Massively on the Go: Revisiting Star Wars Galaxy’s Edge’s ARG

    
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A former coworker and I recently went to Disneyland, incidentally on the same day. We were talking about our days there, and she wondered whether the Disney Play app that contains the Galaxy’s Edge Datapad AR game is worth getting for people who aren’t into Star Wars. I thought about that for a moment and argued that even for Star Wars fans, the app is hard to recommend. While I feel people can really appreciate some of the puzzles, there’s a lot of the app that isn’t going to appeal to a lot of people in my opinion. In fact, I feel as though it still appeals most to MMO fans, mostly because we’re used to grinding, especially reputation.

It got me thinking of when I first visited Galaxy’s Edge during the 2019 rollout event for the park. I remember my expectations falling short of the media hype, but the GDC 2020 presentation on the park/datapad game brought back my urge to give it another shot, despite the fact that my first “character” got wiped. With the park being at limited capacity, I felt that I could perhaps have a more controlled environment to understand what Disney was doing with the app and the real-life environment.

Modern issues

One of the other differences between my first and second visit was having my brother along with me. This made it easier to test some things, but it also meant I had a veteran MMO player who isn’t big on phone games to offer feedback in real-time to help assess my previous observations.

The biggest issue, of course, was the battery drain I’d mentioned, especially as the park asks for more and more app use across multiple apps. Perhaps it won’t be as bad when COVID is less prevalent, but as it was needed for reservations for food, drinks, and rides, a dead phone can really kill your day. It was especially weird that there were no charge stations or places to buy an external power source for your phone, but it was nice that Disney was providing free wi-fi.

The game’s pacing for anything in lines is still super hard to calibrate. Similar to last time, there were areas where we moved through the line too fast to really do anything. The massive amounts of text don’t help with that, nor does the inability to easily skip sections of the quest you’ve physically passed. While I was able to figure out how to quickly fail out of quests to “catch up” to the physical quest locations, my brother would get frustrated and simply quit until after the ride. As the quest can be repeated, it put him at a bit of a disadvantage, but obviously it annoyed him too, which was disappointing. The hacking and scanning quests are a lot of fun, and tuning quests aren’t bad either, but scanning (and translating to an extent) are the game modes that are most likely to get players to physically look around them.

However, these quests can really clog things up. Standing sort of in line to scan objects is awkward, and had I been in a solo queue, I would have been unable to play large portions of game. Some of the kids were really into it, but they could also hold people up when the scans weren’t working. Some guests also didn’t tolerate people playing the game and would cut past players having issues, serving as a strong reminder that AR games really need to work harder to function in public areas – especially in ways that don’t impede normal life.

Unlike last time, however, certain targets were not reachable. I saw whole new areas with new targets, but many were related to the ride lines. Depending on how the line is being managed, or even how vendors around the park are arranged (one target was blocked by a soda vendor’s cart), you may not be able to hit everything. It does increase replay value, but in ways that don’t entirely feel fair.

One thing I had a bit of an issue with during the GDC talk on the park was how the game’s “hacking” had real-world effects in the park. As I’d previously said, with so many park-goers even during the initial release, it was hard to determine if I’d done something or it was just a random effect.

With COVID restrictions further reducing the population, and having someone nearby who would tolerate my requests to slow down or speed up the hacking pace to try things, I got a better look at what Disney Assistant Producer Anisha Deshmane had been talking about.

Left to right: Original character, restoration attempt, bugged restoration, recent visit built on 1st restoration attempt

While the app does cause some of the targets to have real-life effects, any of the interactions that result in real-world effects were very subtle, like lights flashing or sound effects being played. When most of the park already has these going on for ambiance, it’s easy to miss when the player causes it, especially when looking at your screen and not having to interact with the real world. The other side of this, though, might be that too many people “hacking” at once makes it impossible to distinguish who, if anyone, is doing the work, as had happened to me in my previous experience.

There were some new quests from what I could tell, as despite the quest limitations, my Scoundrel rep ended up higher than my previous adventure. I also eventually noticed trade options, which are nice for collectors, but aside from the costumes category, they don’t really seem to do anything.

Sadly, though, when I visited the park in early June of 2021, almost no one was playing the game. While it seemed very popular during the test phase I previously reviewed, I’d say 5% overall participation might be too high of a number from what my brother and I saw. I had a Credit Skimmer installed on a PvP target that didn’t get me a single credit all day. While the app might help give people the lay of the land, overall participation felt quite low, making this location-locked AR game’s playerbase a minority even in their own playground. It makes me wonder if Nintendo’s Universal ARG/area may suffer a similar fate.

Real-life roleplay

Translate me!

