Dreamgate brings a homegrown immersive virtual-reality game to Ann Arbor


Dreamgate VR

In a quiet corner of Briarwood Mall zombies are being destroyed, robot attacks are being fought off, and an Ann Arbor-based startup company is showcasing the potential of virtual-reality video gaming.

Dreamgate VR involves up to four game players in a 400-foot arena. Virtual-reality headsets transform the courtyard near Sears into a completely new world -- either a futuristic cityscape or an apocalyptic war zone. 

The company bills itself as “the first free-roaming, multiplayer virtual reality experience” in Michigan. And in less than a year since launching, the effort is already a success, with plans in the works to add a third game and expand to other locations.

Dreamgate founder and CEO Craig Albert has had an affinity for computers since his family bought one when he was in first grade. Growing up, he taught himself how to build web pages and do graphic design. And he played a lot of online games.

“After you play games for long enough, you start wondering what would happen if you made your own,” he says with a chuckle. His day job in advertising gave him occasional opportunities to dabble in games and web interactives. Then, in 2013, he started a group for game developers and learned about the groundbreaking Oculus Rift headset.

“I thought VR died in the ’90s,” he said, but he quickly saw the potential of the technology, especially when combined with a mobile backpack. 

Albert and three friends took the existing technology and got creative. “There were no games for it, so we had to make our own,” he says. The results are Robot Onslaught, in which the players fight off a variety of attackers on the ground and in the air as they protect a valuable “datagem”; and Survive the Night, where the players defend their campsite from marauding zombies.

The experience is fully immersive. You stay within a defined area in the Briarwood courtyard, but with the headset on, all you see is the game setting. You see your fellow players as part of the VR landscape. You can move around the setting however you want, and the “reality” of the game environment stays constant.

Dreamgate VR, Briarwood

Albert and his team “got serious” about developing Dreamgate in November 2016. He used a Kickstarter drive to fund his initial purchase of headsets; additional funding came from savings, friends, family, and Bitcoin investments. By the following October they were ready for a soft launch. When looking at possible locations, they thought the Sears courtyard at Briarwood seemed perfect, and the mall management liked the idea.

Now, Dreamgate operates five days a week at Briarwood. It costs $10 to play for 10 minutes, with discounts for matinees and four-packs. 

The team still has big plans. They want to grow the business through more outside marketing. They’re starting to license the systems and the games to other sites, with at least one new location expected to open soon. And while Albert says some of their current customers prefer the robots game and others prefer the zombies, “We are working on a wizards game that I think might win over both.”

Bob Needham is a freelance writer and the former arts & entertainment editor of The Ann Arbor News and AnnArbor.com.

Dreamgate is open Wednesday-Sunday in the courtyard near Sears at Briarwood Mall. For more information, see the Dreamgate website and Facebook.