Sunday, October 24, 2021

Farbound: Game masters

Startup Farbound delivers immersive, gamified experiences “beyond VR” – Princess Cruises and Discovery Destinations are early adopters

by Philip Hernandez, Martin Palicki & Judith Rubin

ABOVE: Concept art for Farbound’s Phantom Bridge experience aboard Princess Cruises. All images courtesy of Farbound

Today’s consumers are demanding ever more meaningful, personalized entertainment experiences. It is now crucial for brands and operators to provide consumers with truly engaging, immersive experiences to develop a lasting connection. How can this level of experience be achieved on the location-based entertainment (LBE) scale for smaller operators? Some have turned to virtual reality (VR), but VR itself has several, oft-cited challenges, such as restrictive gear, limited story lines and solitary experiences.

Two theme park industry veterans, Tim Rheault and Steve Trowbridge, wanted to find a better way to enable operators in LBE markets by providing a social experience on state-of-the-art interactive platforms. They created their new company, Farbound, to do just that.

The Farbound product combines innovative, thematic sets with gaming technologies and mixed reality to create immersive experiences through interactive gameplay, placing guests in the center of their favorite stories. As Rheault describes it, “to turn the guest into a player in a video game or a character in a movie, but in real three-dimensional space, without the need for headsets.” They designed the platform to address certain issues that have arisen with VR while still meeting the consumer’s need to feel engaged and in control of their experience.

To achieve this experience, superior gaming technology is critical; fortunately, recent advances have been closing the gap in terms of cost and sophistication. Modern gaming engines provide a way to track, adapt, and render an entire environment based on guest actions, faster than ever before. Farbound’s product is a game engine and show control system that “removes the goggles” to blend real-time media and environmental effects into a social entertainment experience. Princess Cruises and Discovery Inc. are among Farbound’s early adopters, partnering together to produce these initial experiences.

“Today, people need technology innovation to be entertained,” says Christine Wacker, Vice President, Global Location Based Entertainment for Discovery Destinations. “People who are taking part in a story have a deeper connection to that content and want to consume it at a higher rate than ever before.”

Denise Saviss, Vice President, Princess Cruises says, “We view our ships as themed entertainment spaces. For us, success is achieved by delivering unique, memorable experiences that can only happen on a Princess Cruise.”

Rheault and Trowbridge position Farbound as a good fit for budget-conscious LBE operators for many reasons, including low barriers to entry, inexpensive operations, and a storytelling format that is customizable, IP-friendly and encourages repeat visits for a wide array of consumers. The platform also comes in three unique size variants; Farbound Room, the smallest of the offerings; Farbound Zone, a multi-room, pulsed experience; and Farbound Park, an outdoor “choose-your-own-adventure” of sorts.

The duo describe Farbound as part escape room, part video game, and part 4D theater. In practice, Farbound combines thematic sets, projected and screen-based interactive media, a gaming engine, show control and environmental effects to immerse guests into stories that have hundreds of possible outcomes. They’ve engaged several industry leaders to develop the software platform from the ground up.

Meanwhile, as Farbound focuses on bringing “in-real-life” gamified experiences to LBE markets, RHETROACTIVE – Trowbridge and Rheault’s first company – is undergoing a transformation to better serve what they see as their everimportant Brand/IP partners and clients. The company is also being relaunched as RHETRO & Co to encompass the brain trust they’ve established over the past 10 years within the firm.

Phantom Bridge and Expedition: Terra

“Phantom Bridge,” the first Farbound Room experience is opening on the Princess Cruises’ Sky Princess in December 2019 with the Enchanted Princess following in summer 2020, with several units to follow. Both are part of the Discovery at SEA onboard programming partnership between Princess and Discovery. For its own part, Discovery is also utilizing Farbound for “Expedition: Terra,” set to debut in Q2 2020. The experience will occur on land as a permanent and mobile installation.

During an early mock-up of Phantom Bridge, Farbound team members play test the concept and work through the final art direction process.

Phantom Bridge takes place in a single room on the cruise ship; the players require no headsets nor other specialized equipment. The layout of the room is designed to replicate a ship’s bridge, complete with steering wheel, themed interactives and props on a fully-gamified set. Even the “windows” are screens displaying media that responds immediately to players’ actions.

First, the players are briefed on the storyline and gaming concept. As the plot goes, massive ships traveling the oceans have displaced water, affecting the Earth’s rotation, which has in turn disrupted the time continuum! A secret organization, the “Society for Timekeeping Enigmas and Entropic Relativity” (“S.T.E.E.R.”) has been operating on ships around the world, unbeknownst to cruisers, to help maintain accurate time. The players’ mission: to visit various historical periods to stitch time together and restore the time continuum. Throughout the experience they are presented with a series of interactive challenges that fall into categories that are mental, physical, and skill-based, constantly affecting the storyline and upcoming challenges.

Farbound generates each game in-real-time, and no two games are the same; other than the initial pre-show briefing, there’s no pre-rendered media. As Rheault says, “It’s virtual reality through the media or windows, not in the goggles.” The Farbound platform tracks, scores, and adjusts for all guest actions to alter the overall outcome.

The gameplay is cumulative. While the setting and basic story arc are the same, different game levels are generated in random order, and the puzzles vary for each level. “If guests crack the code and get through the discovery phase in 30 minutes, they can come back and do it again; it will be a different challenge, and there are hundreds of different outcomes,” explains Saviss. This repeatability is key in encouraging the player to return to experience a new adventure.

