#1171 – Saudi Defines Growing Entertainment Business!

The expanding international leisure entertainment sector sees the latest station on the caravan route, with Riyadh in Saudi Arabia. Along with Middle East and North American (MENA) business, we also cover the developments in the eSports and Competitive Gaming sector.  

Middle East Entertainment Sunshine

A very crowded first half of 2023 saw many international entertainment exhibitions. March had seen the Dubai Entertainment Amusement and Leisure Exhibition (DEAL), and the Principality was about to see the gathering of Saudi amusement and attraction investment – the Saudi Entertainment and Amusement (SEA’23) Expo at the Riyadh International Convention & Exhibition Center. The event was held in conjunction with the SLS Expo (focused on immersive audio and lighting). 

The need for a dedicated trade event for this region was underlined by the announcement of the explosion of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s (KSA) investment into leisure entertainment. It was revealed, linked to the immense NEOM project, that the Saudi territory would be seeing Saudi Arabia’s thriving $64b cultural, leisure and entertainment market. SEA’23 was catering for Ride, Water Park, Family Entertainment, Amusement and Hospitality venues, with the SLS event offering an additional impetus to the attendance. The show was broken into the key elements, ranging from the amusement, attraction, theme park/resort, and the music and lighting element.

Regarding the amusement representation at this important event for the KSA and UAE sector, and representing the amusement scene, powerhouse Amusement Services International (ASI) continued to run a crowded booth, showing the latest hoard of street racers such as BANDAI NAMCO’s ‘Dead Heat Unleased’, and LAI Games’ ‘Asphalt 9 Legend Arcade’, as well as new releases such as SEGA Amusement Internationals ‘Drone Racing: Genesis’. TRIOTECH, working with ASI, had their latest ‘QUBE’ four-player immersive enclosure, along with their ‘STORM’ VR ride simulator. 

ASI also represented the VRsenal ‘Monolith’ unattended VR kiosk, running the two-player configured ‘Zombieland: Headshot Fever’ property. The unique head-mount and gun combination controller was popular across several offerings at the show. The VRsenal system on the ASI booth has been sold to Chuck E. Cheese Riyadh. The other major amusement player on the Riyadh floor was Warehouse of Games (WOG), also representing the latest street racers with ‘NFS Heat Takedown’ from Adrenaline Amusement in their DX configuration on booth. VR was also represented on the WOG booth, presenting UNIS and their ‘Sailor Quest VR’ two-player experience. 

Meanwhile, the FEC and LBE scene was represented with a strong showing of frictionless payment systems at SEA’23, with EMBED and Semnox, along with other major players representing their latest platforms as the Saudi audience embraces frictionless support. Developments in the payment and ticketing scene also took place off the show floor, with the news that accesso Technology Group (provider of attraction and venue point-of-sale and management solutions), had acquired VGS – a leading ticketing and visitor management system provider. In the deal, the ‘SnApp’ platform will be rebranded ‘accesso Horizon’ – with the merging of the companies’ applications under one roof. This is the latest example of consolidation in the international sector.

Another aspect of the Saudi market is the growing popularity of leisure bowling, with exhibitor Qubica AMF presenting in this context. Several countries sent delegations to the SEA event. One such was seen on the Experience UK Pavilion – with representation from Rainbow Productions – with several of their mascot costumes representing IP across the show floor. The UK booth offered a chance for local investors to see the latest developments in entertainment facility business. One representative was Gravity Entertainment – famous for their ‘Gravity Active’, and their new ‘Gravity Max’ franchise sites (The Stinger Report covered the first ‘Gravity Max’ facility opening at Wandsworth, London). 

The representation of immersive sports activity was championed by exhibitor Sports Simulation – who demonstrated their MR platform, with a selection of sports games projected onto a screen and the players ball or puck tracked and represented in the game. Developers such as 7thSense, Conductr and others were represented on the booth. Another exhibitor promoting active sports, was Gooeast Media Technology, developer of the ‘Gooeast Park’ and their “sportainment” immersive experience, with a selection of their interactive games such as their football enclosure (‘Gooest Football’), using a projection screen and ball tracking. 

Dubai exhibitor Pole Position represented their business in automotive events, using racing simulators, with the company partnering with the ‘F1 Res-Tech Motion Simulation’ platforms, and ‘Track Time 3Motion Simulator’ systems. VR was represented with the KAT VR omni-direction treadmill. The booth also shared space with Immersive Esport, deploying pop-up installations of the latest racing events. Meanwhile, exhibitor Sub Sea Systems, the marine tourism industry specialist, was promoting along with the underwater innovation, the ‘VR Snorkelling’ with the ‘DIVR’ (snorkeling) and ‘DIVR+’ with sensory effects and the self-contained, standalone system (‘DeepDive VR’). 

