When you first arrive at Swan Wharf, you might think you're lost. First time I went there, I was convinced of it.
A Victorian warehouse filled with design agencies, metalworking workshops and other assorted businesses doesn't seem like the place to find a promising new hub for gamers, but that's exactly what you'll find spanning two floors of this building.
It's called EXP, and is described by its founder as "the largest dedicated games and play-space in London, embracing video games, tabletop games, films, TV, books and comic hobbyists".
On the uppermost floor, you'll find a LAN Zone with 32 gaming PCs, plus around 20 consoles ranging from Xbox One and PlayStation 4 to retro favourites such as the original PlayStation and Nintendo 64.
Calling on the expertise of custom rig builder Dino PC and Vertigo VR, EXP has also installed its first two permanent VR Arenas. There are some additional arcade features, a bar/cafe area with a stack of board games for tabletop fans, and the venue has started hosting regular events for its attendees, even extending to crafts, art and music programmes.
"We also plan to install a permanent 'Cine Space' and facilities for competitive games and eSports activities in the LAN Zone"
And CEO Vince Lammas tells GamesIndustry.biz it's still growing: "We also plan to install a permanent 'Cine Space' and facilities for competitive games and eSports activities in the LAN Zone. Altogether, we should see around 50 PCs in our Games Zone.
"The number of consoles we need will be increased to match growing customer demand as we become better known. Our range of tabletop games should also grow as we move from around 200 games in the library to obtain around 800 games on the 'buy list'."
Swan Wharf itself is on the very edge of the Olympic Park in Stratford, London. If you're arriving from Stratford station, you need to walk through Westfield, across the park and around West Ham's new home stadium, find a way across the River Lea and you'll discover EXP's warehouse home down a quiet street. It's not exactly the type of place consumers will stumble upon, but Lammas is confident that as it grows, more and more people will actively seek it out.
"At the moment EXP is a bit like a hidden easter egg. But once found, we're never forgotten"
"I know it takes some discovery and effort to get here," he says. "At the moment it's a bit like a hidden easter egg you have to unlock in a game. But once found, we're never forgotten.
"We are about 15 minutes walk from three different nearby stations but easily accessible from across London and beyond - it's why we chose this part of London. I've been told the walk across the park can be heavily impacted by fitness, good and bad weather ... and Pokéstops.
"Seriously though, we do need to talk to the local authorities about signs in the local area and improving signage around the building ... you aren't the only person to have gotten lost."
These facilities aren't just for the pleasure of Lammas and his team. EXP has been built as a centre for gamers all over the UK to visit, experience their favourite games and nurture a community. Of course, recouping the costs for such a new and unusual venture is crucial to its survival.
"At the moment EXP is operating a simple pay-to-play model for tabletop and video games and, once our systems are in place, will offer some excellent membership options, including unlimited gaming time," Lammas explains.
"With the amazing space we have available, we can organise large events for the games industry, developers and publishers and, topping it all off, our cafe and bar are reasonably priced and well-reported by customers."
Lammas goes on to describe running a venue like EXP as something akin to "all the challenges of the hospitality industry - with some technology challenges thrown in".
So why take on these challenges? There are little to no examples of spaces where players can pay to play console and PC games around the UK. The closest would be GAME's newly launched Belong arenas - something Lammas kept an eye on as he had already begun laying the foundations for EXP - but that is designed in part to drive consumers to its retail business, not just as a standalone offering. HMV previously struggled to establish this model with its PC-centric Gamerbase outlets, so what makes Lammas believe there is demand for such a venture?
"EXP was inspired by looking at other hospitality and entertainment models," he explains. "We recognised the opportunity to create an attractive offer for a large and growing audience - people enthusiastic about games, films and other related hobbies.
"Our start-up team thought there was a demand for our solution and all the early market research we did during 2016 told us we were right"
"As lifelong gamers and people who understand the positive, creative and therapeutic influence of play, our start-up team thought there was a demand for our solution and all the early market research we did during 2016 told us we were right.
