Friday, February 25, 2022

Gearing up for Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser: Immersion 9 years in the making

Well, in just a few days, I will step aboard the Halcyon Starcruiser as part of Disney’s latest immersive interactive offering, that clearly has to to tell you it doesn’t go to space - which sits beside a theme park. Yet, the goal of the experience isn’t really to take you to that theme park, or go on a fake space cruise - it’s designed to be the next generation of storytelling - and represents the final vision of 9 years of experiments with WDI R&D.

Living in Southern California, and being a huge fan of theme parks, rides, haunts, and immersive entertainment - I feel like I’ve been playing in these spaces for almost my whole life - so I want to give you a leadup of my experiences before I cover the Galactic Starcruiser next week.

My Interactive Legacy

In addition to Disney stuff, I’ve also played and explored in Alternate Realities outside theme parks, here’s just a few of them:

Myst Online: Uru Live (2003)

I consider Uru Live to be my first real ARG (Alternate Reality Game). A failed concept by Cyan Worlds (of MYST fame), the idea behind Uru was that You Are You, and that you were playing in a massive online world, attempting to bring back to live a hidden city beneath the surface:

As part of the launch of this game, clues were hidden around the real world, including in the New Mexico desert. A kid without a car at the time begging my parents to drive out to the middle of the desert didn’t sit well with them - it was the first time I was exposed to what an ARG was - and how storytelling in the real world would captivate me.

Explore ages and solve puzzles with friends, Myst Online was a virtual “ARG”.

The online game itself would have many ARG like components. Specific meetups with characters in the virtual space, stories and puzzles you must solve with friends. I became a seasoned explorer also enough to join the Guild of Greeters - a specific group of people to welcome new visitors to the cavern.

The whole thing was a massive failure, and after being rebooted two times in 2004, and 2007 - it was never a failure in my eyes. That experience of exploring caves, talking to characters, and living out that fantasy in my life would be a common theme I would explore again and again. You can still play Myst Online for free - if you want to check it out.

Flynn Lives (2009)

I’m not going to summarize it here, but the Flynn Lives ARG would be my next major experience in the world of the Alternate Reality Game. While I wasn’t able to attend or experience the activities in San Francisco, I was able to step into Flynn’s in San Diego, and engage with many of the online offerings.

Steeped in movie promotions, this never quite engaged me - but the idea of Alan Bradley and Encom being “real” places was satisfying - and with the promotion tying directly into the movie (“we” sent the page from the arcade to Alan) - it was an amazing promotion and experience we wouldn’t really see from movie promotions again.

Evermore Park (2018)

8 adults crammed into a passenger van took the long drive from SoCal to Salt Lake City, Utah to check out Evermore Park on its opening day. While the operations were rough (and the park clearly not done), I could see the potential. Free roaming characters, quests, puzzles, and stories awaited those who stepped into it’s gates.

We looked the part, even if there wasn’t much content on day 1.

While the story of Evermore Park wasn’t quite there on opening day, there is massive potential. They recently launched Annual Passes that include exclusive story quests - so we’re definitely going to get back this summer.

Omega Mart (2021)

Opening last year in Las Vegas, Omega Mart is one of the latest Meow Wolf experiences. Even before entering the “store”, the online story captivated me. Who was Walter Dram? Why did his daughter take over the store - and what’s with all these weird products anyway?

Using an RFID enabled card, your phone, physical documents, and story videos - you fully explore the space, see some of the interactive and immersive art - and it’s all connected by a non-linear storyline, where you choose a path and cause some neat show effects to happen in the space. I still need to go back and explore more of the deeper aspects of the story, but there’s hours of content, fun things to see, and a staff that really feels engaged no matter how much you are.

Hack into the mainframe and get some information and videos. Best part? You can watch them and pull out even more detail at home with your card and a special code!

Once I visited Omega Mart, I finally understood both the Meow Wolf vision, and what could be done with these types of spaces, they could be art but also be commentary, and wrap it all up in a story that you can consume how you wish.

Yes, that’s a Supermarket Sweep sweatshirt.

9 Years of Disney WDI R&D Interactive Stories

In addition to playing these external ARGs, it was clear that the “immersive experience” was brewing at WDI as well. From Sourcers to the Magic Kingdom, to living characters, to the experiences I describe here - it was clear that WDI R&D was looking at more than just rides (for better or worse) for the parks and beyond. Not all the experiences that I’ve participated in over the years are listed here, but these are the major ones that would lead us to Galaxy’s Edge, and eventually - Galactic Starcruiser.