VR was seen across several booths during the Riyadh event, with Chinese exhibitor Movie Power and others showing their VR and VR ride attraction systems. Developer AMEGA Entertainment also represented their eSports simulator, VR attractions, and 360 coaster simulator. Another prominent name, DOF Robotics, was promoting their extensive VR simulator attraction work – ranging from ‘Monster Jam: Grave Digger’, to their new ‘Digital Park’ mission space experience. Concerning the interest in VR-based attractions, SEA’23 exhibitor Eurogames, represented the ‘VR Bumper Car’ platform developed in partnership with SPREE Interactive

Dedicated free-roaming VR immersive experiences were championed by exhibitor DIVR Labs – following on from the opening of three of their location-based VR experiences, including the new site at London’s White City mall, the company presented a demonstration of their system to SEA’23 attendees. Not just VR but also MR was represented, with a projection mapping education experience shown from Breeze Creative. Mixed Reality interactive games experiences were also seen on the Battle Company both, presenting their ‘Flash Pad’ illuminated floor game system.  

One of the major exhibitors on the SEA’23 show floor was SEVEN. The operation is developing numerous entertainment spaces and LBE properties, the majority associated with prominent IP, and a giant Transformer was welcoming attendees to the show. Looking across LBE, amusement and theme park element, Al Hokair Group was another company with a major showing at SEA’23, and one with involvement across the gambit of entertainment offerings (we report later in this report from one of their sites in the area). On the show booth, the company promoted their influential IP aspirations, with plans for ‘Monopoly Lifesize’ and ‘Playdoh’ facility properties. 

Other attraction developers such as Kraftwerks, famous for their theater business, also attended. Also representing their immersive interactive attraction work was Lagotronic Projects, including their ‘GameChanger’ system and new ‘Interactive Rotating Dark Ride’. The SEA’23 show floor was also supported by a seminar program, supported by local and international presenters during panel sessions organized by the show. 

During the event, news was revealed that Dynamic Attractions, a company known for their theme park attraction development for the likes of Universal and Walt Disney, had been sold for $1.5m to Hong Kong based financial operation PEL. Dynamic Attractions had fallen into insolvency in March 2023, as reported by Forbes, but has recently started to move forward by signing agreements to build three new rollercoasters for several customers – including ‘Ferrari World’, Dubai. This acquisition will see the addressing of liabilities and hopes to restructure the operation to complete the new coaster business under new management, while retaining its 17 employees. 

In conclusion: This marks the end of a hectic three days. Meanwhile, the territory’s local trade association, Middle East and North Africa Leisure and Attractions Council (MENALAC), continued their onward march to establish the organization and attract the leading players in this sector. Regarding SEA’23, this represented the largest showing for the event and seemed to prove its consolidation – linked to developments in this territory. A new aspect of SEA’23 was the collocation with the AV show Saudi Light & Sound (SLS) Expo, a natural companion show event for the theme park and attraction gathering and, combined, the shows created a major gathering.  We look forward to the lineup for the 2024 event – scheduled for earlier in the month (7-9 May 2024). 

Entertainment in the Riyadh Area 

The Riyadh entertainment scene was a hotbed of new developments, as well as many existing operations investing heavily in redevelopment. The ability to get a view of the growing entertainment sector in the territory was offered to those who made the trip to Riyadh. As part of the SEA exhibition and representing publication owners Spider Entertainment, who has a new office in the territory, we were able to visit three of the key new operations.

The first was ‘Sparky’s’ in the Panorama Mall, one of seven that are in the city, all part of the Al Hokair Group entertainment operation. In an example of a refurbishment process across the chain, this large facility, with indoor coaster and amusement, was also updating the operation with new bowling, bumper-car and lasertag attractions.  

In a city defined by its big malls, we took a short trip to the Cenomi View Mall, to see the ‘Sala City’ play zone space. It is an impressive design concept, with use of illumination to enhance the space – comprising bumper-cars, rides, a smattering of prize, redemption and amusement, and adjacent bowling space. This is all part of the SALA Entertainment indoor chain, recently reporting their continued growth with brands such as ‘Bob’s Famous Bowling’, and their representation in the ‘Kidzania’ property, along with others. 

The last site visited on this whistlestop tour of Riyadh was the ‘Magic Planet’ location in the Riyadh Park mall. The venue is one of two in the area and was also undergoing updates. The site includes a large amusement and redemption offering and, supported by ASI, had many of the latest amusement. The site also held one of the few Zamperla ‘Z+’ VR attractions – all supported by an adjacent ‘Yalla! Bowling’ site, and the ubiquitous cinema offering, the latter being a staple for the entertainment offering across this sector. 

