From The Small Screen to the Midway: Video Games and the Next Wave of Dark Rides

Something unique is happening in the world of North American amusement parks soon as regional parks start to open for the 2016 season. For the first time in North America, two major amusement parks are introducing rides that are themed to popular video games: “Plants vs Zombies Garden Warfare: 3Z Arena” at Carowinds near Charlotte, North Carolina and “Mass Effect: New Earth” at California’s Great America in Santa Clara, California. Both parks are owned by Cedar Fair, and both games are published EA Games, implying the potential of a larger partnership. The introduction of these two rides this month could be the tip of a very large iceberg bringing the world of video games and video game franchises to parks throughout the country.

Plants vs Zombies is one of two new video game themed rides opening Cedar Fair Parks this week.

Plants vs Zombies is opening at Carowinds this week…

...while Mass Effect: New Earth opens at California's Great America

…while Mass Effect: New Earth coming soon to California’s Great America

A Brief History of Tie-ins

Tie-ins between amusement parks and other forms of entertainment are pretty much as old as the concept of a theme park, seeing as Disneyland and Universal Studios are the world’s most iconic theme parks and opened their doors 60 and 50 years ago, respectively. Obviously both of these are tied closely to the movie industry, offering guests a chance to immerse themselves in the world of films they love or, as a Universal slogan once put it, to “ride the movies.” In some cases, like the Pirates of the Carribbean rides, the attractions have grown into franchises themselves demonstrating how the relationship can go both ways. Tie-ins of course aren’t just related to movies. Disney parks are now filled with characters from Marvel comics (and Marvel attractions are in the pipe), while Universal features TV show themed attractions, like the Simpsons ride and land.

Regional parks are already in the game as well. Carowinds and California’s Great America were both once owned by Paramount and featured numerous rides with movie tie in themes. Anyone visiting the parks can still see remnants of the “Top Gun” themes on their inverted B&M coasters (now Afterburn and Flight Deck). Six Flags parks have had sporadic movie tie-ins on rides, like the short lived “Terminator Salvation: The Ride” at Six Flags Magic Mountain (now Apocalypse), and DC comics themed attractions and areas are growing throughout their parks. Throw in the Looney Toons and Peanuts characters at Six Flags and Cedar Fair parks respectively, and it becomes a little surprising that we haven’t see video game characters or attractions in the past. 

An Obvious Choice

“Electronic gaming companies like EA have iconic franchises spanning a variety of genre, including science fiction, fantasy, and horror that could be used as a basis for new attractions,” said Christian Dieckmann, VP of Strategic Growth at Cedar Fair in a recent interview with us. “The film industry has had tie-ins to themed entertainment for years, so it seems natural that the gaming sector follows suit.”

Video games sit alongside films, TV, and comics are major trade shows and conventions, and with the game industry arguable larger than the film or comic industry, it seems an obvious option for an amusement park partnership.

“It’s a little surprising that video games haven’t worked their way into this arena sooner,” said Cedar Fair CEO Matt Ouimet in an interview this off-season.

Plants vs Zombies and Mass Effect

Although two very different games, Plants vs Zombies (PvZ) and Mass Effect are both excellent examples of why it makes sense games could translate into rides.

“At Cedar Fair, we had identified electronic gaming as an area of opportunity a couple of years ago,” Dieckmann said. “We were introduced to EA via a mutual connection…and discussions really began to evolve from there. We discussed a number of properties and different entertainment concepts with EA and felt that these two franchises were the best fit with these two respective attraction types. Although in hindsight, the matches seem fairly obvious, the challenge is to find the right fit between a branded IP and the attraction itself. ”

Plants vs Zombies, developed by PopCap Games, has a straightforward, comedic premise. The idea is, kind of obviously, that plants are defending suburbia against attacking zombies. There is more to the story, but for the purposes of a member of the general public with no background that’s enough. The cartoony art style and absurdist premise make it fun on it’s own, and make it perfect for an interactive ride.

The sweet new "vehicles" for Plants vs Zombies at Carowinds under construction.

