New role-playing game has roots in Central Florida's themed entertainment, could point to the future of the industry

Even as the tourism industry braces from a downturn, there remain optimists who see a future for the industry.

Stephen E. Dinehart IV served on the creative team at Universal Orlando Resort as an attraction designer bringing games to life for such geek culture icons as Super Nintendo World, and after soaking in the geek culture of the region, he was inspired to launch a Dungeons and Dragons-style board game, "Giantlands." But the board game is just one part of the themed entertainment experience that includes costumes players can wear and one day possibly even a full theme park.

Dinehart, who has worked in the game industry for over 20 years, saw an opportunity while working at Universal Creative to create new kinds of experiences much like a theme park but one that functions like a game. With knowledge of how theme parks work to realize previously explored but not physically realized worlds, he created the game with such expansions in mind. In fact, Dinehart is already working on developing a physical theme park-like experience for the game.
Giantlands is designed around a core game experience that invites guests into the world as characters, not just to soak in the sights and sounds but actively be part of the show. In recent years, the cutting edge of attraction design has been about immersing guests in new worlds and inviting them to dress the part, as with Disney’s Galaxy’s Edge or Universal's Diagon Alley. With expansions in mind including physical props, virtual reality and a full theme park-like experience, GiantLands is rooted in the traditional Orlando-style themed entertainment design.

Giantlands addresses many of the issues that intellectual properties face when being realized in themed environments. Dinehart pointed to how designing the tabletop game concept with themed entertainment experiences in mind will help with the eventual rollout of Giantlands theme park and VR experiences.

Translating intellectual properties like movie or television franchises into immersive real-world experiences was one of the biggest struggles themed entertainment faced, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. Disney opted to go with a familiar, but not previously seen realm, when it developed its Avatar and Star Wars-themed lands. Universal instead went with Harry Potter-themed lands more faithful to film style.

Seeing this struggle in Orlando parks firsthand is part of why Dinehart decided to design his new game, with all potential realizations of the franchise in mind. He believes working with the understanding that physical realizations of the fantasy realms a property creates might be a better way of addressing the issue, especially as themed entertainment becomes more popular.

“Without a doubt, it’s a real challenge [to develop lands based around previously introduced intellectual properties] and a nut many people are trying to crack. For me, unlike cinema, or other forms of storytelling, games don’t translate well to themed experiences unless they’re built to be themed experiences. More so than a sense of place and theming, they require interaction. So, with GiantLands, we’re starting with a core game that’s designed to be a live-action themed experience."

He continued, pointing out the fact that many of Disney’s most successful lands began an intellectual property free worlds that were then later used to create the film franchises we now know.

“I love working with big IP like Mario, but in the end, I think part of what made the Disney parks such a long-term success is the novelty of the lands, they weren’t based on existing IPs, even Disney IPs, and I believe that’s why many of them remain until this day. If instead of Pirates we got say, a Snow White ride, we never would have seen what began as a dark ride grow into a successful global franchise entirely in its own right. There’s also the question of authenticity, and increasingly savvy audiences don’t want just another themed plastic cup, a non-interactive 4D movie on a motion-base, and a character moment, they want to step outside our world and into others, if only for an afternoon.

My goal is to do it from the ground up. Basically, as Walt did, given he had some successes under his belt, that allowed him to put a lot on the line to create Disneyland. The lands and attractions [at Disneyland that] we know so well today were not based on any Disney IP – they were wholly new. It’s one reason I think Volcano Bay seems so bold. In a time when Disney appears to be adopting the Universal model, Universal goes out there and creates an entire park with a whole new IP. Much like some of the talk about Galaxy’s Edge, but here we can deliver it better because we’re free of all the constraints not only of the Star Wars IP but Disney’s policies and business model. I suppose time will one tell if it works if it creates improved guest experiences, but I believe it will. It’s a gamble, but hopefully, players (guests) will arrive with some understanding of the game, the world, or maybe even already have a character in mind they want to play.

In some ways, the park experience beings at home, with your friends, so when you come to play at GiantLands, we just give you a more exciting and immersive setting where you can stay for days at a time in a science-fantasy world. Then when they leave, they can continue to have adventures and return year after year to go on adventures in a place where they have an impact and can truly be whoever they want.”

