– By Mark Jarman, Designer
I came to the world of themed entertainment just a few years ago after spending most of my career making video games and teaching college students about game design and production.
One thing I discovered when I first arrived at PGAV Destinations was a nascent intuition that the principles of game design might provide innovative new tools that could aid designers in creating more immersive and meaningful guest experiences. The hope among my colleagues is that these principles may be so fecund that they can provide truly innovative new insights into the design of all the different kinds of projects we work on here at PGAV, from themed entertainment to zoos and museums.
This sentiment is also shared by the industry at large. Disney’s most recent offering, Galaxy’s Edge, is probably the most notable example of the industry’s attempt to offer an experience that will meet the demanding expectations of guests who have been steeped in video games and pop culture for the last three decades.
According to Todd Martens of the Los Angeles Times:
Galaxy’s Edge isn’t a place built for vacationers to check things off a list. With nine shops and one open ride – a second is due later this year – it’s designed to encourage guests to participate in the action, be it role playing with in-character staff, strolling among the shops, or playing the app.
Think of it as a physical space that’s trying to better understand the lessons of our increasingly play-driven and digitally-focused lifestyles. Galaxy’s Edge as a whole represents an evolution in how we play in theme parks, and early indications of the still-in-development Datapad are that it too has aspirations to reshape guest involvement.
Together, they’re making the long-tail bet that the theme park visitors of today – and the near future – have a hunger for more participatory entertainment, craving interactive experiences that, if not providing full user-direction, at least create the illusion of authorship.
Understanding the Basics of Game Design
There is a large body of scholarly literature about game design, principles, and theory. Entire academic programs at several universities exist for the sole purpose of understanding games, why people play games, and how to design games. In its simplest form, there are three fundamentals of game design relevant to destination design. These principles are fundamental because the presence of these qualities in some kind of human activity qualifies that activity as a game, as opposed to say a story.
Rules in the context of games are a set of explicit or implied regulations, principles, or requirements that define the “space” of play. Rules can be thought of as concepts and parameters that all the players agree to abide by so that everybody participating can improvise individual behavior in predictable ways. Rules don’t necessarily have to be complicated, but they do have to be balanced and rational.
Rules delineate the space in which players act and therefore also indicate when players have left the game play “space.” Rules define the tenor and tone of the game by prescribing player behaviors and actions, while at the same time giving players a certain amount of behavioral latitude. Because rules serve to define the space of action, but do not fully dictate what players do, they facilitate emergent player behavior and foster a kind of improvisational creativity. It’s this improvisational space that characterizes games and make game playing a fundamentally creative activity, which is an important reason why games are so fun to play!
Games are fundamentally participatory, and those who participate in games are typically referred to as “players.” Players, in order to improvise within the parameters set forth by the rules, must be allowed to have a certain amount of latitude to act on their own. This latitude of action is called “Player Agency.” Agency, a unique characteristic of games, means that in order for an activity to be considered a game, it must be “agential.” Games, being agential in nature, allow participants the capacity to make decisions based on their own volition.
Rules and Player Agency work in tandem to allow players to create outcomes. If players are not free to select one option from an array of possible options, they cease to be players, but are rather characters in a story whose actions are dictated by a storyteller.
When playing a game, players need to understand what it takes to win. To understand those winning conditions, players need to understand what the win/lose metrics are for the game. Additionally, players need feedback from the game to understand if they are winning or losing at any given moment, and how they stack up against their competitors.
While Player Agency and rules work hand in hand to make game playing a work of creative expression, it’s Heuristics that imbue that creative effort with meaning. Without the prospect of either the real possibility of failure or success that a win/lose metric provides, the game is really not a game, but rather a simulation.
Games are Not Stories
Themed entertainment designers have a real interest in how story can inform the design process. Interestingly my game design colleagues, especially those making video games, also have a fascination with the prospect of merging games and story. However, there exists a dynamic tension between the concepts of “stories” and “games.”
Every time I’ve seen a video game that purports to have merged the two, it’s typical that the game has failed in its attempt. What tends to happen is that the game provides two, somewhat thinly disguised and nevertheless discreet, parallel experiences. One experience is a genuine game, and is characterized by the principles I’ve already described; and a functionally separate story component, which is characterized by a narrative that is told to the player and does not allow for player agency, emergent player outcomes, and who’s end-state is predetermined by the story-teller.
These earnest, if not misguided attempts at merging games with story serve to highlight one important and salient fact: games are not story, and games offer a materially different kind of human experience than what is derived from being told a story.
Understanding that a tension exists between story and game, and what the difference between story and games are, can provide designers with legitimate insights on how to approach themed space design in a materially different way.
Game-derived design, rather than story-lensed design, provides designers with a profoundly different and powerful set of new tools that enable the designer, rather than telling or perhaps dictating a story, to provide a space where the guest actually participates with the designer in crafting the story. I call this active, real-time collaboration between designer and guest Emergent Storytelling.
