I think it’s safe to say that the gaming industry has hit mainstream over the last decade or so. In 2016, gamers can talk about their hobby openly without fear of being unfairly labelled as idle basement dwellers. A perfect example of this newfound status resides in Savannah, GA in the form of The Guild Hall, an impressive venture in the downtown area of the city that has gained quite a following. I got the chance to interview CEO Clegg Ivey, and CTO Jacob Heider, co-founders of The Guild Hall about the company’s past, present and future.
Could you tell me a little bit about your personal background?
Clegg: I grew up in the late 70s and 80s, and have been a computer programmer and gamer since I can remember. My first computer was a Commodore 64 and my first game system was an Atari 2600. I was introduced to Dungeons and Dragons by my babysitter in the late 70s, and I sold my first piece of software (an interactive game) as a middle schooler in 1985. Later, in the 90s, I was an IP/technology attorney in Silicon Valley, and my focus was on technology (clients like Google, Apple, Sun, etc) and gaming (Hasbro, Wizards of the Coast, etc.). Since 1999, I have been a serial entrepreneur, starting businesses in the technology and gaming sectors. I guess you could say I am nothing if not consistent!
Jacob: I spent very little time in the 70s (though it wasn’t zero), but otherwise, I’ve also been programming and playing games since time immemorial. I got started on the Apple IIc, and I still smile to think about how the specs of that machine compare to, say, my microwave. While I don’t know every programming language there is, I do make a habit of learning any I find interesting, and always have a new one in process. Professionally, I’ve been an application developer, web developer, network engineer, systems administrator, and some other less interesting things. I’ve also been playing role-playing games since middleschool, with D&D naturally being the majority of that. Since meeting Clegg in Orlando, we’ve started half a dozen businesses together, and still going.
When did you know you wanted to open a business dedicated to gamer culture? I was going to say geek culture, or nerd culture, but I’m not sure if that’s offensive these days.
Clegg: I don’t think any of the terms is offensive, honestly. There has never been a better time to be a nerd or a geek or, indeed, a gamer. When I was a kid, it definitely wasn’t cool to be those things. But everything is so different now! You know it’s cool to be a nerd when you see beautiful hollywood types bragging about how they were always such nerds or geeks in high school, or how they are totally just nerds in real life. Now Vin Diesel: he’s the real thing. He plays D&D and he talks like he has gravel in his mouth. Fantastic! So, yeah, you’re actual question. I guess the real impetus for starting a business dedicated to gamer culture came when I started to realize how many of us there are and yet how few places there are for us to hang out with each other in a dedicated space. Everywhere I have lived there might be a local game store (or you might have to travel to a neighboring town or city to find one) or a comic book store, but arcades sort of died out in the 90s. You can’t walk two blocks without hitting a sports bar or a fitness club or some other place where those types of folks get to hang out and enjoy their hobbies. But where was the third-space for us? Coffee shops, maybe? By the way, I love the concept of a third-space: it’s not work and it’s not home, it’s the third space where you spend your time.
Jacob: This trend has been coming on for some time. The ascendancy of the nerd can be seen in all sorts of ways. Media like Big Bang Theory or Silicon Valley shows gamer/technologist/scientist “nerds” in a favorable light, because gaming and technology is taking the world by storm. Clegg and I have always run something like The Guild Hall out of our homes, but this time we spread the idea wide. Why gather in someone’s living room and bother their significant other, trash their coffee table and eat all their food, if there’s a better option?
It seems that your company has gone through quite an evolution since 2014. Did you always know that you wanted to expand, or did that idea come later?
Clegg: Yes and no. My co-founder, Jacob, and I use a process called effectuation, which is really just a fancy way of saying “we will change our plans to maximize the opportunities presented to us.” So, the original business plan for The Guild Hall was to have everything in one building: gamer-space, office colocation, maker-space, etc. (Seems so quaint now!) But then our members kept telling us that if they didn’t have to go get dinner or drinks, they would never leave. And then Bub-Ba-Q, the restaurant that was located next door to our corporate offices, went out of business and the owner was looking for someone to take over his lease. What an opportunity, right? So, we opened The Chromatic Dragon, Savannah’s only gamer-pub! Then, folks kept telling us that locating the game store inside our 18+ members-only gamer-space was a limiting factor for them. So, we spun the store out into its own building, and created Jolly Goblin Games. Even 8-Bit Donuts, the donut shop/80s style arcade we are opening this winter next door to the game store, came about as a result of conversations with members about why there are no donut shops in downtown Savannah.
Could you go into detail about the businesses that comprise The Guild Hall?
