The Virtual Arena: VR’s Bonanza for Commercial Entertainment (Part 1)
Kevin Williams gives his perspective on the recent developments.
It seems that while consumer virtual reality (VR) sits at a crossroads, the digital out-of-home entertainment (DOE) sector has exploded with new developments – not one day seems to pass without major announcements, partnerships or acquisitions hits the wire. Industry specialist Kevin Williams of KWP, gives his unique perspective on the recent developments and offers some exclusive insights into some recently visited new projects.
Following on from the developments that we covered at the first Microsoft LBE VR Summit (read part one and two here), and momentum continues to build in the commercial entertainment sector. These investments are being registered across the industry, and some of the once previous advocates for a consumer approach to this latest phase of VR adoption. This was best illustrated by Unity CEO, John Riccitiello, quoted at a recent TechCrunch Disrupt event, feeling that we have yet seen a true consumer launch of a VR or augmented reality (AR) headset; stating “AR and VR is mostly to this day been launched to developers”. But Riccitiello continued that he had been impressed by how fast enterprise had latched on to VR and AR tech, surprised that the commercial applications have preceded the consumer applications.
Though an obvious progression for those of us that work in the DOE sector, this realisation has struck most consumer-facing VR developers, and most recently we saw the pivoting of major VR success stories in the consumer sphere, build a commercial entertainment offering. This was best illustrated by Vertigo Games, developers behind the successful consumer VR title Arizona Sunshine, with an estimated $1.4 million (USD) in generated sales on the PC platform. The company has decided to spin out a unique location-based videogame division called Vertigo Arcades B.V., who has started in supporting the already popular utilisation of the title in the VR arcade scene, accounting for approximately 20% of all VR arcade minutes played in Western venues.
At the same time other successful developers have turned towards a commercial facing opportunity in this market place. Czech-based Beat Games renowned for their phenomenally successful Beat Saber, have invested heavily in defining their game for the commercial entertainment scene – signing an official licensing agreement with key VR arcade providers such as CTRL-V (Canada), Exit Reality, IMAX VR, MK2 (France), PeriscapeVR, SpringboardVR, Private Label and SynthesisVR. Their partnership with SpringboardVR seeing a ‘Beat Saber Global Tournament’ run across 50 of their supported VR arcades; emphasising an eSports element to commercial entertainment deployment of VR. In an unusual development Beat Games also officially sanctioned an amusement-based VR adaptation of their license. Originally called Beat Saber Arcade, this Korean manufactured cabinet employs the Samsung Odyssey Windows MR headset and controllers; this seen as the first of several amusement-style VR experiences crossing the divide.
An amusement facing approach to commercial VR entrainment was seen most recently appearing in the heart of London – at the VR ZONE Portal housed inside the Hollywood Bowl at the O2 Arena on the Greenwich Peninsula. The first VR ZONE Portal outside of Japan (we reported at their opening last year), the site is part of a special agreement between the bowling site operator and the UK division of BANDAI NAMCO Amusement. The site becoming the first Western location to install the eagerly awaited Mario Kart Arcade GP VR, based on the popular Nintendo license.
BANDAI NAMCO and Hollywood Bowl organised an exclusive media junket to promote the appearance of the game, but before-hand we were lucky enough to get a behind the scenes look at the system in operation. The Japanese “Project I Can” system only seeing translation of its game software, with the remainder of the hardware the same as operated in Japan. Players’ using HTC Vive headsets, as well as hand trackers to allow them to throw items at their opponents, players sitting in their own “Fusion Karts” motion simulator – the game able to accommodate four players in this seven-minute single circuit race.
Launched in Japan in 2017, the then titled Mario Kart VR proved an enthusiastic VR title, developed by the rebranded BANDAI NAMCO Amusement Lab Inc., as one of a number of IP based VR experiences that combined the initiative behind the “Project I Can” brand and the VR ZONE concept as a whole. Many have mistakenly thought that this game was developed by Nintendo, but in reality, BANDAI NAMCO and Nintendo have established a long reputation of cross-overs and licensed IP – the amusement division in 2005 launching the popular series with Mario Kart Arcade GP, which saw Pac Man also join the Nintendo racers – and with this background it was logical for the VR ZONE to consider developing a VR interpretation of this popular racer.
Trying the title for myself, it proved a hectic mix of racing and throwing items, and though capturing the spirit of the Mario Kart videogame it did not offer as fulfilling a VR interpretation as one might have wanted. A great taste of what is achievable with a VR environment and a world-class property, but not a real game experience that will achieve any level of repeat visitation. The VR ZONE Portal at the O2 has the VR experiences Hospital Escape Terror and Argyle Shift, each costing £8 (GBP) and £5 respectively on launch, but now the restructured layout sees the replacement of the quirky Argyle Shift for Mario Kart Arcade GP VR and all these two games are now £7.99. Many comments on social media, who made a point of hunting down the launch of this iconic VR game property, balked at this high price.
