Massively on the Go: The pros and cons of physical minigames in themepark MMOARGs


Summer is a time for themeparks and gaming, and these days, the two can be more readily mixed – with a variety of results. Readers may remember I was particularly disappointed with Pokemon Go’s Niantic phoning in A Coded Quest’s advertised AR quest during the Hoenn Vegas Tour. What was advertised as code hunt ARG was simply turned into a social media code giveaway, even for those who didn’t attend. It was peak Niantic failure for an in-person event.

But it could’ve been a chance to really give the game a big themepark feel, not in the MMO sense but in the Disneyland/Universal Studios kind of way. Having hit up Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge ARG a couple of times, the Web Slingers AR ride/game, and recently trying out Super Nintendo World, I’ve gotten to see a decent variety of how the big boys use ARGs and mixed reality when (mostly) restricted to physical locations, so for today’s Massively on the Go, let’s go over some of the pros and cons.

Time to poke on home.

Pro: ARGs can help with pre-visitation onboarding

Now first, I want note that we’re really expanding the definition of “augmented reality” here. While normally this refers to screens/glasses looking at reality and adding something virtual on top of those, we’re expanding it here to mean tech that interacts with real-world components as part of their gameplay/interaction loop. Pokemon GO is a good example of this, as many people keep their camera off, but real-life walking leads to in-game walking. On the other hand, you also have the Pokeball Plus, a device you own in the real-world to catch pokemon in the Let’s Go pokemon games that also allows you to walk pokemon caught in the console games while playing Pokemon Go.

The situation with the Let’s Go games is of particular interest for this comparison, as POGO players actually understood the basic catching methods before Let’s Go came out. It acted almost as an onboarding app. While no major themepark’s ARG explicitly does this, Super Nintendo World can do this best via its achievements. Going through the list gives you a vague idea of what is expected or even possible to do in the game area. For example, even before I stepped into the park, and without reading the previous link, I knew I was aiming to collect keys to participate in a Bowser Jr boss battle.

What I didn’t know is that the battle is a kind of a premium attraction. Without the Power Up Band and participating in the AR game, guests can’t even try the boss battle, an attraction that reminds me a lot of the Spiderman Web Slingers ride/game but makes use of more of your body without the need of an extra device (aside from accessing it). I don’t think that makes the Power Up Band worth $40 for a single trip, but for a local who can visit maybe once a year, I suppose it may eventually feel worthwhile.

More importantly, though, is that the band requirement to view achievements (unless you look at the linked list) prevents players from seeing achievements and learning more about the ride. If I’d seen the achievements beforehand, maybe I wouldn’t have accidentally sabotaged my own team by attacking the Mario cast. Including the instructions on how to do the Kart Ride in-app would also help speed the line along for those of us who wanted to learn, as line managers suggested we watch the video in line and then move forward, though people behind my friend and I clearly didn’t care to pay attention (apologies to whoever got stuck with those clowns).

Galaxy’s Edge also helps with onboarding in that its datapad explicitly tells you about gameplay options requiring you to be in the park. Once in, you have a map that shows you all the different areas to visit to do activities. It doesn’t help with its major game/ride, Smuggler’s Run, but that’s more simple and more multiplayer. While lacking the app and progress awarded from the mixed reality games/app means missing out on a major attraction, those who skip the ARG app at GE miss out on only a few neat bonuses.

Even worse for SNW, though, is that the Kart racer doesn’t feel quite as replayable unless you lose, while Smuggler’s Run has different routes, endings, and roles, all of which give plenty of reasons out the app to try again. The datapad only adds to the experience, and that’s important if a themepark wants to keep things accessible without relying on tech.

Con: ARGs break if the physical parts are stolen/destroyed

This is the most Niantic thing on our list. During its premium paid local event, Niantic completely lacked one of the three targets of the Coded Quest; whether it was due to being stolen, melted, destroyed, or never commissioned, we don’t know.

