look around. In some ways, it’s even a more intimate experience than going to a real museum because you can get right up next to the works of art. For example, on the Mona Lisa, you can get up so close that you can see the texture of the paint on the canvas. It’s neat.
Q: What appealed to you about the Eastside in terms of expanding Portal?
A: I thought Bellevue would be a key second location because of the demographic here. You’ve got wealthy tech families and lots of teenagers with expendable income. You have the Microsoft campus, Amazon buildings, and lots of hi-tech organizations. I wanted to be in a central location where you have an influx of suburban people, but you are close to downtown.
We intend to go to other places, as well. I want to build this into a company that has a lot of company stores, and then also has franchises. We are starting that here in Bellevue. The next location will be Tacoma, hopefully by spring or summer next year. After that, we will probably go up north a little bit, then start franchising in other areas.
Q: For someone interested in visiting Portal in Bellevue, what are the hours of operation and rates?
A: (We will be open) Tuesday through Thursday, 3:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. Friday, 3:30 to midnight. Saturday, noon to midnight. Sunday, noon to 8.
One person in the booth for one hour is $29.95. If you split the booth with up to four people — one person at a time — it’s $39.95 per hour. Ninety minutes is $44.95 for one person, $59.95 for up to four. A half-hour is $19.95 for one person, $24.95 for up to two people. There’s a 15-minute sampler for just $12.95, and that’s just for one person.
We also sell the special attractions à la carte. It’s $4.99 for a turn on “the plank.” The hang glider is $4.99 for five minutes, or $9.99 for 10 minutes.
More information about Portal is available online here.