What used to house Malden Square’s last remnant of its 20th-century retail heyday is now poised to launch the downtown into an era of 21st-century prosperity.
In his Feb. 24 State of the City speech, Mayor Gary Christenson announced that Boda Borg — an indoor adventure company founded in Sweden — is rehabbing the former Sparks department store at 90 Pleasant St. and plans to open its first US location there in June or July.
Boda Borg is part of a new trend in real-life, full-immersion entertainment. For $18 each, a team of three to five enters a series of rooms with a specific theme or “quest.” The quests put participants in a haunted house, a submarine, a prison breakout, or something less scary such as a trivia game quiz show. All involve mental and physical tasks.
Sparks, which opened in 1919, closed a year ago, the last of the big retail stores in the square. City officials hope that a success with Boda Borg will encourage other family entertainment venues — possibly a movie theater — to open, complementing an already busy restaurant scene that attracts visitors from surrounding communities.
The Malden Boda Borg location will feature 18 quests at first, but eventually will house 25, according to David Spigner, president and CEO of Boda Borg Corp., based in Laguna Hills, Calif. Spigner and three other investors bought the company in 2009 and operate seven locations in Sweden and one in Ireland.
“This is not video games; that’s critically important. It’s not paintball or laser tag or anything where you’re shooting at things and getting points,” Spigner said. “It’s like taking Indiana Jones off the screen and making you him. He has to survive every scene of that movie.”
The company chose Malden for its first US location because of Chad Ellis of Brookline, who owns a small game-publishing company. He and Spigner are Harvard Business School graduates and met when Spigner was using an alumni database to look for business partners. After visiting Boda Borg locations in Sweden in 2013, Ellis became so excited and confident in the business that he decided to become a partner and open his own franchise in the Boston area so he could take his two daughters there.
Ellis chose the Malden location because it’s easily accessible from Boston by subway and has parking and an empty building with about 30,000 square feet, big enough to accommodate Boda Borg, said Ellis.
“I needed it to be close enough to downtown Boston so it would be an attractive place for companies to do team-building, and it would be easily accessible from all over Greater Boston,” he said.
Ellis estimated the company will employ 20 people and eventually attract about 100,000 visitors per year. The target audience is age 9 and up and consists of gaming enthusiasts, young families, and females. In Europe, Ellis said, about 60 percent of customers are female “at every age bracket.”
These type of games are growing in popularity, according to Matt Parker, a professor at New York University’s Game Center.
“I’ve done work at theme parks, and it’s all about guests per hour there,” Parker said. “You won’t be able to get as many through as you could on a roller coaster, but you probably could get 100 people through per hour.”
Matt DuPlessie is CEO of 5 Wits , which operates a similar business at Patriot Place in Foxborough. “Part of the challenge is getting the word out that this exists,” he said. DuPlessie is a minority owner of the Boda Borg in Malden, and his production company in Norwood is building some of its sets.
DuPlessie said Boda Borg’s business model has an advantage over 5 Wits because it can accommodate more people at one time, with as many as 18 different quests, compared with two “adventures” at 5 Wits ($18 for one; $23 for both).
Boda Borg’s $18 admission fee provides two hours of questing; for $28, guests can stay all day, according to Ellis.
“Re-playability and getting people to come back can be an issue for . . . games that have one solution or a series of puzzles to solve,” said Joey J. Lee, a game design professor at Columbia University. “Often puzzle rooms change their layout every few months, but it often requires new rooms to bring people back.”
Ellis said he plans to change six to eight quests each year.
Still, whether this type of business succeeds in Malden is anybody’s guess. The owner of the only family entertainment business in the square, Dan Ryan of Ryan Family Amusements, said his bowling business “goes down a little bit every year.”
“The problem is once people go to work in the morning and come home at night, they spend so much time commuting, they put their feet up and they’re not going out again,” Ryan said.
David D’Arcangelo, city councilor at large, said he is enthusiastic about a business opening up in the former Sparks space, but he believes there may be an adjustment period as residents get used to the change from retail to a family entertainment center.
“It sounds like a very interesting concept, and I wish them well,” he said. “I hope that it works.”
Ellis said the city’s warm welcome convinced him this was the right place, noting that his first meeting in the city was attended by Mayor Christenson and Kevin Duffy, the city’s strategy and business development officer.
“There’s a palpable excitement in Malden,” Ellis said. “One thing that also came through was this was something Malden really needed. There wasn’t really a family-friendly destination for entertainment or for socializing, so it was a perfect fit.”Mark Micheli can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.