The Optimist (2013)

The Optimist, in short, is what proved to me these could be moving experiences that could be emotional. An 8 week alternate reality game taking place throughout Los Angeles and Disneyland - it would set up the Plus Ultra secret society as part of the Tomorrowland (2015) movie. Read our full recap here.

Characters to interact with online, characters to interact with at the parks, puzzles, and special events (Club 33! Getting to see Walt’s Apartment!) - and a finale at Disneyland that would have me in tears. This was the first time one of these experiences made me feel like I was a real *part* of something. A strong community of players came together, even created a community, and did a little good out there in the real world.

Crying and livestreaming the experience on Ustream in 2013, long before daily vlogs and live streams would become popular.

We later found out, that the ending was changed *due to the players*, and wanting to pull us together to truly see everyone. How neat. Because of those interactions, I met one of my best friends as part of this experience, Nick. We started (and still run) the fansite and occasional podcast together.

Legends of Frontierland (2013 and 2014)

Legends of Frontierland was an experimental game at Disneyland that actually ran for a few days in 2013, and the summer of 2014. With rumors abound about the potential launch and announcement of a “Star Wars land”, this made perfect sense - a faction war controlling land. Rebels vs Empire, Resistance vs. First Order.

The first version of the game was fully contained in the Golden Horseshoe Saloon - and had people creating things, playing games, and interacting with each other to earn ‘bits’.

You could use those ‘bits’ to buy “land deeds” on a land board. Rainbow Ridge vs Frontierland. At the end of the day, a winner was determined and celebrated. This version of the game only lasted a short while.

The 2014 version of the game was expanded, and would last a whole summer (and even get an expansion). Instead of just taking place in a single place, it would take place in the whole land. Grab a nametag, choose a name - alliteration a must -  and set out into the wild frontier - arresting citizens, earning bits, and interacting with characters.

At the core of the game was the land game - the Territory War. Like a giant game of Monopoly, each “faction” could buy land for bits, and there would be rules about how land would exchange hands (most of which dropped by the time the game started).

StoryEngine could generate missions and story details, on-the-fly, per player.

Your interactions with the characters, what to do would be given to you from the “telegraph”, later revealed to be called StoryEngine. This engine was dynamic, per player, and could be adjusted on-the-fly for new and old players. One of my friends, David - who you’ve heard from on podcasts on this very site - even had a multi-day generated story going on for him - all dished out by the characters and StoryEngine. 

It was magic.

You could even start your own business - with approval from “Chicago”, of course. 

While amazing, the “game” went off the rails quickly. Players cared more about each other and the characters, instead of the land game. The daily drama and relationships of the characters in the land - players brought their full creativity to the game. A great mid-event recap is here, written by yours truly.

We even plussed the game, creating the Citizen Welcome Wagon, and The Frontier Times - a way to ensure that new players could get into the game quickly. Yes, we brought newspapers to hand out in a Disney Park - no way that would happen today. These changes were so great, both were integrated into the game when it got a short extension for a few more weeks.

A game favorite by the players was getting characters to “hook up” and get married, we attended so many fake weddings that summer!

This game could finally show me what you could do in an immersive, non-linear storytelling experience in a theme park. Everyone had their own story, but was also working towards a common goal. You could be creative, and not just consume a product or intellectual property.

Ahh, yes - Google Glass, not exactly the most immersive for Frontierland.

I highly recommend reading Nick Tierce’s article about Legends of Frontierland, as a great recap and the potential it hosted, and check out the Twitter account Frontierland Times, we ran at the time to cover the game.

Overall, this was an amazing experience - but could never exist in a Disneyland of today. A park too crowded, too consuming, and people who would only really make the game about them (I can only imagine the vlogging) - this was something that WDI R&D tested at a specific time, but we were excited for the potential.  

Ghost Town Alive (2016)

While this isn’t Disney, a little theme park that could - Knott’s Berry Farm, started a little summer event called Ghost Town Alive in 2016 - two years after Legends ended. Unlike Legends of Frontierland, this was a fixed experience and daily story (everyday being “Founder’s Day”) - but had several branching paths. Read my 2016 write-up about it.

The daily vote is a big part of the Ghost Town Alive! experience.

