#1114 – Viva Entertainment – Part 1

The start of a new dawn for coverage from The Stinger Report – and we begin with exclusive coverage of the developments and new opportunities witnessed at the gathering in Las Vegas in March. We share all the developments in this two-part report, as well as information on the other aspects that shaped the industry during this period. 

Amusement Trade Assembles

For the international industry, the trip to Las Vegas marked the two-year anniversary of the Global Health Crisis – and for many the first time they had been able to make the trip to the United States. The holding of Amusement Expo International (AEI’22) in Nevada marked a return to the original home of the amusement trade event and marked an important line in the sand for the return to some level of normalcy for the Out-of-Home Entertainment trade.

Regarding the Amusement component of the AEI’22 event, on the trade-floor was BANDAI NAMCO Amusement America (BNAA) – taking their usual space at the front of the trade event, although with a much-reduced machine presence, impacted by shipping delays, as many exhibitors would endure. Regarding new developments on the booth, The Stinger Report representatives would like to thank the BNAA team for walking us through the login and operation of the smartphone platform to experience ‘PAC-MAN Battle Royale Chompionship’ – originally launched at IAAPA’21. Alongside the tabletop physical amusement version, BNAA ran the “Remote” version, allowing up-to-eight players to log-on via their smartphone and control their character. Representatives confirmed that this was proving a strong hospitality title, with some bar operators on test running the game as a free-play, to promote competitive socializing.

Although missed by some attendees to the amusement trade event, ‘PAC-MAN Battle Royale Chompionship’ in its remote configuration represented an important development in the hospitality and social entertainment landscape – a perfect companion to a bar and food offering. Its unique ability to use guests’ smartphones to control the action frictionlessly (no need for controllers of cabinet), is another incentive to drive interest. The use of a QR code signup and Wi-Fi login was seamless when it was explained. It will be interesting to see if it is the hospitality or amusement trade that will benefit the most from this innovative entertainment experience. Meanwhile, BNAA was also working on specially themed versions of the tabletop cabinet variant.

Speaking of connectivity, BANDAI NAMCO Japan announced the suspension of their support of the ‘Osaifu-Keitai’ (Wallet Mobile) standard, operated by NTT Docomo. The mobile payment standard has been ubiquitous in Japan across major platforms, and many game payment systems supported this. But due to various conditions impacting the market, the amusement operator has reverted to supporting its own infrastructure (BANDAI NAMCO ID / BANA Passport). 

Continuing with the Japanese amusement investment, BANDAI NAMCO Amusement Japan also announced the new service ‘Marui No Anime PLAYSTORE’. This is the latest entrant into the “Live Play” (online crane game), supported by the BANDAI NAMCO ID platform – the online crane (UFO) playing app. It is a hybrid service, with the crane prize element supported by a character lottery feature for players to collect virtual characters as well as prizes.  

BANDAI also celebrated the 45-anniversary of the Gashapon vended toy system, with a serious of promotions for the anniversary, and a limited release of the world’s first capsule vending machines. The coin-operated capsule toy machine (Gashapon) was first released in Japan in 1977 and has gone on to rank up millions of vended toy capsules and grow a lucrative capsule toy store business for BANDAI NAMCO. The company revealed they had developed ‘Gashapon Odyssey’ – a system using false-3D LED screens to simulate 3D objects, with the user able to select their capsule that is vended by the machine.

Returning to America and the AEI’22 show floor, SEGA Amusement International (SAI) had their own booth populated with many of the new releases already launched at IAAPA’21 and seen a matter of weeks previously at ATEI’22. The US amusement trade attendees of the show got their chance to try the new releases – as well as see SAI’s first foray into the VR scene, with an example of ‘VR Agent’ on the booth. 

