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Fox’s FoxNext Unit Makes Its Mark With VR, Mobile Games

Alien” fans now have a chance to step into the world of the franchise and fight the Xenomorphs firsthand: “Alien: Descent,” a new location-based virtual-reality experience from FoxNext, opened its doors at The Outlets at Orange mall in Orange County, Calif., on April 26.

“It’s frickin’ cool,” boasted FoxNext president Salil Mehta about the experience. “From the moment you walk in the door, it takes you into the world of ‘Alien.’”

FoxNext officially launched a little over a year ago as an umbrella unit for VR, gaming and location-based entertainment from 20th Century Fox and the Fox Networks Group. Its mandate is to take the studios’ movie and TV properties to the next level by adding immersion and interactivity.

In the case of “Alien: Descent,” this means strapping on a wireless VR headset as well as special sleeves outfitted with motion sensors, and grabbing futuristic-looking VR guns that provide haptic feedback when fired.

The 15-minute experience, which is designed for up to four players, can be freely explored without wires; a number of physical cues give a sense of increased immersion. Anyone walking too close to a reactor will feel its heat, and an elevator ride feels like the real thing, thanks to a moving platform. “It’s not something you can experience at home,” Mehta said.

Chances are, most consumers have had very little engagement with VR when they try “Alien: Descent” for the first time. Market research firm IDC recently projected that consumers bought only about 8 million VR headsets worldwide in 2017, far fewer than some in the industry had hoped.

“We never really believed the hype,” said Mehta. Fox began experimenting with VR early on, initially with mixed success. Case in point: “The Martian VR Experience,” which fused assets from the movie with simple mini games, went on sale for $20 in 2016. Today, it’s discounted to $4.99 and rated only two out of five stars in multiple VR stores.

“‘The Martian’ was a learning experience,” admitted Mehta. FoxNext is still doing experiential VR but primarily for marketing purposes, like the recent “Isle of Dogs” experience that famed VR maker Felix & Paul Studios produced as an immersive behind-the-scenes look for Wes Anderson’s latest feature film.

For commercial titles, FoxNext is squarely betting on gaming. Last month, FoxNext VR released a “Crisis on the Planet of the Apes” game for PlayStation VR, Oculus Rift and HTC Vive. “We have shifted our focus,” Mehta said. “We are moving with the market.”

But FoxNext isn’t just about VR. The unit is building a 20th Century Fox World theme park in Malaysia, and it acquired San Jose-based video-game studio Cold Iron Studios earlier this year. A little over a month ago, it released “Marvel Strike Force” as its first mobile game.

“It’s frickin’ cool. From the moment you walk in the door, it takes you into the world of ‘Alien.’”
FoxNext president Salil Mehta on VR title “Alien: Descent”

The common thread for all these efforts is interactivity and immersion, explained Mehta. The goal was to take Fox properties beyond linear lean-back entertainment, he said. “All of this is next-generation storytelling.”

In other words, Fox wants to stay relevant and keep crown jewels like “Alien” interesting to a new generation of consumers, who may spend their money on games rather than movie tickets. “FoxNext’s focus on expanding those worlds into immersive and interactive areas strengthen our properties and build our fan bases beyond their traditional scope,” said Twentieth Century Fox chairman and CEO Stacey Snider. “We’ve made great progress since the division launched a year ago, and I’m excited for what’s next.”

Mehta and his team want to expand their focus on augmented reality and other cutting-edge technologies but also turn these new ventures into actual moneymakers. “The goal is to grow profitability,” said Mehta. Ultimately, FoxNext wants to be a material contributor to the mothership’s bottom line. Mobile and console games will likely be the lowest-hanging fruit for that, but location-based VR experiences could bring in real money as well. Futuresource Consulting recently estimated that experiences like “Alien: Descent” could bring in $809 million by 2022.

All the while, Mehta isn’t afraid that he’ll run out of opportunities to build cutting-edge, “frickin’ cool” stuff anytime soon. “There is always something next,” he quipped.

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