This highlights how fragile an ARG/mixed reality experience can be. SNW has a lot of physical attachments to its app – blocks to punch, buttons to press, physical minigames you stand in line for – and if any of them should break, it can ruin entire achievement runs, such as hitting all the blocks in a single visit.

GE is not completely safe due to all the QR codes, but the location-based nature does mean that triggers affected by your real-world location will still function, as will translation events and base hack/capture minigames. The datapad ARG has a lot more content, so it’s safer from these issues, but as I’ll discuss further down, that also has some drawbacks.

Pro: ARGs can help with line management

GE‘s reliance on QR codes can be a mixed bag. The positive part, however, is that it makes it easier for people to line up. Knowing that a scan location is just around the corner makes it easier for people to know where to stand and also pay attention to when they can move up.

While being rushed may mean not having time to scan everything, being able to see another nearby scan location also makes it easier to skip some. At worst, a visitor may hold up the line for a few seconds, but players will also note when a certain scan is more important than others, which also helps keep guests/players not just social, but in a positive mood. As someone who’s had to manage lines in the past, I can tell you that keeping positive vibes can make or break everyone’s experience.

Con: ARGs can create blockages and extra lines

Conversely, an ARG can slow things down. While waiting to do Smuggler’s Run, some people may slow down the line a bit for a scan, and too many people doing that obviously slows down everything. But certain QR scans, like making an Imperial Probe Droid or astromech unit come to life for a bit, can suddenly get parkgoers clamoring around a single area and creating a blockage, especially when non-players come over to try to figure out what’s going on.

But that’s nothing compared to nearly all of SNW. Even on a slow day, all the minigames that reward virtual keys had lines with little to no management from the park, not just creating confusion but blocking entrances and some of the areas features. For examples, there are blocks to hit by the restrooms. The numerous children and oblivious adults would spill over into the entrances. The cafe (which requires a reservation) has a scan location, which slows down the entering/order process, which is already quite slow even on low attendance days like when I visited. Park/app developers need to consider where and when lines form, as some lines can help while others clearly hinder.

Pro: Physical components can help increase game awareness

One especially strong point for SNW is the physical components – not just the Power Band, but all the big minigames that you can do if you have one. While turning the crank to knock down a Goomba isn’t that much of a thrill, it’s highly visual, as opposed to someone standing around with a phone out “hacking” a few lights almost no one will notice turn on and off at GE.

These large set pieces increase not only awareness but also participation. Numerous times at Disney, when I was hacking or people were wondering about people with phones, I’d inform them of the game. People would be slightly impressed, but not enough to participate, and so they would simply walk away. Conversely, at SNW (and a bit outside of Web Slingers), people would see how the physical addons were used and be motivated to join in. If increasing the use of an app is a goal of an ARG’s use, this is surely a smart way to do it.

Con: Physical components can slow down gameplay

The thing about having an AR game available in your themepark is that it gives guests/players something thematically related to the physical location during downtime. The easiest way to see not only the previous con but this one would be to compare Super Nintendo World to Galaxy’s Edge.

SNW focuses largely on big interactive minigames that tie to the phone app, largely relegating the app to a score tracker about 80% of the time. Lines rarely give you much access to interactive content such as blocks or buttons to hit for coins and other virtual content. You’re lucky if you get access to one of each in a line. As this also creates lines for the app game, the guest/player is left with an immense amount of downtime. While it may be good for socializing, I saw a lot of frustration and boredom among younger players and parents who obviously wanted to play the game struggling to get bored children to focus once they actually reached the content they were lined up for.

Conversely, readers may recall that I felt that GE almost had too much content: translations are easy enough, hacking is a fun puzzle, quest dialogue gives you a story to enjoy, and earning credits does let you at least virtually buy a few things, though the system could be fleshed out more. And that’s nearly all from simply being in the right location or occasionally scanning accessible QR codes so people can scan and move away to do their content. There’s a lot to do, and depending on how fast the lines move in areas heavy in QR codes, there was too little time. However, that encourages repeat visits.