The sweet new “vehicles” for Plants vs Zombies at Carowinds.  Photo courtesy Andrew Stilwell, Coaster101

Mass Effect, developed by BioWare, has a little more seriousness and depth story-wise in the game. With an intricate plot, complex characters developed over the course of three games, and a richly detailed backstory, it probably offers more complexity than most movies converted to rides. But, depending on how the ride designers approach it, the story can be boiled down in a way that is simple enough for someone totally unfamiliar to follow: Giant robotic aliens have invaded the galaxy bent on destroying all life, and humanity (along with alien allies who also don’t want to be destroyed) bands together to fight them off.

Sci-Fi space battles of Mass Effect should appeal to everyone, right?

Sci-Fi space battles of Mass Effect should appeal to everyone, right?

The detailed worlds built by EA, PopCap (for PvZ) and BioWare (for Mass Effect) provide a rich setting, while the stories can be boiled down to something the those unfamiliar can still get into. It can delight and attract fans of the series, while potentially making new fans from guests who enjoy the settings of the rides.

“We felt that California’s Great America, in the heart of Silicon Valley, would have the ideal audience for the science-fiction themed Mass Effect: New Earth, which brings together technology from a number of innovative California-based technology companies under one roof,” Dieckmann added. “Similarly, we thought Plants vs. Zombies: Garden Warfare™, with a strong mix of action and zany humor, would be a great family-friendly match for our Carowinds park in the Carolinas.”

The other benefit for game developers and producers is it provides a new way for fans to interact with the game world more deeply than they could before. In the same way that Universal Studios and Disneyland came into existence with a desire to allow fans to get closer to the films they love, these rides can allow fans of the games to get a more immersive experience with the worlds they love.

Giant screens and holographic effects are a lot different than a TV screen for Mass Effect: New Earth.

Giant screens and holographic effects are a lot different than a monitor or TV screen for Mass Effect: New Earth.  Photo Courtesy California’s Great America

And motion based ride vehicles will make a totally new gaming experience for Plants vs Zombies fans.

And motion based ride vehicles will make a totally new gaming experience for Plants vs Zombies fans.  Photo Courtesy Carowinds.

“In our parks, we can bring these games, settings and characters to life at a scale not possible in your living room,” Dieckmann said. For Plants vs Zombies, that means giant screens and motion vehicles with a grand scale shooter competition. In the case of Mass Effect, it’s holographic 4D effects and live action. 

“We’re always striving to create new and unique ways for people to experience the Plants vs. Zombies Universe,” said Jeremy Vanhoozer, Senior Creative Director for Plants vs. Zombies franchise, when the ride was announced back in the fall.

Part of what is spurring these new partnerships, and what makes a future for game related rides seem even more feasible, is that amusement ride technology is advancing. In fact, a lot of modern dark rides are already becoming more and more like games.

New Technologies To Drive the Partnership

Interactive Dark Rides

When I rode Triotech’s Voyage to the Iron Reef at Knott’s Berry Farm (another Cedar Fair Park) last year, my first thought was how similar it seemed to a game, except with worse animations. In it riders fight mechanical undersea monsters to save the park, basically like a first person shooter, but with 3D immersive screens and physical props.

Shooting giant monsters on Voyage to the Iron Reef? Sounds like a video game to me.

Shooting giant monsters on Voyage to the Iron Reef? Sounds like a video game to me.  Photo Courtesy Knott’s Berry Farm

This year Legoland is opening a new ride with Triotech themed to their “Ninjago” legos, in which the interaction moves away from a gun and instead riders interact using hand motions through a new system of sensors.

One of the most popular rides at Disney parks is Toy Story Midway Mania, in which players play various games in a virtual shooting gallery, watching as animations on the screens respond to their actions. Animated characters react to the performance of the riders, and Easter eggs are dropped throughout the ride.

Six Flags will be opening two more Justice League interactive dark rides in addition to the two they added last year. Justice League, designed by Sally Corporation, uses motion based ride vehicles that can “tilt, twist and spin,” as Coaster101’s own John Stevenson described it after previewing the ride at Six Flags St Louis last Spring, while having guests battle alongside the Justice League. In Justice League animated targets respond and react to hits and misses, while practical effects and physical targets also exist.

