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Sandbox VR, the creator of premium location-based virtual reality experiences, has joined forces with Netflix to launch a cool virtual reality experience based on the hit streaming video series Squid Game. And signups are now available at Sandbox VR locations. The games start on September 29.
With over 265 million views on Netflix, Squid Game has become the most-watched streaming series of all time. Starting September 29, fans will have the opportunity to immerse themselves in the thrilling world of Squid Game through a full-body VR experience at more than 40 Sandbox VR locations.
I played it at the company’s San Francisco location on Market Street and it was quite amusing. I came in last place, which is good to know should I ever need to depend on my survival skills in real life.
The Squid Game Virtuals VR experience at Sandbox VR transports players to iconic locations from the series, where they become contestants in intense challenges inspired by the show. Fortunately for players, Sandbox VR version is a little more forgiving than the Netflix show. For instance, nobody really dies in a bloody mess. It’s not a graphic version of Squid Game.
When you arrive at the location, you sign in for your appointment. Some people walk in. But it’s best if you sign up ahead of time with your team. You get a briefing video on the experience, and it includes tips like not running into your teammates while wearing the headsets.
Earlier versions of Sandbox VR’s games had you wearing heavy VR headsets attached by cable to backpacks, which were kind of like giant batteries. But this time, I strapped on some sensors that cameras could sense to track movement, and I wore a VR headset. But it was pretty light and there was no backpack.
There are eight games altogether at each Sandbox VR locations. Your group of up to six players can play for around 30 minutes, and get perhaps six games done during that time. You compete against each other to get the most points and win the Piggy Bank. The losers are all “eliminated.” If you want to play all eight games, you’ll have to go back more than once.
While the show is quite serious, maddening and horrifying, this experience is just fun. Your whole body is the game controller.
You do make life or death decisions that can result in your elimination. Players will compete against each other in games such as “Red Light, Green Light”‘ and “Cross the Glass Bridge,” along with new twists that expand on the world of Squid Game. After each game session, players will receive personalized highlight videos showcasing their in-game reactions and recapping their unique Squid Game story.
Like the show, Red Light, Green Light has you quietly making baby steps while the head of the big watcher is turned away. But as soon as she says Red Light, you have to freeze. Otherwise, you turn into a white ghost, floating around and losing precious seconds while those who aren’t frozen can move and retrieve precious coins. The difference between Sandbox VR and the show? No sniper takes your head off if you are caught moving during the red light.
In the game Cross the Glass Bridge, the show has a long bridge with glass titles on it. You can step on glass to your left or your right. If you step on the right glass, you can continue across the bridge. If you step on the wrong tile, it shatters and you fall to your death. With Sandbox VR, the bridge was only three tiles long. I walked successfully onto the first tile, but then my foot landed on a glass that shattered.
Suddenly, I found myself plunging into the darkness. Or so I thought. While I knew I was in a VR experience, my knee actually buckled and a fell onto the floor. I got up, embarrassed. Then I was out of the action for a bit while I relocated to the start of the bridge. Then I got going again, racing the clock.
Like in the show, there are chances to either collaborate with others or sabotage them. You can lead people to do the wrong things, or outright lie to them in a cooperative game. You can make a secret alliance if you want and backstab others.
There are story-like elements. When you are in a room with other survivors, there are AI characters who gossip among each other and talk about things like the money or their chances of survival.
At the close of the mini games, you go through a ranking ceremony. The one with the most points survives the experience, with all the fake money. If you want to beat your score, you can come back again.
“It brings back the super-competitive aspect in people,” said Steve Zhao, CEO of Sandbox VR, in an interview with GamesBeat. “It’s fun and yet really accessible too.”
Creating the game
There was more communication on this game, but not necessarily a bigger budget. That’s because Sandbox VR is scrappy.
Sandbox VR is a rare survivor itself in the Squid Game of the location-based VR industry, where companies like The Void went down during the pandemic. Sandbox VR had to shut its stores and lay off a lot of people, stripping down to a bare-bones team in Hong Kong during the lockdown.
But it kept on making new entertainment experiences using state-of-the-art virtual reality technology, such as sensors that track the movements of your arms, head, and feet. Their patented motion-tracking technology captures the movements of players’ entire bodies, combined with a high-quality haptic system that provides unparalleled realism and complete immersion.
