The fourth-generation heir to the Barnes & Noble bookstores fortune, Mr. Barnes is a buttoned-down CEO in his late 40s with 3D animation expertise and B-school savvy. He's a man on a mission who believes that the fun center industry is ready to take a major leap forward to a greater quality of gameplay-and also a greater quality of social and psychological impact. This spring... after eight years of careful research, experimentation and development...Mr. Barnes is stepping forth from the obscurity of his small offices and rented garage in Mountain View, Calif., into the full glare of the amusement industry's critical gaze. He's unveiling his hardware and software manufacturing company, SimulTainment, and a line of simulator cabinets and games that he terms "revolutionary."
RePlay has seen the products firsthand and talked with Mr. Barnes and two key players on his team. We can tell you confidently, this guy is for real. He has studied all the previous simulator makers-the flops as well as the successes-and has done his best to emulate their strengths, while correcting their weaknesses. He has also employed the expertise of top pros in the military simulation biz like Roy Latham (president of Computer Graphics Systems Development Corp., a major military and commercial contractor) and advanced flight-sim expert Bob Beken...plus dozens of other talents in the fields of design, hardware, software, networking, animation, graphics, sound, touchscreen interfaces, you name it. And, on the face of it, Mr. Barnes has invested a considerable sum into making his vision a reality.
So what has SimulTainment got to offer? Plenty:
· a superb two-seat, fully interactive flight simulator called the SimCab that (for once) is not programmed to slam you around to the point of nausea.
· an upright vidgame cabinet called SimStation with two displays.
· a networking system that can link several SimStations with a SimCab or two, for larger group gameplay experiences.
· and a lot of controlling software to ensure everything about SimCab's ride and its connections to the uprights is smooth, smooth, smooth.
The total combined setup, called "SimArcade," also yields higher player throughput per hour and lower cost per player station than just selling pricey motion simulators alone, of course.
Trade pros know that great hardware is of little use, without a great game to play. Does SimulTainment have a great game? Quite possibly, yes. The company offers a nifty sports-adventure-flying game called AeroBall, along with a full library of race, rescue and shooting games. Mr. Barnes is currently selling the SimArcade system to LBEs, theme parks, movie theaters, fun center chains and even arcades, supported by a full software library that can appeal to repeat customers or high-traffic locations alike.
"The FEC market needs to offer a quality improvement over home PC games," John Barnes declares. "Different simulator companies have succeeded at different elements. One does theming well, another does good flight sims. Others may do excellent software; and still others have a good motion base. But until now, nobody has put it all together. We think we have, and we are inviting industry members to come see what we've got. We completed our first SimCab prototype in October and we're building to order. Our SimArcade concept is a high-profile attraction guaranteed to be a people magnet."
Founded in 1992, SimulTainment grew out of Mr. Barnes's own passions for sports, video games and flying. "I just figured that if I was going to give something back to society it was going to have to be fun," he explained. "I love to fly-I had my own plane at the time the company was started. I love computer graphics, too, and I was working for a 3D modeling and animation software company. I also loved playing lacrosse in school. So I ended up putting all three of those together."
SimCab is touted as "the first recreational flight simulator to provide FAA accurate motion cues, [thus giving] players the most realistic experience they've ever seen". SimulTainment boasts of "smooth, accurate motion, combined with two collimated 'out-the-window' displays which put the focus point at infinity, where eye muscles relax...this means that players can ride all day without fatigue."
This reporter tried the unit for several minutes and can testify that it is unusually realistic, yet smooth and easy on the eyes (and the inner ear). Other SimCab features include custom joysticks, linked throttles, rudder pedals (which new players can ignore), two conformal vibration seats (Recarro), three 15" color touchscreen "glass cockpit" displays (including two moving map displays), real 3D surround sound, high resolution imagery (800 x 600 with 24 bits of color), one attendant, high priority on-site support, and free factory training.
As for SimulTainment's first game, AeroBall was carefully researched to give males the adrenaline rush they require, while also providing some of the socially-interactive, cooperative, and exploration themes that appeal to females. Players pilot aerocars over a volcanic jungle island. Their first task is to seek, find and capture a soccer ball that is placed in plain sight somewhere on the island. Perhaps they also do a bit of dogfighting with each other (optional); they can do aerial bumper car action as well. Then they race to a sports stadium in the center of the island. Once inside, they must maneuver around each other to pass the ball to teammates or shoot the ball at a goal. Plenty of full-contact, bumper-car type action and blocking of opponents' shots adds to the fun.
Unlike the software that comes with many sophisticated simulators, AeroBall starts with a simple, intuitive premise and easy tasks. Gameplay grows harder and deeper only when players look for more challenges...that is, as their skills develop. This element of "walk up and play-and have fun instantly" was carefully and deliberately designed by Mr. Barnes and company. As the SimulTainment president explained:
"I'm an avid computer gamer myself and I really wanted something that would be fun for PC gamers, but would solve the problem that they're way too hard. It's frustrating when you're always dying! In an FEC, you can't frustrate people that much; you need to give them easy stuff so their first step is successful. Then you notch it up, making sure they are also successful on the second step and building up their self-confidence along with their skills."
Basic stats on the SimCab show it standing 11'8" high by 15'6" long and 12'7" wide (with doors open). It runs on 115 volts AC at 50-60 Hz single phase using an L5-30 connector. The SimStation, which is the upright, features a 29" upper screen that shows your aerocar's out-the-window view, plus a 15" lower touchscreen display that gives you a moving map. SimulTainment has volumes of detailed technical specs for anyone who is interested, as well as a good video tape they can send.
Impressive as the technology is, however, the most impressive thing about SimulTainment remains the vision and passion of its founder. "The power of this form of entertainment is a natural progression from books and movies," declares John Barnes. "A realistic virtual world has power that goes way beyond anything Hollywood has to offer. We can offer enhanced self-esteem. We can offer the thrill of victory, the high of achievement. Yet we must beware of falling into the bloody, gratuitous violence that has became so prevalent in today's popular culture. The trick is, how can the games industry offer an experience that safely creates the same adrenaline rush that you get from full contact sports like football, hockey, or lacrosse? That's what it's all about-not violence, not blood. Guys want their adrenal glands simulated and girls want a sense of exploration and discovery. We think simulators, at their best, can offer experiences that are not just entertaining but life-changing...and that's what we're setting out to do!"
If the pay-for-play games industry is going to recreate itself on a higher level, this may be precisely the kind of fresh, ambitious thinking that is required. To learn more about SimulTainment and its products, contact the company at 2483 Old Middlefield Way, #140, Mountain View, CA 94043-2330. Voice and fax are 888/221-8628 toll-free from anywhere in the USA; or 312/893-0715 from overseas. Both phone numbers connect to a computer program that will track down the appropriate staff in their offices, the lab, their cars or cell phones. Email John Barnes at jm@BarnesHQ.com or Bob Beken at SimFun@n2.net.
Note: Simcab and SimArcade are registered trademarks of SimulTainment. The names SimulTainment and AeroBall are also registered to the company.
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