#1106 – Building the Bedrock of Immersive Entertainment

While the world still reels from the impact of the Global Health Crisis, other momentous developments seem to fly past. But it is important to take time and take stock of where the industry has come from, and where it is going. In two far reaching observations, we first look at the anniversary of the videogame market, and then at how the next generation of entertainment looks to embrace high brands.

Birth of the Interactive Nation

The video amusement industry represents the oldest facet of the digital interactive entertainment landscape. This is the originator of most of the game strategy, gameplay, competition, and nomenclature that has gone on to establish the vast $175b consumer games industry. 2022 marked the 50th anniversary of ‘PONG’ – the phenomenally successful first mainstream video amusement release, and a game that would cement video amusement and start the wheels turning.

While ATARI ‘PONG’ was not the first video amusement piece, it was the first to achieve full mainstream, if not global, adoption and opened the way for the amusement trade to take video arcade games seriously, as an addition to their mechanical game machine and pinball business. This was an addition that would go on to surpass the revenue of these more traditional entertainments. Furthermore, even after two major crashes, it would still generate the lion’s share of business, creating great corporations first in America and then, in following waves, in Japan.

Fielded in 1972, we have charted the faltering steps in the creation of ‘PONG’ in previous coverage, as well as the successful legal challenge surrounding the inspiration for the game. It still represents the foundation of the video arcade boom – seeing some 10,000 units shipped in the first year alone (as well as countless copies). This success built the corporations which fed the hunger for gaming, and start-up Syzygy would erupt into ATARI, and would define the early corporate landgrab, eventually being consumed by giant Warner Communications, only to falter and fracture.

However, this fracturing gave birth to competition, innovation, and application and video games would touch their locality like no other entertainment medium. Far more than the ‘Kinetoscope Arcade’, the video arcades engendered a new way to socialize and play. ATARI, through this, would lay down the roots that would eventually create Chuck E. Cheese – a social entertainment venue built around the video game iconography, whose very mascot was a video game character brought to life; as Walt Disney had built his theme park around his leading film mascot. 

This similarity with movies is not coincidental for video gaming. The need to find the vocabulary that will allow the players to understand and consume the entertainment, and to allow the developers to create more content to feed the hunger of the audience, are elements both experiences have had to contend with. For video gaming in 1972, this point was very similar to that of 1900, when the motion-picture scene migrated from novelty to a growing industry – from the sceptical of the Lumiere’s ‘Train Entering Station’ (1895), to the motion-picture ‘The Great Train Robbery’ (1903). Likewise, video gaming was stumbling towards finding its own voice.

In 50-years of motion-pictures, structure and distribution was established, and the technology of talkies, colour and even immersive film formats were presented onto the market. For video gaming, the progression from the black and white pixel on screen has accelerated in vibrancy and quality at an even more breakneck speed, to the point now that the graphical fidelity and interactive physics rendered are close to representing real life. It is not just this representation which has developed, as the engagement with the player has also evolved, providing a level of entertainment that offers competition as the equal of athleticism. Along with engaging narrative which enthrals billions of worldwide players. 

As with the movies, the games industry has had to define its offering, creating compelling characters and icons. For the movie industry, the female audience would be cultivated by the first movie-stars such as Florence Lawrence (“The Biograph Girl”) in 1910. Likewise, video-amusement would see its first major star with NAMCO’s ‘Ms. Pac-Man’, who is celebrating her 40th anniversary this year. The success of video game icons has defined many of the proceeding decades, to the point that many recognize Nintendo’s game mascot ‘Mario’ over Disney’s animation icon ‘Mickey Mouse’. So much so is their power, that video game icons such as SEGA’s ‘Sonic The Hedgehog’ (who recently celebrated his 30th anniversary) will appear in a sequel to his 2020 $319m box office smash movie.

To focus, however, on the medium that started this whole industry – video amusement, representing the Out-of-Home (OOH) Entertainment sector is separate, but connected to the At-Home Entertainment (consumer) game sector. Meanwhile, the consumer console, hand-held and online game universe, represents a billion-Dollar sector that surpasses the profits combined of the movie and music industries. While OOH still seems to be in transition. 

Many have been quick to write off the amusement industry, first after the arcade game crash of 1979, but it rebounded. Then again, in 1983 with the great video game crash, arcade was once again written off – but it endured. Attempts to cast the sector to the dustbin of irrelevance have been proven wrong again and again. Even now, during the height of the global lockdown, the media wrote off Out-of-Home Entertainment as being unable to recover, only now for the media to suffer mass amnesia in reporting the explosion in Social Entertainment, and investment in entertainment venues, containing the very machines they said were dead. 

But it is the evolution of the interactive game media in its OOH colors that now is under the microscope. Social Entertainment, and Location-Based Entertainment are all facets of the fundamental amusement experience. The social engagement and entertainment elements are the same; if the targeted audience age and spend are different, as is the technology used to entertain and immerse this new audience. The levels of sophistication engendered by an audience who have been born in a world of high-end video game experiences at home, has driven a new demand for engagement and “Gamification” when they are out.

OOH is an industry that seems to have been ahead of the curve (if not maximizing the bankability). It is the first entertainment industry to have adopted ePayment and the first to have embraced tournament play through competition. It is the first entertainment sector to employ collectables and customizable game elements, unique to the player. All while creating gaming environments that took from the digital world, and represented them in physical environments, for social engagement. The latest free-roaming virtual technology far surpasses anything that consumer game applications will be able to achieve soon.  