Clegg: The Chromatic Dragon is our gamer-pub. It is open to people of all ages and has a full menu of delicious food, as well as bottled and draft beer, and mixed drinks. But the thing that makes the ‘Dragon unique is the gaming. Customers get free access to a wide variety of video games, board games, and party games. On a busy night, you’ll see the action on a dozen different big screens and several giant projector screens – groups of folks battling it out in Mario Kart or Super Smash Bros, or head-to-head in games like Mortal Kombat and Injustice, and it seems like we always have at least one rowdy table of people enjoying a game of Cards Against Humanity, Exploding Kittens, or some other fun card-based party game. People have birthday parties and special events at The Chromatic Dragon, and our Nerdy Trivia Night, on Wednesdays, is the largest in all of Savannah.
The Guild Hall, the little (not so little) building that started it all is our paid-access gaming space. Here, members and visitors alike can pay for access to the services they want, without having to buy a meal. For our ‘Epic’-tier and higher members, their gaming is paid for with one monthly fee. We keep this building stocked with the latest video games, high-powered computers for PC gaming, and lots and lots of board games for our guests to use. Jolly Goblin Games feels like the new kid on the block, but it’s really just the latest evolution of our popular game store. Right next to The Chromatic Dragon, we carry a wide variety of board, card, and other games. Jolly Goblin is open access to the world, and there’s usually someone playing something there. In addition, there’s rental rooms for customized gaming experiences. We have a Geek Chic-brand Vizier gaming table, a sound-booth for recording, and a video game room with wall-projected gaming for serious immersion.
In the “Coming Soon” category, we have 8-Bit Donuts: a donut shop, coffee shop, and an 80s-style arcade. So, the donuts will have fun, gamer-themed names. For example, the donut holes will be square and we’ll call them ‘Bytes’! We plan on partnering with someone local to find the best coffee, so it’s going to be a legitimate option for coffee lovers as well. And, of course, there will be the arcade cabinets. We plan to load on classics, from Pac Man to Galaga to Joust to whatever else we can get our hands on! Even the earliest riser will have something to do on The Guild Hall’s campus.
The Guild Hall is described as a “gamer-space” on your website. Do you think online gaming has kept people from simply sitting in a room together, and just playing a game? Was The Guild Hall an answer to that?
Clegg: I don’t think it is just about online gaming. It’s about having a dedicated space where we can all game together. In every one of my tech startups, we always had a large group of online gamers who would bring their laptops to the conference room and raid together in WoW or get some action going in TF2 or some other FPS. But we had a large conference room paid for by the company and all we had to do to get together was just stay late or, more frequently, decide to take a break together from 20-hour days at work. Before I moved to Savannah and got married, I lived in a very big house with six of my friends. And we always gamed together in the great room, and all of the rest of our friends would come to our place for communal gaming, literally at all hours of the day and night. Well, you can bet I am not going to subject my wife to that kind of thing! When we were in college, we really took all the communal space for granted. Once you’re out in the real world, it just gets harder and harder to find a place to get together and game.
So, yes, The Guild Hall was designed to be a large communal gaming space where everyone could get together. And we planned to have all the hardware and games, so you didn’t even have to plan what you were going to play before you got there. And, even better, you didn’t even have to go through the hassle of contacting a bunch of gamer friends and scheduling the time and place to make sure you could all reach the minimum requirement necessary to play the game you wanted to play. The Guild Hall is the answer to all of that. Whenever you come, there are people here playing games and ready to hang out and join in. Your friends are already here. And you are constantly making new friends, too!
Jacob: Online gaming fills two roles to my mind: a) to offer a truly immersive-feeling world populated with real people, and b) it’s often cheaper and easier for everyone to have their own system and just play together from home nowadays. Obviously, a) is a draw in its own right, and The Guild Hall won’t change that. World of Warcraft really does benefit from its online community. B) is where The Guild Hall shines. It turns out, people do still enjoy playing together. Having a thirdspace, rather than going to each other’s homes, is a real advantage. We have tables suitable to board-games, without having to be cleared. We have couches feet away from large screen TVs with the latest games and systems. Even the PC gamers playing games like WoW or LoL enjoy being in the same room as their compatriots, even as they play with others from across the globe.
Can you tell me a bit about how the Chromatic Dragon came to be? I can’t think of too many gamer-themed restaurants in the U.S. I hear of so many in Japan, and other parts of Asia, but it feels like a new thing here. What’s your favorite thing on the menu?
Clegg: Well, as I mentioned, we never intended to open a restaurant. But our gamer community kept asking for a place to get lunch and dinner without having to leave campus. I think I have some insight into why gamer-themed restaurants have not taken off in the US yet. When we were trying to get The Chromatic Dragon open in early 2015, we contacted a number of consultants, because we had never opened a restaurant before. All of them told us the same sorts of things: “This will never work. It’s too niche. There aren’t enough customers. You have to have ESPN on every TV and you need half-naked women serving drinks, or you’ll go out of business in two months.” Or, even worse, stereotypes about who might be interested in a gamer-pub: “Gamers are all sweaty, fat, pimpled basement-dwellers, and they either won’t leave the basement to come to your pub, or they will and no woman will want to go anywhere near the place.” Forget that, women make up nearly half of the population of gamers in the US, and that the number jumps to 65% if you include mobile games.
