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VR+ Zone puts players in fantasy together The Detroit News

Players of many generations play together at Ferndale's VR+ Zone, which opened in October with multi-player rooms and proprietary games

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The dark sky above and the bullet-ridden, green and gray landscape looks like a post-apocalyptic future, but the creature charging directly toward you at full speed is definitely from the Cretaceous or Jurassic period. 

Luckily, a teammate blew the oversize velociraptor to bits with his nearly three foot-long gun before it was too late. Now it's time to concentrate on the pterodactyls flying overhead and the massive King Kong-looking figure approaching from the mist straight ahead. 

"He's going to throw rocks at us, we have to shoot those rocks before they land on us," warns Cheik Niang, a staff member at VR+ Zone, a new virtual reality gaming hub in Ferndale. 

Opened last fall, this immersive attraction isn't the first virtual reality business in Michigan, but VR+ Zone is the first of this level in North America. What's different here is the amount of multi-player opportunities, says manager Grace Fowler. What's better than shooting zombies than doing it with your best friend? 

For most experiences, users don an adjustable headset with goggles that block out all light from the real world and allow your eyes and ears to be completely immersed in the computer game. 

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"The games are so intense," said Ashley McFadden, who took her daughter Angela-Marie McFadden and her two friends to the attraction recently to celebrate her 10th birthday. "You're sweating, you're ducking, you're moving around — it's a whole other world." 

VR+ Zone is a Chinese chain with locations in Asia as well as Belgium and Australia. The owners of the Ferndale franchise are General Motors engineers who visited a VR+ Zone while on a trip to China. Another advantage this spot has over similar arcades is that the games are proprietary. These aliens, zombies and killer dinosaurs can only be experienced in Ferndale. 

McFadden said Angela-Marie is a young animator, so she enjoyed the technical nuance as well as the fun of gameplay. 

"She likes to do digital illustrations, so she appreciates the computer and how it works, she does computer coding, so when it comes to virtual reality, she knows that this isn't real and she knows, for the most part, how to back away from it when it gets too intense."

McFadden says as a parent you have to monitor what kind of games your child plays, and values the hands-on approach the staff at VR+ Zone takes when new or young players come to the facility. She said Fowler showed the kids how to use the equipment and explained what will be coming at them when the game starts. 

Guidance from staff continues even when the headsets are on and the game begins. 

"They'll give you a tap on the shoulder if you get off your mark or to avoid bumping into someone else or pulling the equipment," said McFadden. "They'll guide you back to your spot. It's funny." 

Fowler, of Ferndale, said the key for VR businesses is to stay on top of the technology as it advances and offer something that players can't buy for home use. 

"For us, proprietary gaming is important, multi-player gaming is important, the highest in tech and hardware is important," she said. "When you come in and you hold a gun, it's different than holding a controller. It totally changes the experience." 

"As VR becomes a bigger deal at home," she said, "it becomes cheaper and more accessible ... that means we have to push boundaries as to what we can be doing with it."

For the VR-curious, Fowler said they're busiest on the weekends, when making reservations is recommended. Weekdays are less busy, and on Wednesdays any student with an ID gets their games for half-price. 

With its location in Ferndale, the expected demographic for VR+ Zone was going to be 20-40 white males, maybe a group coming by after getting some liquid courage from the brewery next door, Fowler said. 

"It has been across the board ... there's no real pattern," she said of who comes in, adding that they see the age of players on the waivers everyone has to sign, so they do have that data. "A lot of families come in, like multi-generational families, parents, kids and their kids all play together." 

She said the diverse staff at VR+ Zone reflects the diversity of the clientele. 

"I think if you come in and you see somebody that looks like you playing the game, or helping you play the game, it's way more likely that you're going to be comfortable enough to actually do it," she said. "It was intentional on our part."

McFadden booked an hour of game play for their group, which runs $150 and includes four games that up to five people can play. She found the package to be a good value, considering the time they took to learn how to play, get used to the equipment and take a pizza break were not included in the hour. 

McFadden said her daughter is still talking about a game they played together and worked as a team to defeat aliens. 

"Instead of being separate on our station, Grace lined us up side-by-side and we had our glasses on, we had our VR guns and we had different roles to play ... we're shooting aliens and she was directing the team on what to do. She'll shoot low, I'll shoot high. We really had to work together as a team on that one and that was her favorite game."

mbaetens@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @melodybaetens

VR+ Zone

22935 Woodward, Ferndale

(248) 850-8593 or vrpluszone.com

Hours: 2-8 p.m. Wed., 4-9 p.m. Thurs., 2-11 p.m. Fri., noon-11 p.m. Sat. and 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Sun. 

Pricing: VR rides start at $7; Single and dual player games start at $12 per person; Multi-player games start at $17 per person; One game in multi-player room is $60 for up to five players ($12 per person); One multi-player room for one hour, minimum of 4 games is $150. 

More pricing options and booking information on the website

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