Opinion I Beyond the metaverse: how brands are transforming the Out-of-Home entertainment landscape

The hype that has surrounded Web 3.0 and the co-opting of the term ‘metaverse’ to describe the digital opportunities on offer has set the investment market and business world abuzz. But many of the strategies and initiatives ascribed to the metaverse are already at work today in the Out-of-Home (OOH) entertainment landscape, contends industry expert Kevin Williams of Spider Entertainment.

Location-based entertainment (LBE) and the OOH entertainment industry are the best representations of creating a physical business from digital IP and content. These physical representations of digital brands are achieved not just with characters and themed settings, but increasingly now with immersive technology that allows guests to be placed within the virtual universe of these properties.

This approach is not a new one, and is perhaps best illustrated with the move by the media content empire Walt Disney Corporation into the theme park and resort business way back in 1955. Along with the use of its film library to theme its attractions, the Corporation also undertook licensing agreements with big brands to incorporate them into the ‘story’ of its venues.

However, it’s the crossover of toys, movies and videogames into physical experiences that has seen the most far-reaching developments.

Video-game giant Nintendo has invested considerably in being one of the major multidisciplinary license platform providers in the global market, seeing its properties traverse the bounds of toys, games, licensed material and even movies.

A physical presence with venues of its own was a logical move, and Nintendo signed an agreement with Universal Studios in 2015 to develop a concept that would offer an interactive theme park extension in Universal resorts, based on Nintendo video-game characters and IPs. This would result in ‘Super Nintendo World’, which opened in Universal Studios Japan in 2020 and offered numerous attractions based on the Super Mario universe.

The latest immersive technology was applied to create compelling experiences such as ‘Mario Kart: Koopa’s Challenge’, which deployed Augmented Reality (AR) and Interactive Dark Ride (IDR) technology that placed the guest in the videogame. Hugely popular since opening, the theme park extension is due to be incorporated into other Universal park properties globally, with the Californian and Florida versions currently under construction.

Nintendo is now looking at its Out-of-Home entertainment landscape afresh. The company announced in its Second Quarter Financial Reports and Corporate Management Policy Briefing in November 2021 that it intended to spend some $2.7b on establishing a new stream of revenue through its investment into theme parks and new Nintendo entertainment stores – not just retail stores, but entertainment venues that will comprise immersive entertainment and scaled-down interactive attractions. The company has dabbled with retail stores in the US and Japan, but this will mark a major investment towards creating immersive entertainment spaces and has started a land-grab by other major properties keen to carve out a place in the ‘Retailtainment’ sector.

Throwing open the floodgates for others to follow, European videogame developer and publisher Ubisoft has also looked to broaden the penetration of its videogame properties. Having already seen motion pictures based on its Assassin’s Creed and Prince of Persia brands, as well as countless merchandised products and branded toys, the company’s expansion to a physical facility business seems logical.

Its first move was to establish a Location-based Entertainment Manager role within the corporation, looking at Out-of-Home entertainment opportunities. Fast forward to today, and Ubisoft is well known for its work on the successful VR amusement attraction Virtual Rabbids: The Big Ride, which has seen several hundred units placed in amusement sites globally. The company also has a division (Ubisoft Escape Games) licensing unique VR escape game team-based experiences to facilities.

What’s more, the company announced in November that it would be partnering with leading theme park and attraction developers to launch its first ‘Ubisoft Entertainment Center’. Scheduled for 2025, the venue will be situated on France’s Mediterranean coast as part of the Studios Occitanie entertainment hub. Ubisoft is not stopping there; with partners Storyland Studios, it is working on its own design for a large-scale Ubisoft theme park, having looked at Nintendo’s progress in this area and wanting to share some of the opportunity. Other video-game publishers are eagerly watching the fortunes of these two companies and their massive investments in the physical space.

Movies and TV – and zombies

Movie and television/streaming entities now looking at a wider penetration for their brands and licenses have also caught the bug and are looking to dive into the crowded waters of the “metamorphosis of the digital into physical”.

The use of Out-of-Home entertainment to turn digital content and properties into physical attractions has not been lost on the big players, including streaming giant Netflix, which has an estimated audience worldwide of some 215m paid memberships.

For a company streaming TV and movie content and investing vast sums in production, having a physical vehicle that can promote its properties seems obvious. Many industry insiders had speculated that Netflix was looking for its own chain of cinemas, but the implosion that has struck the theatre business seems to have lessened this interest. There is, however, one area of facility investment that has interested the corporation.

With the successful launch of the Netflix movie property Army of the Dead, a new marketing and promotional concept was rolled out by the company – marking an investment in a physical presence for its properties and employing the latest immersive technology. ‘Army of the Dead: Viva Vengeance’, an immersive pop-up attraction, was launched at selected Westfield mall locations, most recently (until the end of December 2021, after a run in Los Angeles) at the space vacated by Debenham’s department store in London’s Westfield Shepherd’s Bush mall. Not just dependent on live actors, the whole experience represented an interactive virtual reality (VR) attraction, which had guests blasting hordes of the undead as they traversed through the infested badlands.

This is not the only example of streamed or movie properties turned into VR experiences and deployed in location-based entertainment (LBE) venues. Movie production houses such as Lionsgate and Sony Pictures have ongoing projects that will see specialist attractions and venues based on their properties. Likewise, IP licenses are being acquired by entertainment venues to be incorporated into the mix of existing spaces. The food and entertainment chain Dave & Buster’s, for example, has had a strong affiliation with licensed IP to attract its target audience, having commissioned virtual reality attractions based on blockbuster film properties such as Jurassic World, Star Trek, Men In Black, among others, from location-based entertainment company VRstudios.

The ability to create an entertainment offering that can be injected into the available retail space has led to an explosion in Retailtainment. The ‘Retail Apocalypse’ that had hit the shopping mall landscape was obviously exacerbated by the global lockdown, but in re-emerging, the owners of these retail spaces have turned to entertainment to fill the gaps left by closed department store chains.

New operator Spider Entertainment has been created to provide landlords, developers and investors with a turnkey solution to run profitable pop-up and permanent attractions for their retail destinations, employing the latest brands, along with the latest immersive entertainment attractions, to help reinvent the retail experience. Physical spaces that include this level of brand immersion offer a unique new revenue stream beyond the original video-game and movie properties, and a level of customer engagement that is new and compelling.

What’s clear is that marketing and licensing executives keen to connect with their customer base will now have to include Out-of-Home entertainment as a new weapon in their armoury – a weapon that offers great opportunities and could in fact change the whole landscape of consumption.

Entertainment and technology specialist Kevin Williams is a regular presenter at international conferences, speaking at the Foundations Entertainment University (FEU) and Amusement360 events, as well as at bootcamps for LBE and FEC investors. He is one of the senior judges of the VR Awards.

Kevin’s consultancy KWP Ltd specialises in helping international clients develop immersive and interactive entertainment. Kevin has recently become Co-Owner and Technology Director for OOH entertainment specialist Spider Entertainment and is the publisher of the Stinger Report, a-must-read for those working or investing in the amusement, attractions and entertainment industry.

Kevin can be reached at kwp@thestingerreport.com.