While there was some blockage around some QR codes, it’s not the constant lines SNW felt like it was made out of. Both worlds look fantastic, but SNW’s lines galore really break immersion. I tried thinking of it like an arcade, but it was more like an overcrowded Chuck-E-Cheese outside of Mario Kart: Bowswer’s Challenge or the previously mentioned Bowser Jr boss fight.

So I appreciate that the physical games are reasonably accessible, but waiting 90 minutes for maybe one minute of whack-a-mole with friends for my “quest” was the peak of disappointment. Mario is always on the move, but by forcing people into constant lines with little relevant content, SNW reminds you that as much as things may look like the Mushroom Kingdom, you’re very much in a time-stealing themepark, even on relatively slow days like the one I spent there. A better screen-to-attraction balance is needed there, while GE could use some more meaningful interactions to better engage non-gamers.

Pro: ARGs can add replay/revisit value

For every themepark ARG I’ve done, I’ve researched it at least a bit before going, and I’ve still missed something. Whether it was my datapad making scenery move in GE, pullable objects in Web Slingers, or a whole passageway with interactives in SNW, there’s more for me to do. And being a bit of a completionist, I do want to go back and try again.

But I’m not made of money, and I don’t have any year-round passes like some people. However, when the themeparks do something kind of neat, even unrelated to their ARGs, the ARG does become an additional deciding factor on whether or not I want to shell out to go. I tend to spend more on things related to wildlife, even the extinct kind, but the ARG factor is one of the reasons I visited Disneyland when it added and enforced COVID guidelines, and I’m someone who had only gone maybe three or four times previously. I will argue that gamifying rides probably is more of a factor, but since the ones I’ve enjoyed most all have AR components or apps to carry over your experience as data (no offense to Toy Story Midway Mania), it’s hard for me to ignore the positive influence of AR.

Con: ARGs need purpose, especially when they’re premium

The downside is that just being AR and/or being connected to an app isn’t enough for most people. SNW’s Power Up Bands are pricey enough that my console gaming group isn’t sold enough on the idea; I hadn’t realized they didn’t already go! When we discussed it, the idea of paying that much extra to stand in more lines for one neat but short gaming experience was kind of the epitome of the themepark: pay a premium price for what would normally be a torturous experience.

Even when I brought up IGN’s unconfirmed report on transferring coins from the Universal app to Mario Kart 8 Deluxe for unlockables (we’ve reached out to both Nintendo PR and IGN on this), it still wasn’t quite enough to excite me. GE’s lofty statements that the datapad gameplay will result in cast members treating you differently hasn’t yet materialized, in my experience.

For gamers, yeah, these things are neat and may be even factors in shelling out money where they normally wouldn’t. My brother and I bought the deluxe web shooters for Web Slingers, but none of our friends have had any desire to borrow them, even when they hold season passes for Disney. One friend got a Power Up Band because I was there and it would save another friend money when she goes later. And while GE doesn’t cost anything extra, it didn’t seem to generate enough interest to get, in my estimation, more than 10% of the parkgoers to use the app.

But when the sale is tough for gamers, it’s tougher for non-gamers. One friend and her family, who love Disney, Stars Wars, and games, didn’t even try the datapad ARG when they visited, but it didn’t cost them anything extra either. The addon toy for Web Slingers didn’t seem too popular when my brother and I visited. The Power Up Band+Universal App seemed to be the most popular and most likely because it gated content, but there were parents who simply didn’t cave for the pricey extra experience. A happy medium between the price of a new (indie) game and free must exist, depending on the goals of the themepark/developers.

Perhaps tying rewards with other, more popular apps could help motivate players. Maybe SNW’s gating mechanism could be emulated as access to special shops or cafes to help both with line management and generating potential profits. But overall, ARGs in themeparks, especially their apps, are still in a very infant-like stage and are in need of major fine-tuning before we see the masses truly embrace them.

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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