Covering the immersive Out-of-Home entertainment scene, industry specialist Kevin Williams of KWP offers an overview of the commercial entertainment sector, after COVID (AC), and discusses the way the market is tentatively moving forward as it starts to reopen.
For many, the global health crisis has been a cataclysmic event, apocalyptic in its impact on industry and business, and the obvious death knell for scores of industries. This pessimistic stance is understandable for those emerging from over 100 days of self-imposed isolation, but this can be a harmful and blinkered evaluation of a nuanced situation. Those who tried to paint the AC business as being the end for virtual reality (VR), for example, are now seeing the folly of their words.
Obviously, many assumed that an audience re-emerging into the social entertainment landscape would be cautious of putting anything on their heads, especially that worn previously by their fellow gamers. While consumer VR saw media interest for the isolated consumer application – the prognosis for commercial virtual entertainment offerings once the lockdown ended, was going to be bleak, by some observers. But the reality seems to have proven that observation bogus.
The reality has been that in the markets that have emerged from lockdown, entering the early staged return to operation of entertainment premises; the reality is that the market is still hungry for immersive entertainment. In Taiwan and China, VR arcade business returned to operation seeing crowds still keen to enjoy the unique entertainment experience – in Japan, the video amusement trade has reopened, and along with investing in new COVID measures towards ensuring physical distancing, the deployment of VR entertainment is still a thing.
In Europe, as the venues start to reopen, the investment in VR attractions continues. It was reported that Universe Science Park, in Denmark reopened its ‘ParadropVR’ attraction – developed by UK based Frontgrid, the VR experience has players soaring over a virtual landscape controlling their own paraglider. The park first installed the attraction in 2018, the first location to do so, and have continued to operate – relaunching after their lockdown employing best practise hygiene procedure regarding operating the VR system, but confirm that the interest to ride the experience has not diminished from their guests.
It is this best practise that ensures that facilities running VR entertainment offer their guests a safe and secure experience. HOLOGATE, the largest providers of VR entertainment systems internationally, having sold some 400 units of their HOLOGATE Arena tethered enclosure, felt very strongly that the best practices should be shared by all operators, rather than a few. To this end, they established their HOLOGATE Hygiene and Safety Standard, condensing the essential practises towards checking, operating, and cleaning the technology as well as the wider requirements regarding operation of VR simulator rigs. The guide was shared with the whole of the industry, offering support to all to ensure a common practice.
Along with the tethered VR enclosures, there are free-roam (Arena Scale) VR attractions that offer a multi-player experience using backpack PCs to provide the virtual environments. This market had exploded onto the location-based entertainment scene – and while in lockdown developers have continued to innovate. With the reopening of venues, developers such as Zero Latency have launched their new game experience ‘Undead Arena VR’, the game planned to be installed across their 45 Zero Latency venues internationally, offering a retro ‘80s TV gameshow style, combating hordes of zombies to gain the high score and become an instant celebrity.
Another Arena-Scale new release to greet the return of players is developer Vertigo Arcades – the location-based entertainment arm of Vertigo Games famous for their cross-platform success with ‘Arizona Sunshine’. The company launched in June to mark the reopening of VR arcade operations. Their new Ghost Patrol VR is a diversion in a new direction and represents a new level in third-party development, working in cooperation with Crazy Bunch. The four-player game transports the team to a haunted mansion, to navigate the rooms, corridors, and haunted elevators, blasting spooky opponents and collecting gemstones, in a haunted wave shooter. Ghost Patrol VR is a game aimed at a much wider demographic, looking at players as young as 12-15 years of age.
However, not all have come through the global business crisis unscathed. While there are success and innovation stories regarding the re-emerging business, some have also been seriously impacted. One of those was the well-publicised leader in the Arena-Scale sector, The VOID. Famous for their partnership with the Disney Accelerator program, also partnering with Lucasfilms’ ILMxLAB immersive entertainment division – the company launched its backpack PC VR experience with high profile influential intellectual properties such as Star Wars – Secrets of the Empire as well as Avengers – Damage Control, and Wreck-it Ralph – Breaks the Internet.
But the start of July saw a major blow for the operation with the revelation that the flagship VR facility at Downtown Disney, California had been shuttered permanently, a notice declaring termination of lease due to default posted on the empty building. This was one of 17 sites across North America, UAE and Asia – and how many more will not be reopening their doors has yet to be revealed.
No matter how compelling the immersive experience, no matter the level of best practice and new gaming excitement, if the business model does not work then the cracks in concept will be magnified by the loss of business brought on by the lockdown. As seen with cinema chains, hospitality operations and with the leading innovative technology experience providers, avoiding mountains of debt and cumbersome investment paths are essential. The growth possibilities to attack an audience looking for escapism to get away from their cabin fever is obvious, but the route to growth in the AC landscape will need to be defined. Happily, though, immersive entertainment clearly retains its draw as its audience emerges blinking from living rooms around the world.
About the Author
Kevin Williams is a leading specialist in the digital Out-of-Home entertainment industry, through his consultancy KWP Limited, specialising in interactive entertainment. He has enjoyed a long career in the theme park, amusement and entertainment software industries, being an ex-Walt Disney Imagineer.
Kevin is well known for his news service The Stinger Report, a must-read for those working or investing in the international market. He is a prolific writer with regular columns for the main trade publications in this market and also presents numerous conference sessions on the sector and its global impact. Co-author of the only book on this aspect of the market, The Out-of-Home Immersive Entertainment Frontier, Kevin is currently working on the next edition, which is scheduled for publication soon. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.