Immersive Entertainment for Family Entertainment Centers

Univrse Fairy Tales - THh Downloadable FEC

Key Insights from the First Ever Immersive Audience Report

Immersive entertainment is exploding across the location-based entertainment landscape. Last week, the Immersive Experience Network released a new Immersive Audience Report 2024. I highly recommend downloading it (it’s free). The research was conducted in partnership with the University of Birmingham. While the survey was conducted solely on UK residents, I believe the insights will apply to a wide range of Western markets.

What do audiences want from an immersive entertainment experience?

Engage All of Their Senses

People want as many of their senses fully engaged as possible. Survey respondents wanted to “feel like they’re experiencing it for real.

“My expectation would be the experience is realistic as you feel like you are immersed in everything around you”

This is where environmental effects like wind and scent come in. The VOID might have failed in many aspects, but they had this part right. When I first smoked the Sta-Puft Marshmallow Man, and the smell of roasted marshmallows wafted through the space, well, I’m still talking about it 7 years later.

Motion is another way to engage the senses, as is evident with the popularity of virtual coasters like LAI Game’s Virtual Rabbids—The Big Ride and the newest interactive simulator from Raw Thrills, Godzilla: Kaiju Wars. When done well, the combination of movement and virtual reality creates a visceral sense of speed.

Free Roam VR lets people walk around to explore spaces, engaging their natural sense of motion. This makes these experiences feel incredibly real and eliminates the motion sickness that can come with simulators.

One thing lacking in the latest headsets is an immersive audio output that can withstand the ambient noise of a crowded entertainment center. This has led to creative solutions, like noise-canceling wired headphones and 3D-printed speakers that mount to the headsets. Both create operational and reliability overhead. Hopefully, we will see a more robust solution soon.

Let Them Play

Unlike standard entertainment and cultural attractions, like movies, theaters, and art museums, immersive attractions allow the audience to become a part of the story. Audience members surveyed consistently said they want to be “part of the show and not just a spectator.” If the audience plays a role, the narrative will be unpredictable.

Interactivity is critical for an immersive experience to meet the expectations of modern audiences. Even if the video is immersive (IMAX, 3D, etc.), just having them sit and watch is not enough. They want to impact the outcome with a sense of agency.

“You can interact with the experience in a way that makes you feel like you are actually there”

Immersive audiences also strongly prefer “fun” and “enjoyment” in an immersive experience. This is great news for family entertainment centers, where the core mission is delivering fun.

This is why the virtual coasters, which integrate hand tracking, and the latest VR driver from LAI Games, Asphalt 9 Legends VR, earn so well.

Two Girls Swat At Objects in Virtual Reality

Who Is the Audience for Immersive Entertainment?

The survey uncovered that those attending or interested in attending immersive cultural and art experiences tend towards a younger and more diverse demographic profile. Where traditional experiences like theater and museums skew older, immersive experiences draw a crowd that looks more like the general population, who you might find in a family entertainment center.

Immersive experiences can be both entertaining and culturally relevant.

Beyond the cultural impact of exposing arts to a broader audience, this research suggests clear business opportunities for family entertainment centers. A significantly higher proportion of mainstream entertainment audiences are interested in attending immersive entertainment experiences.

What Else Do Immersive Entertainment Audiences Enjoy?

When looking at what other leisure activities this audience enjoys, the responses over-index towards game-based and narrative-driven experiences. This corroborates their desire for immersive experiences to be “fun” and “enjoyable.”

They also strongly prefer experiences they can have with friends, which is the second most important factor after “value for money,” the latter possibly reflecting the current economic environment.

Coming in third was “Something different from watching a screen,” and fifth was “Interactivity and not just sitting down and watching,” reinforcing their desire for immersion and agency.

Another strong preference was “Can attend with family and/or children.” Are you paying attention FECs?

Recapping the top three factors for choosing an immersive entertainment experience:

  1. Value for Money – more on this below…
  2. Social – Can experience with family and friends
  3. Interactive and immersive – something different from watching a screen

What Role Does IP Play in Choosing an Immersive Entertainment Experience?

There is much talk inside the industry about the “importance” of big IP in immersive attractions. With studios opening location-based entertainment centers, like Sony’s Wonderverse and Netflix Houses. Arcade games are increasingly IP driven, with top VR arcade titles leveraging characters like King Kong, Spongebob Squarepants, Godzilla, and Raving Rabbids.

