Disney parks look to video games to step up live-action playtime

Nov. 06, 2013 | 5:54 p.m.
Agent P from "Phineas & Ferb" shows himself at Epcot's Germany pavilion as part of real-life game Agent P’s World Showcase Adventure. (Disney)

Agent P from “Phineas & Ferb” shows himself at Epcot’s Germany pavilion as part of real-life game Agent P’s World Showcase Adventure. (Disney)

In the late 2000s Walt Disney Imagineers were tasked with solving a problem that doesn’t typically crop up at Walt Disney World theme parks: How do you make the place more kid-friendly? Answer: Give it something that resembles a video game.

That initial question led to what is now known as Agent P’s World Showcase Adventure, a real-life game that dates to 2009 and has players traversing Epcot’s series of country-themed pavilions to trigger hidden interactions within the park environments. The Florida attraction, said designer Jonathan Ackley on Tuesday, was inspired by the narrative-driven LucasArts games of the ’80s and early- to mid-’90s.

“There was the perception at the time that there wasn’t enough stuff for kids to do at Epcot,” said Ackley, a former LucasArts employee. The location-based game has a spy theme and deviates from the international flavors of the land. When it opened it was inspired by Disney Channel’s “Kim Possible.” Today it is tied to the network’s “Phineas & Ferb.”

Similar game-like interactive attractions can be found inside Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom, which is home to the park-wide card game Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom and the environment-manipulating A Pirate’s Adventure: Treasures of the Seven Seas in Adventureland, which boasts animatronics and cannonballs. Disney Imagineers Ackley and Chris Purvis spoke Tuesday at GDC Next, a conference geared toward game developers that was held for the first time at the Los Angeles Convention Center, and they shared some lessons learned from building large-scale games in the physical world.

One of the first, said Ackley, was that while tourists will play nice, they won’t always play together. The Agent P game, for instance, will trigger, via mobile phone-like devices, scenes throughout Epcot, such as singing beer steins in the Germany pavilion. If, say, more than one guest were to be parked at a particular station, Ackley wanted the game to recognize that a line was forming and then encourage visitors to work together.

That idea, added Purvis, was quickly abandoned. Imagineers learned early that guests valued solo participation more than they did an element of surprise.

“The fact that they got to do it even though they had already seen what was just about to happen, even if it was the finale, guests didn’t care,” Purvis said. “They still wanted to do it themselves. That was something we were not expecting.”

Disney has also been tinkering with the length of the games. Purvis said between 700 and 900 guests are typically playing the Agent P game at once, which consists of seven missions that can last up to 45 minutes. The Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom can stretch even longer as, like many video games, guests can experience the attraction with varying degrees of difficulty. In Sorcerers, visitors activate animated sequences and then do battle with villains by holding up spell cards. Each player is given five at random to start.

The pitch for the game was simple. “What if those crazy trading card games came to life and actually worked?” said Ackley.

In Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom guests use trading cards to do battle throughout the Disney theme park in Orlando, Fla. (Disney)

In Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom guests use trading cards to do battle throughout the Disney theme park in Orlando, Fla. (Disney)

Purvis said it takes at least 4 1/2 hours to get through the game on its “easy” level. The game is designed so that it can be replayed on harder difficulty settings that require rarer cards. Unlike Agent P, said Purvis, players are more likely to work together on Sorcerers because it encourages participants to trade cards, of which there are more than 70 (or guests can cheat by finding images of the cards online and using their cellphones).

But the game can also push 10 hours for those who tell Disney cast members they would like to play it on a more moderate level of difficulty. That’s good news when it comes to keeping visitors in the park longer, but it was unexpected, said Ackley, who initially thought the games wouldn’t hold someone’s attention for more than about 30 minutes.

“If we designed a game that lasted 200 hours, people play it for 200 hours,” said Ackley.

He theorizes that Sorcerers has sparked fan interest because there’s a collectible aspect to the trading cards and about 95 minutes of original animation was created for the game. Additionally, Ackley said the games hold perhaps their biggest appeal with annual passholders, who may be more likely to stray from the park’s main attractions.

Still, location-specific games remain relatively rare. London studio Hide & Seek generated international attention with its 99 Tiny Games project last summer, in which instructions for short bursts of real-world playtime were placed throughout the city, but a recent attempt by local game makers Wise Guys Events to bring an interactive mystery game to the streets of downtown Los Angeles failed to reach its funding goals on Kickstarter.

Even Disney, which has long brought video game-like scenarios into rides (see Buzz Light Year Astro Blasters), has thus far resisted bringing such games to all of its parks.

“Every property has its own needs and agendas,” said Ackley, who declined after the panel to further elaborate on why Orlando was deemed a better fit for such attractions than Anaheim’s Disneyland Resort, especially considering that Disneyland has a larger annual passholder base.

“It would be great to think I can come up with any idea I want and put it in any park, but those parks are living organisms and they have needs,” Ackley said during the GDC lecture.

But the location-based games at Walt Disney World have one distinct advantage over their digital counterparts. When it comes to real-world multiplayer interactions, people are generally civil to one another.

“You’re not going to be mean to a little girl,” said Purvis.

— Todd Martens | @toddmartens

Follow us on Twitter: @LATHeroComplex


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