#1194 – Location-Based Entertainment Returns!

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While remembering past developments can be sometimes avoided by the new generation, keeping a weather-eye on past activities can be seen as useful in avoiding making the same mistakes. So it is with interest that we chart the growth, once again, of location-based entertainment and observe its previous attempt at market dominance, along with how this latest move is re-attracting IP and big brands.

Return of Location-Based Entertainment

Following on from our coverage of the growth in IP and branding within the Out-of-Home Entertainment sphere, we turn to the reprise of a once popular vehicle towards marrying brand and IP and physical entertainment venues. Back in 1996 the term “Location-Based Entertainment” (LBE) gained major recognition. Following on from the boom in Japan in Indoor Amusement venues (Amusement Theme Park); the concept of sites dedicated to a particular brand, supported by digital attractions (scaled down theme park attractions), found investor support.

A spate of LBE concepts were rolled out during this period – and suffered “Firework periods of adoption”, (loud launches, soaring rises, and then explode, to fall back to earth in pieces!). During a period of just over five years in the nineties, we saw ‘DiscoveryZone’, later to be acquired by Blockbusters in 1995, start the ball rolling in the West. This was followed by the likes of ‘Foxwood Cinetropolis’, ‘Club Disney’, ‘DisneyQuest’, ‘ESPN Zone’, ‘Sony Metreon’, ‘XS New York’, and ‘SEGA GameWorks’ – this last one going through different owners to eventually close. The main LBE phase burned out just before the Millenium, although some brands soldiered on.

But the gloss was lost from LBE, and most IP moved into movies, streaming, and licensing. At least until recently, with a new interest in social entertainment offering new life to the concept of a physical brand representation.

The Return of LBE

The most recent example of this return to LBE was the news of Sony being linked to immersive indoor theme park flagship center for Chicago. The news first broke, via local affiliates, that Sony Pictures would be entering the LBE scene with a 47,000-sq.ft. facility in a former Sears department store (at the Oakbrook Center mall). The venue, under the ‘Wonderverse’ branding, has been three years in development and undergone several delays. It eventually threw open its doors for the end of last year, comprising immersive attractions based on Sony IP, including bumper cars, escape rooms, VR, simulators, and specially developed interactive exhibits – all developed through Sony Pictures Entertainment’s LBE and Themed Entertainment division. ‘Bad Boys’, ‘Jumanji’, ‘Uncharted’, ‘Ghostbusters’, and ‘Zombieland’, are just some of the movie and game properties included in unique experiences. This is the latest example of the move by big IP holders in the movie, videogame, and toy scene, into physical venues.

Readership with a long memory will see this move as reminiscent of the 1998 moves by then-Sony into location-based entertainment with the ‘Sony Metreon’ chain of facilities opened in San Fransico, Berlin, and Tokyo. Even though this new project was under tight security, sources suggest this latest entrance into the LBE scene has been equally as bumpy as that which charted the Metreon debacle back in the 1990s. Although, it is hoped that the lessons learned will go on towards allowing a new chain of ‘Wonderverse’ stores to be rolled out – after extensive research of the reactions to the flagship doors opening in December (with an official launch in January 2024).

And so, we see a re-emergence of LBE – this time fully fledged on brand placement. Other brands and IP hoarders from toy brands, movie studios, and streaming services, have also started their own internal location-based ventures. A leader from the streaming world is represented by Netflix entering the permanent LBE scene, with their new concept ‘Netflix House’ – what has been called immersive retail, including dining, and incorporating rotating installations, being regularly swapped out for other properties, including special art installations, and all planned to open 2025. Netflix has been rolling out temporary, pop-up installations of its IP, including the ‘Stranger Things’ experience, and the ‘Army of The Dead’ VR experience that has seen a semi-permanent fixture within the AREA15 Las Vegas compound. However, this new venture will be permanent and offer a glimpse at the IP approach to LBE.

Meanwhile, the movie world has also embraced LBE, with an example coming from Universal Studios, through their division Universal Destinations & Experiences, announcing the launch of ‘Universal Horror Unleashed’ – what has been described as an immersive horror experience, covering some 110,000-sq.ft. and planned to open in 2024, located again within the AREA15 expansion in Las Vegas. Another movie operation with a toe in this deep water is Warner Bros. Entertainment, having launched their flagship store ‘Harry Potter New York’ – the shop and exhibition space opened in the city in 2021. The space included immersive attractions, such as the placement of a Dreamscape VR system running their free-roaming platform and specially commissioned experiences ‘Wizards Take Flight’ and ‘Chaos at Hogwarts’. Sadly, these immersive attractions received less than stellar reviews, and in April 2023 were shuttered.

