Playdium at Metrotown was once one of the mall's most popular attractions. (Old Vancouver Series/ Facebook)

Game over: The rise and fall of Playdium at Metrotown

Like all good things, the golden age of Playdium at Metrotown came to an end.

By Simran Singh | September 2, 2022 |5:00 am

On the upper level of the present-day Metropolis at Metrotown, there once existed a paradise filled with bright lights, buttons, screens, levers, simulators, and loud noises.

If you walked past it with your child, they would most definitely try to convince you that they needed to go inside. If you were a teenager, it was the place to rally your friend group, and spend hours and hours hanging out and avoiding any contact with your parents, while your eyes glazed over at brightly-lit gaming consoles.

If you haven’t pieced it together yet, this oasis of overstimulation was Playdium.

Along with the Rainforest Cafe, Playdium was the pinnacle of the entertainment experience at Metrotown during the late 90s and early 2000s. But like all good things, the golden age of Playdium eventually came to an end, changing the mall’s landscape forever and breaking the hearts of kids and teens in Burnaby and beyond.

‘Playdium Burnaby will have it all’

Playdium arrived in Eaton Centre Metrotown (now known as Metropolis at Metrotown) in 1998, following the opening of the first Playdium location near Square One Shopping Centre in Mississauga, Ont. The centre was owned by Cineplex Entertainment via its subsidiary, Player One Amusement Group.

“Whether people are looking to experience high-energy excitement or relax in the mezzanine area with friends, Playdium Burnaby will have it all,” said Steven Warsh, president and chief operating officer of Playdium, in a 1997 Province article.

Playdium was a massive development in the mall, costing $42 million and spanning 40,000 sq. ft.

When it opened its doors to the public, it was an immediate hit.

Features included a $1-million simulated Indy car race, shooting games, a virtual fishing game, and live simulators that made you feel like you were moving in the game. Playdium also modernized how users accessed attractions with a reloadable card system that replaced the traditional tokens.

Playdium
Instead of traditional tokens, Playdium used ‘PlayerOne’ cards. (Metropolis at Metrotown)

All of these factors led to Playdium’s appeal as the sleeker, cooler, futuristic version of the traditional arcades of the 80s and early 90s.

But it wasn’t just the shiny new games that drew folks to Playdium; it was also the allure of a massive entertainment centre that revived the otherwise bland landscape of the mall itself.

“Developed as an integrated amusement package, Metropolis marks the dawning of a new day for the battered suburban mall, which has lately been in decline as a result of decreased consumer spending, volatile real estate markets and a certain sense of concept staleness,” journalist Katherine Monk wrote in a 1998 Vancouver Sun story. 

Monk went on to interview Warsh and  John Hussman, chief operating officer of Playdium Entertainment, on the opening day of the Metrotown location.

According to the article, Warsh and Hussman had previous experience in Toronto’s residential and commercial real estate scene. Over time, they started noticing that mall revenues were on the decline and something needed to change in order to reignite customer interest in what the shopping mall had to offer.

Hussman said they were interested in the entertainment industry, which led them to look further into how to bring excitement and big attractions into malls.

“So we started doing research and we saw how the out-of-home entertainment industry was not only growing, but it was relatively immune to recessionary factors,” he said.

“We also noticed how the theme attraction business was separated into two camps: the huge operators [such as Disney and Universal Studios] and the mom and pop operations [the neighbourhood arcade and small touring fair]. Both worked well, but there was this huge gap in between so we started developing the middle ground,” added Warsh.

Revitalizing the mall with entertainment

Both men felt Playdium, and other entertainment concepts like it, were opportunities to take over the role of traditional department stores, which had been the staple of mall consumer culture for so long but were beginning to lose their appeal to consumers.

“We see Playdium as a way of revitalizing the whole mall concept. The trends show that people are spending less time in shopping centres. Now, the standard equation for retail is that you need to generate about $300 per square foot [a year]. Department stores are below that mark,” Warsh stated.

People wanted to do more than just shop, and with the addition of Playdium and the widely popular Rainforest Cafe, Metrotown entered a new era, shedding its image of a bland, suburban mall, and establishing itself as a space for entertainment experiences.

Playdium
A screenshot of VCR footage taken of the outside of Playdium in 2000. (ttonyat/ YouTube)

In 1999, a year after Playdium’s grand opening, Vancouver Sun journalist Shelley Solmes visited Metrotown and documented the mall’s resurrection, highlighting that, “With the arrival of the mega-mall, traditional lines between retailing and entertainment have been blurred.”

The mall itself was turning into a conglomerate, she noted, with Eaton Centre, Metrotown Metropolis, and Station Square each providing consumers with unique experiences in one giant, interconnected space.