In Emergent Storytelling, the themed space designer provides the guest with a meaningful and story-rich contextual space through the deft use of rules, accommodation of agential decision making, and heuristics. Within this context, the guest is then free to explore this space and improvise a story that is genuinely novel to them and is never exactly the same from one visit to the next.
Imagineer Josh Gorin said, “So it’s really interesting when you combine more traditional production and scenic disciplines with game design because now you’re
giving that guest an active role in the story. They’re not a passive participant. They’re able to take on a character or a persona or even just be themselves, but make meaningful choices that matter and interact with the world in a way they couldn’t before.”
The premise then is that through the deft use of genuine game design principles, the guest, rather than being invited to walk up on the stage and wander among the sets and props, could adopt genuine self-directed roles, and truly participate in the story conceit.
Barriers and Brass Ring
There are barriers however that need to be satisfied for the promise of full-throated game principle driven design to be fully realized. Here are a few that come immediately to mind; what if the guest doesn’t want to participate, what if they just want to stand on the stage amidst the props and scenery? How do designers communicate the rule-set to the guests in a way that is easy and imminently understandable? Games require pieces and components and even equipment that facilitates the actual physical interaction of the player with the game – how will that be achieved? Most importantly, how do you find a group of game designers that can create a game play experience and successfully deploy it in a themed space, and ensure that the game is really fun to play?
Disney has made an earnest attempt at tackling some of these issues. To deal with the problem of how the player physically interacts with the play space, Disney offers the Play Disney Parks app which guests can install on their smart phones. Through the Play Disney Parks app, guests can play games that are unique to specific locations around the park. Also, in the new Galaxy’s Edge attraction at Disney Land Anaheim, a more comprehensive and fully integrated game experience can be had at the Millennium Falcon: Smuggler’s Run ride. In the Smuggler’s Run game, each player adopts a different crew member role on the bridge of the Millennium Falcon. Using a state-of-the-art high-fidelity computer-generated video game environment, the game/ride offers a genuine game design derived experience by incorporating a legitimate win/lose metric (heuristics) and a rule set that governs the entire game play experience. One notable characteristic of the game is the use of a cooperative game mechanic. By playing cooperatively, guests must work together as a team to ensure that the Millennium Flacon arrives at its destination in one piece. The game designers elected to create a heuristic where absolute failure was not a possibility, however, even though every group will successfully make their run, some groups will do it with the Millennium Falcon in pristine conditions while other, less successful groups will pull into the space port with the ship in flames! In Smuggler’s Run, Disney has leveraged elite-class technology to create one of the greatest video games this side of the Mos Eisley Space Port.
Another effort that is worth looking at is The VOID in Salt Lake City Utah. The VOID is not a traditional theme park, but rather is an exclusively VR experience. The actual space that players navigate through is a maze comprised of non-descript partitions. Almost the entirety of the sensory information afforded the guest is delivered via a VR headset and a computer that the guest wears in a backpack. Some traditional effects are used to enhance the sense of reality like blowing fans and spurts of smelly spray, but other than that, the entire experience is digital.
But attempting to create a themed space featuring robust and legit gameplay, albeit using VR in the case of the VOID, can present some rather daunting obstacles. While the VOID is, hands down an amazing experience, the creators of this space have some dragons of their own to slay. According to a friend of mine, who has worked on the project, The VOID is having a hard time moving guests thru the experience fast enough, which may prove to be a problem for their bottom line.
Everybody today is playing games, from Gen. Xers like me who were shooting at digital ducks on the Atari 2600, to my children and their children. It’s a preferred experience by almost everybody who attends a theme park. To give some sense of how popular games are in the wider culture, compare the take of the 2018 movie Avengers Infinity War which grossed $2,048,359,754 worldwide. In that same year the video game Fortnight grossed $2.4 billion dollars.
Themed spaces afford exclusive opportunities in which to host robust, legitimate, and fun game playing experiences. While great efforts are being made to develop and offer games to guests in themed spaces, these attempts are still largely thin and tentative, and often do not leverage the full set of resources afforded by these special and unusually fecund spaces.
The brass ring awaiting those who can successfully transform their parks from a stage with elaborate props to a place where guests can experience a genuine and meaningful emergent game play experience will likely be really big and very shiny.
I work with countless very creative and super smart people, the level of skill exhibited by my colleagues here at PGAV is incredible. With this depth of knowledge and skill coupled with an awareness of what game design principles can bring to the table, I’m sure the day will come, in the not-too-distant future, when I can walk into a park and create a story that is truly my own. A story that I craft through my own agency that has a beginning, middle, and end, and a game play experience that takes place in my favorite themed environment that is fully immersive and imminently engaging.