In short, we got tons of pushback from people who were food and beverage industry pros. They told us not to do it, and they said we would fail. Now, multiply that over every city in the US and you can see why no one is doing it. Someone has to prove that it can work. And, you know, we were extremely lucky: We already had a built-in community of over 600 members and 10 times that number of fans on Facebook telling us to go for it. And we had a tremendously successful Kickstarter to demonstrate that the opportunity was there.
You will be unsurprised to learn that I am in love with our menu. My favorite appetizer is probably the “Fries Against Humanity”, which is our take on cheese fries. The “Black Mesa” is a blackened chicken wrap that I order just about every other time I eat there. But my all-time favorite is the “Blamco Mac-N-Cheese”, an incredibly decadent version of this classic dish with grilled shrimp, Andouille sausage and a combination of gooey smoked gouda and cheddar cheese. And…I’m hungry.
Jacob: Gaming has infiltrated Asian culture more easily than it has American (though that is rapidly changing). As Clegg said, there is a lingering bias against gamers, even if it’s only subconscious. People don’t realize that nearly everyone plays games of some kind. With the rise of mobile phones, most of us are carrying a number of games in our pocket, that we pop out at a moment’s notice to avoid boredom. Gaming, to be tautological for a second, is gaming. Sure, there are what people would recognize as a “classic nerd” out there, but they’re pretty rare. A huge portion of our customer base is families coming in and playing a board game like Ticket to Ride or a video game like Mario Kart with their kids while they wait for our delicious food. And the stuff coming out of Chef Bret’s kitchen really is amazing. Every burger he makes is perfect (I’m a life-long mushroom-swiss guy, myself), and he comes up with delicious specials every single week. Too hard to pick a favorite.
Can you tell me more about STEAM Camp?
Clegg: STEAM Camp is our attempt to share our passion and love of games and technology with the next generation. The Guild Hall started as an 18+ gamer-space, and that was because we felt there were already places where kids could hang out and get their game on, but not so much for adults. But so many of our community members have children or know kids who are excited about The Guild Hall and The Chromatic Dragon. So, we thought we would dip our feet in the water and open a summer camp program. The response was overwhelming. Every single spot was filled up. We were having to turn people away. I was surprised and delighted!
The concept was simple to us: teach kids about science, technology, engineering, art and math (hence, STEAM) using games and gaming as the delivery method and framing device. So, the kids did an entire class on electronics and circuit design using Minecraft! And we taught 3D printing and digital illustration by having the students design their own board games. For programming, we taught the kids how to make their own video games, which they and their parents got to come in and play on the last day of camp. It was so much fun and the kids loved it. More than one parent told us: “I really wanted my child to do an educational camp this summer, but it was hard to get them excited at the idea of spending their summer days ‘doing more school’. But after the first day, my child can’t wait to go to STEAM Camp every day!”
Jacob: STEAM Camp really offered something that I wish had been more prevalent when I was a kid. It really did bring together disciplines in interesting ways. Some of the things the students produced were really incredible. With just a week or two of instruction, we had campers making their own video games, movies, 3D models, animation pitches, and more. It was an amazing outlet for their creativity and we were blown away by what they produced.
So, a guild, restaurant, gaming shop, donut shop. Any future ideas for expanding even further?
Clegg: I think there may very well be a ‘VRcade’ in our future. The technology is finally ripening and it’s just a matter of the games taking advantage of the system’s capabilities. We are actually working closely with Jack Mamias, a talented game designer and producer on his new game, Starfighter, Inc. Jack and his team are developing that game from the ground up to be an incredibly immersive VR experience, putting you in the cockpit of your own tactical combat spacecraft. We are also considering opening additional locations in 2017 and beyond, but it’s too early to know how those plans might pan out. So, stay tuned, I guess?
Jacob: Effectuation means never having to say you’re sorry. Er. No, it means never being able to say you’re done. Our current campus is booming, and other than the things Clegg mentioned, there’s nothing obviously on my radar. But that can change. Who knows what opportunities tomorrow might offer?
Is there anything else you want people to know about The Guild Hall? Anything I missed?
Clegg: Just that we have something for every level of gamer at The Guild Hall campus. Whether you are a competitive pro or have never played anything more than Monopoly or Clue, our campus – the gamer-space, gamer-pub, game-store and soon, the donut shop – is a fun place to hang out, grab some delicious food and just enjoy the energy of so many people having fun. You really do not need to be a gamer to come have fun with us. That said, if you are a gamer, there is literally no more perfect place in Savannah to come and have fun!
*Special thanks to Ashlee Perkins for all of her help with this interview.