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Tom Beynon – Creative Producer at Path Entertainment – discusses the development process behind the firm’s MONOPOLY: LIFESIZED and SAW: Escape experiences.
Tom, thanks for making time. To kick us off, how did you enter the world of experiences?
For me, it was right place right time. I was previously working with David Hutchinson, our CEO, at his theatre company, Selladoor. I was a general manager on touring theatre shows, then David and I started working in a new writing department, commissioning musicals and working with brands in that context. From there, he started talking with Hasbro about MONOPOLY.
Originally, the MONOPOLY conversation started around a musical idea… That very quickly changed direction into the immersive experience! That was a big step because we’d never created anything in that context before, but why not start with the world’s biggest board game brand!
“Originally, the MONOPOLY conversation started around a musical idea… That very quickly changed direction into the immersive experience!”
And this is MONOPOLY LIFESIZED, your immersive, physical version of the game that’s been a huge success.
Yes! We developed it in-house, and it became quite clear that I had a passion for it and a skill when it came to the game design side of things. I also had a lot of producing experience, so from there, David started Path Entertainment and Gamepath – and I was brought over from Selladoor to continue that journey.
MONOPOLY was our first one, SAW was our second and we have Paddington Bear launching later this year – and we started work on all of them pre-Covid!
Sticking with MONOPOLY for a moment, what was the early creative process like in translating that game into an experience?
The key for us was ensuring it still felt like a game of MONOPOLY. Saying that, we didn’t want it to just be people standing on a giant board rolling dice.
We tried to identify areas of MONOPOLY that would work in a live experience. One key to this was to keep it fast paced and exciting, so we decided to limit it by time and design an app to manage the finances for our players during the game.
Also, generally speaking, classic board games by design are very individual in the way that they’re played, in terms of turn-taking. With our experience, we wanted to ensure everyone had something to do at all times.
Great stuff. And for anyone who hasn’t been yet, how would you describe the experience?
Essentially, you travel across a smaller version of the MONOPOLY board and each space has a corresponding room that contains a themed challenge within it. For example, if you land on Whitechapel Road, you walk into a bell-ringing game because the area used to house lots of bell foundries, it’s where Big Ben was cast. You go in and have to play the bells in a certain sequence. If you’re successful, you can get the property. A lot of the spaces lent themselves nicely to games – the jail is an escape room! – so that’s how we’ve gamified the experience.
It’s a fast-flowing, interactive version of the game, that’s still recognisably MONOPOLY. You still roll dice to move, still pay rent, build houses for example. The brands we work with have such a rich history that we always want to add to it rather than mimic what came before.
MONOPOLY LIFESIZED has been a hit, so is this partnership with Hasbro continuing with other brands?
Yes. We’re working on two other brands with Hasbro. One of which we’ll be announcing fairly soon as we hope to launch that next year.
We’ll keep our eyes peeled! Let’s move onto SAW: Escape Experience London. I went to this recently and thought it was fantastic. I jumped out of my skin a few times and the challenges were really impressive – job done! Why did SAW feel like a good fit for an escape room experience?
As a brand and a film franchise, it was a bit of a no-brainer. Ultimately, the SAW films see a group of individuals trapped in rooms or spaces, having to complete tasks to escape. The difference between that and our version is that in the films, they usually don’t escape with their lives! The brand really lent itself nicely to an immersive experience and enabled us to really push the boundaries of what people might expect from an escape room.
“SAW enabled us to really push the boundaries of what people might expect from an escape room.”
You touched upon it there, that SAW is known for its grisly traps, twists and turns. Was it tough crafting an experience around a brand that is so well known for those things?
One of our biggest challenges was in making sure the expectations of the SAW fans were met. The way we navigated that was to build a narrative that our audience is a part of as soon as they arrive. We needed people to feel they were part of the story immediately, so that when you’re in the rooms it really feels like it’s your game. And even though you’re never in danger, there are a number of moments where you feel like you are.
It does – there are some really intense moments! It feels very authentically SAW.
The fact that we had Tobin Bell – Jigsaw in the films – do the voiceover really helps with that. All of the music and soundtracks are from the films too. It helps you feel like you’re in one of the films. There’s a terrifying moment at the beginning, and a moment in the lift, so you never know quite what’s going to happen. It keeps the tension going.
Were any of the movies especially key reference points for you and the team?
SAW II was a big inspiration because that film follows a group of people moving around a house that’s full of traps – and a lot of those traps are less mechanically designed than the more explosive ‘bear trap’ ones. We tried to instil that same kind of group mentality, rather than focusing on moments for individuals.
SAW: Escape Experience London also stands out as being a relatively rare brand-driven horror experience in the UK. Do you think there’s scope for more immersive experiences to be built around iconic horror IP?
