Gaming heaven for Southern California residents - Howie's Game Shack

Mission Viejo (CA) - Gaming cafes have been popping up around the country, but they are often small and don't last very long. Howie's Game Shack located inside the Kaleidoscope mall in Mission Viejo, Calif. is trying to buck the trend. Despite its small sounding name, this "Shack" is actually a huge gaming center with 200 computers and 45 Xbox consoles. Open since August 2005, Howie's has been doing brisk business and was completely packed during our visit in May.

Walking through the aisles of the crowded aisles, we saw gamers blasting their friends in Battlefield 2 and killing Orcs in World of Warcraft. Almost a dozen different games are loaded onto each computer. Every computer has a headset and some groups of computers have customized Z-Board keyboards for certain games like Battlefield 2. Console players flock to the Xbox stations connected to large plasma screens, along with comfortable lounge chairs.

You would think that it would be easy to find a seat with 200 computers, but this author waited 30 minutes for a computer station to open up. Space is scarce, as families and groups of friends routinely come in and reserve banks of machines. During our visit, we noticed one family that that came in for a birthday party and a group of friends raiding Black Wing Lair in World of Warcraft. The Warcraft players told us that playing at Howie's made sense, since they could shout commands to each other and "smack each other's head", rather than typing on the keyboard.

The center is also home to parties and special events such as NCSoft's "Meet and Greet" event on 13 May 2006. The company's executives and developers rented out Howie's and gave away cheap gameplay, along with prizes to loyal gamers. Richard Garriott, known as Lord British to Ultima fans, showed up - an opportunity we used to chat with him about modern MMOs. Jonathan Wendel, known as Fatality in the gamer scene, also made an appearance at the event..

Howie Makler, owner of Howie's Game Shack, gave us a tour of the network room - combining five T1 lines - and explained how difficult it was to run the place. "We constantly are performing maintenance and patches to all the games," says Makler.

There are considerable expenses in running all the computers. Makler mentioned that expenses for electricty alone top $10,000 a month. He also has to continuously upgrade obsolete computers and components. "Every 18 months, I basically have to throw away everything and buy $700,000 in new computers," says Makler.

An hour of gameplay at Howie's will set you back $4, but players intending to spend a few hours can also purchase a day pass for $15. First time visitors create an account by swiping their right index finger on a biometric scanner and depositing money. Your finger serves as your ID for further deposits and purchases.

Game time isn't the only thing Howie's sells - the movie theatre-like concession's stand shows it may be an indication for that. Bottled waters, energy drinks and pizzas keep gamers happy during intensive gameplay. Spilled drinks and food aren't a problem for Howie's because the computers are mounted on shelving, high above the players' heads.

So, who comes and plays at Howie's? During our visit, the players were overwhelmingly male and young. Most players were in their early teens, but a fair number were under ten years old. We also saw a few 50+ year olds playing City of Heroes with their sons.

With the rising costs of day care, some parents apparently have been using Howie's as a cheaper alternative. Even, if most moms and dads out there may strongly disagree that video gaming can be substituted for simple or educational daycare, it appears that some parents in Mission Viejo think different. We saw one father hand his son a $20 dollar bill telling him to stay and play for a few hours. This scenario seems to repeat itself several times a day - mall security guards told us that parents regularly drop their children off at Howie's.

Despite the financial challenges of running Howie's, Makler told us that he plans to open up 300 more centers around the nation. "This was my prototype to see if things would work out," says Makler. At least for now, the concept appears to work very well for him.

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TG Daily Audio: Richard Garriott, aka Lord British, talks about modern MMOs