Unlike home VR or other location-based VR platforms, Sandbox VR’s technology allows guests to physically interact with each other while being precisely tracked in VR.
Zhao said that the team was talking with Netflix in 2019, and it showed them its Star Trek experience before the pandemic hit. But with COVID-19, Zhao said the company went into “hibernation.”
“We were a bare bones team just trying to survive,” he said.
All of the stores were shut. By 2021, the world started opening back up and people started coming out in droves to the locations after being cooped up. And so the conversations started with Netflix again, and they discussed intellectual properties where they could collaborate.
After Sandbox VR raised $37 million in November 2021, the company was able to start opening new locations again. As it thought about what it could do with Netflix, Zhao said the team knew that creating a full-body experience that took full advantage of the immersive platform was what it needed to do. Given the choice of four different IPs, Sandbox VR’s team jumped at the chance to do Squid Game. Netflix had already done location-based experiences with Stranger Things. But this was the crown jewel.
“We saw a natural fit based on that experience,” Zhao said. “For them, it was just a much bigger way for them to reach to their audience through location based experiences.”
Michael Hampden, creative director at Sandbox VR, said in an interview with GamesBeat that Netflix was easy to work with as it gave Sandbox VR freedom to make its own game.
“During early development, we knew that the key to this project was to bring the unforgettable thrills and drama of Squid Game to VR in a way that’s approachable and fun for fans,” Hampden said. “Working closely with Netflix, we designed new mini-games and adapted ideas from the series. The result is an incredibly engaging and social experience, unlike anything Sandbox VR has created before.”
Rather than follow the show exactly, Sandbox VR made some of its own mini games to leverage its platform for players. Hampden said they knew they were on to something when people were screaming and laughing during the play tests. There is a bit more humor than in the show. Especially at the end.
Greg Lombardo, vice president of live experiences at Netflix, said in a statement, “At Netflix, we are constantly pushing the boundaries of entertainment, and we are thrilled to collaborate with Sandbox VR to bring the Squid Game virtual reality experience to life. By leveraging the power of virtual reality, fans can further immerse themselves in the world of the series and engage in captivating and thrilling games they have come to know and love.”
The Squid Game development team at Sandbox VR wasn’t huge. Most of Sandbox VR’s teams are around 12 to 15 people, Hampden said. They worked on the project starting with pre-production in September 2022, and they completed it in less than a year. Lately, the team has been polishing.
“It was really a lot smoother than I think we expected going into the project,” Hampden said. “We managed to execute really well.”
“What makes Squid Game Virtuals exciting is that the experience truly leverages our platform’s capabilities. Guests’ own bodies act as their game controllers, and all they have to do is step into the virtual world and participate in the action unfolding around them,” Zhao said.
A growing company
The Squid Game Virtuals is the second game that Sandbox VR has launched this year. And it announced earlier that its Deadwood Valley game has generated $23 million in the last 12 months at just 30 locations. (There are now 43 locations). Zhao expects Deadwood Valley to generate over $100 million in lifetime ticket sales.
In addition to Squid Game, Sandbox VR offers seven other proprietary experiences based on popular Hollywood series and their own original intellectual properties. All Sandbox VR experiences are developed by an in-house triple-A gaming studio led by veterans of the game industry like Hampden. Hampden has been with The Sandbox for five years and he previously worked on Sony’s PlayStation VR, as well as Asssassin’s Creed: Black Flag and Assassin’s Creed: Rogue at Ubisoft.
These experiences are specifically designed for groups to enjoy as social experiences, allowing teams of up to six friends to freely explore and roam virtual worlds together, relying on each other to succeed.
Now the company has built back to over 800 employees, including its retail employees. With over 40 locations worldwide, Sandbox VR is expanding rapidly and has become the fastest-growing location-based VR startup globally. Each Sandbox VR location occupies at least 5,000 square feet and features a minimum of four holodecks where guests can fully immerse themselves in virtual worlds.
Headquartered in San Francisco, California, Sandbox VR also operates an office in Hong Kong. The company has raised over $37 million in its latest funding round, with investors including Andreessen Horowitz, Alibaba Entrepreneurs Fund, Gobi Partners, and Craft. Notable individual investors include Justin Timberlake, Katy Perry, Kevin Durant, and Will Smith.