Entertainment Crosses The Streams # 1061

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Main Report

The convergence of entertainment and promotion has led to much of the new investment seen, and brand promotion linked to the incorporation of IP into the mix has seen a growth of investment. In this latest report, we look at the areas of the greatest crossover of investment in the Out-of-Home Entertainment sector and how this is expanding to include other areas of the business.

– The Virtual Crossover!

In this time of changing demands, with an audience stuck at home, the need to pivot to offering consumer products while we wait for the amusement and attraction scene to regenerate, is a means to keep revenue coming in for many. We have previously covered, in The Stinger Report, the pivot of Escape Rooms and FEC developers to Virtual Conferencing live events; and amusement hardware manufacturers turning to manufacturing consumer variants of amusement pieces. Regarding the VR and Immersive scene, the opportunities are also beginning to evolve.

Several leading VR content providers and venue operators have started to invest in what is seen as “The Virtual Crossover”, in the ability to utilize the amassed resources to support consumer VR owners, and also encourage interest in returning to the venues to try the commercial adaptations.

The lack of a serious installed base to support a consumer VR release has started to be answered by the latest generation of VR hardware. There is a great interest in PC VR systems such as Valve’s Index, and HP’s Reverb G2 – while the MobileVR (Standalone) scene has seen an amazing take-up of the Oculus Quest 2 headset, after its launch in October. The content download site is run by Valve, and ‘Steam’ reported in January that, in carrying out their user’s surveys, over 50-percent of VR users were downloading their content from the platform on an Oculus piece of hardware. This is a major achievement towards Facebook’s goal of turning consumer usage of VR mainstream.

