Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom is a new interactive experience that debuted on February 22 at the Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, Florida. Jonathan Ackley, Senior Director and Show Producer Interactive of Walt Disney Imagineering, and his team spent four years designing and producing the game. Ackley gained early insights into interactivity as a game designer at Rocket Science Games and then by designing critically acclaimed adventure games for LucasArts, such as The Curse of Monkey Island, Day of the Tentacle, and Sam and Max Hit the Road. Ackley’s interests in nontraditional, nonlinear storytelling gave him an awareness of the possibilities for integrating new technologies into location-based storytelling.
Before Ackley’s work on Sorcerers, he tested interactive storytelling ideas through the Kim Possible attraction, also at Walt Disney World, treating it as a research and development project on using wireless technology (through Verizon). Ackley immediately saw the advantages that Disney had for environmental storytelling. In an interview with Ackley, he said, “We have themed environments. We are in a unique position to make you the main character in an adventure story. We’re really lucky that we have such great stories and characters to draw from.” The end result is that Sorcerers is an intriguing effort that pushes the boundaries of shared interactive experiences for families with children. Ackley described these experiences as opportunities for players to assume the roles of their favorite Disney protagonists as they make their way through the game. Families can share memories of their favorite films across generations and or create new stories as they play.
The objective of Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom is to save the Magic Kingdom from Disney villains, including Cruella de Vil from 101 Dalmatians, the Evil Queen from Snow White, Dr. Facilier from The Princess and the Frog, and Scar from The Lion King. These villains were all recruited by Hades, ruler of the underworld and the archvillain from Hercules. Players become apprentices to Merlin, the sorcerer from The Sword in the Stone, who is Hades’ chief opponent. In order to save the Magic Kingdom, players must stop the villains from capturing the shattered pieces of Merlin’s crystal ball.
Marrying a treasure hunt with interactive trading cards to create an immersive experience, Sorcerers gameplay begins at the Secret Sorcerers’ training center on Main Street. Each participant is given a map of mystic portals, key card, and five collectible spell cards “designed” by Merlin. Players then choose from eight different missions that vary in length from 15 to 25 minutes. Each mission is played in a specific park location, such as Adventureland, Fantasyland, or Frontierland. By completing all eight missions, according to Ackley, “true, hardcore gamers can fight their way to Hades.”
Players assume a role or roles from their playing cards. Family members can all play the same character or adopt different one. The players use the treasure map to locate the magic portal where they want to begin. Each portal has an identifying brass floor plate and keyhole where guests swipe their key cards, which activates an engaging animated presentation for the game. At the end of each presentation, players aim their spell cards at the video or a physical object (e.g., a fireplace), which directs them to another symbol on the map or gives them the opportunity to cast a spell to defeat the villain. Much like a traditional role-playing game, some actions, such as casting a spell, may require using a character stat in addition to problem solving. Players might have to solve a riddle or act quickly before their spell sizzles. Successful players are rewarded by earning stronger spells during the course of the game.
Although it is simple to play, Sorcerers has many possibilities and is well structured. At the same time, it introduces random elements that can make it feel less predictable and contrived. Part of the fun of the game is that guests are given five randomly drawn cards each time they play. Because the cards reflect the personalities of the Disney characters portrayed on them, the cards subtly shift the gaming experience. The game works well for a wide range of ages, and families are supposed to enjoy the game together. This makes sense because the characters are drawn from over 80 years of Disney films, allowing older family members to enjoy interacting with their own childhood heroes and to share those delights with younger members of their families who are more familiar with recent Disney characters.
The game is greatly enhanced by the integration of more than 90 minutes worth of original animation over the eight missions, some of which is traditionally hand drawn. Disney also developed 70 different collectible spell cards in different categories (animal, hero, monster, mystic, and warrior) that feature beloved—as well as less well known—Disney characters. They elected not to use QR codes for aesthetic and practical reasons because, according to Ackley, “QR codes are not necessarily as rich as we’d like them to be: They take people out of the story and make the art work less voluptuous.” Instead, the design team’s attention to detail carried over to the physical environment.
We wanted to try new ways of telling the story. We didn’t want every portal to look the same. We sought out different typographies. Some elements appear mysteriously behind masks. In Fantasyland there’s a rock wall that seems to fall away. We looked for moments when we could surprise the guest.
Sorcerers and games like it definitely allow Disney to enhance the Magic Kingdom experience. It is hard to think of a studio or network better placed to exploit the possibilities of location-based storytelling. The careful, thoughtful design of Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom has produced a game that is both accessible and richly layered and has the potential to develop into more complex gameplay in the future. It will be interesting to see how game developers respond to its challenge.
We are indebted to Jonathan Ackley and Marilyn Waters in Media Relations for granting us a telephone interview about this project.