Fans of the hit South Korean dystopian drama Squid Game who thought competing in life-or-death childhood games looked like fun will soon have the chance to experience it in virtual reality thanks to a collaboration between Hong Kong-based Sandbox VR and US-based video streamer Netflix. The Squid Game experience is the latest title meant to entice gamers to visit Sandbox’s VR facilities, where a variety of hardware is used to create an immersive virtual environment, as the company looks to leverage intellectual property (IP) collaborations to help it rebound from restrictive pandemic-era policies that drove its US operations to bankruptcy in 2020. “Squid Game made a lot of sense because it was something that was very active and intense,” Sandbox founder and CEO Steve Zhao told the South China Morning Post in an interview on February 13. “We have the platform that can replicate Squid Game as close as the TV show, minus the violence.” The Netflix partnership has been a long process, Zhao said, as the companies had been engaging with each other since before the Covid-19 pandemic. When the streamer’s Squid Game turned into a global sensation at the end of 2021, it was the ideal choice for turning a Netflix property into an interactive experience once the companies resumed discussions as pandemic restrictions eased in the US. Sandbox’s Squid Game experience has been in development by its Hong Kong-based content team for five months, according to Zhao, and it is slated to launch later this year at the company’s arcades around the world. Like in the show, players compete against each other in various games until there is just one person left standing. Gamers will not be able to just don headsets at home and flail their arms around, though. Sandbox deals in so-called location-based VR, meaning people have to show up to its facilities decked out with hi-tech equipment that offers more feedback than what people can typically get at home. Under the Netflix deal, Sandbox has exclusive rights to develop location-based VR experiences based on Squid Game , Zhao said. Sandbox is hoping that developing VR experiences around popular franchises will supercharge growth. In 2019, the company teamed up with US broadcaster CBS to recreate Star Trek’s Holodeck, sending players on an interstellar adventure as Starfleet officers. How a promising Hong Kong VR start-up went from bankruptcy to global growth After releasing six games, Zhao aims to expand its pipeline with more collaborations in the future. “Now it’s predominantly our own titles, but over time we want to activate more IP,” Zhao said. “It could be a world where [we have] 60 per cent original content vs 40 per cent IP.” Those potential collaborations are not restricted to TV shows, films or games, Zhao added, but could also involve influencers, musicians and even athletes. “When we think about how IP works, it’s really about what kind of fantasy our guests [have],” he said. Sandbox started in a back-alley building in Hong Kong and opened its first arcade there in 2017, a few years after the initial wave of hype around VR when Facebook acquired headset maker Oculus for US$2 billion in 2014. Excitement ramped up again in 2021 amid fervour for the concept of the metaverse , a conceptual next-generation version of the internet based on shared virtual worlds, after Facebook changed its name to Meta and other Big Tech companies announced their own related platforms and VR experiences. The industry is now awaiting a play from Apple, which is reportedly working on VR, augmented reality and mixed reality headsets, with the latter expected this year . Sandbox VR is not related to The Sandbox, a Web3 metaverse platform owned by Hong Kong-based Animoca Brands. Since its inception, Sandbox has been looking beyond VR headsets to create immersive experiences using a variety of hardware including backpack computers, motion sensors and haptic vests. The company now boasts 34 locations globally, and its backers include Adreessen Horowitz, Gobi Partners and Alibaba Group Holding , owner of the Post. Sandbox is in no rush to raise new funds, though, as it is “already quite profitable”, Zhao said. This was not the case just a few years ago. It was dealt a nearly deadly blow in 2020 when quarantines and stay-at-home orders hammered bricks-and-mortar businesses. Sandbox filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in the US that year. “Back then, we lost 100 per cent of our revenue, so we let go 80 per cent of our people, because we just needed to survive,” Zhao said. As economic activity returned to normal over the past year, Sandbox has strived to reboot operations store by store, according to Zhao. A year ago, the executive told the Post that the company was aiming to boost its global footprint to 40 locations, and it hoped to have four teams working on different experiences by the end of 2022. Delays in logistics and construction slowed the building of new facilities, but the company is now expanding again. The company is currently building 12 new locations, Zhao said, and headcount is back to its pre-pandemic level, with 50 people in research and development across product, technology and content. While the company was able to rebound overseas last year, it still struggled in mainland China, which maintained stringent zero-Covid policies until an abrupt policy shift in December after widespread protests the previous month. Sandbox has so far avoided expansion in the mainland, where it only has one arcade in Shanghai, which underwent a citywide lockdown last spring. Since China started reopening again, Zhao said business at that location has started to recover, and he expects it to return to normal this year. For now, Zhao wants to take its mainland expansion slow, as Sandbox has been focused on the US, where business is thriving. “We have a longer bet into China for sure, but since the pandemic, it’s been incredible to work on the US market, as we’ve been building our US team, with everything streamlined,” Zhao said.