Graph of current consumer VR impact [Valve]
It is availability to that content which is the latest conundrum. It is all well and good to sell VR hardware, but like any monster it needs to be fed, and available (quality) VR content is a difficult dish to serve. Oculus (owned by Facebook) has attempted to heavily curate all aspects of its VR offering, from its own storefront. Originally, users have managed to get around this by using unofficial content apps such as SideQuest – but Oculus has also been looking at circumventing this by launching its own semi-official ‘AppLab’ portal for content. Initially, this was promised as a simple means for indie developers to publish their content and support the Quest 2 community but, sadly, issues have ensued. Speaking with respected VR developers Chicken Waffle, they were able to give a snapshot of the process of publishing on AppLab. The most glaring issue was the inability of consumers to search the portal, while developers still had to complete the arduous submission process to gain approval. For a developer, it would still be easier to self-publish than to jump through these hoops. Regarding the promise that AppLab could be a portal for LBE VR content to be downloaded by operators, onto the Oculus For Business approved headsets, the jury seemed to be out on whether this crossover was even workable at this time. Especially considering that, along with the approval process, there is an additional yearly subscription fee for headset operators and content developers. Chicken Waffle has its own standalone, multiplayer LBE VR game in the wings, with ‘Blazer League’. Is the company waiting on the conditions in the VR facility sector to re-emerge before deciding on the best route to market for this new release? But for developers who do not have the manufacturing capability and want to use the Oculus Quest 2 headset, the need to support the Oculus For Business route is essential and, with that, support of the AppLab platform. We have already reported on developers in LBE who have followed this path, including Scale-1 Portal with their support of this route to market for their new ‘VOXEL ARENA’ platform. Along with Pixnami, with the ‘Hero Zone’ platform, and Vietnamese developer Holomia, with its game ‘MISSIONX – VR Laser Tag’. These are to be followed by others that will dip a toe into the waters of what this content storefront can offer LBE. Obviously, speaking of Oculus, aspirations towards a crossover have been mixed in consumer VR. The situation regarding the home VR sensation ‘Beat Saber’s’ ignominious rushed removal from commercial VR was an embracement. Meanwhile, Lucasfilm’s ILMxLAB-developed ‘Vader Immortal’ has found a home away from Oculus-release to a commercial VR platform via partnerships with Nomadic and VRsenal. This approach is a total standalone amusement deployment, not using any Oculus hardware, with the experience running on the HTC VIVE headset powered VRsenal cabinet (a variant of that used for ‘Beat Saber Arcade’). Regarding the use of LBE VR successfully springboarding to consumer VR recognition and fueling a crossover interactive element, VR Nerds is such an example. The company is famous for its smash hit ‘Tower Tag’ – the multiplayer VR one-on-one competitive blasting game. After releasing the tethered enclosure version of the game on the HTC VIVE, through a partnership with CA SEGA, the company built on its brand recognition and released a home version. Supporting the Steam storefront, the game was available across the PC VR scene, including the now discontinued Rift-S and Quest. The company revealed it is in development of a Quest 2 version, with hopes for a Q2 release. VR Nerds undertook a unique consumer release, allowing home players to 3D print a version of the weapon from the LBE version of the game to use on their home installation. Taking the crossover to the next level, VR Nerds has partnered with SPREE Interactive to launch a version of the LBE release, exclusive to the ‘SPREE Arena’ platform. And it was revealed that the HOLOGATE platform will also be getting its own version of the game. Across these platforms it is planned that the eSports tournaments on the LBE version will be supported by players practising on the home release. Regarding SPREE’s platform, the company has embraced a Standalone VR approach, rather than using tether or PC backpack, and we have already reported on the deployment of the brand-new Pico Neo 2 VR headset, manufactured by Pico Interactive in partnership with ‘SPREE Arena’. Pico is seen by many as an effective LBE solution in standalone VR headsets, having invested in supporting this sector. (Stinger Report owners KWP have advised Pico on occasion). Vertigo Games, VR specialist publishing and development arm of the Koch Media Group, made an announcement of its next major new release. Following on from the successful cooperative zombie shooter (‘Arizona Sunshine’), the company revealed ‘After the Fall’ – a fast-paced four-player co-op action to VR, pitting players and their friends against a hostile, evolving post-apocalyptic alternate 1980s LA, in a fight for survival. The game is a perfect example of the cross-platform promotion, along with releasing on PlayStation VR, and PC VR. While it is highly anticipated that a LBE version of the game is being considered through their newly acquired Springboard VR LBE distribution operation for the Spring. This following last year’s LBE-exclusive release of their title ‘Ghost Patrol’. Revolutionary development of a dedicated means for consumer players and commercial (Out-of-Home) players to interact and compete has been a focus of investment since home gaming established a market presence. Most notably with the SNK’s ‘NeoGeo’ hardware crossover, or SEGA’s attempts with the ‘Naomi’/‘Dreamcast’ VMU system, or Midway with ‘NFL Blitz 99’ and its console tie-in. The ability for the player to be drawn back to the facility after training/playing at home, has been a business model that has yet to be fully cultivated.
The ahead of its time SEGA Virtual Memory Unit in arcade mode [SEGA]