An interesting addition to the entertainment within the mall space, and adjacent to the ‘Magic Planet’, was the brand-new ‘Dreamscape’ virtual reality entertainment venue. The Dreamscape Immersive location opened only recently in the city, and the free-roaming immersive entertainment space was expanding the reach of this entertainment technology into this territory. The concept is expected to be joined by other examples of this technology approach in the market.

eSports Continues to Evolve

eSports is an international business, along with its strong affiliation to the Saudi scene. Leading gaming and Virtual Sports company, Inspired Entertainment, announced the launch of ‘Re-Play eSports’. A unique platform that offers eSports tournaments as Virtual Sports fixtures for wagering, building on their experience platform. The new system was developed in partnership with GRID, developer of a data platform for the distribution of in-game data, and will showcase the ‘CS:GO’ global tournament – Champion of Champions Tour coverage from international events – supplied through Inspired’s virtual sportsbook and V-Play Plug & Play (VPP) products. 

This marks a significant move by the eSports gaming scene into Virtual Sports, and the whole sports betting landscape. ‘CS:GO’ is a landmark competitive game network, especially though its global tournaments – no word at this time how much the developers of the game, Valve Corporation, have been involved in this agreement. The deal will see CS:GO tournament coverage available for 23/7/365 across the Virtual Sports platform. This development could see other major eSports properties consider adding their tournament gaming to the Virtual Sports channels, creating a brand-new revenue stream for the market.

The success of ‘Counter Strike’ (CS:GO) as an eSport and tournament phenomena can trace its roots back some 23-years, as a game that was taken up by the modding community and turned into an online multi-player sensation. This team-versus-team combat shooter would see the 2012 version of the game driving the competitive play and tournament community that has underpinned eSports.  It is interesting that another Valve property, ‘Defense of the Ancients’ (DotA), also originated from a strong gaming community who loved the multi-player online battle arena (MOBA) game style, launched in 2003, and this has driven the title to become an eSports sensation and international tournament championship mainstay. This is an obvious eSports property that could partner with CS:GO in this new Virtual Sports venture.  To understand the changing eSports landscape, it was reported that the Saudi Arabian fund-raising sphere had spent, in the last 18-months, over $8b. This was on top of investments made in Nintendo and Embracer Group

VR Defining the Ages

In the fallout of the developments in the VR and MR landscape, especially with the media resurgence of interest in MR and XR after the Apple announcement – the location-based entertainment scene has also continued its investment in MR project and attractions, as reflected during SEA’23. 

Regarding the consumer VR scene, it has proven a nascent market – while the hype cycle was high, with grandiose claims of adoption of new headsets, the reality has been harder to establish. Meta is claiming to be the largest deployer of VR headsets into the market, with claims of 20m units across their Quest range. However, internal documentation revealed a failure of retention with many units going neglected soon after purchase. Likewise, questions were raised regarding the ability to grow beyond the actual achieved sales for the latest Quest 2 platform, which has seen a plateauing of penetration.

Towards these realities, a major development in the terms of usage for consumer headsets was made with the news that Meta, manufacturers of the Quest 2, Quest Pro, and soon to be launched Quest 3, have decided to change the minimum age usage of their hardware. Reported by The Verge, it was stated that the corporation would be moving to a 10-years-of-age minimum, changing from the previous 13-years-of-age. An official position on this change has yet to be announced, other than a blog post following the report, but it was suggested to be linked to a move by the company to attract younger users. The ‘Horizon World’ virtual portal would not see a change on its 13+ age restrictions, however. It needs to be remembered that originally, before acquisition by then-Facebook, OculusVR had a 14-years-of-age restriction that changed following the buyout – with many citing the age restriction being linked to corporate liability issues. 

Parental groups have been vocal regarding impacts on the mental and physical health of developing minds using VR for long durations, seen in consumer application, as well as the issues of the collection of data on users. This depends on guardians creating a “kids account” (user profile) for 10-year-olds, changing to a teenage account of their own when 13-years-of-age. The popularity of affordable VR has seen many parents ignore age restrictions when buying units, and the explosion in younger users, especially on popular game-portals like ‘Gorilla Tag’, has obviously played a part in this reversal. It is interesting to note that Sony, and their Sony Playstation VR platform, has an age restriction to not be used by those younger than 12-years-of-age.  

Concerning the deployment of VR in location-based entertainment, and concerning the age drop in consumer deployment, we need to understand the period of usage in commercial entertainment is much shorter. Most operators leave it to the guardians of younger guests to police their usage on premises. Reaching out for their thoughts to the AAMA trade association (who has just formed a VR subcommittee hoping to ensure best practise across the industry), they confirmed that they work with amusement manufacturers to rate their content – as supported by the longstanding parental advisory system (PAS). But fundamentally, the association felt they are not resourced to police this, as it is the responsibility of the VR headset suppliers, who need to work with the amusement manufacturers to supply guidance and advice regarding minimum age usage.

We also reached out to HTC – who are clearly one of the most ubiquitous of VR headset suppliers across the international LBE VR entertainment scene – for their comment, and at the time of going to the wire they had not come back with an answer, but we will be sure to share with our readers their reply, whenever it arrives.

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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