Aug 18, 2017 Written by: ROG

How VR is changing Prague’s gaming scene

Articles: Gaming
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Wander Prague’s charming old streets, and it’s quickly apparent that this city has a strong gamer culture. LAN cafes are sprinkled throughout neighborhoods, a testament to the country’s gaming habits. But forget consoles: in the Czech Republic, PCs reign supreme.

prague-inclusion-4PCs reign supreme in the Czech Republic, which is why the ROG Strix GL502VS looked right at home at Karlštejn Castle.

It all comes down to the country’s Communist past. Vojta Schubert, a game translator and “pure-blooded” PC gamer, explained why: “We couldn’t really buy consoles officially. Maybe if somebody got [one] and somehow, somewhere brought it… [but] PC culture was embedded, and consoles weren’t really here.” And back then, even computer purchases were heavily regulated by the government. 

It wasn’t until Communism’s fall in 1989 that Western technology became accepted. Even so, it wasn’t automatically more affordable or widely available. Thus, LAN cafes were born. Not everyone could afford a PC or console, but almost everyone could buy time on one.

In the Czech language, LAN cafes are called PC herny. The same word is used to describe casinos, but in this context it means “game rooms.” In a city with tiny apartments, herny were once a necessity, providing an affordable space for gamer gatherings. 

Today, traditional gaming cafes are beginning to disappear. They’re being replaced, slowly but surely, by something completely different. But to explore the future, it’s important to first understand Prague’s past.

LANing it up at Re-Load

prague-vr-6Re-Load Gaming Club is located in Prague 5. It has 20 computers, a small console area with a projector, and refreshments like beer and soda.

Herní Klub Re-Load’s exterior is incongruous with what’s inside. On the surface, it looks like many of Prague’s other ornate, historic buildings. But step in, and it’s a gamer enclave; framed video game art, a Gordon Freeman mural, and a “Keep Calm and Play CS:GO” poster are just a small part of the club’s aesthetic.

Upon entering a PC herna like Re-Load, it’s easy to feel spoiled by other LAN cafes. The gaming loft here is hot, dark, and inexplicably smells like onion chips. Although the price is right at just $2 USD (45 CZK) per hour, the machines can be plagued by technical issues that eat into game time.

Nonetheless, on a sunny spring weekday during school break, both lofts are filled with young gamers. A dark, sweltering one is packed with eight League of Legends and World of Tanks players, while another, mercifully cooler, has ten CS:GO players. 

prague-vr-9A gamer at Re-Load waits for his game to launch.

Even Re-Load, one of Prague’s most popular LAN cafes, is part of a dying breed. These days, most Czech gamers can afford their own PCs, and more players than ever are gaming at home. To survive in this environment, herny have to innovate.

Going to gamer heaven at Geekárna Cafe

prague-vr-25Located in Prague 5, Geekárna Cafe is a “place for all the geeks,” no matter their fandom.

Geekárna Cafe is one such example of innovation, and it’s clear that the owner loves geeks. It shows in every inch of the space, from lovingly-painted wall murals, to an extensive board game collection and menu full of drinks like “Nuka Cola,” “Zerg Rush,” and “Trial of the Grasses”—references to Fallout, StarCraft, and The Witcher. 

No, this isn’t a traditional LAN cafe. Instead, it’s a pub where geeks of all stripes can meet, talk, and play. The first of its kind in the Czech Republic, Geekárna has become a local fixture. You can nerd out over the latest Marvel movie with bartenders one minute and discuss the finer points of Overwatch strategy the next. 

prague-vr-29Owner Kay Vrátná wanted to combine her business know-how and love for all things geeky into a business. The result? Wildly popular Geekárna Cafe.

Owner Kay Vrátná’s business idea is brilliant. After all, the Czech Republic has a huge pub culture. And while it may not be a traditional LAN cafe, Geekárna hosts plenty of gaming events, including CS 1.9 and Overwatch LANs, PS4 and Xbox events, and the BlizzFan Christmas. They’ve even played Slender: The Eight Pages on a projector in the back room. It was their most memorable event yet: lights off and plunged into bone-chilling darkness, there was a lot of screaming. In the future, they’ll be holding even more events like this, including an Until Dawn gaming session with Czech streamer Baty Alquawen. 

