Two Bit Circus is the creation of engineers, inventors and roboticists Eric Gradman and Brent Bushnell. The company builds social games and experiences which engage and inspire, redefining play. It also provides a platform for developers and inventors.
Eric Gradman spoke to Blooloop about Two-Bit Circus and how it came about. He also gave an insight into the company’s strategy, plans and future developments.
Gradman’s background is in robotics rather than the entertainment space. “For seven years I was a rapid prototyper and a roboticist,” he says. “I quite enjoyed that. But after a certain amount of time, I found myself working on projects that I wasn’t so excited about.
“Robotics is now quite well established in the civilian space, but then the only people who wanted robots was the military. Eventually, I was finding myself looking for other ways to use all the fun knowledge I was gaining as part of my job.”
At this point, he met and teamed up with co-founder Brent Bushnell.
“We brought together a group of nerds,” says Gradman. “Then we all just started creating art: interactive things that people could play with. We didn’t realise it was art at the time.
“We would bring them to events, and after a time that kind of morphed into building games.”
Building unusual games
Because they approached the endeavour from an unusual perspective, the games were unusual: “They used modern sensors and they used some megatronics. They were often designed for many people to play at once because we were installing them at events.
“That was the start of nearly 10 years of the two of us working together. Building high-tech immersive adventures, and crazy games. It has been quite a ride.”
The partners’ first start-up, Versix, which preceded Two Bit Circus. Was similar to what they are doing now. He says:
“Our idea then was to create out-of-home experiences in malls on a small scale. Now, our job is to create crazy out-of-home experiences in malls and public places on a large scale.”
The growing retailtainment phenomenon is paying into this as retailers are faced with the need to diversify:
“It should be no surprise that Two Bit Circus intends to open up more locations. Our facility could drop into any number of malls or retail spaces all around the country, and all around the world. We are proud of that.
“I think that we have really proven that, at this scale, you can pack this place with people, and show them all a good time. And you can have fun, and make money doing it.”
Two Bit Circus – a futuristic carnival
Two Bit Circus strikes a balance between a futuristic feel and an old-style carnival that taps into a zeitgeist. It is exactly what people want.
“I think the futuristic carnival theme really does resonate with people,” says Gradman. “It’s a little bit of what they recognise, and a little bit of what they don’t. We don’t want to focus too much on the future, because that can be scary. And we don’t want to focus too much on the past, because they’ve seen that before.
“But with Two Bit Circus’s theme, I think we have really managed to strike a good balance. It is a super fun theme to play with.
There is so much great imagery from circus history that we get to play with. From jugglers to clowns to the three rings of the circus, to the unicycle. There is just an infinity of places to go with it.”
Over the past year, Two Bit Circus has hosted a series of esports tournaments and an immersive, virtual reality (VR) wellness experience. It also runs regular VR/AR gaming ‘Beta Nights’ at the Micro-Amusement Park in downtown Los Angeles.
In addition to this, it recently launched its ‘Park as a Platform’ developer programme for location-based entertainment.
“This place is a platform,” says Gradman. “There is no one form of entertainment that is most valued at Two Bit Circus. We really love them all.”
We have this special opportunity to be able to share the audience which we have built, with up-and-coming game developers and experience designers
“As new forms of entertainment arise, as AR slowly replaces VR, XR and whatever letter follows that, Two Bit Circus is going to be the place where those forms of entertainment appear and thrive. We are making a platform for developers, for entertainers, for performers to take advantage of our natural audience and use it, essentially, to experiment.”
The Beta Night is, Gradman says, his favourite night of the month.
“It is when we open the doors to creative people who have crazy prototypes, and games that are almost ready.”
“It’s free to come visit, and it’s free to come play, for our guests. But what they are playing is a mix of our games, and also games that nobody has ever played before.
“We have this special opportunity to be able to share the audience which we have built, with up-and-coming game developers and experience designers. They can test their experiences on a wide range of people.”
This is, he says, an opportunity most developers will never have:
“It’s an opportunity I wish I’d I had. But come to Two Bit Circus, sign up to Beta Night as a creator, and you have a night with hundreds and hundreds of people who are self-selected to play crazy new things, and who will give you feedback.
