U.S.A. - The amusement simulation and attractions market is undergoing a bumpy, yet promising, ride these days. Despite departures from the industry by some high-profile manufacturers, the sector as a whole continues on a positive upward path. Ruthless competitive pressures are gradually eliminating the also-rans. Meanwhile, top manufacturers in this niche offer successively new levels of excellence, at relatively more affordable prices.
Since VT's previous overview of simulators and attractions (see VT, August 2002), positive developments have occurred worldwide. In the U.S., brand new motion ride systems and attractions, as well as updates, have debuted successfully from several companies including MaxFlight, Trio-Tech, Ham On Rye, Global VR, Tsunami, and others. In Europe, operators are increasingly adding more two-seat simulators , or upgrading beyond these units. In Asia, the Korean manufacturing community is aggressively bidding to bring low-cost motion simulation to the world market.
Negative developments are far fewer, and mostly found in the U.S. Two high-profile manufacturers , RonBotics and Illusion Inc. , have exited the market since our last review. During the same period, two more manufacturers in the sector, Doron and VirTra Systems (formerly GameCom/Ferris), have largely shifted their focus from amusements to the government training niche. Perhaps the most troubling development this year: ride customers at several U.S. theme parks have suffered a string of injuries (including two fatalities). This could lead to more government regulation , impacting not just parks, but also smaller-scale fun centers that deploy motion simulation and other large attractions.
But these sad notes do not overpower a basically upbeat melody for the attractions and simulation sector. Despite problems, the niche appears increasingly vital and viable. True, "shakeout" is no longer just a temporary phase for this market; an ongoing shakeout has seemingly become a permanent fact of life. But then, some would argue the same rule applies to the entire amusement machine industry, as well.
THINGS TO COME
Looking at the sector's success stories in more detail, encouraging developments are seen from Global VR, Tsunami Visual Systems, and Triotech Amusements. A certified smash hit is the "TsuMo" platform, offered in "Deluxe" and "Junior" configurations, from Tsunami. The company's ability to offer sophisticated motion in an attractive, durable machine at a relatively low price has prompted both operators and competing manufacturers to totally rethink this genre. What was once a "no, thanks" category of equipment for many arcades and fun centers, is now becoming a "must-have." The "TsuMo" system also provides the considerable benefit of allowing operators to tone down the level of violence and control extended levels of play.
Global VR's "Vortex V3" offers a smaller-footprint, less-costly version of its virtual reality platform. "V3" could bring the VR experience to many more amusement locations since its basic cabinet is only as big as a standard video upright. The "Vortek" family of machines avoids a headset in favour of a periscope-style viewer. It's not true VR in the eyes of purists, perhaps; but so far it's the only low-cost VR application that has found a measure of sustained success in the amusements market.
The installed base of Tsunami and Global VR is large enough to make it worthwhile for these manufacturers to continue licensing and adapting more titles, expanding their software libraries. Operators face the pleasant prospect of a good, long run with both systems. Meanwhile, executives at traditional video game manufacturers might do well to ask themselves: "Although our engineers take pride in creating ultra-realistic driving simulations, do players really want them? Or, do they want something that's easy to grasp and fun to play from the first minute?" The answer could lie in the sales statistics at Global VR and Tsunami.
More upbeat news for the attractions sector is Triotech Amusement's new "Mad Wave Motion Theater," a passive ride simulator for two players featuring a sit-down, motion-capable cabinet. The marquee of the 58-in. monitor projects out and over the players' heads to create a quasi-canopy effect. A dual-action motion platform features movement in all three dimensions. Among the library of titles is an Imax film and an Iwerks experience, with themes such as Formula One racing, roller coaster rides, dune buggy beach adventures and others. More films and more suppliers are gradually being added; indeed, Triotech has announced an ambitious plan to add quarterly new releases to the unit's ride film library. Recent agreements with U.S. filmmaker SimEx and European producer Nwave have been announced. "Mad Wave" holds up to six player-selectable titles in all. Look for a brand-new Triotech attraction, featuring all-original driving themed software, to debut at the upcoming IAAPA expo in November.
Genuine, full-blown virtual reality is the specialty of Ham On Rye. Founded in 2000, the company makes a solid product and supports it with strong management, marketing, and promotion. The 20-seat "Ham On Rye Theatre" is now supplemented by the smaller eight-seat version, called the "Sprout System." Both platforms feature headsets with the genuine VR experience. Graphics presentation is instantly linked to the player's head movement, allowing him to look all around the 3D virtual environment. Installations have mainly been at theme parks so far, but the "Sprout" could change that. The unit's entertainment value for players has been clearly visible in HOR's booth at recent trade shows.