Parallel experiences

Phantom Bridge tailors the experience to players of all ages, heights, and physical abilities so parents, kids, or grandparents, at any ability, can all play together at their own comfort level.

Steve Trowbridge (L) and Tim Rheault (R)

The experience can be further customized to support a wide demographic. According to Trowbridge, “If kids are playing, we can make it easier; if adults are playing, we can dial it up to be much more difficult.” Trowbridge further states, “The software can even adjust for endurance levels. If it’s a physical, adventuretype activity, we can make it accessible to people with varying degrees of ability, and we can also make it so people of different ages can play at different levels, but everyone’s having a parallel experience.”

Princess Cruises strives to deliver experiences that complement the adventures awaiting passengers at each port of call. Onboard entertainment focuses on live, interactive family-oriented activities. “While some brands offer a more passive experience, we want our guests to get up and dance with us, learn to play a musical instrument, play some pickleball, or practice their golf chipping by the pool,” says Saviss. Or perhaps, in the case of Phantom Bridge, guests might even restore the time continuum and save the world while sailing to the next destination.

Phantom Bridge is designed to fulfill Princess Cruises’ mission for their guests, and as a nautically themed game adds a level of adventure suited to the overall cruise experience. It also meets the company’s success criteria by ensuring that families and friends spend quality time together in an inclusive experience they can only have on Princess Cruises.

“It is important to us to build connections with guests through entertainment experiences and delivering on our unique destination differentiation. It is also important to make sure guests can come back to an experience multiple times with different outcomes,” says Saviss.

Same configuration, new experience

Even though Farbound is built primarily on a gaming engine, the application does not have to be focused necessarily on gameplay. Discovery Inc.’s first “Expedition: Terra” will open in early 2020 in a yet-to-be-announced location in the Middle East. “Expedition: Terra is more of a technology-enhanced storytelling and learning experience,” explains Trowbridge. “We surround guests in the environment of the story but give them a role in the story and the ability to make choices as a group.”

Expedition: Terra welcomes guests to a Discovery adventure comprised of a multi-room Farbound experience (top). Once inside the experience, guests will work together to advance through the story (bottom).

Discovery Inc. chose Farbound to be implemented as a permanent, yet mobile experience focused on their television channel Animal Planet, allowing fans to engage with Discovery’s IP in new ways. “Our number-one priority is to bring our fans closer to the storytelling-content world we’ve created over 35 years at Discovery,” says Wacker. “We also hope to ignite curiosity and inspire change activism in our fans.”

Wacker continues, “Expedition: Terra brings guests into our world but allows them to control the experience. The Farbound platform is easily accessible, can exist in multiple markets, doesn’t take much of a time commitment, and isn’t expensive to participate in. We look at it this way: for around $20 and 90 minutes of the guest’s time, it’s about the same investment as seeing a movie. For us, this allows the greatest number of people to have a personal experience with our brand, and in a much more meaningful way.”

While Animal Planet is the initial focus of Expedition: Terra, Discovery hopes to bring more of its IPs to the Farbound platform. “We want to localize wherever possible. Each one of our experiences will have a different tie to our brand and our different brand attributes.”

Small, medium or large?

While Phantom Bridge and Expedition: Terra are both single room installations, Trowbridge and Rheault emphasize that Farbound is a scalable platform, capable of supporting multiple configurations, from connected rooms within a complex zone to a fully developed park experience. Players complete challenges and experience narrative segments that will progress them through the various rooms or challenge areas. Farbound can also function in a single, large space where multiple groups of players can wander through the environment and interact with various touchpoints simultaneously.

Guests experiencing Farbound in a park-size application

Even though a single experience can have hundreds of outcomes, Farbound is growing its media asset library to support swapping out experiences quickly. “There’s the physical Farbound product that can be purchased: the room, the equipment, the computer, and everything that runs the room. We are also developing a library of content we can use to change up that room. And with our innovative 3D/UV printed scenic, we can quite literally reskin the experience,” says Rheault.

The promise Farbound provides allows for user-based personalization in the attractions space making it much more approachable, and as more audiences experience it and demand more, Rheault and Trowbridge pledge to continue raising the bar.

“Farbound represents a significant step forward in the game of audience engagement within the LBE market,” says Trowbridge, “But I think it’s only the beginning and Farbound’s technologies will keep evolving to meet consumers’ enhanced expectations.” • • •

Visit the Farbound x Discovery Destinations Experience Center at Pointe Orlando during IAAPA Expo!

Be the first to preview Phantom Bridge and Expedition: Terra, plus get a sneak peek of upcoming Farbound, RHETRO & Co. and Discovery Destinations projects and products. By appointment only at farbound.com/IAAPA.

Joe Kleimanhttp://www.themedreality.com
Raised in San Diego on theme parks, zoos, and IMAX films, Joe Kleiman would expand his childhood loves into two decades as a projectionist and theater director within the giant screen industry. In addition to his work in commercial and museum operations, Joe has volunteered his time to animal husbandry at leading facilities in California and Texas and has played a leading management role for a number of performing arts companies. Joe has been News Editor and contributing author to InPark Magazine since 2011. HIs writing has also appeared in Sound & Communications, LF Examiner, Jim Hill Media, and MiceChat. His blog, ThemedReality.com takes an unconventional look at the attractions industry. Follow on twitter @themedreality Joe lives in Sacramento, California with his fiancé, two dogs, and a ghost.

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