“It’s just a wonderful night. I love it.”
This is a resource not only for up-and-coming developers but also for those who, having been previously successful, can test out-of-home content.
“So many games are designed for home and mobile. Increasingly, developers are realising there are a lot of people that want to have experiences in real life.”
Designing for location-based or out-of-home experiences is a very different process, he says, from designing for mobile or desktop, or a board game:
“There are certain things you have to take into account that you wouldn’t otherwise have to consider, such as theatricality.”
“If you walk into Two Bit Circus and look around, everything is big, bold, grand, and lit. There is a presentational element to everything that happens. I think that is very important for giving people a memorable out-of-home experience.”
Two Bit Circus: championing all games
That experience doesn’t have to be high-tech: Two Bit Circus is a champion of all games, including board games.
“At Two Bit Circus, we love prototyping new board games,” says Gradman. “We allow people who create boardgames to showcase their stuff. We have run events at the park where the people who developed Exploding Kittens have tested new stuff.”
“In fact, my favourite games are not high-tech at all. The thing that I love the most about games and designing experiences is not what the tech can give you, but what the game theory and behavioural economics can give you.
“I am always interested to see how a little tweak to a game can change the human dynamic of the group playing it.”
“Upwards of 60% of the games at Two Bit Circus were developed by us. Some of them we built long ago, as one-offs, which found a new life in Two Bit Circus. Many of them were developed specifically for this site and for new future sites.”
Dr Botcher’s Minute Medical School
Two Bit Circus has just released a new story room game. Story rooms are a narrative-based departure from the ubiquitous escape rooms.
“We absolutely adore escape rooms. But escape rooms have a fundamental problem, which is that you are trying to get out of them as quickly as possible. We are trying to give you an experience that you want to linger in; an experience that you want to enjoy. From the moment it starts to the moment it naturally ends.”
“Our story room feels a little bit more like stepping into an episode of a television show, where you get to play the role of one of the characters. The story can last from 20 to 40 minutes. For those who have done escape rooms, there are a lot of familiar things to play with and to touch. But there are no padlocks and no arbitrary puzzles.
“Dr Botcher’s Minute Medical School, for example, is an operating room. On the table in the centre of the room is an orange creature, a puppet of sorts.
“You are going to be performing surgery on him, while simultaneously connecting him up to intravenous drugs which are arrayed on the wall. Everything from Mom’s spaghetti sauce to tequila to placebos.
“There is a microscope: you have to look into his bloodstream and destroy pathogens. It is physical objects brought to life through software and sensors. It’s ridiculous, and it’s a lot of fun.”
Two Bit Circus embodies certain industry trends: immersive, active experiences for adults; experiences where participants are protagonists, not passive onlookers. Gradman expands on this:
“People want active experiences, but I think at the very core they want unique experiences. To some degree, that is driven entirely by narcissism. People want to take a cool picture of themselves doing something awesome and to share it with their friends.
“It’s hard to take a picture of yourself playing a video game in your basement. People are seeking out new things they can do; interesting experiences that are different from everyone else’s.
Everyone wants to stand out. And sending people out into the world to do new things is a great trend.”
It is, however, a trend with a downside:
“People do all those things with the phone in their hand, and that is a pernicious trend. We try and keep your hands full. You should have a drink in one hand, and a wrecking ball in the other. And you should always be having so much fun that you are too busy to pull out your phone.”
Systems are in the place throughout the park that automatically capture selfies. This means that people don’t have to do it themselves, yet they still have plenty of photos to share on social media.
“Millennials, especially, are looking for interesting things at every scale,” says Gradman. “They will go out for a whole night of immersive theatre, they will go out to play a video game that no one has ever played.”
“It’s got to be unique. It’s got to be unlike what their friends have done, it’s got to be Instagrammable and it’s got to be pretty.”
The future of Two Bit Circus
“We intend to open up more sites,” says Gradman. “We’ve really had a wonderful success here at Two Bit Circus in Los Angeles.
“We will be creating crazy new experiences and we are developing new ones every single day. This is a company that was created by people who can’t help themselves from building new things. We are compelled to do it.
“And so we keep doing it. We have lots of reason to keep building new things.”
Images kind courtesy of Two Bit Circus