Fighting the Joker on Justice League: Battle for Metropolis, the interactive dark rides at multiple Six Flags parks.

Fighting the Joker on Justice League: Battle for Metropolis, the interactive dark rides at multiple Six Flags parks.  Photo Courtesy John Stevenson, Coaster101

All of these essentially have the look and feel of a highly detailed gaming experience. Heck, being “interactive” is the word most often used to describe these types of dark rides, a word often reserved for describing video games when comparing them to other forms of entertainment. It seems a clear leap to take these rides and combine the technology with the game mechanics and animations that have already developed for an interactive experience. Game developers are experts at making interactive entertainment, and have media assets like character models, backgrounds, and animations that could be ready to go. 

“EA provided the assets,” said Andrew Fogleman, the project manager from Alterface who is developing the PvZ ride at Carowinds, in an interview with Coaster101. “(They) were excellent. Our media guys said they were the best assets he’d ever worked with, so we expect the game to be really high quality.”

“There are certainly natural synergies here since gaming engines like Unreal 4 are often used in the development of these types of digital attractions. For example, Halon Entertainment, based in Santa Monica, California, is building the digital media for (Mass Effect) and has been leveraging the original models and assets they received from BioWare.” Dieckmann told us when discussing working with the game companies. “Having the raw building blocks definitely makes things a bit easier. If interactivity is involved, such as for Plants vs. Zombies: Garden Warfare, using the existing gameplay as a starting point is definitely a large boon as well.”

The experience and material game studios can provide for interactive dark rides can help lead to higher quality product for riders, which should make development of these rides easier and make riders enjoy them more.

Dieckmann added, “It’s been a really collaborative process (for Mass Effect)…we have met weekly, and in some cases even talk on a daily basis. The story-line, look and feel, animation, and special effects have all been developed in an iterative manner, incorporating feedback from BioWare, Cedar Fair, and all the other teams involved.”

Virtual Reality Coasters

Virtual reality is the other major new technology that could help push the gaming and ride industries together. Six Flags is about to add Samsung Gear VR headsets to nine roller coasters across their parks, while Alton Towers in the UK is in the process of converting their flying coaster, “Air”, to “Galactica”, also using Samsung Gear headsets.

The "New Revolution" VR coaster coming to Six Flags parks, looks a lot like a video game sci fi flight simulator, right?

The “New Revolution” VR coaster coming to Six Flags parks, looks a lot like a video game sci fi flight simulator, right?  Photo Courtesy Six Flags

Cedar Fair has also been testing its own VR coasters at Canada’s Wonderland. “We’re going to continue to invest in this digital world, and they won’t all be rides,” Ouimet said. “It is clear to me that the integration of this digital entertainment world with the amusement park world is going to work.” This could mean VR game themed rides are also an option for Cedar Fair parks.

Game developers are already working on VR games, as well.  Additionally, other VR hardware, like the HTC Vive being built with game developer Valve or Sony’s Playstation VR, is already being developed closely with game companies, and with games in mind. This means a lot of VR expertise will come from game industry, and that could be very useful for amusement parks that want to add VR to more of their attractions or design ground-up VR rides. Throw in that a VR experience could be tailored to each individual rider or vehicle, making a completely interactive story possible for riders, and that means parks could basically make their rides into fully interactive individual games, something video game developers are already pretty good at making.

The Samsung Gear VR headset used on VR coasters, one of many types of headsets, several of which are being made by game developer companies.

The Samsung Gear VR headset used on VR coasters, one of many types of headsets, several of which are being made by game developer companies.  Photo Courtesy Samsung

More For Cedar Fair and EA

“If these attractions are successful, we do believe there could be opportunity to roll them out more broadly to other parks in the Cedar Fair system.” Dieckmann told us. Cedar Fair is making a push to add more interactive dark rides to their parks with the “Amusement Dark” initiative they announced last year. “We have similar theater structures to those being used for these projects at some of our other parks, or they could also be scaled up or down to leverage other preexisting buildings.”

EA has several other popular franchises that could easily find homes at amusement parks, like Dragon Age, a fantasy role playing game series also from BioWare, Titanfall, a sci-fi mech shooter game developed by Respawn Entertainment that currently has a sequel in development, or the beloved Sims franchise, developed by Maxis, for another light-hearted family friendly entry. The catalog is certainly deep enough for the partnership to continue and broaden.

