Friday, June 08, 2007

Game Friday: Can Your Museum Afford to Play?

This is a big day for me--my last one in DC. Yesterday, I turned in my keys and said goodbye to the Spy Museum and to Operation Spy, the narrative, immersive game experience I've been developing/building over the last two years. There are many aspects of Operation Spy I look forward to sharing with you (and please let me know if there are particular elements of interest to you). But today I started thinking about some of our design influences, and how we got into this thing in the first place.

There are two attractions/experiences that heavily influenced our early thinking: Tomb (Boston), and Adventure (COSI Columbus). Tomb is an interactive Indiana Jones-style 45 minute team experience in which small groups, led by a guide, confront a series of puzzles and sensory challenges as they try to escape from a pharoah's cursed tomb. (Disclosure: Tomb was created by 5W!ts Productions, whose CEO, Matt DuPlessie, has been part of the leadership team for Operation Spy.) The experience is dramatic and the games are responsive to guest abilities, but the requirement to work together with a team of potential strangers can lead to some unpleasant team dynamics.

Adventure is also an interactive Indiana Jones-style experience; however, instead of sending visitors on timed missions, the Adventure environment and challenges are more free-form, offering a flexible visitor experience. Instead of guides leading groups, there are actor/facilitators who interact with visitors throughout their experience. There's a "basic" level to the game that takes about 40 minutes to conclude, and there's a deeper level which can take tens of hours (and therefore, repeat visits) to master.

But the biggest difference between these two experiences isn't whether we're talking Raiders of the Lost Ark or Temple of Doom. It's about economics. Tomb is a stand-alone, successful for-profit venture. Adventure is a slice of a large museum, and it's been closed to the public for the last few years (only available to be rented for special events).

What keeps Tomb kicking while the lights are out in Adventure? Both offer unique, highly themed environments. Both incorporate interesting challenges into a narrative. But Tomb does something that Adventure does not: prioritizes a successful business plan to create a guest experience that is both positive and sustainable.

Live action games are expensive. They combine all the high-ticket items: heavy scenic theming, highly interactive elements, controlled AV, and live facilitation. Each of these items alone can bump up per square foot construction costs by a hundred dollars, and the addition of live guides, actors, or facilitators means operating costs are higher than average as well. Plus, most game experiences are intended for individuals or small groups (so the visitors feel like active agents rather than passive viewers) which means throughput is limited.

So how can a museum sustain a live action game?

Brand and sell the game separately from the rest of the museum.
The first time I went through Adventure, I was amazed by the intricacy of the experience, the other-worldliness they successfully evoked in the space. I imagined that if I were local to the area, I might come back again and again to try to solve every single puzzle in there. So I was surprised to learn that Adventure, during the time it was operating, was not an upsell or separate ticket experience. It felt as special as a King Tut or a Titanic, but for some reason it wasn't valued at that same price point.

All museums have challenges pushing "separate tickets" for specials or traveling exhibits, and there are good arguments in many situations for putting the whole museum experience under one umbrella. But when the special is a game or narrative experience, it's not the same as an exhibition you may or may not float into on your visit. It's a focused experience, one that requires a chunk of time, a dedicated space, and specific interest/attention from the guest. Just like the Exploratorium's Tactile Dome, planetarium or IMAX shows, or simulator experiences, live action games should be treated as stand-alone, special experiences and priced accordingly.

Think very, very carefully about throughput.
When designing Operation Spy, we knew that we wanted to provide guests with an intimate hands-on experience. We never wanted a guest to walk out and say, "I just watched." And we knew that that meant limiting group size and designing interactive elements such that there was a role for everyone. So we focused on designing for maximum throughput with small groups. We couldn't find a model that would support a free-form guest experience without severely compromising the number of guests we could accomodate, so, instead, we give guests a structured experience that feels responsive. There are no opportunities to leisurely explore Operation Spy; however, guests don't feel pushed or led--they are driving the mission experience. We carefully balanced the amount of time each group spends in each room so that rooms are never vacant for more than a couple minutes. We kept rooms as small as was comfortable and reasonable for a quality experience.

Keep staffing needs minimal.
Development costs are a one-time hit; operating costs last forever. There are some game experiences, like mystery dinner theater, that support large staff--but do so by limiting the individual agency of each guest. When you are designing for truly interactive experiences, you need to support small group sizes, and therefore, a higher staff-to-guest ratio. Live staff can often make the experience--by sustaining the story of the game, encouraging reluctant guests to play--so the important thing is to maximize their time so that they are never "facilitating" an empty room. I'd love to see a hybrid model in which every group doesn't need their own guide and yet staff are occupied and useful within the game space.

Is it possible to design unstaffed experiences? Video games do it--at a several million dollar price tag--and they don't even have the challenge of dealing with guests interacting with physical environments (which they can deface or get injured by). Right now (as far as I know), there are no entirely unstaffed live action games (the exception being D&D-style games, where the players themselves create and facilitate their experience). Someday, someone will crack the code on needing live staff to facilitate guest experiences--probably through highly responsive video and AI-style interactions. Until then, start with the bare minimum staffing-wise, and build in additional roles as operating demonstrates feasibility.

Spend your money selectively, space by space, game by game, effect by effect.
In Operation Spy, more money was spent on theming the entrance/queuing area than any other area of the experience. Why? Because during that time, all you can do is look (and wait). It's the best time to sell the story and the environment, when guests are not distracted by the challenges, the discussions, or the narrative. When you are waiting in a foreign marketplace, props, scents, and sounds are essential. When you are escaping from a hostile installation, not so much. In each space, we tried to design to highlight the most impactful part of that room--whether that be a game, a dramatic effect, a video, etc.

One of the challenges I saw at Adventure was its sheer scope--10,000 square feet of lovingly themed, open space. Because of their open design, every space is available to guests, and needs to be themed to the same level of intricacy. Sometimes, segmenting into intimate spaces can allow more design flexibility both in terms of look and price per room.

I think there is huge potential for museums to move into the live action game space. There's very little available in that arena (laser tag? paintball?), and growing demand as evidenced by the newfound popularity of bowling alleys and upscale arcades. People are willing to pay for game experiences--more, perhaps, than they will pay for museum experiences. Museum educators and exhibit designers are uniquely capable of creating evocative narratives and challenges around a wide range of content. And finally, I believe that the level of immersion captured in games and narrative spaces creates a powerful model for learning that is rare in both schools and museums.

And yet. Museums also need to be ready to think of live action games as more than just another exhibit or program. The development costs, operating costs, and sales models are different, and you can only be successful if you design for that difference. Adding a live action game to a museum is like adding an IMAX--it's a major investment in a new but related market, with potentially large gains both in terms of expanding the institutional mission and capturing new market share. Can museums afford to play? You bet. They just need to figure out which games they can win.

1 comments, add yours!:

Frankie Roberto said...

Sounds really interesting.

I'm not sure there's anything like this in the UK. Yet.