LANs aren’t the only thing on Vrátná’s list. Next up, she wants to begin incorporating virtual reality. Until recently, she’s been limited by space and equipment. But now that her friend owns a VR headset, she envisions they can clear out the back room and host some events. It just comes down to having the right PCs. The problem? VR desktops are heavy, take up lots of space, and have a mess of cables. Thankfully, something like the ROG Strix GL502VS would be perfect. VR-ready laptops are more powerful than some desktops, plus way more portable and compact. Bring the GL502VS in a backpack, plug it in, and it’s good to go. Geekárna could easily offer VR events without cluttering their space.

prague-vr-26Geekárna’s back room has a projector, TV, whiteboard, and tons of board games. In the future, Vrátná envisions it’s the perfect space for VR events.

Vrátná’s business ingenuity is what keeps her customers coming back for more. Even on weeknights, the pub is packed until the early hours. In the future, she envisions a second location, tentatively dubbed Geekárna 2.0, with dedicated gaming and VR stations. But, for now, she’s content running the original.

By straddling the line between pub and gaming space, Geekárna is carving out a completely unique place in Prague’s gamer scene. What’s more, in an environment where PC game rooms are slowly dying, Geekárna is not only surviving, but thriving.

Enter a new challenger: VR game rooms

With the advent of virtual reality, a modern counterpart to PC game rooms has emerged. If PC herny were Prague’s past, then VR herny are its future. 

In the last couple years, Prague startup owner and VR enthusiast David Vavra has become very familiar with VR game rooms. He first noticed them on Slevomat, a Czech daily deals site much like Groupon. He bought a coupon and became totally hooked. Vavra likens VR game rooms to PC ones: “When I was a child, we couldn’t afford computers. Now it’s the same, but with VR. We can’t afford the HTC Vive, so we go to these cafes.” 

But, unlike the slowly disappearing, relatively homogeneous LAN cafes, there are numerous VR game rooms in Prague, with more popping up and lots of variety. To better understand Prague’s gaming future, we looked at three drastically different VR experiences: basic pay-to-play, premium pay-to-play, and a VR escape room with a twist.

Pay-to-play at Keen VR

First stop: Keen VR, which is tucked in an underground space. Their pay-to-play model is closest to traditional LAN cafes. Buy 30 or 60 minutes, and you get a room, VR headset, and game library. 

At $21 USD (500 CZK) per hour, the price is steep compared to traditional LANs, particularly for solo players. And, although the four rooms vary significantly—there’s a big couch room, a medium alcove, and two smaller, curtained cubbies the size of generous dressing rooms—they're priced the same. The website says up to five players can fit in each area, but the smallest ones aren’t particularly group-friendly. Also, simultaneous play isn’t possible without booking multiple rooms and doubling the hourly cost. 

Upon arrival, our group was relegated to a cubby that seemed designed with one or two players in mind. Hugging the walls to avoid flailing players isn’t an ideal situation, so most people alternated in and out. The experience wasn’t the group activity we’d hoped for, even if we had fun trying a variety, including The Lab, Job Simulator, and Space Pirate Trainer. 

Jennifer Nicholls, one of the players, pointed out that “the most frustrating thing was standing around because only one person plays at a time. Especially in that little ‘dressing room’ [because] there were no chairs.” Players also found the walls and short headset tether were limiting. 

Sadly, Keen VR isn’t well-designed to accommodate groups and left us feeling like the optimal user experience was sacrificed to fit more rooms. We also found ourselves wanting a better multiplayer experience. Surely there’s more to VR’s future than simply renting a headset and an oversized cubicle.

Getting immersed at Klub Virtuální Reality

prague-vr-17Located close to the river in Prague 2, Klub Virtuální Reality offers premium pay-to-play VR with extra attention to detail.

Like Keen VR, Klub Virtuální Reality offers pay-to-play hourly VR; even their price point is the same. But, unlike many others, owner Martin Rajtr is passionate about ensuring everyone has a positive experience and comes away loving it. 

This attention to detail shows. There are only two rooms, because he insists upon having the right amount of space. And, during our session, both he and employee Marek Seghman monitored the equipment to make sure everything was properly adjusted. 

Rajtr believes Klub Virtuální Reality offers more compelling services than other game rooms. The pricing may be similar to others, but the experience is more premium. His herna is the only one in Prague with a racing chair and force-feedback steering wheel, a flight chair with HOTAS, and for daring players, a wooden plank for Richie’s Plank Experience.

