Norwich’s first gaming café will be opening its doors to the public on May 31, with a range of classic games right through to modern releases for gamers to play while munching their way through a menu of coffee-shop drinks and snacks.
One Life Left, passion-project of Jon Gage, 36 a previous manager at GAME, hopes to provide a place for gamers to come together as a community and celebrate the games we love. And while the café’s launch day isn’t officially until Wednesday, we’ve had a sneak peek at what’s to come…
On the corner of St Benedict’s street, by St Lawrence’s Church, lies an unassuming building flying the flag of the new One Life Left Café. Inside, the old offices have been completely renovated, a brightly coloured mural pops from the wall, cakes stand temptingly on the counter, desks are set up with gaming rigs ready to go, and the very room hums and bleeps with the sounds of an old arcade room.
The choice of games is somewhat overwhelming and it’s a list which will only grow with time. The Café doesn’t technically charge for the use of their games, but it’s a £2.50 flat fee on your first order of coffee, cake, or panini, at which point you’ll also place an order on which game you’d like to play and be set up with controllers.
It’s clearly a place trying to strike a balance between a family friendly space where parents and kids can enjoy gaming together, and with catering to students and hardcore gamers, with the unifying atmosphere of a coffee shop. But you could say that it’s a coffee shop by day, and a friendly bar by night, as after 6pm the Café will officially be for patrons aged eighteen and up, serving alcoholic beverages (not to be spilled on expensive hardware) and allowing the age-rated games to go ahead with the blood and guts that make Mario go pale.
But the café doesn’t stop at just casual gaming, with plans to run e-sports competitions and tournaments between customers, broadcasting video game events, and offering private hire for LAN parties. One Life Left seem determined to become a social hub for gaming events, and there’s a ten-tier wristband reward system in place for gamers who want to enter tournaments and win their way up to a gold band.
The world of martial arts had better watch its back. The wristband system is a fun concept and it will be interesting to see if it helps encourage competition and bring players together.
However the real success of the café will ultimately be decided by the work of Jon Gage and his girlfriend Laura, who’s enthusiasm is apparent from the moment you walk through the door. I sat down and spoke with Jon about how the café came about, his ideas for the future, and just to get to know the person who will be working to bring Norwich’s gamer population together.
Q: When did you first know you were going to open a gaming café?
My history is in predominantly retail, so instead of going to university I made the mistake of taking a full time job at a supermarket where I was working part-time doing my A-levels, and so I worked my way up to a management level through a supermarket and then I got a job at GAME as a store manager – and that was first here in Norwich.
Over the last eight years I’ve been across various different branches and stores all over East Anglia – but obviously Norwich is my home. It was about three years ago really: in my previous job I felt that I’d reached a point where I wasn’t really going to see much more than what we’d had, we’d just had GTAV launch on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One and I thought it’s not really going to get that much bigger than this and if I want to do something different now is the time to do it.
I was starting to see that, you look in Asia, you look in America, there are more and more places like this popping up with online play becoming a thing, e-sports is just growing, and I thought: you know what? I could turn this into a business that could be an alternative to retail. With everything going digital the presence of gaming on the high street is obviously a lot less now than what it once was, and it’s only going one way.
So about three years ago I went on holiday with my girlfriend, and we sat on a beach, and that was when I wrote out the first business plan. I came back and then suddenly it was a real idea in my head, and we went from there.
Q: You seem to have pulled in favours from all over Norwich with UEA and the University of the Arts… What has the community response been like for you?
To be honest we set the Facebook page up about four months ago now, just after Christmas and we now have over a thousand Facebook likes....And we haven’t spent a penny on boosted posts or marketing, it’s all come naturally just through exposure through news and people sharing it and a lot of that has come from the student population of Norwich.
We’ve had so many messages of support and so many offers for assistance in terms of things like artwork on the walls, hanging pictures, the guy who did the trailer for us, music production, all that kind of stuff. So from a business perspective it’s saved a lot of money on the set up. But at the same time it’s been a way for us to market it as well because the news is making its way into the universities and colleges and schools, so it’s all good it all goes towards that exposure which is so important for a new business.
From my previous job I’m aware that Norwich is one of the most active places in terms of gaming as an activity, not just for retail but for community groups as well. Until now all these groups have been stuck using pubs, bars and clubs which is all fine, but now we’ve got a place in Norwich which is going to be suitable for everyone, where parents and kids can come as well, we can still cater to the over 18s because we can do alcohol sales in the evenings of course, and we’re all fully licensed for that, and we’ll all be set up for tournaments, events, e-sports as the business grows as well!
Q: You already mentioned your girlfriend, were all of your family and friends on board from the beginning?
It was quite slow at first like ‘oh that’s an interesting idea…’ But I think my girlfriend Laura, for example, was very supportive from the off, she understood what the concept was. I think it was once I began to get official confirmation from Nwes (Norfolk and Waveney Enterprise Services) as I was developing the business plan and it was being reviewed and other directors and the panels… once I was getting feedback saying yeah this is something that is sustainable, this is something that could work… then I think it started to become much more of a reality.
When it got to the point where they said ‘you know what we’ll approve all your plans for you, go right ahead and do what you need to do’, then everyone’s been fully on board. Which has been great! We got the keys to the premises a month ago today, and in that time I’ve had about twenty or thirty friends and family who’ve been chipping in, the majority of it has all been free of charge as well, so I can’t thank everyone who has helped me enough. The support has been absolutely brilliant and I certainly couldn’t have done it on my own, not in this amount of time.
Q: And finally, do you have any board games tucked away for when the WiFi goes down?
At the moment no, but it’s something we’re looking into! I am very much hoping that I can work with other local business to promoted businesses together: cross promotion, cross events, that’s definitely something that we want to do. People who play games are in most cases into board games, into comic books, so there’s a lot of crossover of genres and interests when it comes to this kind of thing. So absolutely we’re looking into it.
And just for fun… a quick fire question round
Q:Xbox or Playstation?
Q: Horde or Alliance?
Q: League of Legends or DOTA?
A: League of Legends
Q: Sci-Fi or Fantasy?
A: Sci-Fi (at a push)
Q: Your Pokemon GO Team?
A: Er-… The thing with Pokémon, and this is my shameful admission-…
Jon’s just not that into Pokémon (“but don’t worry, I’ve got staff who know it!”) so there goes that question! But whether Jon knows it or not, One Life Left is quite happily nestled between two PokeStops reachable without leaving the premises, so PokeTrainers won’t go disappointed. The café is clearly the culmination of a huge effort of work and dedication from Jon, and the passion-project of a genuine gamer.
One Life Left is an exciting idea for Norwich’s gaming community, and after the first week of customers grinding through content, unlocking skins and items on shiny new save games - and perhaps once a few board games are tucked away somewhere, I’ll be truly eager to see what lies in store for Norwich’s first gaming café.
Helen Jones is a writer and games journalist, you can read more of her stuff @BarnacleDrive on Twitter.