Themed entertainment, including that in Orlando, is quickly evolving, thanks in part to the work of people like Dinehart, who worked on the interactive elements found within Volcano Bay.

"The first park I helped open was Volcano Bay, the team I was on is behind the interactives and specifically the Tapu Tapu wearable. Just being able to witness it from the insider taught me a wealth and prepared me to open more parks. Super Nintendo World hasn’t opened yet, but when it does, I know it’ll be a big draw for the region."

"One day my assignment was to go experience this thing at Disney Springs called The Void. While I had been working in VR and mixed-reality for a few years at that point with some of the world's top talent, I was really blown away by it and immediately wanted to know who was behind it. The next day, I left Universal Creative and founded my company Wonderfilled, Inc., and attempted to get Evermore Park, the team behind the Void, to be my first client. Months later, I ended up joining them full-time and relocating to Utah.”
Evermore Park is the independent European gothic-styled theme park in Pleasant Grove, Utah, from the creators of The Void that is described as 
“immersive theatrical park.” Guests experience the park by participating in quests that cause them to interact with an in-character walk around cast members.

“My questing system became the core attraction, the e-ticket [at Evermore] if you will.
I think the closest to it in Orlando is perhaps Pirates Dinner Adventure, but here in a pleasure garden, based on the original Disneyland layout that you can play in. From season to season, the set is dressed differently and various shows can be run. I was there to help them make a better game of it; it made me so excited at the possibilities of creating an honest-to-goodness 'game park.' That’s why I started GiantLands. Rather than trying to project a game onto a park experience, I’m building a game as a park from the ground up.”

The interaction that helps drive parks like Evermore, and possibly one-day Giantlands, is a direct evolution from things that started in Orlando, specifically the interactive wands that debuted with Universal Orlando’s Diagon Alley. As technology improves and decreases in price, smaller parks have been able to introduce technology that better tracks and interacts with guests. MagiQuest, a staple of many lower-tiered tourist spots, has seen success with these quests style experiences. Disney has been testing similar experiences in its parks, including the Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom interactive card game that debuted in 2012. At Walt Disney World, the upcoming Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser will take that live-action role-playing style experiences to the next level with multiday adventures where guests can remain fully in character for the entire time including while in their themed hotel rooms. In early 2020, Universal confirmed its upcoming Super Nintendo World, which Dinehart worked on, will include interactive elements and 'Power Up Bands' that allows guests to track their performance within the land where they'll be able to collect virtual coins.

With many of the significant intellectual properties now realized in theme parks, smaller attractions can struggle to attract fans if they rely solely on rides or known intellectual properties, but detailed environments and personalized experiences have proven to be a successful formula.
While the lack of a proven franchise might be viewed as a negative, Dinehart has turned to game designers James M. Ward and Ernest G. Gygax, Jr., both known for their connections to Dungeons and Dragons and Lazer Tag, to help design Giantlands after working with them on Evermore Park.

“Between James, Ernest Gary Gygax Jr., and everyone else on the team, we have a ridiculous amount of game design talent. These guys helped create the role-playing game, now a worldwide phenomenon. From Dungeons and Dragons to Lazer Tag, these guys have done it all. Bringing them in to create a game that translates into a park only seemed natural. I grew up a fan of their works, often even referring to them when creating Evermore Park. When the opportunity presented itself, I asked them to join me to create a new sort of themed entertainment experience. They brought in an authenticity and perspective I couldn't provide. I love working with masters, especially these guys. I like to say I simply wouldn’t exist without them. They’ve worked in creating new product categories for decades and understand what it takes to build a grass-roots following for a new product, and that’s what we’ll need to succeed.”

Dinehart points to lands like Galaxy's Edge and the Wizarding World to show that the public is hungry for this new kind of immersive entertainment. It's still too early to tell if Giantlands will be successful, but Evermore Park has proven it is possible. Even as Evermore Park in Utah continues to open new areas of the park, executives have confirmed talks are already underway regarding opening a second park. While both Evermore and Giantlands acknowledge they learned a lot from Orlando, for now, neither have confirmed any upcoming presence in Central Florida.

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