Another interesting element in the handling of this property different to the Japanese approach was Hollywood Bowl having a 15 years of age restriction in playing Mario Kart VR, while in Japan’s VR ZONE operation, the age cut off is 13, with even the VR ZONE Shinjuku seeing children as young as 7 allowed through the doors. No word was given on why BANDAI NAMCO or Hollywood Bowl had picked this arbitrary cut off to play this VR experience. And as with our last visit to the VR ZONE Portal, the UK adaptation of the brand seems a little stilted compared to that achieved in Japan.
Hollywood Bowl has partnered with the UK BANDAI NAMCO Amusement operation and has seen a second VR ZONE Portal opened in Tunbridge Wells, and a planned Leeds Hollywood Bowl site schedule for a third iteration. Sources at BANDAI NAMCO’s VR Projects team confirmed that these sites would be seeing installations of their own Mario Kart VR units by the end of the year respectively – and the company promised that there would be other European and US deployments of the eagerly awaited VR racer. Speaking to the Evening Standard newspaper, Paul Brown, General Manager for HTC Vive Europe, said: “We are so excited to be working with Bandai Namco and Hollywood Bowl to bring Mario Kart VR to the UK, following its stunning launch in Shinjuku.”
While completing this feature, news broke that BANDAI NAMCO were about to launch yet another VR experience based on previous amusement success – with a re-creation of 1997 white-water rafting experience VR Rapid River – after extensive testing the Amusement Lab team part of the “Project I Can” VR initiative have created a two-rider motion base with yaw and heave components to offer a thrilling white-water rapids ride, with players using tracked ores to steer their craft through a wild water environment. By the time you read this article the first installations of this VR simulator planned for VR ZONES in Japan will possibly be already in venues.
These games developed by the newly reorganised BANDAI NAMCO Amusement Lab Inc., formed to increase investment in intellectual properties (IP) utilising their XR expertise (XR defined as incorporating VR, AR and MR technology). Most recently a VR experience for the VR ZONE flagship location was based on the legendary movie monster, with GODZILLA VR.
But London was not the only UK location to see a brand-new VR attraction unveiled. A quick journey down to the countries South coast and we arrive in Brighton and make our way to the iconic Brighton Palace Pier – the home of a major seaside amusement operation and the first site to run the ParadropVR attraction. The system represents a partnership between creators FrontGrid and manufacturers Simworx releasing a thrilling simulation of soaring the skies on your very own paraglider.
The attraction uses an innovative vertical heave motion system to simulate the soaring motion, while the player sits in a specially developed harness system while controlling the direction of flight using two lanyards – while wearing an Oculus Rift CV1 to see the virtual vista. The experience was developed to offer an 8-minute experience, as a separate ticket item on the pier. The machine being operated in partnership with local immersive entertainment operator and representative Immersivity Ltd. The experience was a fun one, though the game experience was slightly limited compared to the conventional VR attraction experience we have come to expect.
FrontGrid recently announced the opening of a second installation, with Denmark’s Universe Science Park opening their first system this month. FrontGrid and Immersivity are now working on refining the platform and deploying the attraction with a number of other interested operators. Europe has seen a spate of VR attractions opening their doors – moving from Denmark to Germany and it was announced that Europa Park had partnered with VR Coaster, Mack Media and Holodeck VR to create a unique VR attraction. The system married a free-roaming experience with a ride-on coaster, with a seamless transition from one to the other. In what the operators referred to as their patent pending ‘Roam & Ride’ setup – the new attraction Eurosat Coastiality has guests putting on headsets and then walking round a pre-show area, before boarding the actual VR rollercoaster ride (employing a mobile VR headset arrangement).
The UK has seen one of the first floatation’s on the London Stock Exchange, of a company dedicated to location-based VR entertainment deployment – the Immotion Group PLC has already started a dedicated roll out of venues employing their Immotion branded offering – the company signing a important agreement with UK shopping center operator intu. Following the opening of a new Immotion VR center in Cardiff, the agreement sees a further three sites at intu Derby, Newcastle and Uxbridge. Immotion not just focused on opening venues, but also driving development, seeing AAA content creation for their sites as essential, has recently announced the launch of their wholly developed space-themed VR ride experience Delta Zero.
The company has also worked to ensure a lead in the deployment of the latest VR experiences and announced the extension of their exclusive distribution agreement with leading Chinese manufacturer LEKE VR Technology. A company that has established major advancements in the VR arcade hardware scene, and in 2016 formed a strategic partnership with HTC Corporation towards utilising the latest technology married to VR entertainment for commercial application (at that time for the Viveport Arcades support of the LEKE VR’s VRLe platform). Now with a US sales operation Immotion is seen to be one of the fastest developing companies championing this sector.
The concluding part of this coverage will follow next week.