Fan-favorite old-school arcade Free Play continues to grow, but a planned pinball-focused spin-off had to be sacrificed.

The local arcade chain, which already has locations in Richardson, Arlington and Denton, announced plans for a Fort Worth location, conveniently called Free Play Ft. Worth. It will be located in the former home of Fairmount Music Hall in the Near Southside district of the city. The planned opening date is this fall, and the owner thinks it will be a "game changer" for the city, despite acknowledging that Fort Worth already has an arcade presence.

Like the other "full-sized" Free Play locations, $10 will buy you unlimited play on a large collection of classic arcade and pinball games, the selection of which will be rotated over time. There will also be a beer bar "with 16 taps and more than 100 package products available." 

Jeff Wise (left) plays Mortal Kombat with his son Maxwell Wise, 4, at Free Play in Richardson.

Jeff Wise (left) plays Mortal Kombat with his son Maxwell Wise, 4, at Free Play in Richardson.

Rose Baca/Staff Photographer
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Unique to the Fort Worth Free Play will be a 3,000-square-foot rooftop patio bar. If you're not into the video game aspect of Free Play (in which case, what's wrong with you?), but still want to grab a drink with friends, the company is hoping to serve you anyway.

"Assuming all of our permitting goes correctly and everything works out how it looks like it's going to work out, we're going to be able to have [the patio bar] open without you necessarily having to go into [the arcade]," says Free Play president Corey Hyden. "So we could have the rooftop patio operating as a funnel to hopefully get people in Fort Worth interested in coming to Free Play."

Permits and licenses haven't always been Hyden's best friend, though. At this time in 2018, Hyden told us about his plans for the Dallas Pinball Project, a pinball-focused bar he planned to open in Oak Cliff. The problem? One of the owners of the building that the Dallas Pinball Project intended to move into also owns part of a brewery, and the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission has very strict rules that prevent alcohol producers from also owning alcohol retailers, which put a roadblock directly in front of the project.

"We tried to get that negotiated through, but we were unable to get it fixed," Hyden says. "Ultimately it turned out that location couldn't have a TABC license." Free Play Inc. searched Oak Cliff for a replacement location, but had trouble finding one that would work with the size they envisioned for the pinball bar. 

"We're still pretty bummed about it," Hyden says, "but I think it does open up the possibility to open the biggest-ever Free Play in Dallas" eventually, albeit somewhere with more space.

Free Play Arlington is the second location after Free Play Richardson. 

Free Play Arlington is the second location after Free Play Richardson. 

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The loss of the Pinball Project, however, will make for a better pinball experience at the other arcades. "We've been kind of leaking these pinball tables to our Free Play locations," says Hyden, noting that Free Play Arlington has gone from 14 tables to 24, with more planned. "The pinball selection at all of our locations is pretty amazing right now. ... Arlington has one of the most diverse and best pinball lineups, and the other two locations are really stacked with top-tier pinball [machines]." The company feels that right now is a "golden age of pinball," and they want to invest heavily in leading the way.

If you're worried that streching the company's game collection across more and more locations will start to make each lineup feel thin, don't. Hyden says they're buying machines at a rate of nearly a game per day. "Warehousing is starting to become cumbersome," he says with a slight chuckle. "That's one of my jobs as CEO, is every single day making sure we have the right games coming in. I think we're at the top of the industry in the logistics of getting our games where they need to be. We've always got 10 or 20 games headed to us in a truck." The company has also had to staff up on technicians in order to keep all of those games (especially the pinball tables, which are notorious for being difficult to keep in perfect working order) running smoothly.

Of course, it's not just a game lineup Hyden has to consider, but also the brand he's been building over the last several years. "It's the thing that keeps me up at night right now, worrying about our brand. ... We've grown so aggressively, and I hate thinking that people consider us like a normal chain," he says, acknowledging that there is certainly a limit to how many arcades can co-exist in Dallas-Fort Worth. 

"We're doing everything we can to keep investing and keep getting better. We haven't ever had profit as our main focus," Hyden says. "It's really about bringing as many of these games back to life as possible, because it's a lot of fun. So that's the goal, is to keep opening them as long as D-FW will support them, and then stop and be proud that we brought a bunch of games to D-FW that no one thought would ever get played again."

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