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GDC 2001: Interactive Theme Park Rides
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GDC 2001: Interactive Theme Park Rides

July 3, 2001 Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

Interactive theme park rides are an unusual breed of entertainment experience. Half video game, half dark ride, interactive rides have their own unique rules about what makes a good show. Disney's Pirates of the Caribbean - Battle for the Buccaneer Gold now at Disney Quest has been called "the best use of VR in an entertainment application - ever". This paper will discuss the tools, techniques, technology, psychology, and serendipity that made Pirates a hit. It will also outline general guidelines for creating interactive theme park attractions.

Key Ideas

  • Interactive theme park rides are not video games, not rides, but a new medium.
  • Intuitive user interfaces are crucial for interactive theme park rides.
  • Put more emphasis on the real experiences, and less emphasis on virtual ones.
  • People go to theme parks in small groups to have shared experiences together. Interactive theme park rides should be designed around this fact.
  • Iterative design is crucial when creating new types of interactive experience.

Interactive theme park rides are not video games, not rides, but a new medium.
What makes designing interactive theme park rides difficult is that design skills necessary for traditional video games or theme park rides do not always apply in this new medium, and at times can actually work against you. Common video game metaphors such as cut scenes, life meters, restarting levels, and joystick interfaces are not familiar to the average group of Disney theme park goers. The traditional arcade way of learning a game by wasting a few quarters learning the rules and interface and then pumping more quarters in to continue is not feasible with an hour line waiting to play.

Because these rides are interactive, the guest is in control of their own destiny. This means the game needs to reward success and punish failure. Typical theme park attractions do not have this design constraint. On a Disney attraction, even losing must be entertaining.

The fact that Pirates is interactive and virtual carries with it an expectation that it will be a video game. Many guests, especially parents, have an anxiety towards video games, believing that only kids will understand or do well at them. Pirates overcomes this expectation with a fun, novel interface and game system that does not require any previous gaming knowledge.

Pirates Overview
Pirates is an interactive theme park ride based on the classic Pirates of the Caribbean attraction at Disneyland. With themes and inspiration taken from the ride, this virtual interactive experience treats four guests to an overwhelming immersive adventure on the high seas. With one guest steering at a real helm, the other three guests man six real cannons to defeat virtual enemy pirate ships, forts, sea monsters and ghostly skeletons to collect and defend as much gold as possible in the five minute experience. Pirates uses wrap-around 3D screens, 3D surround sound, and a motion platform boat to fully engage the guest as a pirate. Currently Pirates is open at DisneyQuest, Disney's virtual theme park venue, in Orlando and Chicago.

Interactive rides: A delicate balance.
At every turn, the design of Pirates was driven by the need to balance between letting the guests have control over their adventure, and making sure that each adventure is a great one. Here are the solutions we found to some of the problems created by this balancing act.

Problem: The captain might steer the ship to dull places.

We solved this problem with several techniques:

  • "Architectural Weenies"
    "Weenie" is phrase coined by Walt Disney himself. It refers to the technique used on movie sets of guiding stage dogs by holding up part of a sausage. The classic "weenie" is the castle at Disneyland. It draws the eye, and the eye draws the feet, and people walk to the castle at the center of the park. In the case of Pirates, we had three main "weenies", one for each island: a volcano, an enormous fort, and a plume of smoke coming from a burning town. No matter which way the boat is facing, at least one of these "weenies" is in view. Since the coolest action takes place at the islands, we want to guide the captains to go there.

  • Guide Ships
    Since the short-term goal of the game is to fire on other pirate ships, captains strive to get near these ships so that their gunners can get a clear shot. Many of the ships in the Pirates world are "on their way" to the islands mentioned above. Many captains, in just trying to stay near these ships find that just as they have destroyed the ship, they have arrived at one of the islands, without even trying to get there.

  • Sneak attacks
    But what if the captain ignores the guide ships? Even if he heads toward one of the "weenies" it might mean as long as a minute during which the gunners have little to shoot at. For this reason, we created special "sneak attack" ships that "magically" appear behind the players ship, and quickly pull up along side, when no other boats are in range.

  • "The Waterspout"
    This was our nickname for our "last ditch" forcefield that surrounds the gameplay area. If a captain tries to sail out of the main gameplay area and out to open sea, they hit the forcefield, and the ship is "magically" pointed back to where the action is. The few guests who see this don't even realize that anything unusual has happened. They are just pleased to have their boat going somewhere cool.

Problem: The pacing of the adventure needs to build to a climax, while still making the guests feel in control of their destiny.

The initial hook of the adventure is in the form of a non-interactive sequence where Jolly Roger the Ghost Pirate explains the roles of the captain and gunners, encourages the players to sink many pirate ships in order to get their gold, and then does a 3D close up gag, followed by a motion base gag. After that, the guests are in complete control, and the pacing of the show is mostly governed by the weenies, the guide ships, and the sneak attacks. These combine to give a nice balance between action, and short periods of calm. Guests fight the guide ships, the sneak attack ships, and the ships in other interesting encounters at the islands. Each island is a scenario, with a little story and a couple secrets:

In the "burning town" island, guests fight other pirate ships while sailing through a narrow canal with buildings and frantic townspeople on either side. At the end of the canal an enemy ship loaded with dynamite blocks the way.

In the "volcano" island, guests fight other pirate ships, but can also get bonus treasure by firing on the "treasure troves" on shore. This scenario has two possible endings. Either the volcano blows up (and blows you back out to sea) or the captain discovers the secret waterfall lagoon, which ends with the ship going over a waterfall, but "magically" falling back to the main gameplay area.

Because guests must run from cannon to cannon to best defend their ship they get a physical experience instead of merely sitting passively in front of a monitor.

In the "fort" island, guests are attacked with fireballs by soldiers at the fort. An enormous gold ship (hard to sink, but worth many points) is just setting sail, guarded by navy ships.

There is only time to visit one or two of these islands in the five minute adventure, which lends to replay value.

To make the journey from one island to another more exciting than just a long sequence of sneak attack ships, we introduced a sea serpent, who attacks the ship. We timed his appearance carefully, so that some variety is provided just when it is needed. Most guests mistakenly believe that they "found him", which is great, because it is exactly what we want them to think.

We couldn't figure out how to guarantee the guests would find their way to an exciting climax, so we made the climax come to them. Jolly Roger (the host from the beginning) appears suddenly after four and a half minutes, and it turns out that he only encouraged you to do battle and gather gold so that he could steal it from you. A battle against Jolly Roger's ghost ship and dozens of flying skeletons then ensues as our ship races past jagged rocks. The host turning out to be the villain is a great surprise for the guests, and provides great storytelling economy, as one character wears two important hats. The experience ends one of two ways: either the guests defeat Jolly Roger, and enter a victory lagoon where they can now shoot fireworks from their cannons, or Jolly Roger defeats the guests, and our boat explodes as giant skulls swirl around us, and we sink to the bottom of the ocean where sharks swim over our wreckage.

Both endings are exciting, but the lose ending is really the more exciting one, to help compensate for the fact that the guests just lost the game. This way, even if you lose, you feel pretty good, because the whole thing was just so cool.

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