Motion simulation also enjoyed good news this year in the arena of location-based entertainment (i.e., large-scale, themed simulation centers). Nascar Silicon Motor Speedway, the largest developer of racing centers, is now developing attractions for other facilities beyond its own dozen NSMS-owned sites. Last spring, Interactive Motorsports & Entertainment Corp. announced an agreement with Nascar Silicon Motor Speedway, whereby NSMS would (with Burroughs & Chapin Co.) install a total of 10 systems at B&C's Nascar Speedway sites and Myrtle Beach Pavilion Amusement Park sites. Each of the 10 elaborate systems will include a central network game experience, with surrounding training, audience viewing and intensive merchandising , plus multiple simulators , all within a retail unit location. It's the biggest LBE-style installation of linked race car simulators in many years.
The amusement industry has rarely seen an entire exposition dedicated solely to simulators. But such an event was sponsored last year by the Korean Amusement Machine Manufacturers Association, signaling a serious bid to dominate the worldwide simulator sector. The affair comprised quite possibly the largest gathering of hopeful amusement simulator makers ever seen in a single venue, certainly in Asia. Companies such as Woxes and their "F-16" simulator cockpit, and the VSTEC motorbike ride, offered some of the most innovative experiences to date, but at a price that could tempt even the new operator.
In December, KAMMA followed up with its annual expo for the entire industry. There, Digital Sunil showed a networked, online game for the "Chameleon RX-1" (featuring a 360-degree arc motion chair system). The manufacturer hopes that blending two previously separate technologies , motion simulators and networked games , could capture players' imaginations worldwide.
Possibly the key simulation development out of Korea in recent months was a two-year agreement between Sega Europe and Korean manufacturer SimuLine. The latter manufactures the "CyCraft" simulator, a revolutionary single-seat suspended motion system that creates five degrees of freedom. A top Sega R&D unit in Japan is expected to provide three software titles for this platform, including "Club Kart International," "Ferrari F355 Championship" and , possibly , "OutRun 2." So far, however, there has been no indication that Sega's U.S. coin-op division will market the product in the States.
Not all of the past year's developments in the simulation and attractions manufacturing sector was good. Topping the bad news list: Illusion Systems Inc., an operating subsidiary of Illusion Inc., exited the industry. Illusion had developed the 24-unit "SpeedWay" race car simulator attraction at the Sahara Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas. The company also manufactured the pricey but solid "JumpZone VR" parachute simulator. Before its demise, Illusion had gone public (on Canada's stock exchange) through a merger with Canadian Argenta Systems Inc. and had acquired AeroNumerics, the market's leading race car simulator maker (the "RaceSports" brand of networked games).
Trouble came from conflicts with facilities to which Illusion provided consulting services. Next came an ambitious yet ill-advised venture into indoor snow sports simulators. This costly effort was apparently Illusion's coup-de-grace.
Ronbotics, hailed as rising star in America's simulator firmament as recently as 2001, faded from the scene in the fall of 2002. The company website vanished; the phone was disconnected; and Ronbotics' building has been leased to other tenants, according to local government officials. However, a reworked and more reliable version of the child-sized version of Ronbotics' popular "Coaster Rider X-Press" has reappeared under license on the U.S. market (under the title "Kiddie Coaster") from Innovative Concepts in Entertainment. Meanwhile in the UK, Amutech is marketing the full-sized version, also apparently under license.
Financial challenges also reportedly have been visited upon another U.S. manufacturer, Doron Precision Systems. Faced with declining sales of their newer "Transporter 6" six-player motion theater, the groundbreaking amusement simulation company has recently put more focus on their law enforcement and truck training simulators.
A slew of injuries and at least two fatalities at theme parks and amusement parks garnered a lot of bad press for the simulator and attractions niche this year. A woman died of a cerebral hemorrhage after riding a new extreme coaster at Magic Mountain in California. Early reports , which got worldwide media play , suggested the ride had directly caused her brain seizure and death. The International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions later published a collection of studies indicating that in fact, such rides are not dangerous to the health of riders (see separate report in this issue).
But IAAPA had no happy explanations for the 13-year-old boy who broke a leg (and sustained other injuries) at the 2002 fall exposition in Orlando, FL. The youngster jumped properly from a "SCAD Tower" attraction in the Montic booth, but a safety net failed to deploy properly to break his fall. Ride-based problems at U.S. amusement parks this year included a woman's death from being hit in the head by a ride car in New Orleans; injuries to a man and a woman who fell from two different rides at two different Pennsylvania parks; and mechanical failure by a roller-coaster in Washington State: riders were stranded atop the structure for two hours.
The U.S. federal government and many state governments have long depended on amusement and theme park operators to perform their own safety inspections. However, if this string of accidents continues, the era of self-regulation for amusement park ride safety could end soon. Potential repercussions for FECs, LBEs and arcades are obvious.
Such negatives, however, should not be allowed to obscure the big picture for this market as a whole. Motion-based attractions, once restricted to theme parks and the largest FECs, are increasingly affordable and physically right-sized for smaller venues and even some street locations. Cost and marketing benefits continue to trickle down from military technology and consumer game software. As more manufacturers find creative ways to apply and market these resources, it appears that amusement simulators and attractions have an increasingly hopeful future.