But the Immersive Audience Survey suggests it’s not a top factor. “Recognizing the characters from a movie or TV show” ranks below “It’s close to where I live” and “There’s food available.” Both of those aspects are strengths of family entertainment centers.

Considering the cost of licensing intellectual property from studios, both in up-front guarantees and additional production costs (due to lack of control and approval processes,) this is good news for developers and can help align the audience’s desire for “value for money.” IP drives cost up for everyone.

What Are the Table Stakes for the Immersive Entertainment Game?

Unsurprisingly (to me, at least), when asked about the most important aspects of immersive experiences, the top answers were:

  • Well-designed interactivity and gameplay
  • Strong storylines
  • Compelling themed environments

The location-based VR industry needs to work on these areas. I still see too many clumsy user interaction models, boring, repetitive gameplay, and shallow stories that don’t add to the experience. The good news is that these challenges are relatively easy to overcome given desire, time, and budget.

How Much Agency is Too Much in Immersive Entertainment

While audiences want to have a sense of control over their experience, not everyone wants the same level of agency. Not everyone wants to “role-play.” “Play as a Character” was the least important aspect of immersive experiences.

The researchers suggest a difference between “feeling like a part of the story” and “being required to take on a role or perform.” They call the former emotional immersion and the latter behavioral immersion.

The survey defined three types of participants, and successful attractions should appeal to all of them.

Paddlers want to dip their toes in the water of the experience; they want to stand back and observe what’s going on rather than actively engage with it.

Waders are a bit more engaged; they’ll try to get into the narrative and maybe engage but will generally not go all the way.

Swimmers want to go deep and fully immerse themselves in all aspects of the experience.

If, as they’ve suggested, audiences come to experiences in a group, there will be a mix of paddlers, waders, and swimmers. We should be conscious of the difference between emotional immersion and interactivity, both in the design of experiences and in how we market them.  

Scare Tactics

Someone once said that “scaring someone in VR is the easiest thing to do.” It was a disparaging comment about all the horror and zombie experiences in the market. But it’s telling how popular horror experiences remain in location-based entertainment. The potential power of immersive experiences is triggering emotion, and fright is one of the most powerful.

Horror was the fifth most popular genre of films in 2023. Haunted houses continue to grow in popularity, and theme parks are expanding their investment in these seasonal attractions. Universal Studios announced ten haunted houses for their Halloween Haunted Nights this year, including one themed on the new Ghostbusters, Frozen Empire movie, and another from A Quiet Place.

A quite place VR Horror Experience

The untapped market for haunted VR attractions is potentially massive. American Haunts says there are an estimated 1200 haunted houses in the US each year, while only 300 amusement facilities produce some haunted attractions.

The typical haunted attraction averages 8000 paid guests at $25 per person. That’s a $200K haul in a single month, not including ancillary and merchandise sales, which are increasing annually as a percentage of total revenue.

Haunted attractions aren’t just for Halloween anymore. Less than 3 percent of the 2023 Haunt Industry Report respondents reported their attractions were only open during the fall. Instead, 16.2 percent were open for Krampus/holiday events, 15 percent on Friday the 13th, 11.2 percent were open for Zombie Prom and 10.9 percent were year-round.

How to Make Real Money from Virtual Reality

One of the most surprising statistics for the researchers was the number of survey respondents who have been to a VR or AR experience and would be willing to consider maximum prices over £100 (US$125). Researchers suggest that this might be caused by a misunderstanding of the question. But I posit it’s because people who have experienced VR understand the value of the experience.

I have been saying this for years: We underprice virtual reality experiences. There are many reasons for this, including family entertainment centers’ concern with the total share of wallet they might extract from a family.

This is where building a true attraction, not just a game marketed as one by the supplier (sorry, guilty as charged), creates a real business opportunity for FECs. Building a high-volume free-roam VR space offering a variety of seasonal, cultural, and/or artistic experiences, for which tickets are sold in advance, potentially taps a new market and revenue stream.

So What Are You Going to Do About It?

The audience has spoken. They love these experiences and want more. And they want them closer to home, where they can experience them with friends and family. They might even be willing to pay more than you think.

Halloween season is still 3 months away. There’s still time to implement a haunted free-roam VR attraction that can potentially pay for itself in one month and then roll into years of delivering amazing experiences for your market. If you’re interested, come to my Downloadable FEC event in Dallas on August 6th to get all the details and experience for yourself what is possible.

If you’re serious about exploring this opportunity before Halloween 2024, contact me directly. Right now

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