The Virtual Arena: The Virtual Theme Park! (Part 2)

Kevin Williams talks BANDAI NAMCO, SEGA and more as he discusses how the torch was passed from the ideas of DisneyQuest.

With the destination VR approach gathers momentum, the need to establish a profitable model exercises many developers’ minds – Out-of-home entertainment specialist Kevin Williams, in the concluding part of this column series, reflects on how the ideas envisaged by DisneyQuest has metamorphized into the latest phase of the Amusement Theme Park concept.

As previously covered in this two-part feature, the approach towards developing an indoor theme parks borrows heavily from the development from the 90’s that defined the Amusement Theme Park (ATP) idea. Now with the closure of DisneyQuest, rather than the end of the story, we see a new chapter begin that is driven from those very amusement manufacturers, employing the latest virtual reality (VR) technology.

BANDAI NAMCO Entertainment has invested in their own experimental VR themed entertainment centers. The company one of the first to invest in ATP with their last temporary facilities (Wonder Eggs (1992), Wonder Eggs 2 (1996) and Wonder Eggs 3 (1999)), had focused on establishing its conventional amusement facility and manufacturing business. But in 2015, the company returned to the concept of the immersive entertainment venue. The Japanese amusement giant broke a special team away from amusement development to focus on VR attraction project. After numerous R&D experiments the company opened a temporary facility called VR ZONE: Project I Can – the site a testbed for the marriage of amusement manufacturer requirements and VR delivery.

The second site however borrows heavily on the thinking behind amusement and indoor theme park, but also looking to also pay some homage to the thinking behind DisneyQuest, BANDAI NAMCO opening this month a new version of the brand with VR ZONE Shinjuku. A much larger 40,000-sq.,ft., facility, comprising some 16 different attractions, the majority depending on VR, but also borrowing on the style of presentation once seen in the Disney concept.
VR Zone Shinjuku night

The VR ZONE embodies an indoor theme park, with a compelling range of VR game that build on the idea of their “Project I Can” brand to achieve the best player experience. One of these new games is Mario Kart VR, that offers a special network racer in motion cockpits and tracked player hand movements. The project developed jointly with Nintendo, building on the already successful implementation of the franchise already in the amusement scene.

The networked Mario Kart VR motion cockpits

Strong brands with an equally strong VR experience drives much of the thinking behind this concept. As seen in the States with IMAX VR incorporating movie properties into their VR game mix. The Japanese designed VR ZONE brand blends strong IP with their immersive offerings. Another such example is Ghost in the Shell VR – a backpack multi-player attraction based on the successful anima series. As well as, Dragon Ball VR, also using the HTC Vive controllers mounted on the players hands, to be able to launch fireball attacks at their opponent.

BANDAI NAMCO having worked closely with VR hardware provider HTC, using the modified Business Edition (BE) version of the Vive headset, and also their latest tracking technology – though the games developed for the VR ZONE are not intended to support the Viveport Arcade platform. But the site also employs attractions using AR and Mixed Reality technology – such as a large interactive 3D projection mapped climbing wall.

Part of the lessons learned by BANDAI NAMCO are not just in the best games to offer and their operational requirements, but in the most fundamental elements of operating an out-of-home entertainment offering, how to achieve the best pricing model. The VR ZONE launched with an admission for adults costing ¥800 [$7] (and ¥500 [$4) for those aged 6-12), once inside each ride costs an additional fee. While a one-day pass is available for ¥4,400 [$38] that covers admission and four rides.

Based on the launch of the first full VR ZONE, BANDAI NAMCO has revealed that they are in the process of rolling out several sites in Japan, along with installations in Beijing, Kuala Lumpur, as well as Dubai, New York and London. The company working on a chain of flagship installations as well as smaller VR ZONE Portal sites, comprising a few selected VR attractions in a smaller package.

The other major Japanese amusement factory, SEGA, now some years later from the abortive negotiations with Disney, and this amusement and consumer giant had continued to invest in their ATP aspiration – the Joypolis (also known as SEGA World) brand had gone on to open at its height nine facilities in Japan, Australia, UK and Dubai — but due to businesses conditions the operation has experienced much change. Now under the division SEGA Live Creation, created to redefine the corporations out-of-home entertainment venue aspirations, had opened their first Chinese location in Shanghai. But following this move the business was targeted for acquisition, with 85% of SEGA Sammy’s ownership taken by China Animation in 2016.

Now rebranded as SEGA Joypolis, the group operates the amusement theme park brand and its various entertainment venue operations. With this announcement, the new Chinese owner confirmed they will be opening several new locations, including a Virtual-Theme Park brand. This site will jump into the crowded waters of VR Parks opened across the Chinese sector. SEGA’s ATP history saw them previously field VR attraction (with their VR-1 Space Mission, in 1994), and now hopes to build on this experience.

SEGA have started their own dedicated test of operating the current generation of VR amusement within their venues; a Joypolis site in Japan currently running the Zero Latency backpack free-roaming, VR multiplayer experience. While SEGA’s amusement division launched their SEGA VR AREA brand concept; placed on the top floor of one of their popular amusement venues in Tokyo. The site running its VR first game at the site Mortal Blitz For Walking Attraction, developed by third party Korean developer Skonec Entertainment. This new investment married to the plans by the new owners for their VR indoor theme park, to see Western deployment.

These developments in out-of-home entertainment, be they new indoor theme park installations, as well as the work we can see from IMAX with their unique VR arcade, can trace their lineage back to the path defined by DisneyQuest some 19-years ago. While this latest revolution in VR technology sees its impetus from consumer headset aspirations, investment in true immersive entertainment has been constantly evolving in the background of enterprise business, only now coming to fruition.

The aspects of destination based immersive entertainment systems and facilities will be discussed at the dedicated conference taking place in Las Vegas in September 13-14, the Future of Immersive Leisure event will provide much more information on other new developments that will hope to shape this aspect of the market. VRFocus are a media partner of the event, and will be covering developments in coming reports.

Note – for those interested to know more on the birth of DisneyQuest through interviews with those that built it, and the other aspects of the emerging immersive entertainment industry, there is a book out there who on the subject – ‘The Out-of-Home Interactive Entertainment Frontier’.

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