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Disney’s Vision

disneylandWalt Disney’s “obsession with vintage locomotives” inspired his vision for Disneyland, reports Will Friedwald in The Wall Street Journal (7/15/15). Walt “conceived the whole place as the miniature railway layout of the gods.” The impetus was fan mail from Disney “moviegoers of all ages, some of whom wanted to see how cartoons were produced, but many more who wanted to visit Mickey Mouse and Cinderella where they actually lived.” The execution, at first, was far from perfect, however.

When Disneyland opened on July 17, 1955, “difficulties with both the plumbing system and the labor unions made it impossible for anyone to get a drink.” Only a few rides were open, and “most of those were continually breaking down and closing.” The temperature on opening day was 101, and “all the asphalt — poured only a few hours earlier” — stuck to to the shoes of the 28,000 visitors. Disneyland would not be fully operational for another three years, but in true Disney fashion, it was driven by Walt’s “desire to tell stories in a way that necessitated the creation of new media and entire artistic disciplines to go with them.”

Disneyland triumphed by taking “the concept of narrative to the extreme,” immersing visitors “in the story itself … You didn’t just ride a roller coaster — you became Snow White being chased through the forest.” The rides “were as painstakingly conceived as any feature film (or any blockbuster video game today),” complete with “full-scale soundtracks that included original songs.” Meanwhile, Walt struck an innovative media deal with ABC-TV, under which Disney produced a TV show that cross-promoted both the park and its movies in return for ABC helping “to underwrite the park’s construction.”

Variable Rewards

hookProviding variable rewards is the secret of habit-forming products, reports The Economist (1/3/15). "That is why the number of monsters one has to vanquish in order to reach the next level in a game often varies." This is nothing new: "BF Skinner, the father of ‘radical behaviorism‘ … found that training subjects by rewarding them in variable, unpredictable ways works best." However, the concept figures more prominently than ever in the digital age and the "intense competition … to monopolize people’s attention."

Variable rewards typically "come in three forms. The reward of the tribe: people who use Twitter or Pinterest are rewarded with social validation when their tweets are retweeted or their pictures are pinned. The reward of the hunt: users quickly scroll through their feeds in search of the latest gossip or funny cat pictures. And the reward of self-fulfillment: people are driven to achieve the next level on a video game." The goal for product marketers, then, is not just to create a customer, but rather an "uber user."

While it may be easy for some to get hooked, it may not be so easy to hook them. "There have been plenty of digital products, such as Farmville, that were crazes for a while but went out of fashion." There’s also a difference "between a habit and an addiction: only about one percent of people who regularly play slot machines … can reasonably be described as addicted." That said, "four-fifths of smartphone users check their devices within 15 minutes of waking up, and … the typical users does so 150 times a day."

Flippin’ Great

pinball-ballPinball games peaked in the ’70s but are now adapting to the Internet age, reports John W. Miller in The Wall Street Journal (9/11/14). Pinball actually "grew out of an 18th-century French variation of billiards known as bagatelle." Forty years ago it was "a fixture in arcades and malls. Players controlled flippers to whack around steel balls, racking up points by hitting targets. But with the emergence of videogames in the 1980s, pinball faded in popularity, kept alive by a cult following of fans."

To some degree, pinball kept its ball rolling by borrowing ideas from videogames, "adding LED displays, intricate music tracks and features … They also designed games with more flexibility, allowing tournament organizers to set up tougher competitions. They waxed the playing surface and raised the machine’s back legs to steepen the incline," along with other modifications to make the games more challenging. They developed software to let players shake the machines a bit without ending the game — issuing warnings instead.

The Internet provided perhaps the most important new wrinkle, as it enabled groups like the International Flipper Pinball Association (IFPA) to begin "ranking players online … based on their placements in leagues and tournaments." "Suddenly, thanks to the Internet, we could compare players in Chicago with players in Denmark," says IFPA president Josh Sharpe. This fed interest in tournaments.Today’s hi-tech pinball machines "retail for $5,000 to $10,000," but one thing hasn’t changed: "the ball is still 2.8 ounces of steel and 1-1/16 inches in diameter."

Escape Games

parapark2Being locked in a room with no clear means of escape is becoming a popular pastime in Budapest, reports Lisa Abend in The New York Times (7/6/14). Currently, there are about "50 room-escape games scattered throughout the Hungarian capital," and small groups of people pay about $40 each to play. The room is "filled with clues and obstacles," and players must apply "deductive logic, teamwork and a bit of luck" to find their way out in less than an hour. Attila Gyurkovics came up with the idea about three years ago.

At the time, he was looking for a game that would help build teamwork among businesspeople and students. "At first, people looked at me like I was crazy: ‘You want to open a place where you lock people inside?’" But his enterprise ParaPark, now has "four games in two locations in Budapest" and is franchising "elsewhere in Hungary and abroad … Within months of opening, versions of ParaPark were popping up all over the city. With its post-Communist feel, Budapest is well suited for room escape games."

Attila says the appeal is grounded in flow theory. "You lose yourself," he says. "You’re not standing outside yourself saying, ‘Oh, I have to call my mom’ or ‘My boss is watching over me.’ You become completely absorbed by the game." Janka Csoti, who recently played at ParaPark, concurs. "What I liked about it," she says, "is that I was fully present : no checking my mobile, not thinking about what I was doing later. I felt like I was really giving my time to my friends."