Definitely – and I think it’s a UK thing. In the States, it’s a different story altogether. That said, I think it’s slowly but surely going to become more prevalent over here, especially when you look at what’s happening in theatre and podcasts, like what Danny Robins is doing with Uncanny and 2:22: A Ghost Story.
What’s interesting with this and the UK market is that it’s almost entirely focused on October. With SAW, we’ve tried to ensure it’s a long-running experience and it’s apparent that we’ve brought a lot of people in from outside London. They come in to do SAW, which is different to our MONOPOLY audiences who tend to be more tourist/London-focused.
We’re looking at other horror brands, but what we try to ensure is that people have a really good time. Some people expect the horror maze experience where people are jumping out at you all the time… They’re great and lots of people love it – but lots of people hate it! We want to bridge the gap and create horror experiences that people who wouldn’t usually come, do come along and enjoy themselves. That’s the messaging we’ve focused on for SAW.
I wanted to also ask you about the challenges themselves. How do you gauge the difficulty of these and ensure they’re not too easy and not too tough?
It’s the quintessential challenge. Our success rate in the SAW rooms is about 30%. It’s one of those situations where you’ll never please everyone, but with SAW, the challenges themselves aren’t that difficult. The environment you’re in, and the time limit, makes them difficult.
And actually, whether you succeed or fail has implications as you move through the experience. Having these consequences – good or bad – gives your time a different kind of meaning than simply winning or losing a challenge. We’ve also got a very detailed hint system that is live typed by our game managers, so if players ask a question, we can give direct hints.
I don’t want to give anything away, but one moment that terrified me in your SAW experience seems to draw inspiration from the world of magic and illusions. Is that an area you look to when creating experiences?
One of the creative directors on SAW is a chap called Filipe Carvalho who is actually an illusionist by trade. He had the idea for that moment you’re talking about. He worked on Back to the Future: The Musical and did the illusions for Rambert’s Peaky Blinders: The Redemption of Thomas Shelby. We wanted to capture that moment in a horror film where the camera pans and something’s there that wasn’t there before. He put that together and it’s a lot of fun. We’d love to incorporate more of that kind of thing in future productions.
Moving quite radically into more family friendly territory, your next experience to open will be The Paddington™ Bear Experience. It comes to Southbank’s County Hall later this year. What can you tell us about it?
I can’t say too much, but it’s a large-scale family friendly immersive experience where you journey through different iconic locations that you’ll recognise from the Paddington stories. Ultimately, guests are working towards a big celebration with Paddington and the Brown Family in Windsor Gardens at the end.
Will marmalade sandwiches be consumed?
I’m not sure I can reveal anything on that!
I’ll move on – I don’t want that to be the question that gets you sacked! What has development been like on the project?
My colleague, Ryan Amstad, is leading the project in collaboration with The Copyrights Group – a STUDIOCANAL company – who own the Paddington IP and their agent for experiences Lionsgate.
Originally when we were developing it, we went through the books and films and found the bits that made sense for the space we have and the story we’re telling. Then it was about making it immersive and fun to be in!
Great stuff. My next question was going to be ‘How long has it taken to train the bear?’ but I’ll leave that out for fear of spoilers!
Ha! Much appreciated!
Before we wrap up, what does a brand need to suit a compelling immersive experience?
We tend to work with brands that have international recognition as well as national. It’s a very important part of our business – MONOPOLY LIFESIZED has opened in Riyadh and we’re due to do more out there. We always look to open high-quality experience in London and then expand that overseas.
“The Paddington Experience will be a large-scale family friendly immersive experience where you journey through different iconic locations that you’ll recognise from the Paddington stories.”
We work to a two-to-three-year timeline so we look for brands that have real longevity to them. That being said, we’re always open to speak to brand owners. We love collaborating very closely with our partners to ensure our experiences feel authentically on-brand and also push the brand forwards.
Last question! What helps you have ideas?
I get inspired by seeing what other people are doing, and by the breadth of change that’s happening in the industry. I have a collaborative process – everything that we do is a discussion – and working with a core group of creatives inspires me.
I’ve also been particularly inspired by tech recently, and the ways we can integrate tech subtly and cleverly into experiences. It’s actually one of my favourite things about SAW… It’s more technical than MONOPOLY LIFESIZED but it doesn’t necessarily look like it. Everything we do in SAW is digitally driven and controlled but we’ve built it and designed it in such a way that you’d never know that.
The guys who built that – alongside the production management team at The Production Family, sound design team at Autograph Sound and the lighting team at Woodroffe Bassett Design – are a company called Clockwork Dog. They also did a lot of our stuff on MONOPOLY LIFESIZED – they have an excellent game control system that’s really fun to play with. They’re really smart. Being sat in a room making stuff with the creative team is the best.
A lovely note to end on. Thanks again Tom – let’s tie-in again on Paddington soon!
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