- 01 Oct
The casino so nice they named it twice.
Over the weekend I had the amazing opportunity to take a small vacation in Las Vegas - capital of sin! Of course, what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas - so I'm not going to talk about what we did there (although it does mark the first time I was offered "party favors" by random guys on a bridge outside a castle at 3 in the morning). Instead, I'm going to talk about Vegas itself - and how its entertainment direction is something we can learn from.
I'm often asked to design new interactive experiences for clients and for Cerulean Games. Each individual experience has its own unique design challenges and hurdles, though there are always a stack of commonalities. Part of being able to design a solid product or experience is recognizing these commonalities and making use of them. I mean, these are commonalities that were put in place by masters of experience such as Walt Disney himself. Las Vegas makes amazing use of these commonalities at every opportunity. Just like in games, Vegas attractions want to keep you immersed for as long as possible, and they have many little tricks for doing so. Two main ones they use are making the casino floors intentional mazes, and by making sure there are no windows or clocks anywhere. While those two examples don't translate incredibly well to other interactive experiences, what does translate well are the use of immersion and whinnies.
Whinnies are a lesser known design experience created by Walt Disney (and to be perfectly honest I may be misspelling it, but work with me here - finding info online about whinnies is tough - but I promise you I'm not talking about no Pooh bear!). The general idea of a whinny is something that the viewer sees the moment they begin their experience, which acts as an anchor to mentally position the viewer into the world they are about to experience, and is also something that represents the experience enough that it can be used as a pure iconic piece of imagery for the experience. In Disney, this would be Spaceship Earth inside EPCOT, or Cinderella's Castle in the Magic Kingdom. You enter the park and right there in all its glory is a massive structure, which when you see it - you know you're there.
Las Vegas makes use of the whinny concept in a rather different but fun way. Their massive hotels and casinos can be seen from a distance, and each one is unique. Their experience starts long before you are even on the property for that individual hotel - therefore, their whinny is their building itself. Check out the following image, which is the outside of the hotel / casino New York New York.
You can see those buildings from quite a distance, and they are the only buildings around which look like that. They represent New York, they feel like New York - you see them, and you know - you're going to New York. The lights, the sounds, the smells. Wait, the smells? Yes - as soon as you walk into New York New York, you immediately smell apples. I kid you not - every hotel / casino in Vegas seems to have a unique scent pumping out near the doors. This is actually another Disney trick - as soon as you walk into the Magic Kingdom, there are popcorn vendors. You can smell their popcorn as you enter the park - which in Walt's mind, the gates are the curtains of a show, and popcorn is what you always smell at a show. In fact, the gates represent the show so much that you can't even see the whinny until you pass through the gates - or in other terms, until the curtains have risen.
Another Vegas hotel / casino is the Egyptian themed Luxor. It's no different in its use of whinnies. Most of us are familiar with the massive beam of light that blasts out the top of the pyramid and into the cloud layer of the sky above. That thing can be seen from 4 miles away - no joke. Another that the Luxor uses is as soon as you get off the monorail.
Yup - get off the monorail, and you immediately get Sphynx in your face! When you see that thing, it's pretty clear - you're in Egypt... well, Vegas' version of Egypt at least.
Ok... so how does all of this pertain to creating interactive experiences for... I dunno, video games? In many ways, actually. Just like those Disney parks and Vegas experiences, some of the most iconic moments in video games are presented with the same types of whinnies. One of my favorites was in Portal 2. Throughout much of the games' advertising, we're presented with GLaDos' control room, overrun by plants and vines - and right in the middle, the broken body of the malevolent computer herself. You reach that room about 20 minutes in to the actual game itself - and it is a defining experience for the entire game. I won't spoil it for anyone who hasn't played, but once you go through that room and experience what happens, you are in the right mindset for the next 10 - 20 hours of gameplay.
Concept art of Chell entering the central AI chamber, with the broken, GLaDos. Image copyright Valve.
Modern 3D games of course aren't the only ones to have whinnies. Let's go back... way back, to when the most complicated graphics processor was your brain itself. I'm talking about text adventures. Just like a book, they can paint a picture as vivd and vast as they desired, all without a single piece of graphics. And one of the most memorable and amazing text adventure experiences was a little game called Zork.
All hail the white mailbox!
Zork was a game where the player entered a forgotten underground kingdom, which exists beneath our very feet. In many ways the game used the 'hollow Earth' theory, which simply states we live on the surface while the center of the world has its own world. In Zork, this world even has its own sky, people, and adventures. The image above is actually the very first screen you see upon starting the game. The white mailbox has become a stable among gamers everywhere - yet it is not the whinny I'm speaking of. I'm talking about that boarded front door. You're in front of what is almost certainly a long since forgotten house, filled with mysteries and adventures - just like the underground kingdom of Zork itself. Ok, I may be stretching that a little - however Infocom - the creators of the Zork games - even used the white mailbox and boarded up house as iconic imagery in future games and marketing. So I may not be so crazy after all.
Memorable interactive experiences are what keeps people coming for more. Cirque du Soleil knows this. Disney knows this. The hotels and casinos in Vegas knows this. And deep inside, so do you - you can't create a boring experience and expect someone to come back to it, or to you. But when you create a product, put it through its testing, and through hard work and iteration come up with something where the eyes of your testers light up with delight every time they enter your world... you know you've got something great.