However, with the growth in home VR, new opportunities have arisen. This is best illustrated by the recently revealed initiative from VRstudios’ new ‘VRstudios Sports’ line, launching with the new LBE VR version of ‘Hoops Madness’. As we previously touched on, the fast-paced and competitive virtual hoops game is also supported with a persistent profile (Player Portal) which players can log on to, and be able to create their character and build its skill ranking, and carry on this practise and play via the standalone consumer VR version of the game. This consumer version is available via Steam and VIVEPort content storefronts, for the popular home VR platforms. The team revealed they are putting the finishing touches on an Oculus AppLab version, planned to release soon. This approach will see players training on the home version of the VRstudios Sports product, to then compete live at the facility, in person, or online from home, across platforms. This will build an eSports competitive community in support of the platform crossover. The company is also working on several innovative ideas, allowing consumer headsets and devices to be used to virtually spectate at the competitions’ immersivity. This would be a first of its kind approach, addressing hygiene and operational issues. VRstudios is planning to make major announcement regarding these plans soon. The ability to call upon the skills of creating large VR experiences and then offer them in a consumer-friendly package is a difficult business. Immotion, known for VR amusement and attraction projects, launched a brand-new division to pivot towards offering “Edutainment” – the first release being ‘Let’s Explore OCEANS’. Called a “Immersive Mega Pack”, the customer purchases VR/AR goggles that couple with their smartphone, as well as an informative pack, and unique interface (“Explorer Cube”). After downloading the virtual app, they can explore deep sea habitats, with 11 VR Adventures, plus four AR experiences, plus a fun interactive Oceans Quiz – all traversed using the unique cube. Immotion is employing its experience in creating compelling educational experiences from the work undertaken with ‘Undersea Explorer – Virtual Reality Theater’, installed at the Shark Reef Aquarium part of the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino. This foray into consumer virtual exploration is building on a new vertical for the traded company. Another developer with a long list of previous commercial entertainment projects is Felix & Paul – the world renown content studio has been positioning itself across both consumer and commercial endeavours. Recently, the corporation announced the big screen ‘The ISS Experience’, released in December at Space Center Houston. From the big screen to the planetarium, ‘The ISS Experience’ has been adapted for the unique needs of this sector, working with the Fiske Planetarium in Colorado, to distribute to a network of hundreds of domes around the world. It is this ability to sign distribution deals for much needed content that sees Felix & Paul broaden into the telecommunication services, providing their unique content to both areas, as a promotion of 5G-enabled mobile devices, and also supplied as VR and AR mobile-devices’ content – distributing multiple series such as their ‘Cirque du Soleil’ and ‘Space Explorers’. Another vertical being explored by Felix & Paul is the deployment of their content into Edutainment. The company has developed a free-roaming exhibit, in partnership with PHI Studios. This large-scale experience is called ‘THE INFINITE’, and this multi-disciplinary/multimedia experience includes contemporary art within the virtual experience. This will be demonstrated for the first time at the online SXSW conference later in March. It is the ability to use free-scale VR experience in the art and live performance environment that also saw the Royal Opera House, in London, partner with developer Figment Productions to create the hyper reality opera experience called ‘Current, Rising’. The experience was postponed for a box office opening later in the year.
Compelling content essential to cross boundaries [Felix & Paul]
One crossover opportunity that is charting a growing trend is “Exergaming” and, in particular, VR exercise and fitness systems. Obviously, most of the VR fitness is being done by home VR users, though overall home-fitness and exercise has mushroomed in the face of the lockdown on all fitness and gym facilities. Pivoting under the new conditions, start-up Black Box VR was known initially for its CES’18 break onto the scene, with its immersive exercise platform. The company generated attention, trending heavily, and covered by more than 30 media outlets during the event. This would lead to the company rolling out its platform as part of a retail facility concept, as well as supporting a virtual sports training regime which was opened at four of partner EoS Fitness gyms. With lockdown, the company has increased its focus on utilizing its connected VR training capabilities. Black Box VR announced, in February, a partnership with FCFL (Fan Controlled Football League), a fan streamed soccer competition. Through home exercise devices, connected to the Black Box VR platform, users can compete and stream their exercise regime on platforms such as Twitch. This is a first of its kind, turning Exergaming into a possible streaming sensation. The company is also looking towards applying this concept to its conventional fitness facility aspirations. The ability to use the influence of a commercial VR presence to attract investment has continued, and this has also broadened into the haptics sector. LBE peripheral developer, Striker VR, is well known for its ‘Arena Infinity’ VR guns, employing sophisticated haptic feedback, and having been deployed by operators such as SPACES and Nomadic VR, and in amusement systems from VEX and Minority Media, to name just a few adopters. The company, in February, announced that it has raised a $4 million investment, described as “strategic funding” (revealed by Road to VR). This strategy included the company pivoting towards developing a consumer VR haptic weapon peripheral, in a system that would support both PC VR and Quest platforms, at a sub-$500 price point. No timeline for this rollout was offered, but it would mark a first in the VR market. However, not a first in commercial entertainment, as we remember corporations such as ThrustMaster benefiting from successful force-feedback controllers in amusement, pivoting to consumer.
Design concept for the new consumer haptic variant [Striker VR]