It is no surprise that the maturing of the interactive entertainment scene sees several anniversaries marked at this point. But it is also important to understand that in maturing, we also see a consolidation, if not combining, of approaches and technologies. Also marking its 50th anniversary is Walt Disney World – the evolution of the theme park into the template of the themed entertainment resort.  So, it is no surprise to see interactive digital entertainment blending with the next generation of immersive entertainment venues – as personified by the successful rollout of the Universal Studios ‘Super Nintendo World’ expansion, literally taking the elements of Nintendo videogaming and blending them into an interactive attraction environment.

As stated, how the next 50-years will shape the Out-of-Home Entertainment experience is still an undiscovered country. With talk of the “Metaverse” on many people’s lips, some envisage a metamorphosis of the digital world with physical experiences – but we have already seen that achieved with the creation of physical attractions based on movie experiences (best illustrated with ‘Star Tours’ in 1989). It is also the technology from this early period that has reached maturity – that of Virtual Reality (VR), but also far more. Now we see the full adoption of immersive entertainment, using all the latest technologies, described by some as Cross-Reality (XR), to create what some see as “Virtual World Simulators”.

In marking this anniversary, we are also able to now look towards what the future holds. The reality is that, the traditional amusement trade that fixed its star to interactive video gaming was unable to hold onto this, and now finds itself cast adrift, clinging to the remaining elements of its business. But with the resurgence for social entertainment demand, from an audience re-emerging, the market seems about to be hit by a new evolution in entertainment that will cast asunder the traditional doctrine, as major entertainment corporations vie for control of a lucrative aspect of a wider cross-platform entertainment landscape.

If the leap from black and white pixels, to fully immersive CGi vistas seems amazing in just 50-years, then the next 50-years are about to astound all of us – those of us who can hang on!  

Branding Entertainment

The theme park sector has embraced IP and character-based attractions since the modern conception of the park and resort business. This is personified by the investment Walt Disney Corporation has made since its first venture into theme park operation in 1955, from its movie and animation heritage, utilizing its library of characters to populate their theme park attractions

Most recently, we have seen the likes of the development of the Florida-based ‘Peppa Pig Theme Park’. Only a stone’s throw away from the LEGOLAND Florida resort, the Hasbro media and toy property has been recreated towards offering a physical resort location, especially developed to support the modern audience for the popular pig. While the brand has seen sporadic deployment in the themed entertainment landscape, this will be the first wholly dedicated theme park to represent the brand, and a lot depends on a successful interpretation.

The ability to have representations of animated characters in the physical world has proven a difficult art to master. Initially, the 1955 mascots that paraded the original Walt Disneyland venue were incredibly crude, but with modern development and skills, the current virtual characters from toys, movies, television, and videogames, are now able to be turned into real-life physical characters. No better example of this is the work of Rainbow Productions and their creation of bespoke licensed character costumes. The toy and licensing industries have equally embraced these physical representations of brands – and this has become an essential in the deployment for entertainment facilities. 

As seen at the recent Brand Licensing Expo in 2021, one of a horde of costumes on parade was the character of Sonic the Hedgehog At the time celebrating his 30th anniversary. The videogame inspired character and mascot for SEGA has proven himself a multi-platform entity, jumping from videogame to toy, to animated series, and even a blockbuster motion picture. A sequel to the box office success of the previous outing is planned for 2022. Furthermore, the character is able to be turned into a physical entity to interact with fans, achieved through the characterisation from Rainbow Productions.

A further example of the brand and IP crossover into the entertainment space was seen with the news of the launch of the ‘Nikeland Experience’. Part of the flagship Nike NYC, House of Innovation retail store on New York City’s Fifth Avenue, the space offers an entertainment imagining with branded virtual world entertainment such as ‘Nikeland Roblox’, as well as deploying AR experiences with ‘Pachinko Obby Ball’ using scanned Snapcode, in addition to a projected interactive floor game experience as the culmination of the “Retailtainment” offering. Nike has been investing in the digital and physical representation of its brand – along with this venue, the company is also worked on creating the ‘Rtfkt’ brand, a NFT collection of digital-only “virtual sneakers” that generated some $3m within a matter of minutes of going live.

Also, following the opening of ‘Ferrari Land’ in Dubai in 2010, the company invested in wider deployment of its sportscar brand in the interactive medium. Ferrari funds both LBE and eSports projects – with eSports offering an audience and streaming capability. The company recently announcing the launch of the ‘Ferrari Experience’ – a concept designed with partners to offer a media-based midway attraction around immersive simulators, as well as including a central eSports hub. Ferrari is banking on this experience, along with other themed attractions, planned for launch in the coming months.

We touched previously on toy and branding giant Hasbro’s investment in physical entertainment venues based on its properties and, beyond Peppa Pig, the corporation has been looking at new developments beyond dedicated resorts. Flexing its muscle as a global play and entertainment corporation, the company has ventured into the new landscape of LBE development, most recently opening (in London) ‘Monopoly Lifesized’ – a real-world board game experience, based on the brand. This is one of several Immersive Experiences that have opened, especially in London, with live actors role-playing (LARPing) as characters from the brand, with experiences mixing escape rooms with competitive elements, and skill games amongst the teams. The whole game experience is supported by an extensive food and beverage component, maximizing the spend. 

These live entertainment sites have become a new component of the Immersive Experience scene in venue entertainment, and London is also soon to play host to the new ‘Tomb Raider: The LIVE Experience’ – based on the video game and movie character. In addition to the ‘Doctor Who: Experience’ based on the popular television sci-fi series and property – a physical recreation of the brand allowing the audience to pay to be immersed within. And we hope to report on another offering from the Streaming world to this line-up in coming reports.

About the author

Kevin Williams

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The brainchild of two location-based experience enthusiasts, Christine Buhr and Brandon Willey, the LBX Collective aims to inform and educate, create opportunities to connect with industry peers, and to spur collaboration, discourse, and cross-pollination of ideas.

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