Concerning developments in the Japanese market and in news about the new trend in “Live Play” in the Japanese amusement scene, we see an interesting development from SEGA Corporation. Following their original ‘SEGA Online Catcher – Goton’ app, created in November 2017, and transferred over to GENDA (who re-branded it ‘GiGO Online Crane’ in 2021), news broke that SEGA was re-entering the online crane business, launching their new entry ‘SEGA UFO Catcher Online’ – an online app for remote play (Live Play) of crane cabinets supported by a Twitter campaign. This reversal on the previous decision to hand-off their online crane business to create a new platform illustrates the drastic restructuring impacting the Japanese corporation. 

Back in Nevada at AEI’22 and the other amusement interests were represented from Betson Enterprises, representing the extensive Raw Thrills lineup. Taking pride of place at AEI’22 was the smash hit in VR, ‘King Kong of Skull Island’ – the game is now full released and seeing a strong penetration after the hiatus during lockdown. The version on display now includes the all-new Chapter 3 “Volcano Battle” adventure, offered as a free update to previous buyers. Also on the booth was ‘Minecraft Dungeons Arcade’ – along with a selection of previously seen amusement releases from the development powerhouse. 

The company also promoted the competition element of ‘Big Buck Hunter: Reloaded’, seeing the latest series of heats for the major championship. What would be seen as eSports in some quarters was represented on the trade floor by the success of tournament infrastructure. While across the aisle we had Incredible Technologies showing the latest version of their ‘Golden Tee Gold PGA Tour’ connected platform, alongside the ‘Arcade Collection’ cabinet housing a three-in-one game solution. The need to stay relevant on the latest version of the IT hardware was evident, with information that service provider T-Mobile would be shutting down ‘Sprint’ modem support, and that operators would need to update support to stay connected to the lucrative tournament infrastructure. 

Another player showing a dedicated tournament infrastructure was STERN Pinball, presenting to the US attendees at AEI’22 their developed ‘Insider Connect’ application. It offers players a downloadable app for smartphone, tracking personal scores and their profile on the company’s tables. Enabled by QR code, this system offers any operator the chance to run serious pinball tournaments and competitions, and for STERN to choregraph championships. The company has big aspirations for this revolutionary system and is expected to change the competition landscape on pintables – if the industry can grasp the opportunity being presented.

Developments regarding the landscape of the amusement trade were in constant flux during and after the trade event. Show exhibitor TouchTunes had a major presence on the floor, but was also involved in considerable developments following the event. It was announced that private equity firm TA Associates had signed an agreement to acquire TouchTunes. The undisclosed purchase price will go towards, in part, growing the new market, and to invest in industry-leading products in the digital jukebox, shared music, and connected amusement and bar sector. 

Back at the show and the amusement scene was also represented at AEI’22 by UNIS – the company presented the standard version of ‘Elevator Action: Invasion’ at the show. Along with this, a great new Videmption tech was on show with ‘Wicked Tuna’ in its four- and two-player configuration – illustrating the latest IP crossover, based on the popular National Geographic streamed TV show. UNIS also presented the active entertainment amusement piece ‘Pogo Jump’. Aimed for the kidtainment market, and offering a very physical game experience, the system opens up a new opportunity to appeal to trampoline and inflatable operators with an active amusement property. 

The deployment of active entertainment experiences into the leisure entertainment landscape can be best seen with the previous success generated by inflatable and trampoline businesses. The modern approach to active entertainment is growing with the deployment of more modern implementations, including “Gamification” and digital technology. We have covered, in previous reports, the greater investment in entertainment that falls into what The Stinger Report has covered over the years as “Exergaming” – now with a greater Sports component. The physicality of active entertainment, married to an eSports and social entertainment component.   

This was seen clearly in our report from EAG’22 – with the projection sports enclosures such as from Sports Simulations, or the highly physical dancing stage amusement from Step Revolution, and even a very physical kidtainment piece from UNIS. Much of this thinking has now been encapsulated into facility business, as with TOCA Social chain. This business has started to consolidate and has even generated its trade body with the XRS Association. The best illustration that an industry is solidifying into a force, is the formation of the leading parties into a trade body to better promote the opportunities they bring to the table. This trend was reflected on the AEI’22 show floor, such as seen from exhibitor CSE showing off their motion tracked ‘iWall’ platform that has the players’ movements represented on screen in the game, with the players actively jumping and ducking to the action.