“In terms of new digital attraction development, we would certainly consider other properties if we feel there is a good fit,” Dieckmann added. “As discussed earlier, it’s all about matching the right attraction with the right creative concept and franchise.”

I want a Dragon Age ride. Maybe a VR coaster where I'm riding on the back of a dragon stabbing it. Or something. Photo courtesy BioWare and EA

I want a Dragon Age ride. Maybe a VR coaster where I’m riding on the back of a dragon whilte stabbing it. Photo courtesy BioWare and EA

There is also the possibility of adding more content to the existing rides over time. We asked Dieckmann about whether we could see updates in the same way games receive expansions or downloadable content.

“We do feel that dynamic content is an opportunity. This could include episodic content, non-linear storylines or seasonal variants such as a different Halloween experience. For example, at our Wonder Mountain’s Guardian attraction at our Canada’s Wonderland park near Toronto, we swap out the normal high fantasy content for a battle against a horde of zombies during October. The flexibility of these digital attraction platforms we’re building is a huge advantage in this regard.”

Other Parks and Publishers

There are many other major game publishers who have franchises with potential to become rides, as well. The other major partnership that we know is coming is one announced last year between Universal Parks and Nintendo. There aren’t many details yet, but rumors are that Nintendo attractions will start showing up in parks around 2018 or 2019. With Universal’s size, that could be a huge showcase for the combination of attractions and games.

Nintendo has partnered with Universal and theme park attractions should be coming in the next few years. Photo courtesy Nintendo.

Nintendo has partnered with Universal and theme park attractions should be coming in the next few years. Photo courtesy Nintendo.

Beyond that, numerous other game publishers are expanding their franchises to other media. Movies based on games like Warcraft, the hugely popular franchise led by the “World of Warcraft” online fantasy game, Assassin’s Creed, a near annual historical/sci-fi series, and Uncharted, a treasure hunting action-adventure game, are all set to come out in the next couple of years. Those games are all made by different publishers (Activision Blizzard, Ubisoft, and Sony respectively), who all could partner with different parks on projects. Between the growth of the game industry and with the advancement of interactive ride technology and VR, it seems these partnerships are ripe for expansion.

“This combination of technology and creative video game content is sure to usher in a new wave of entertainment innovation at amusement parks,” California’s Great America General Manager Raul Rehnborg said when the ride was first announced.

The only questions might be which parks will be the next to take the leap, and whether it comes in the form of a VR overlay for an existing roller coaster or a new dark ride.

Of course, the more fun question is what games could become rides next. I’m a huge fan of the Mass Effect series, so I’m already pretty happy that that’s one of the first, but beyond that I think a Warcraft ride might be one of the best options, especially for a VR coaster where you can fly through the different areas of the Warcraft setting (and based on how popular the online game has been with more than 100 million accounts created, it seems a potentially profitable choice). For any gamers out there, what games do you want to see become into rides at your local parks?

The success of the attractions should be known soon, with Plants Vs Zombies open on opening day for Carowinds, and an announcement for the opening date of Mass Effect expected soon. Our own Andrew Stilwell got to checkout a preview of Plants vs Zombies Garden Warfare you can read about the event and his thoughts on the ride here (hint, he liked it). Carowinds open to the public tomorrow, March 25.  California’s Great America also opens March 25, although Mass Effect won’t be ready yet (we’ll be sure to let you know as soon as we find out the opening date). UPDATE: Mass Effect: New Earth will be opening on May 18, per an announcement from CGA.

Let us know what games you want to see become rides, and if you get a chance to ride these how well you think they work.

Huge thanks to Christian Dieckmann from Cedar Fair for answering lots of our questions, Andrew Fogleman from Alterface for speaking with us about their work on PvZ, Roger Ross at California’s Great America and Laresa Thompson at Carowinds for helping us get the questions to the right person at Cedar Fair, and to Brady MacDonald from the LA Times who wrote an excellent on this subject from earlier this year, which you can read here (and which provided lots of good background info and the quotes from Matt Ouimet).