Previous entrants in the LBE field, such as Disney, have been quiet during this new phase of activity. Many are feeling that the investment made by Walt Disney into the failed TheVOID immersive free-roam experience was an attempt to keep a toe in the LBE waters. Although, the ignominious collapse of this venture and the rushed moves to brush it under the LBE VR carpet may mean that Disney will wait the longest to re-enter this business, especially as the company undergoes considerable restructuring. All that said, in recent news it was revealed that TheVOID was looking to make a return to the LBE VR scene.  New owner Hyper Reality Partners has reportedly raised some $20m to re-enter, now rebranding the LBE arena concept as “Voyagers of Infinite Dimensions” – with a teaser video released, harking to the past and new future with “VOID 2.0”. Well-placed sources even suggest that new collaborations with Sony Pictures have been reestablished towards reprising the ‘Jumanji’ VR property. This was seen with the launch of Sony’s ‘Wonderverse’ (mentioned previously) which included the ‘Jumanji: Reverse the Curse’ VR attraction re-developed from the original 2019 release.

Toys and Gaming in LBE

Aside from movie and streaming, we have seen toy and game brands enter these waters, like Hasbro revealing plans in 2022 to open some 35 fixed-location experiences, including themed hotels, attractions, FEC, and LBE projects. The Mexico ‘Hasbro City’ project is commencing work, while also opening ‘Monopoly Lifesize’ in London and the first of a string of ‘Nerf ActionXperience’ venues.

Mattel has an active LBE operation ranging from live experiences to attractions and FEC projects, with its brands appearing in amusement products and dedicated experiences for the sector. The corporation revealed they are pursuing several LBE opportunities, along with their promoted ‘Mattle Adventure Park’ project.

Also, LEGO, through its collaboration with Merlin Entertainment, has rolled out its ‘LEGO DiscoveryZones’ – the chain of child-focused sites looking at undergoing restructuring, with the inclusion of more immersive experiences.

Speaking of toy brands, and retailer Hamleys has increased its investment into including an entertainment element to complement its stores. It was announced recently that the latest ‘Hamleys Play’ store had opened in the Indian city of Hyderabad. The mall-based immersive activity style venue includes some 20 activities, including car track, climbing wall, ball pits and other elements – all aimed at a three-to-eight year-old audience. The Hamleys Global Holding operation is owned by Reliance Brands, acquired in 2019, rolling out what they have ladled their “in door play garden” concept alongside the expansion of the retail store business.

Along with the moves into movies and theme parks, videogame conglomerate Nintendo revealed its plans to develop a chain of LBE operations. The corporation will be opening a museum to their brand in 2024 (‘Nintendo Gallery’, Kyoto, Japan) and, from this launchpad, and the previous Nintendo store operations, a plan will be revealed for a chain of immersive entertainment sites based on the videogame properties. More details are expected to be revealed soon. An IP associated with Nintendo was also linked to a move to a physical entertainment space – Pokémon Company announced a partnership with operator ‘Yomiruri Land’ to develop an attraction within the Tokyo site, to be called ‘PokePark Kanto’.

This latest branded theme park attraction builds off the Universal Studios success with ‘Super Nintendo World’ – a success that is to be expanded upon, with the announcement that the launchpad for the Nintendo gate will be seeing a new attraction addition, with the world seeing ‘Donkey Kong Country’ opening in the Spring of 2024. The new land will include a new roller-coaster attraction (‘Donkey Kong Mine-Cart Madness’), and a number of these elements will all be supported by the ‘Power-Band’ gamified interface. This new land expansion is planned to be rolled out across the other ‘Super Nintendo World’ properties already opened. Away from the theme parks, other videogame publishers have been linked to their own LBE projects, such as Ubisoft, meanwhile Japan-based Square-ENIX owns TAITO and their chain of amusement venues in the Home Islands.

Priorities Dabbling in LBE

Notable mention is also needed of the other movie IP which have attempted to parachute into LBE.

We have seen brands dabble in this environment with pop-up attractions and temporary installations, such as ‘Aliens: Decent’. At the time, the 20th Century Fox property was deployed as a test LBE concept in 2018, developed by Pure Imagination Studios and the LBE division FoxNext Destinations. The concept was parachuted into a LA retail unit and saw a 14-month run, before being shuttered. The experiment gave valuable experience on what VR installations required. This also took place during the volatile period of VR LBE development. Or, we have ‘Terminator Salvation: Fight for the Future’ – The Warner Studio property, placed in location-based entertainment back in 2018, with their association with SPACES (an operation spun out of Dreamworks), that deployed several of their free-roaming VR experiences in standalone venues, along with a cinema partnership with Cinemark. Again, during this volatile period, the operation saw highs and then lows – finally closing, following SPACES technology acquisition by Apple.