AEI’22 included, as always, a strong educational component with conference sessions taking place ahead of the show. One of these gatherings was the fifth holding of the VR Summit at Amusement Expo. Jointly organized with the trade association and event organizers, and moderated by Bob Cooney, this event also saw sponsorship from Vertigo Games and their division Springboard VR, along with HTC. This two-day session offered a chance for the opportunities of VR into the amusement and FEC sector to be explored, and for an open platform for manufacturers and operators to share their views on success in this deployment.

One of those on stage was Valo Motion, with some 700 installations of their Mixed Reality (MR) physical activity entertainment platform, taking the lead in immersive development in this genre. Also exhibiting at the show, the company revealed on stage their new ‘Valo Arena’, that offers six players the ability to be placed into the virtual game experience using Chromakey, without the need for wearing VR headsets. This the latest example of a projected environment (“Immersive Enclosure”) system, and is supported using the ‘Valo App’ – that allows the operator and the players to monitor scores and tournament position, building on a competition element.

Continuing the development of projected “Immersive Enclosure” systems, and it was announced that Japanese development studio Gugenka had partnered with TAITO to develop a four-player space shooter called ‘SPACE CUBE’ – developed to play on the corporate’s ‘CUBE’ platform, offering a 450-degree projected environment (floors and walls), with players shooting at waves of invaders based on the ‘Space Invaders’ property. The ‘CUBE’ system is also being used to play a two-player game ‘Cyber Arkanoid’, based on the classic 1986 coin-op release. The system was launched in March, with its first installation at X-STATION (a XR space) within the TAITO Station Ikebukuro facility in Tokyo. TAITO is developing a new facility element employing VR and MR experiences, including the ‘VAR Box’ (see below), ‘Beat Games’ VR, and ‘iWall’ motion tracked experiences. 

Returning to the AEI’22 VR Summit and the conference event offered a chance for the launch of the new ‘VR Collective’ – led by summit moderator Bob Cooney, and supported by AVS Companies, Shaffer Distributing and TrainerTainment. The collective has been created to streamline the “go-to-market” for new VR concepts – intending to offer advice on best practise regarding operation of machines, needed elements, and appropriate marketing. The collective is being supported by the AAMA trade association and hopes to allow new developers, with little experience of the amusement scene, to gain traction into the choppy waters of amusement sales. On stage was one of the first products to be retained by the collective – VAR Live with their ‘VAR Box’, an unattended VR arcade kiosk (fresh from its appearance at X-STATION). First covered by The Stinger Report back in 2017, the platform offers a VR eSports tournament platform, as well as several other shooting games.

The appearance of ‘VAR Box’ at AEI’22 was supported by the collective and consultative services. The Hong Kong developed platform has established a strong Asian following and looks to penetrate the difficult Western amusement scene – and it is hoped that the VR Collective will ensure this, having already placed the system on test, and worked closely with the developer to make the needed changes for the transition to Western sales success. The system on display at the show was still using the Oculus CV1 headset, though the developers confirmed they are working on migrating to a more current VR headset, along with making changes to the overall platform based on the support received. 

One of the other AEI education collaborations taking place was another conference held during event, supported by the trade association and organizers, with Foundations Entertainment University (FEU). The team of specialists in the FEC and entertainment scene held their bootcamp for investors and operators of FEC, bowling allies, laser tag and all kinds of amusement venues. The organizers of FEU underlined, in their presentations, the sentiment that the FEC business is resilient to the financial upheaval currently being experienced across the globe, seeing a growing interest from investors in entering the social entertainment market. It was confirmed that The Stinger Report publisher and Spider Entertainment Co-Founder (Kevin Williams) will be making a guest presentation at the July FEU in Dallas (more details to follow). 

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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