The opening of Fortress Melbourne was, by all accounts, a huge success. The owners remember the two-level video-game themed entertainment complex, situated in Melbourne’s Emporium shopping centre, packed to the brim with excited fans and curious newcomers, with lines down the street waiting for entry. The belief its founders had in its premise seemed vindicated – a public venue that offered video game players and nerds of all kinds an arena to socialise, enjoy food and drink and enjoy entertainment, including live grand-scale e-sports competitions. Then, six days later, COVID hit Australia.
It would be an understatement to say the intervening year has been tough for Fortress Melbourne. The multi-million dollar complex was forced to lockdown, as suddenly COVID meant the social gatherings Fortress had been banking on, could simply not be allowed to occur with the virus in the community. Many staff, particularly casuals were laid off immediately. Then, the wait began to re-open, and to find any way to keep the business afloat in the meantime. To keep the kitchen busy, and to get through food that would otherwise go bad, Fortress initiated a program to sell prepared food for staff, who could pay for cheap meals delivered to them. Eventually, even an ill-fated attempt at UberEats was trialled.
Unfortunately, Fortress’ entire raison d’être was just completely at odds with the COVID lockdowns, especially in Melbourne. On its upper floor, the complex opens into a huge stage space, where e-sports players are meant to play live on giant screens, with retractable seating that can allow for either a large audience, or a floor of additional PC’s for further players. Heading down the escalators reveals a medieval-themed pub, where people can enjoy a parma and beer (including the very decent Fortress branded Super Session Lager by East 9th Brewing), while renting booths for multiplayer video games or board games for tables. Behind it are streaming booths, where you might catch your favourite Twitch streamer playing live, along with rooms with rows and rows of Alienware computers, loaded with popular titles like Fortnite and Rocket League. Weaved into all this, even in the bathrooms, are original fantasy characters created just for Fortress, with their own stories and personalities. One of them, a giant troll, is even shown full-scale bursting through a wall of the Fortress tavern. A lot of money, time and effort has gone into everything here – it just requires people to actually go out to the CBD, in a time where working and studying from home has become the norm.
However, in the digital space, Fortress did make some progress in 2020. They went hard online, building their audience on their mailing list to over 40,000. This newfound audience, with plenty of time on their hands during lockdown, was also only all too happy to participate in surveys, allowing Fortress greater insight into aspects such as their pricing, which was generally agreed to be too high for PC use. New procedures were put in place for COVID-safe compliance, including disinfecting keyboards after use, with specific training to ensure the switches are not damaged in the process (although there are plenty of spares out the back).
Fortress Melbourne has now been re-open for a little while now, since the lockdown rules in Melbourne eased up, but it hasn’t quite won back those crowds from its opening night yet. Initially, Fortress were relying primarily on business from students at the nearby CBD universities, who still have not fully returned and may not for some time, as well as tourists, who especially may be a long ways away. To win CBD business back, Fortress is hitting the streets with tried-and-tested marketing. 50,000 brochures are being delivered to people in Melbourne to advertise the business, and hopefully entice many to visit for the first time. Tuesdays are Parma Tuesdays. A Gaming Film Festival is also underway every Thursday, showing “classics” like Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun Li and Mortal Kombat: Annhilation, which reportedly are attracting a crowd of viewers looking for some so-bad-its-good fun.
There’s also a “Fortress House Cup” that will be announced in a near future – a signature event for the ‘Alienware Arena’ stage on Saturdays. It’ll be a mixture of different games, still yet to be determined, where people can come to the venue on the day and play for one of four “Houses” named for the four Fortress characters. Influencers and game personalities will be enlisted to be part of the Houses and cheer on their teams, and an actual Cup will be up for grabs, along with actual prizes and prize money. Fortress is intending to position this tournament as something anyone can play and contribute to, so some games that boil down to simpler rules or button-mashers may be included as well, to allow more casual video came enthusiasts to also get involved.
CEO Jon Satterley is optimistic that their efforts are already bearing fruit.
“We’re already seeing lots of regulars, our bar staff and our ops guys are saying there’s tons of people now where you see the same faces, which is really good to see, so some loyalty is being generated.”
However, the same core problem from the pre-COVID days still looms over Fortress Melbourne’s success – how do you get video game players out of their homes and into the CBD, to play the multiplayer games they already could at home? Fortress believes their high-class facilities hold the answer.
“We built it so that attention to detail is everywhere and there’s a heightened feeling of respect for gamers and respect for the culture in that everything is just top notch,” Satterley says, “Do I want to play on a Mitsubishi, or do I want to go to Fortress and play on a Ferrari? It’s like that. We wanted to give people the Ferrari experience.”
Fortress Melbourne is open seven days, located on the Lower Ground floor of Melbourne Emporium, with an after-hours entrance on Caledonian Lane.