He continues: "During early research, it became obvious there were no obvious competitors - though there are other great operators across London and the UK running games and games-themed bars and cafes.
"All new business ventures are risky and we worked through our business plans very carefully so we understand and manage all relevant risks."
Surely the aforementioned Belong arenas by GAME pose the largest threat? The retailer is a much larger business with better resources, a known entity to almost every games-hungry consumer and has a much higher level of discoverability thanks to city centre locations. Compare this to a warehouse on the fringes of the Olympic Park and it's tough to see how EXP can grow in the way Lammas hopes - but the founder disagrees.
"In many ways, we saw the launch of GAME's Belong venues as a validation of our basic concept"
"In many ways, we saw the launch of GAME's Belong venues - which took place just as we got our plans motoring - as a validation of our basic concept and plans around a social gameplay offer," he says.
"Actually, the two businesses are looking to play to different strengths so we are quite confident our solutions and strategies are distinct and there's room for us both."
Fortunately, the consumer response so far provides further validation. EXP quietly opened to the public back in March, operating almost in stealth as it stocked up on games and worked out the teething problems any new venue suffers. For Lammas and his team, seeing gamers flock to the facility has been highly rewarding.
"There is a real 'wow factor' at Swan Wharf and our customers have been hugely positive about what we are offering and how we are doing it"
"It's been great showing customers the venue and our facilities, especially now that the main 'remedial works' are complete and we have most of our equipment in place," he says. "There is a real 'wow factor' at Swan Wharf and our customers have been hugely positive about what we are offering and how we are doing it.
"We have had customers from as far afield as Hastings and Liverpool and now have a number of regular locals. One customer is here so frequently, he was mistaken for staff by one of our team members.
"Most reassuringly, the industry people who have now worked with us have been just as impressed and really helpful in sharing hints and tips on how to improve. Our modest early marketing work in the first weeks of operation can now get into full swing so we can attract more partners and gamer customers with much greater confidence."
It's nurturing these relationships with industry people that will take EXP forward, growing the space beyond mere consumer appeal. Lammas hopes to establish the hub as a go-to venue for publishers, developers and other games firms to host their events, connecting them with an avid community of consumers. This is already off to a promising start, with EXP hosting the Tekken 7 London Championships and the World of Tanks Grand Final back in May 2017.
More are to follow in July, including the Zowie Fighter Tournament on Street Fighter V and competitions hosted by the East London Fighters community, and the team hopes to ramp up these activities going forward.
"We secured a few more events by talking to new partners while we were still equipping the venue, but now we're reaching out with confidence"
"We have secured a few more events by talking quietly to new partners while we were still equipping the venue, but it's much more comfortable now reaching out with the confidence built from having those early events under our belt," says Lammas.
"With excellent and hugely positive feedback from individuals and larger customers, our marketing and outreach plans - for gamers, customers and the industry - can now start in earnest."
But this isn't the end goal for EXP. In our various conversations ahead of the venue's opening, Lammas always refer to Swan Wharf as the 'pilot scheme' for a larger model. Eventually he hopes to not only establish similar venues outside London, but even larger ones that include spaces he can rent out to retailers, giving gamers a place to buy accessories, merchandise or perhaps even games. This all depends on Swan Wharf and its first 18 months in business.
"EXP is working to demonstrate its core business model is viable," Lammas explains. "This will be done by working with games developers and publishers, event organisers, technology partners and others to create and foster attractive activities, facilities and services to industry and individual customers.
"If we can do this over the first 18 months while covering our costs - maybe even making a profit - we can proceed to the next phase of our project and an eventual successful future."
He continues: "Swan Wharf is our pilot for a venue delivered 'at scale'. With a successful pilot under our belt, we plan to gain further investment and more partners.
"The aim is to move to a more ambitious and larger venue with modern purpose-built facilities and a wider range of offers for customers - while still retaining the essence of fun and community we are developing in this part of London."