Interact with characters in the old west, deliver packages, find out about what was going on around town - and join citizens for meetups, voting, and try to keep those bandits, the Oxfield gang from stealing gold from the bank.

A collection of newspapers from the experiences over the years hangs year-around in Ghost Town.

Ghost Town Alive felt like the sustainable version of Legends of Frontierland - a fun daily storyline with character interactions - but no economy or ability for players to pull it too far off the rails.

The end of the day is celebrated at the Hoedown, one last chance to mix and mingle with fellow players and characters!

Over the years, the model for Ghost Town Alive would be expanded, adding puzzles, subplots, and a whole cast of characters. It returns this year to Knott’s Summer activities - and it’s a real highlight of my theme park yearly offerings here in Southern California.

Star Wars Galaxy’s Edge (2019): 
Empty Stages and Broken Dreams

The Play Disney Parks app was first announced in April of 2018, and it’s experiences upon launch were limited. Billed as an “interactive companion to the Disney Parks”, it was clear this was going to be the vehicle for the interactive experiences for the recently announced “Star Wars Land”.

Star Wars: Datapad was previewed just before the launch of Galaxy’s Edge. We were so excited. This make so much sense; you’ve got an app to get story missions, interact with characters, and get those “telegrams from Chicago” in your pocket. The big impressive stage shows would be like Ghost Town Alive! - epic lightsaber and blaster battles based on whomever was winning the territory war. It was gonna be awesome.

Armed with our Annual Passes, a Paradise Pier hotel stay, outfits, and custom phone cases (a trend we would start as the Datapad Builder’s Club, later even aped by Disney in marketing and merchandise). We came to Galaxy’s Edge to play…

But what we found was short of disappointing. “Live your Star Wars story” ended up just being open-ended automated missions - that relied more on scanning custom QR codes than it did. Even the “factions” don’t mean anything? You can “max out” all factions. Guess I’m a resistance fighter who somehow still wants galactic war while just doing it for all the credits.

Sure, you could get some neat backstory from “tuning” a random antenna, or activate a show effect on the Millennium Falcon by “hacking” it - but that level of interactivity, story, and detail that we expected from the land marketing and hype, wasn’t there.

In fact, the app even sets up everything you need to unlock for you on your Profile page. This isn’t “live your star wars story”, this was “unlock Star Wars stuff in an app”. That exciting land game we tested? It would just be “hacking panels” with a game that has no real meaning, no real impact - just something for people to fiddle with and panels to blink colors.

A panel beeping back with a flashing LED just isn’t the same as a big end-of-day celebration.

They had the model, the backstory for characters, what was working up the street - Ghost Town Alive!, the Territory War/Outpost Control in the Datapad, the stages for shows and battles, and meeting points for guests - but it all sits empty most of the time.

Screens at registers show your mission status, even when I visited Oga’s that day, but CMs aren’t paid enough to care.

When it works, Hondo on the Millenium Falcon will acknowledge that you’ve flown before, and you might get the credits from the missions - but Cast Members mostly ignore the small displays that tell them your status. They weren’t paid to play with you, and they almost never do.

The Explorer’s shop sits empty, a previously designed home for interactivity on Batuu.

You could see the vision, but the pieces sat empty. Even the facade for the Explorer’s Shop, once supposed to be the home base for the interactive game, sits empty with a “KEEP OUT” sign on a door that people try to open. Stages sit empty, that stunt shows were built and designed for. The press got to see them at the press day, but we didn’t. The vision of what Galaxy’s Edge should be sits around you, but it feels so lifeless and dead - because these pieces were never turned on! “Premium Missions” with mission packs to unlock for the various factions still sit in the Datapad code; they couldn’t even get some $5 in-app purchase extensions out the door in time for the land opening. It really felt like “live your Star Wars story” was really dead - nothing more than marketing hype and some digital achievements in an app that most people won't download anyway. It was clear that this was either budget cut out, or that it was spun off into the Starcruiser concept right before it opened.

The Sims 4: Journey to Batuu

In the middle of 2020, a totally unexpected thing would end up bringing Galaxy’s Edge really close to home. On August 27th, 2020 (and leaked before), The Sims 4: Journey to Batuu was announced. 

WHAT!? The simulation game that I’ve enjoyed for basically it’s entire run suddenly had a parks-specific pack!?

Only in The Sims can you officially “Woohoo on Batuu”.