I know this may seem odd to write, especially for me, but as time goes on, it feels like people turn to audio and videos more for their entertainment. Walls of text can feel like a lot of work, but this especially feels true when you’re in a theme park. While I personally enjoyed some of the text-based games, like trying to memorize a fake ID’s info or help major lore characters escape doom, when I’m in a themepark, I don’t want to be reading a lot of stuff on my app. This could be related to pacing, but all that text takes your eyes away from the area around you that you paid to experience.

As I originally said, I had thought that Galaxy’s Edge’s game would be like a D&D campaign or Disney’s Legends of Frontier Land but with app tracking to reinforce rules and stats. Again, Deshmane had claimed at GDC 2020 that cast members might treat you differently depending on how you did on the Smuggler’s Run ride/game, which goes along with how we’d previously been told the app can collect such data.

Unless she meant immediately afterward, this still rang hollow. The only aspect of my previous character that remained was at least one run on the Falcon. On my last visit, my brother and I flew the Falcon twice. Not once did a cast member recognize that we had previous experience with the Falcon. I would think that, especially with a reduced population, this could have been done more, but as during the last visit, it never occurred. Perhaps this will be restricted only to the cantina, which once again I couldn’t access.

So if real-life fame isn’t a result of the AR game, what should be motivating players? You don’t have combat stats at all. You get credits, and I heard they can be spent on avatar costumes under the “jobs” tab, but my brother and I never saw this.

While the app does a good job of distracting guests and giving achievements, I think the fact that it’s ignored by the vast majority of guests is ultimately disappointing. Yes, MMO players may get quest or achievement anxiety trying to do everything (which, again, is partially caused by some really fun puzzles even my brother had trouble walking away from), but once you step back, the app feels like a glorified sticker collection, especially if players aren’t participating in PvP.

Having trading options is good for people who want to collect all the “things,” and the idea of earning reputation can be kind of cool, at least for Scoundrels like me. But as it didn’t lead to anything, since I felt like some of my game actions could impede on people’s enjoyment of the park, meaning it could be hard to stay motivated to play the game if alone or with friends/family who aren’t playing too.

Perhaps the game needs to be simplified and made more visual. The text could be entertaining and slow things down for some people, extending the game’s replay value, but I think especially when you pay $100+ just to enter a place, the last thing most people want to do is stare at their phones playing a so-so app that can’t compete with many free-to-play apps you can play from your bed.

More pre-visit game tutorials would certainly help too. You can have the text there for training and atmosphere. Being able to practice the basics outside the park can motivate people to play more and feel more prepared for the actual experience. Doing so in the park can feel like a waste of time. I think the main reason my brother and I were able to do so was primarily due to our MMO backgrounds. We saw kids playing other games, but not many kids (or adults) doing the Datapad quests.

Cast interactions would really help too, if Disney is willing or able to, especially as COVID changes are rolled back. Some “games” could maybe start with scanning something a cast member carries with them. Just something simple as there being doors that are “locked” and asking visitors to scan and hack it so a cast member can get inside could be cool.

Maybe if players could use the app for contactless pay, reputation could be attached to that. Maybe if your side won the PvP conflict, you’d get a 1% discount, or Scoundrels could pay for coupons with credits. This could also be a way for cast members to discuss your dealings, such as performing well in the Falcon or using your avatar’s assigned title to greet you.

Unlockable content would help as well. Hacking the Millennium Falcon should be tough. I figure people should have to visit the park a few times before they can do that, and it probably have some kind of cooldown. Working in tiers and putting timers on things can make it feel more special, especially if there are a few options to help make you feel like you did the hack and not some random person. Perhaps a few choices about what happens could ensure this.

There’s so much that can be done with the app, especially for Star Wars fans, who have been interacting with the IP in games for decades now. When the action is simple and straightforward, the app is fun, but immersive is another story. While I’ve noted that I’m not much of a theme park guy, Galaxy’s Edge and the new Avenger’s Campus are more appealing to me because of the way games are included in rides.

My brother and I spent around half our day immersed in the Star Wars atmosphere, and the app was part of that. Finding stuff to scan, grinding rep, figuring out the hack puzzles, and yes, even some of the text was enoyable. It was fun, but caused us to seek out-of-the-way areas to stare at our screen, similar to other AR games that can be played anywhere in meatspace, not just a theme park.

There obviously needs to be compromises so that non-gamers can enjoy these attractions too, but at least using an app to track progress and get a little recognition should be the very first thing an AR game app should do in a theme park.

Massively OP’s Andrew Ross is an admitted Pokemon geek and expert ARG-watcher. Nobody knows Niantic and Nintendo like he does! His Massively on the Go column covers Pokemon Go as well as other mobile MMOs and augmented reality titles!

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