In her piece, Solmes also interviewed David Baxter, who served as the executive director of Vancouver’s Urban Futures Institute at the time.

“Kids are forking out $12 an hour to play on the machines. Baxter says that people are buying an hour of experience. ‘That’s part of retailing and why these places like Playdium are fusing with malls. What you’re buying is not $12 worth of one thing, but you’re buying access to a huge range of experiences that you could never have at home. What they are selling you is a whole slice of different experiences,'” wrote Solmes.

Those exclusive experiences that weren’t available at home are something Andy Yan, director of the SFU City Program, said were linked to suburbanization itself.

“I think, in one way, you can imagine the Playdium being the apex of suburbia,” he told the Beacon.

For Yan, the changes and consumer trends in malls reflect changes and transformations in urban planning and how people experience cities as a whole.

The time of Playdium’s dominance was also that of the “[urban] sprawl,” where single detached homes and townhomes were expanding suburban neighbourhoods.

This, Yan said, resulted in folks “trying to find other spaces to … meet people [and] to entertain yourself as a group.”

Where was the perfect place to fulfill that group entertainment? The mall.

And if you were looking for a mall that had it all, Metrotown was it.

“To walk there is to walk into a tear in the space-time continuum—a mall of the future seated comfortably in the present,” concluded Solmes in her piece.

Beginning of the end

While things initially looked hopeful for Playdium, the 2000s brought in swift change for the retail, consumer, and technology spaces, and soon it would be “game over” for the once booming entertainment centre.

In 2001, Playdium filed for bankruptcy. At the time, the Metrotown location remained open, but its popularity began to fizzle.

So, how did a massive gaming space—that promised to change the mall landscape with its premium entertainment experience—see such a fast downfall?

Enter, the at-home gaming console.

While at-home gaming existed long before Playdium, the early 2000s introduced consumers to the likes of PlayStation 2, Xbox, and Game Cube. The technology was more advanced, the graphics were sharper, and the overall at-home gaming experience was simply cooler.

In a 2001 Vancouver Sun piece, Paul Chapman summed it up aptly: “Yes, it’s a blast to sit in an actual car seat and take on three of your friends at Playdium. But with home systems delivering top-notch entertainment, who needs to go out on a regular basis?”

The allure of the Playdium’s in-house attractions also began to fade, and paying to wait in lines for only minutes of game time wasn’t the most attractive option for consumers anymore.

“…What you really got was banks upon banks of Jet Ski machines, light guns and fighting games with peripherals that barely took the experience past the ones you can get in your living room,” said Chapman.

Sanjay Panday, who was the assistant general manager at Playdium Metrotown in 2004 (a year before it shut down for good), told the Beacon that it was apparent things were “slowing down” at the location.

“Upstairs where there was the dining and bar area, it was not as busy as it had [been] years before and also the [birthday] parties were slowing down too,” he said.

“There was still traffic on the floor with the games… but I guess overall  from year to year [volume of sales] was already going down a bit.”

Panday noted that “the rent was high” and it no longer “made good sense for [owners] to keep operating.”

Playdium Metrotown closed down in 2005 and was replaced by a Winners HomeSense, which remains there today.

Like the Rainforest Cafe, Playdium continues to bring up memories of nostalgia for many (particularly 90s kids), who considered those spaces to be the main attraction of going to the mall back in the day.

Rainforest cafe
The memories of the Rainforest Cafe still resonate with many who frequented Metrotown between the late ‘90s to early 2000s. / (Metropolis at Metrotown/ Facebook)

Now that the 90s kids are all grown up, there’s been a resurrection of Playdium-esque entertainment centres.

In June 2021, The Rec Room opened at The Amazing Brentwood. The 44,000 sq. ft. gaming and entertainment complex offers guests over 90 amusement games, in-house restaurants, as well as a space for live entertainment.

The Rec Room is operated by Cineplex, which still oversees Playdium locations in Ontario.

Yan explained that the return of a giant gaming centre in a mall—during a time when technology is more developed than ever—speaks to people seeking a place to build connections through fun and recreational experiences.

“The shift to the Rec Room, it’s no longer about technology or how technology [is] shaping recreation. It’s actually how recreation is a yearning for community, for connection,” he said.

“With all the things we’ve gained … never have we been more connected that we feel more isolated.”

Correction: A previous version of this article stated Playdium was owned by Cineplex Entertainment via its subsidiary, Player One Amusement Group. That is incorrect. Playdium Burnaby was owned by Playdium Entertainment Corporation initially and then Playdium Entertainment from 2001 until its closure. The article has since been updated. 

 

 

Simran Singh

Managing Editor at Burnaby Beacon

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