I got a chance to try all three, beginning with Aerofly2 in the airplane seat. Many have compared the game to Flight Simulator. No wonder: it was immediately nostalgic, right down to piloting a Cessna. But, quite unlike my former flight sim days, when I banked this plane my brain was fully convinced the world was tilting. Angling the joystick even more, I felt I might slide out of the flight chair. The most disorienting part, however, was when the real world and virtual one were at odds, like differences between the real-life and VR HOTAS. More than once, I reached over to flip a switch or press a button that simply didn’t exist in real life. These small cognitive dissonances were reminders of how quickly VR fools your brain.

Project CARS on the HTC Vive was brilliant. In a racing sim acclaimed for being “ferocious,” “tactical,” and “demanding,” VR takes everything that’s already great and makes it even better. It gives the game’s realistic weather, stunning supercars, and beautiful tracks something even an army of wraparound displays can’t buy: true immersion. I palpably felt the effects of a torrential thunderstorm, instinctively squinting to see through the obfuscating rain, slicing windshield wipers, and dense tire spray. I closed my eyes when my McLaren P1 spun out and flinched when flanking cars got too close for comfort. The other accessories only added to the visceral realism; I kept my left foot on the brake and right foot on the gas, just like a real racer. When I lost control on the rain-slick road, the steering wheel violently jerked from my grasp. I soon found myself cursing the thunderstorm, which had seemed like such a good idea during track configuration. 

Trying again in a sunnier setting, I was quickly reminded of the nail-biting pace of an old favorite, Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit. That is, if NFS: HP could actually make you feel every grueling turn in the pit of your stomach. In Project CARS VR, I was completely engrossed in the pulse-pounding, wheel-gripping, white-knuckled frenzy. I won’t claim to truly know what it’s like racing cars, but with the wheel humming beneath my fingers, the McLaren’s roar in my ears, and competitors creeping into my periphery, my heart was in my throat as I jockeyed for victory around the Brno circuit. For a brief moment, I felt like I was right there, putting everything on the line for one more lap.

Racing and flying are one thing, but when they busted out the wooden plank for Richie’s Plank Experience, I felt uncharacteristically nervous. With the HTC Vive strapped to my head, a wooden plank under my feet, and a tiny virtual city spread out below, my palms became instantly sweaty. Somehow, the knowledge that it wasn’t real and I could take off the headset didn’t change my brain’s perception in the slightest.

When I eventually mustered the courage to step over the edge, I did so sideways rather than forward, first inching one foot and then the other off the plank and feeling for the carpet. Only after firmly stepping off to the side and onto terra firma did my character plummet to the ground. Emboldened, I was tempted to try again and actually walk the plank, straight off the end and into empty air. But, on second thought… perhaps not. Even skydivers have their limits. 

While Keen VR left us feeling disappointed, Klub Virtuální Reality restored our faith. It reveals that VR game rooms aren’t just about renting a headset and a room. By providing a variety of peripherals, places like this augment virtual reality in ways that are sure to bring even VR headset owners back for more. 

Making an escape at Torch VR

prague-vr-3Located in Prague 2, Torch VR hands-down has one of the nicest locations. Their main game room looks like something straight from science fiction.

Torch VR isn’t your typical VR game room. Instead of solo pay-to-play, they’re offering something totally unique to the Czech Market: VR escape rooms. 

Gamers familiar with real-life escape rooms know the drill: a group is locked in a room, and to get out, they solve a series of progressively-harder puzzles under a time crunch. These “real-life video games” have become wildly popular. Adding VR unlocks exciting possibilities for puzzles that defy the laws of physics, flying, teleportation… and, above all, cooperative multiplayer. 

Torch VR settled upon escape rooms for good reason. Co-owner Jorge Torales’ market research revealed that people wanted something more social than solo VR. In his search for multiplayer experiences, he discovered Avatarico, a company licensing five-player, Leap Motion-based escape room games. Leap's controller-free technology detects players’ hands and provides a less intimidating first-time experience, especially for players unfamiliar with controllers. This is important, because a majority of Torch VR’s customers come from the escape room crowd, not the gaming scene. 

prague-vr-1Co-owner Lea Torales talked about the joys and challenges of running VR escape rooms, including how Leap Motion can make VR more approachable.