Haptics and force-feedback stimuli are elements that have been added to the amusement gaming experience for decades. The pinball table ‘Earthshaker!’, in 1989, from Williams Electronic Games, was the first to incorporate haptics through vibration. At the same time, Atari launched the video ‘Hard Drivin’’ – along with many firsts, it had realistic force-feedback steering. Though current technology is now making this element even achievable on consumer systems – as we stated in The Stinger Report’s CES’21 coverage, with the 9thGen home gaming platforms, such as the Sony PS5 console and its ‘DualSence’ game controller.

The importance of the peripheral market in support of the amusement, and even eSports gaming scene, was brought into sharp relief with the news that computer and technology giant, HP, would be acquiring the game accessory brand ‘HyperX’, for the sum of $425m, from parent company Kingston Technology. This is a major brand, with key sponsorships deals in support of peripherals in the eSports professional sector. This is yet another example of the impact of crossover in the placing of brands and services in the international sector.

– Crossover in Entertainment Facilities

Before we look at facilities, there are the larger theme park and resort implementations of crossover of intellectual properties (IPs). In a long-proven formula, theme parks have incorporated recognisable consumer brands – borrowing this activity from the ‘World’s Fair’ approach of the 1930s, to heavily corporate sponsored entertainment. The latest example of this was seen with the announcement of the world’s first ‘Peppa Pig Theme Park’, at LEGOLAND Florida Resort. Merlin Entertainment signed with property owner Hasbro to open a unique land dedicated to the popular toy and television brand, with appropriately themed attractions. It is scheduled to open at the site in 2022.

Rendering of the intended Peppa Pig Theme Park [Merlin Entertainment]
Entertainment facility chains are also looking at the need for crossover promotion. The opportunities that tournaments bring to the vital repeat visitation and brand recognition element of facility business, has not been lost on entertainment outside of amusement. Social entertainment chain Topgolf Entertainment (recently acquired by Callaway for $2b) announced they have launched a cross-platform global tournament competition, supporting players at the 8,500 ‘Toptracer Range’ gamified driving ranges, and those on ‘World Golf Tour’ mobile golf game app (which has over 30 million users). The corporation revealed a first-of-its-kind ‘9-Shot Challenge Global Tournament’, that will allow players to compete across the world and is expected to grow as a dedicated competition, supported by the corporation. The provides the ability to tie players into an app-based tournament that is also location-based. The Topgolf crossover took an even more intense step with the announcement of a cross-promotion partnership with “Sports Betting” platform, BetMGM. The relationship will include the activation of branding and promotions, by both parties, across the ‘World Golf Tour’ game app, and at selected Topgolf locations. This will see the promotion of the immersive sports betting experience provided by BetMGM to Topgolf guests. The ability to offer this service comes on the back of the 2018 US Supreme Court ruling, permitting wagering on sports in selected conditions. How this will be rolled into future competitions and tournaments is a subject that will be watched closely, especially by the eSports community. One of the best examples of a crossover in brands between consumer and commercial in this sector would be from Ubisoft. The consumer game publisher and developer has seen its properties developed for conventional video amusement with Adrenaline Amusements, for VR amusement ride systems with LAI Games, for VR Arena Scale deployment with Zero Latency, and the company has even created its own label for VR escape game projects and sales. Ubisoft has created a dedicated LBE division to oversee this. Another initiative was the short-lived experiment into family location-based entertainment venue development (‘Rabbids Amusement Centre’). Moving forward, the company recently revealed further developments in LBE with its IP, with the announcement through Blooloop of a partnership with Osool Entertainment, to develop three attractions using Ubisoft’s ‘Assassin’s Creed’ IP in the Saudi-based indoor facility (Fizz).
The short-lived Rabbids’ Amusement Centre [QuebecGetaways]
Other IP and leading brands are joining this charge, as seen with the success achieved by Hasbro and Lionsgate diversifying into a serious commercial entertainment presence. Not to mention the high publicity around consumer game developer Nintendo’s entry in location-based entertainment with Universal Studios (‘Super Nintendo World’). Other operations had also started to dabble prior to the upheaval of the Global Health Crisis. Along with successes, we can also chart the major failures as seen with ‘Hub Zero’ in Dubai (owned by Meraas Leisure), that worked with developers Electronic Arts, Microsoft, Capcom, Konami, Square Enix and PopCap to conceptualize attractions based on their IP for the LBE venue that, eventually, failed to live up to any of its hyperbole. Speaking of toy brands looking at a crossover into location-based entertainment, and it was announced that Mattel would be developing its first ‘Mission: Play!’ facility in Potsdamer Platz, Berlin, Germany. The venue has been developed by iP2Development and will be operated by Planet Leisure Germany – a dedicated family entertainment center concept based around key Mattel IP such as Barbie, Hot Wheels and Mega Bloks. The facility is scheduled to open its doors in 2022. This marks the latest move into amusement and attraction space by the toy giant – the company was also involved with Adrenaline Amusement on an amusement release based on its Hot Wheels brand back in 2019, along with other entertainment interests.
Artist’s impression of the new Mission: Play facility [Mattel]
This underlines how difficult it is to successfully cross over between the two industries, but this will not stop many more from trying. And so, plans to have cross-platform presences for important IP will continue, and Out-of-Home Entertainment will become the “10thGen” game platform in many developers’ eyes, considering the changes in these new valuable waters.