The Park is looking to supersize location-based VR: “Scaling our footprint to hundreds of locations globally is the key to success”

Philippe De Schutter,
CEO, The Park Playground

Location-based VR has huge potential. The Park is looking to fulfil that potential and with 13 locations open already, it’s set to spread right across Europe and beyond. We talk to CEO Philippe De Schutter about its approach, content, IP and development pipeline.

You’ve grown to 13 locations in just 3 years (with a pandemic). What’s behind that success?

The Park was launched in June 2018 and market data has deemed it a success. There are three reasons for that.

First, The Park doesn’t emphasize technology; we focus on experience. It’s inherent in our design. Other VR franchises use cold colors and surfaces, going for the sci-fi look. We build large open venues with soft colours and natural light, abundant wood and plants, and a low-tech presence. This opens us up to a larger demographic audience interested in location-based social entertainment, not just virtual reality.

We further that approach with story-driven games based on the longest-running, most popular shows on television. Fans are no longer satisfied with movies coming out every three years. They want more opportunities to connect with their favorite characters and storylines. Being owned by Telenet, the largest media company in Belgium, and part of Liberty Global, we have the opportunity to activate and engage audiences by immersing them in the stories they are passionate about.

Our audience shows that this approach worked. Our customers are now 43% female, 40% company team builders and over 31-years of age on average. The Park isn’t just for kids and gamers, though we attract them
as well.

Tell us about your plans to expand the brand beyond Europe?

With Liberty Global as our main investor, The Park was envisioned as a global brand. Since the success of its first venue we started to build a structure that would scale internationally and gained the trust of brands like Vodafone and Kinepolis. While we focus on growing to 30 owned venues in Western Europe very soon, we believe the combination of focusing on experiences over technology; compelling story-driven games that fans love; with a data driven approach to the business; will let us expand rapidly via franchising across EMEA and into the US and China. We’ve already been granted our Franchise Disclosure Document and expect our first locations to open there in 2022.

Location-based entertainment has come roaring back in the US. Most family entertainment center chains like Dave and Busters and Main Event are reporting sales up double digit percentages over similar pre-pandemic periods. People were tired of being locked down, and are now craving entertainment out of home. With the theater industry in shambles, The Park stands to benefit from the current reimagination of the story-driven immersive entertainment business.

VR hardware is still improving but is there now enough standardisation that you can confidently invest in technology and software with a sustainable lifespan?

A few years ago, motion tracking required six-figure investments per location. Expensive gaming backpack computers added to the cost burden. Now with the XR2 chipset, inside-out tracking, and rapidly evolving competition between Oculus, Pico, HTC, HP and others, prices have plummeted. The cost of the equipment is becoming immaterial.

But consumer expectations increase as they continue to experience better immersive entertainment, so the cost of software development creating amazing experiences will continue to increase. Creating multiplayer social experiences based on leading media IP is expensive. This is why scaling our footprint to hundreds of locations globally is the key to success.

Is the current flow of content sufficient to fulfil the needs of consumers? Is more content needed to drive?

Six out of ten customers come to The Park via word of mouth. So we focus on getting strong initial traction via digital marketing strategies on one hand, and strong customer experience on the other.

Some early LBVR companies relied heavily on the novelty of big IPs like Marvel and Star Wars to drive traffic. This strategy has its merits but the pitfall is that you pay a very high upfront cost that might not return profits when your scale is limited, which is the case for early movers.

We design game mechanics with solid core loops based on actual customer feedback. We employ content scoretables ranging from asymmetric information, enemy proximity, lateral movement, etc. Then we wrap compelling IP-based stories around the game. And since our IP isn’t tied to tent-pole movies that come and go in weeks, our customers are reminded weekly that they can immerse themselves in these stories.

The only way this business works for anyone is if our location footprint scales fast so we can amortize the development cost of the IP-based experiences over lots of locations. We are well-positioned to accomplish this because we have a solid, proven, sustainable operating model at the location level. Content will be the end game, but without solid unit-level economics, you cannot get to the scale to make it happen. We are having very exciting ongoing IP discussions at the moment to produce our best VR experiences ever.

What relationships do you have with VR content developers?

We are an investor in an award-winning VR development studio that is crucial to the quality of our future experiences. But we are always open to working with high-quality developers. When the scale of locations, and ticket sales, increases, The Park will start to look like a platform for developers and content creators. Much like movie theaters became a distribution platform for filmmakers, and arcades became venues for game developers.

Our process of VR development is unique to the extent it’s heavily steered by the customer feedback on past experiences. During the first six months of a new game deployment, we work with the developer to optimize the experience based on our data.  The entanglement with our developer partner allows for beautifully designed game dynamics, but tailored to our audiences.

Would the sector benefit from more big IPs?

Only if the business model and its footprint supports it. Big IP increases the cost of development and comes with significant license fees. The Park has a business model that supports licensing, but we also saw what happened to The VOID. Having to carry the enormous weight of triple A IP development and then face a COVID crisis must have been a very big challenge. There’s more great IP right now than ever. Streaming platforms are increasing the rate of story development exponentially.

Just look at Netflix’s Army of the Dead. It rolled out an LBVR touring popup based on that movie. Netflix understands they need to give fans more ways to connect with audiences. As more IP holders approach this business as a means of fan engagement, and less like a money grab, we will see more IP-based experiences roll out. 

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