Our three-person group tried both the science fiction and horror games. Lea seated us in a room that looked like something out of Battlestar Galactica, bathed by glowing lights and covered in black, triangular tiles. At a desk behind us, she settled in as the game moderator. Oculus headsets in place, we were suddenly in-game as avatars on a spaceship. 

VR aficionados might be surprised to see a room with chairs instead of headset tethers hanging from the ceiling, but these games address two major multiplayer VR issues: locomotion and space constraints. Using Leap Motion for locomotion means players can remain seated during the games, so groups don’t end up stumbling into each other.

There were many interesting gameplay elements, like flying by extending your arms, accessing menus by tapping your wrist, grabbing items mid-air, and working together to manipulate puzzles. It’s true that controller-free VR sometimes felt more natural. However, the games were also buggy, especially when grasping objects or flying. Collaboration wasn’t as deep as we’d have liked, and for escape room aficionados, the experience felt more like a short co-op game with light puzzle elements than a true “escape.”

But VR escape rooms aren’t the only experience Torch VR offers. They’re also the only Czech company with Virtualizer, a “virtual reality treadmill” that enables walking, running, crouching, sitting, and even jumping in a small space. 

prague-vr-2Virtualizer is a unique solution to VR locomotion. Torch VR is the only company in the Czech Republic to offer it.

The Virtualizer takes some getting used to, but it’s an amazing way to experience VR locomotion. It suffers from fewer issues than other methods: there’s no need for a special “backpack,” there are no hazardous cords, and motion sickness is rare. Just step into the padded harness, slip on the black cloth overshoes, and begin sliding your feet on the low-friction pad. The Virtualizer handles the rest, with its three sensors detecting steps, movement direction, and even player height. It takes some getting used to; your feet never quite leave the ground, so it’s like moonwalking inside a giant baby bouncer. However, acclimation is fast once the headset is on.

Vive wands in hand and wrists propped on the rigid outer ring for extra stability, I was dropped into a sci-fi shooter called VR Shooter Guns. Slip-sliding my feet along the pad and moving through the levels, my movements were at first jerky and tentative. With time, I grew more comfortable, relying less on the frame for stability and increasing the pace to a light “jog.” When I remembered that I could turn a full 360 degrees inside the rotating ring, I began using this to my full advantage, spinning around and quickly taking out robots behind me. The experience was surprisingly athletic, but the best part was definitely the ease of movement and immersion. It’s amazing how much cognitive load is reduced by moving naturally instead of thinking about each and every teleport location.

If this isn’t enough, there’s one more reason to visit Torch VR: Lea and Jorge Torales have such incredible enthusiasm for innovation that they’re incubating local indie VR developers whose projects will be incorporated into their future offerings. Torch VR goes above and beyond traditional LANs and pay-to-play VR game rooms. Even with imperfect multiplayer VR and limited Virtualizer game support, their business demonstrates VR’s future potential. It’s only a matter of time before others follow suit. 

On the edge of a virtual revolution

prague-vr-12Klub Virtuální Reality and other VR herny offer gaming space that most Czech apartments simply don’t have.

The Czech Republic has come a long way from its days of limited technology. It all began with LAN cafes, back when few players had money or space for gaming at home. But with these on the decline, VR herny have swooped in. What was once true for PC gaming is now true for virtual reality.

In a month, we barely scratched the surface of Prague’s VR offerings. Other interesting options include Dimension VR’s Icaros, a full-body flying or swimming experience; Kinopilotu, a theater offering VR movies; and Aerosim, an “aerial combat simulator.” This year, Prague even hosted the first-ever Czech VR Fest. 

prague-vr-4Torch VR’s Virtualizer is a completely unique experience that’s as fun to watch as it is to try.

VR game rooms certainly aren’t a perfect replacement for traditional LAN cafes. They’re expensive, and group experiences fall short, but the possibilities are still exciting. Prices will eventually drop, multiplayer VR experiences will improve, and what’s available now is still compelling. Awesome VR experiences are already out there, whether you’re participating or just watching the hilarity as friends stand on the precipice of wooden planks. With over 10 virtual reality game rooms in Prague alone, the Czech Republic has clearly entered a VR revolution. 

In the last few years, the Czech gaming scene has undergone massive change, and gamers are reaping the benefits. Once, PC gaming reigned supreme. But today, virtual reality is the new king.

By Kimberly Koenig

Articles: Gaming
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