Building a playful, inviting experience in a Disney theme park is far from easy, and it’s also surprisingly similar to creating a successful video game.
Today, in a Game Developers Conference talk entitled “Playing with magic: Interactive worlds and Walt Disney imagineering,” Walt Disney Imagineering’s Creative Director Sara Thacher and Executive Creative Director Brent D. Strong explored the strategies that their team uses to engage players in captivating worlds and keeping them surprised and excited to be there.
Both Thacher and Strong primarily work in developing experience in theme parks to transport visitors to the parks to actual physical and immersive experiences. And though GDC is mostly based around the creation and celebration of video games, the experience of constructing real-life experiences in Disney parks around the world translated easily to the discipline of exciting audiences with digital games.
“A lot of these things have to do with games,” Thacher said. “The qualities of making games so impactful and evocative Are also the things that make our guests’ experience possible.”
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Building off of the experience of crafting immersive experience for the past 60-plus years of Disney theme parks development, Strong and Thacher used many different examples, currently or soon-to-be present in the parks, to illustrate the many lessons that Disney Parks’ teams have learned.
The basis of the experiences they tried to create were based around putting visitors in the movies that they had seen, though it’s a lot more complicated than that. Strong and Thacher shared many of the successes that Disney has found over the years and a few of the missteps as well.
One of the original attractions in Disneyland was a ride putting people in the world of “Snow White.” A small train led people around different environments from the movie and showed them experiences and characters that they would expect to see.
But it was missing something important.
“You never saw Snow White,” Thacher said “You’re going to be Snow White. The witch is going to give you the apple. It turned out that was pretty confusing.”
A first-person experience, it turns out, needed more to make the experience immersive and satisfying.
“You are literally on rails,” Thacher said. “You’re not making any of those choices. Your fundamental experience is completely different than that of Snow White.”
Thacher and Strong talked about how important it was to give visitors, those wanting to receive an immersive experience a role. They talked about how when you go to the Haunted Mansion, you are welcomed as a guest, or when you go on a river cruise ride, you are identified as a tourist in that environment.
But not just any role would work, they said, it’s important to give people roles as an active participant in the world that they are entering. Visitors need to have something to do in the world, and the world needs to recognize them.
“We never told you that you were being Snow White,” Strong said about the initial attraction at Disneyland. “It’s tough to be a character you already know in scenes you’ve already seen… Being a camera is never really being a role. More important is being in a role that fits.”
It turned out, from their experience, that a world needs to feel alive. A static world is not a good thing, they said.
“Static worlds are creepy worlds,” Strong said. “In horror movies, when things are static, that’s how you know things are about to get really scary.”
More than that, an experience must be contained in a world that responds, moves and changes to the people around it. Thacher gave the example of a “Guardians of the Galaxy” attraction, where visitors enter the collection of The Collector.
There, they will find animatronic creatures that not only recognize when people are in the room, but also react in different ways to people’s movements and actions.
“If the world changes because of things that you do, that world becomes more real and you become more real in that world,” Thacher said.
But the world would be impossible to experience if people were not motivated to take part. To that end, Thacher and Strong described how they created a “magic circle” in the environments they create to encourage participation and give people an “alibi” in joining in.
“When I play online, I put my avatar in a costume that I would not feel comfortable here in GDC,” Strong said. “How do we encourage people to play in real life? How do we get a teenager to wear a silly hat? We’re not asking you to play in the real world, we’re giving you an alait to play in the real world, it gives you permission to play.”
He said that “magic circle” is on plaques when you enter one of the Disney Parks, telling visitors that they are entering a world of fantasy.
Interestingly, the experiences that Disney creates for its parks also involves setting challenges for the visitors as a way to propel the experience forward and back up the idea that visitors are playing a role. The interaction of that role with a challenge, makes the whole experience more believable and real they said. Disney strives to make these challenges an expandable, personal, accessible and satisfying experience.
“There’s something very special when you take that try, fail, succeed lop and put that in the physical space,” Strong said.
And that challenge takes many different forms. They described the act of participation in the world as a challenge until itself.
“Performance is a form of challenge too,” Thacher said. “Doing that is an act of bravery. It’s an act of helping Belle. You have met her and she can recognize you as someone who’s helped her and as a friend.”
Thacher and Strong also described many other important aspects of creating immersive, engaging and exciting experiences for people including using all of the sense, crafting “friendships” in the experiences and moving the story forward through actions taken. They used the upcoming attraction Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge as an example of an experience that brings the whole of the philosophy together.
“You will be able to step into the Millennium Falcon’s cockpit and fly it,” Thacher said. “When you step into that cockpit, You have been given a very clear role, that whole environment is responding to you, you are overcoming challenges and moving the action forward. And you’re meeting friends along the way.”
But through it all, they continually discussed the connection that the work of Disney Imagineering has to video games and the many developers in the audience.
“Many things that we’ve worked to figure out in theme parks are the same that video game makers have faced,” Strong said. “It turns out that these missions are very similar.”
“A lot of these things have to do with games,” Thacher said about the guiding principles Disney Imagineering uses to create their experiences. “The qualities of making games so impactful and evocative Are also the things that make our guests’ experience possible.”