She also discovered an important cultural difference in gamers' eating habits. "Gamers here don't want to eat a muffin while they're playing games," she chuckles. "They wanna eat chips, they wanna eat candy bars -- junk food."
For a while, it appeared the PC room was just another Asian phenomenon that would never fully catch on in the States, like Pachinko arcades, or the 80-hour workweek. Early adopters of the trend got used to showing up at their favorite haunt only to find its doors locked, its rows of computers vanished.
But then, in home offices and teen bedrooms, young American gamers with new cable modems began creating their own model of the perfect gaming room, inviting their friends to haul their computers over, getting their IT dads to network the machines together, and staying happily entertained for hours with nothing but a couple of key games, loud music and a fridge full of Mountain Dew.
The smart mom-and-pop business daredevils, like Greg and Darlene Martin of northwest Phoenix, took a look at what their sons were doing and pondered: If only they had a dollar for all the newfound friends who were constantly knocking on the door itching to play Diablo . . .
"Greg had just left one business and couldn't really decide what he wanted to do next," recalls Darlene. "And during that time, my oldest son, who was about 14 then, started really getting into computer gaming. We had just gotten DSL, but we found he was still tying up the phone lines, because he would call his friends who were also into gaming and put them on speaker phone so they could hear each other play."
By summer, her son's friends had moved their computers over to the Martins' house and had networked them together. This arrangement freed up the phone lines, only now it was emptying out the refrigerator. "So then I had a house full of teenaged boys, with the volume on their computers blaring, playing these first-person shooter games and yelling at each other," Darlene sighs. "After a few months of that, I was like, Okay, they're eating me out of house and home!' So I moved them into the garage."
Having their own space, as it turned out, only made things more inviting for all the neighborhood frag-monsters. "Now half the neighborhood was coming over to our house. They were staying up all night, and it was really getting just a little too popular."
Greg, meanwhile, began finding himself drawn into the games, too, and decided there was a booming business in his own garage just waiting for him to exploit. A fast-tracker by nature, Martin bought a store in a Peoria strip mall, leased 20 computers from CompUSA, and had The Front up and running within a month and a half.
He left the interior design up to his son and the Martins' younger twin boys -- and it shows. With its walls splattered in camouflage paint and toy machine guns and ammo boxes propped atop the box-encased computer monitors, the game room at The Front on 94th Avenue and Cactus looks like a Counter-Strike fight zone come to life. To make it even sweeter, the room also features an XBox, a PlayStation 2 and a Nintendo GameCube hooked up to three 51-inch TVs -- not to mention a microwave, a soda machine and, of course, an adjoining rest room. If there's a phone call from mom, Darlene comes in from the next room (the front desk is, conveniently, walled off from the game area) and personally hands the cordless phone to the kid. "When they're playing games, they don't want to move," she explains. It's every game-crazed boy's fantasy bedroom.
That may explain why, while other PC rooms have been coming and going every six months, The Front has already expanded to five locations since October 2001, and the Martins have plans to franchise 10 more before the end of the year.
"I think the key was the kids' involvement," Darlene says. "Greg let the kids make a lot of the decisions, as far as the decor goes, what kind of chairs to buy, and what needed to be in there. He basically let it be their thing -- instead of his concept."
About the only thing hampering the Martins' chain of PC rooms is location. Most are tucked away in anonymous-looking strip malls, sandwiched between nail salons and insurance offices -- hardly the primo traffic areas for male teens. ("We're called The Front, but we're in the back," quips one franchise owner.)