In many ways, this Game Pack delivers on the vision of Galaxy’s Edge more than in the land. Interact with Rey, work as a double-agent for the Resistance, and hang out and play Sabbac with Hondo in Oga’s. Convert the outpost to one faction or another? It actually changes! Go fly the Millenium Falcon, and get different missions, with “Chance Cards” that determine what happens to your Sims’s reputation!

Seriously, the attention to detail on Batuu in The Sims is phenomenal.

In many ways, I found myself back where I started nearly 20 years ago, a digital experience rooted in a physical experience. Even with it being stuck in my computer, I love that I’ll always get this “slice in time” of Galaxy’s Edge and Batuu in The Sims, no matter how it changes.

Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser

So here we are. Announced on Jul 15, 2017 - this was to be a two night experience. Given my history with previous experiences that Disney had done - and the team that I knew was working on the project - I was sorta sold from the start. I thought this would be the ultimate expansion to all the interactive stuff we were gonna get on Batuu - it made so much sense, this was for people who wanted to opt-in more.

One of the parties responsible for locking interactivity behind the paywall.

But after Galaxy’s Edge opened, it was clear that many of the things that we were promised, roaming droids, roaming characters, stories to explore, missions to play, shows to see, something more than just scanning QR codes - was now locked behind an unobtainable for most paywall. These offerings felt like they were to be included in park admission for everyone, exactly like Ghost Town Alive! - but with laser swords instead of guns - and now, it would take a hotel visit and be more expensive than an international week-long trip.

This experience is too damn expensive. Assuming two nine hour shifts of characters, we’re looking at over $100/hour each for the experience. Yes, you get a theme park ticket, food, and some drinks - but this price is unobtainable for most, and I hate that the modern Walt Disney Company has decided that something that felt planned for everyone needs to be locked so hard behind corporate greed. (Again, your reminder that even if you buy a day ticket at Knott’s, the character interactions and experience with Ghost Town Alive! only costs about $10/hour.)

Expectations and Cautious Optimism

I wasn’t even supposed to be going on opening day, but due to some of these same friends I met on these other experiences, it worked out - and we're taking the plunge. I’m not sure what to expect when I “get on the ship”. What kind of experience will this feel like?

For once, it’ll be my first Disney immersive experience where everyone is literally “bought in”. You don’t have to force people to try to download an app to try to play when they would rather go ride Space Mountain. It’s the purest, and cleanest “immersive experience” you can visit - and in many ways - isn’t for people that like theme parks.

This isn’t going to be the epic multi-month experience I saw with Legends of Frontierland. I have two days. This isn’t going to be the 8 week story adventure of The Optimist. This isn’t going to be the passive world of unlocking everything on the Datapad on Batuu. I can’t reload a save game like in The Sims - this experience feels at an intersection of all those things, 9 years of R&D development to create the “ultimate storytelling vision” - but will it work?

Back in the Myst Online days, the creators would always explain to us that the vision of exploration was always built around “Cautious Optimism”, and given what I’ve seen from Disney over the last 8 years, and my own experiences - that rings true here. I hope it inspires others to start their copy machines, push this art forward, and do awesome experiences like this at a price and level that is a little more inclusive for the masses.

In some ways, they have already disappointed.

Our Creativity

One thing through all these experiences, is that we’ve always brought our own joy. From our own games, to sharing it with the world, to our own clothing and creations - we make sure the experience is augmented by our own creativity. I refuse to only consume these experiences, I want to be *a part* of them.

Disney's corporate bureaucracy makes this hard. Unnecessary operational obsession about *what is a costume*, when you’ve got tons of kids and adults running around in house robes just a few miles away. This is something that The Sims 4: Journey to Batuu really got right, and I wish they would have copied for Galactic Starcruiser. Just have a bunch of “in universe” clothing and accessories that you can buy, and get shipped ahead of time - or at the door.

One of the coolest parts of Westworld was seeing people pick their outfits, and I’m just really bummed that we’re buying and customizing stuff off Amazon and excessively making our own stuff, instead of being able to pick-and-choose as part of the experience - you know living our Star Wars story.

End of a chapter...

But here we are. Custom outfits created, custom datapad cases built, even themed luggage - and nearly 9 years of WDI experiments later - we're about ready to see what feels like the final chapter in this development. I’m excited to share the end of this up and down journey with you - tell you my joys, experiences, and frustrations with the Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser once we step off the ship next week.

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