Virtual reality is grabbing the headlines right now, but augmented reality has a bigger near-term future. My recent experience with a new AR-based game at Cedar Point Amusement Park illustrates how AR can make an already excellent customer experience better.
The Augmented Reality Boom
By 2020, augmented reality is expected to be a $120 billion market, versus $30 billion for virtual reality, according to Manatt Digital Media. And it’s easy to see why businesses ranging from retail stores to theme parks are creating AR experiences. VR usually requires headsets to transport users into make-believe worlds and demands more of a person’s time and attention. On the other hand, AR, while being less immersive than VR, integrates virtual content into real-world settings (e.g., projecting an interactive map on your table top at home).
In June, Cedar Point Amusement Park in Sandusky, Ohio, launched an experience that shows how AR can use immersive gaming to take a fun day at a theme park to another level. As my buddy John Hensler and I discovered when we tried out the new Battle for Cedar Point game June 16, AR in a theme park works best when it enhances a natural part of your visit, such as turning a queue line into an opportunity to score an achievement.
About Cedar Point
Cedar Point bills itself as the roller coaster capital of the world and for good reason. The 365-acre park (nearly four times the size of Disney World’s Magic Kingdom) boasts 18 roller coasters, including the recently opened Valravn, billed as the “tallest, fastest, and longest dive coaster in the world.” John and I have been to the park several times with family and friends, and we keep going back because the rides are flat-out terrifyingly fun. But when you’re not losing your stomach on a thrill ride, you spend a lot of time doing things that happen in all theme parks, such as walking around and waiting in lines (unless you have the budget for a Fast Lane pass). With Battle for Cedar Point, the Cedar Fair Entertainment Company has turned downtime and park navigating into game time.
The Battle for Cedar Point
The game, which you can easily download as an app on your smartphone, pits five coaster clans against each other in a quest to unlock points by accomplishing various achievements hidden throughout the park. The clans, named after Cedar Point coasters, depict the rides as characters with traits, in a nod to Dungeons and Dragons. For instance, the Millennium Force clan stands for “Wisdom, Power and Order” and is symbolized by some appropriately severe-looking warrior, whereas Valravn clan members are loyal to the rather potent-looking supernatural Danish raven of lore that inspired the name of the ride.
To play the game (developed by Holovis), you simply join a clan (choices pop up on the app right away) and use a map on your phone screen to find achievements. You unlock achievements by pointing your smart phone at battle markers, which instruct you to perform different tasks.
The more achievements you unlock, the more points your clan earns. You have one day to play before the game is reset. Cedar Point declares a winning clan during its Luminosity show that occurs at 9:30 p.m. daily. The winning clan is eligible to purchase a Battle Champion pin (yes, winning means being able to buy more stuff at Cedar Point, which pretty much ensured that for me, the joy of gaming was the reward).
John had learned about the game via Cedar Point’s Twitter account, and when he downloaded the official park app to check on ride times, he was prompted to download the game itself (a separate app), which I also downloaded. As we discovered, earning points entails plenty of AR. For example, while John and I were in the Valravn gift shop, we unlocked an achievement by pointing our iPhones at a T shirt, which depicted the fabled Danish raven. When we did so, the image of the raven on the T shirt became animated and flew at us on our iPhone screens, as John captured in this video:
And most of the ride signs (which, by their nature, are large and prominently located) feature an interactive experience, as these videos shot by John show:
As you can see, the AR achievements naturally take advantage of something you often do in a park, such as visiting gift shops and walking either past or under giant ride signs. In a sense, the AR at the ride signs prepare you for the real-life experience of being on one of Cedar Point’s thrill rides, such as Top Thrill Dragster, which takes a rider from 0 to 120 miles per hour in 3.8 seconds:
I realize there is a case to be made for making roller coasters more exciting by adding VR to them. But a ride such as Top Thrill Dragster earns its reputation for being terrifying because you are very much aware you are on a real ride flying high above the real ground. Seeing the structures, the waters of Lake Erie, and the sky blow past you adds to the sensation that you’re about to go flying off the actual ride and plunge 420 feet to the earth. VR seems like overkill although I can appreciate its use to make some of the tamer rights more immersive (indeed, Cedar Point has been experimenting with VR on its fairly calm Iron Dragon ride). Using AR to add to the ride instead of competing with it feels right.
You can also unlock achievement points by playing a trivia game (which does not use AR), and you can earn special status by simply taking the rides. For instance, you become a road warrior by traveling seven miles on the coasters throughout the day, and a coaster king by scanning and riding five coasters.
We found the game was most entertaining and immersive during periods of natural down time. For example, one achievement involves finding three hidden symbols in the queue for Valravn, which can require a lengthy wait especially because 2016 marks the ride’s first season. The game is also a handy diversion when you’re taking a break from riding (which I needed to do every so often in order to avoid becoming one of those riders who hurls in public and is everyone’s story to share during the drive home).
The Battle for Cedar Point is somewhat less satisfying, but still quite fun, as you walk through the park. Because the user experience requires you to check the app to find new challenges, you can easily get taken out of the moment of enjoying Cedar Point with others. And, frankly, looking at an app is not the ideal way to enjoy the park. Future iterations might do well to use a guided experience (e.g., “Congratulations for unlocking your achievement — a new achievement awaits you nearby at the Maverick ride”) so that gamers have a general sense of where the next challenge is, thus lessening the need to glance at an app for directions.
But we both agreed that it’s not necessary for Cedar Point to clearly mark where the battle/activation points are in the physical park. Gamers just need to be prompted with a clue as to their general location. As John mentioned, “It’s cool to shoot a video and have something happen that you are not expecting. That’s really fun.”
Also, you can link your interactive videos to your social media spaces, true to Cedar Point’s reputation as a social-media savvy destination. But as John pointed out, if you need to refresh yourself on the instructions for sharing the videos, there is no help button to assist — another suggested tweak for future versions.
It should also be noted that the app is brand new as of this writing, and as such, some kinks need to be worked out of the system. Sometimes it was difficult to get the app to unlock an achievement by pointing your phone at a sign because the cloudy conditions in the park (on the day we played) prevented the app from recognizing an object properly.
Finally, the park might want to consider recognizing individual point totals (not just clan totals); allow gamers to store points on their app for repeat visits; and offer real prizes such as a free Fast Lane pass, which would motivate achievement-oriented gamers to return for more fun. That said, I think the clan-based battle is fun. We never did find out who won our battle when we played (heavy rains resulted in the cancellation of the Luminosity show, where the winning clans were supposed to be announced). But I didn’t mind missing the outcome; learning about the different clans and their personalities was fun and injected the element of playful storytelling into the day.
We’re still in the early stages of an app that is bound to get better. For now, the Battle for Cedar Point is a fun way to enrich an already fun experience — which is what augmented reality is all about. The Battle for Cedar Point is certainly not the first example of a gamified theme park, and neither is Cedar Point the first to use AR. But kudos to Cedar Point for combining both elements to make a ride a story.
As John said, “I had never had a theme park app that is so fun as opposed to functional — a game at an amusement park.”