When Tomek Małek retired from his competitive flair bartending career in 2016, he began wondering what else he could do with what Liam Neeson might call his very particular set of skills. Around the same time, Sławomir Matul, a video game developer and founder and CEO of VR Factory, connected with him, thinking it might be fun to make the world’s first virtual reality bartending simulator. While the prospect of tending a virtual bar might sound as fun as say, whizzing around space as a Star Wars Rebel pilot, Bartender VR Simulator has slowly become a hit on PlayStation—and beyond.
“We had to create a whole new world from nothing,” says Małek of the game, which was first released in early 2018 for Oculus Rift.
The six-time flair bartending world champion went into the studio with three developers who captured his movements as he poured drinks, shook tins and performed working flair moves like tossing bottles and slinging napkins onto the bar. Małek’s preferred bartending tools were even copied into the game using 3D scanners, then rendered via Unreal Engine 4, the same technology used for games like Fortnite. In a sound studio, they recorded the ambient noises of bar work, the chuka chuka chuka sound of ice in a cocktail shaker, for instance.
“I didn’t want to make a game with my name on it [that was] very rookie in terms of bartending,” says Małek. As I spoke to him over Zoom in late January, even he seemed to recognize how silly this concept could seem at first, but he insists that real skill is required in order not to shatter bottles or spill ice onto the bar’s virtual floor.
“Of course, [other] professional bartenders find fault with it all,” says Małek. “But …it’s something super cool.”
Pour speed, for instance, is controlled by three distinct movements—a slight tip of the wrist offers a slow pour, while fully turning over your hand dumps out all the virtual spirit; Małek claims the game’s fluid technology engine, created using the NVIDIA FleX particle-based simulation, is completely accurate when it comes to pour speed and volume. For shaking a cocktail, once you reach 10 seconds on a power scale, it’s ready to be strained—a close approximation to real-world shaking times. Players can also scoop ice, stir drinks, open the refrigerator, muddle limes and pop soda water bottles.
Wanting the virtual bartenders to have all the freedoms of expression he uses on the job, Małek offered plenty of input when it came to incorporating flair aspects. In early testing of the game, he sensed that the VR bottles were too heavy on the bottom and weren’t responding to his tosses the way they should. The developers quickly tweaked the game play to a veracity Małek found accurate.
There are at least two other VR bartending games on the market: Flairtender, which offers simpler graphics and movements, and the cartoonish Taphouse VR. There’s also a Drunken Bar Fight Simulator, but none of these virtual worlds offers an experience so rigorously tested by an actual bartender, especially one as renowned as Małek.
Like Super Mario facing a more challenging Bowser at the end of each stage, as you progress through the Bartender VR world, players work their way up from a loud, high-volume nightclub before advancing to a laid-back beach bar, then onto a Manhattan skyscraper’s rooftop lounge, before ultimately landing at a high-end craft cocktail bar—a progression that might seem familiar to many of today’s top bartenders. In each stage, users must master increasingly complex cocktails, starting with the Gin & Tonic and Cuba Libre at the nightclub, to the Sex on the Beach and Mojito at the beach bar, then Martinis, Old-Fashioneds and Daiquiris by the final stages.
Though it won second place in the education category at the 2018 Viveport Developer Awards (finishing behind a solar system simulator), Bartender VR wasn’t a financial success early on. The designers, however, rewrote it for PlayStation in 2019 to coincide with the rise of the gaming system’s VR rollout, which has helped them get out of the red. Since COVID stay-at-home orders, sales have been booming.
“I think it has huge potential for brands,” says Małek, who has already worked with a Polish vodka, Stock Prestige, to hold live e-sport bartending tournaments. “Instead of sending a brand ambassador across the world [to train a bar staff], you could just set up the VR and get everyone goggles and joysticks.”
While actual spirit brands do not appear in the game—a requirement for getting a favorable 16+ approval rating in the United States—bottles are designed to resemble the unique shapes, sizes and colors of well-known labels you’d expect to see at any given bar. (Notice the Campari lookalike in this clip from Małek’s Instagram.) Chain restaurants and bars have also expressed interest in the technology for training new hires and introducing them to the establishment’s standard mise en place.
Unexpectedly, Małek has been receiving positive feedback from players who have used Bartender VR to help them land work in actual bars. But he insists that the simulation is not a virtual bartending school by any means—there’s more to being a bartender than the ability to mix drinks without spilling. As he explains: “I don’t want people going to a bar and saying, ‘I’m a certified bartender according to VR—please hire me!’”