Meanwhile, the remaining LBE VR installation operations have also turned to IP branding. We have reported on SandboxVR and their ‘Star Trek Discovery’ license, which has been followed by the Netflix agreement on ‘Squid Games’ – a license that also saw implementation by Immersive GameBox. A number of other IP brands have been incorporated into these chains, such as the movie property ‘Men In Black’ that was deployed by Dreamscape Immersion. We also received news that Zero Latency is about to announce an experience based on the ‘Warhammer 4k Space Marines’ sci-fi property. This follows on from the development by the company of the ‘Far Cry’ video game IP property, for their platform licensed from Ubisoft.

And most recently, we have seen ‘Ghostbusters’ – seeing both VR installations through a collaboration with TheVOID with ‘Ghostbusters Dimensions’, and the recent HOLOGATE VR release ‘Ghostbusters Academy’. Meanwhile, there is internal development of an AR experience launched in Japan, with ‘Ghostbusters Adventure’. The corporation is going as far as to create Sony Pictures Virtual Reality (SPVR), a division handling their immersive entertainment offerings, and having deployed several amusement and attraction licensed systems. All this, along with the already mentioned appearance as part of ‘Wonderverse’, through the HOLOGATE VR application; and including the ‘Jumanji’ IP in VR form, with the 2019 TheVOID title re-released for the site.

Speaking of movie properties, the emergence of the live action guest experience has also been invested upon recently. We touched on the ‘Monopoly Lifesize’ from Hasbro, but we also have Universal Studios investing in new resort and LBE projects, announcing at AREA15 the first of their ‘Universal Horror Unleased’ permanent immersive horror experiences (as stated previously). Another partner in this entertainment hub location in Las Vegas will be the Lionsgate movie property ‘The John Wick Experience’. Based on the bullet-hell action movie franchise, this will be a ticketed experience with live actors and immersive effects. This puzzle and play style of experience from Lionsgate follows on from IP-based ‘Hunger Games’, ‘SAW’, and ‘Blair Witch’ experiences.

Reinvesting in Virtual Theme Parks

And finally, following on from our recent LBE coverage, we have ‘Star Wars’, now helmed by Walt Disney – we have seen ‘Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire’. With another property deployed in LBE VR, and another TheVOID asset, the association the corporation had with ILMxLabs and Disney saw its deployment into the market through the VR free-roaming operation. However, it was unceremoniously shuttered in 2020, due to a mixture of debt, poor finances, and failed acquisition, all accelerated by the global lockdown. Although, as stated previously, close sources have suggested that TheVOID operation and significant assets are positioning to relaunch the VR experience with enhanced technology (we will keep a watch on developments).

Speaking of ‘Star Wars’, well-placed sources “inside-the-magic” revealed that the previously closed ‘Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser’ Larping experience, which closed only just over 12-months from opening and costing an estimated $400m, will be given a second life. It was reported that the Walt Disney management had started the process of redeveloping the venue housing the sleepover roleplaying experience, to house a totally new attraction. No word if this new attraction will be based on the ‘Star Wars’ IP, but some have suggested the idea may be now to turn the roleplaying adventure into a dining experience, abandoning the overpriced sleepover element.

But it was the big announcement at the beginning of February that also rocked the new investment by the largest entertainment corporation. It was announced that Walt Disney had made a $1.5b investment into the consumer publisher Epic Games. This move will see Disney IP developed towards a new range of games using Epic tools and, at the same time, Disney properties will be deployed into the ‘Fortnite’ PVP game experience (which sees 100m players each month). This equity stake will see assets, tools, and studios run by Epic, working on Disney properties that will be released through this partnership, with what would have previously been called a “Metaverse” being developed to embrace these brands.

This marks the latest major acquisition by Disney with their Pixar Animation ($7b, 2006), Marvel Entertainment ($424b, 2009), LucasFilms ($4b, 2012), and 21st Century Fox ($71b, 2019) acquisitions. But this also marks the biggest investment by Disney into the gaming space, since they closed the LucasGames operation after the acquisition. It is expected that this move with Epic will see additional crossover investments with their physical entertainment business, as more details are revealed.

Disney-park stalking horse, Universal Studios, only a matter of days after the Disney/Epic announcement, revealed their plans to launch their own online game hub (virtual theme park) based on their property. In partnership with the owners of Minecraft (which sees 180m players each month), the corporations will work together to create the “Minecraft x Universal Studios Experience” (working title) – a virtual world of eight lands recreated in the Minecraft game tool, as a theme park attraction with properties. Minecraft assets were acquired by Microsoft in 2014. The planned online experience will support a multitude of platforms and will also support downloaded content (DLC) updates. No word on the value proposition of this agreement currently – or confirming rumors that this immanent announcement was the reason for the rushed Disney announcement with Epic. We can expect other theme park and LBE operators to consider their “Digital to Physical” position following these first announcements, as the domino effect starts.

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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