Written by: Sasha Bailyn Tuesday, January 8th, 2013 .
Why pass by an adventure on a ride vehicle when you can actually be part of the story, solving puzzles and navigating your way through immersive sets? That’s exactly what Matthew DuPlessie thought to himself when he designed “Tomb,” 5 Wits’ first role-playing adventure. Drawing inspiration from his favorite theme park rides and museum exhibits, Matthew created a unique hands-on walkthrough experience that puts the audience in the role of protagonist. In Tomb, live actors take small groups of people through crypt rooms with mummies and secret doors, and each group’s successful escape depends on how well they overcome obstacles – if they want to make it out “alive,” they have to solve puzzles quickly before being crushed by descending ceilings or trapped on the wrong side of a closing door. In effect, Matthew DuPlessie took an experience that we might have dreamt up as kids during our make-believe games and brought it to life. What could be more awesome?
Though Tomb represents Matthew’s favorite aspects of the attractions industry, he wasn’t always in the world of entertainment design. In fact, Matthew’s start in the industry is one of the more unique stories we’ve heard.
Matthew’s story begins at MIT, where he studied mechanical engineering as an undergraduate. Matthew spent the summer between junior and senior year sitting in a cubicle, watching his computer render consumer electronics products at a snail’s pace. He quickly realized that he needed a more interesting career path. After stumbling upon the 1998 IAAPA Expo, where he gave resumes to hundreds of attractions companies, he was hired by up-and-coming theme park design company Living Color Enterprises. Matthew’s first job was Project Engineer for Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge.
The project began normally enough for a first job, with Matthew working under a Project Manager and an Assistant Manager, but after both of them left the company on short notice, things took a turn toward the unusual. The CEO of Living Color walked into Matthew’s office and said, “You know more about this project than anyone else. Pick up a pair of steel-toed boots, because you’re the new Project Manager and tomorrow’s the first meeting. Good luck.” Matthew showed up at the project site the next day, only to be mistaken for an intern when the Head of Construction asked him for some coffee. Matthew corrected him and explained that he was running the meeting. “I got the tar kicked out of me. It was a year and a half of pain,” Matthew recounts. He stuck it out and managed the project all the way through completion. The experience gave him unprecedented responsibility as a new hire, and equipped him with the skills necessary to start his own line of attractions.
After a few more projects with Living Color, followed by earning his MBA from Harvard, Matthew was ready to put his business plan for 5 Wits into action. With the help of angel investors, including his Harvard advisor and the owner of Living Color, “Tomb” was born in Boston in 2004. Despite knowing very little about show design, Matthew wrote, designed, and programmed the entire experience on his own. One of the keystones to pulling off Tomb was finding top-notch performers who could authentically lead groups through the show: “I needed actors who were good enough to approach perfect strangers in a grocery store parking lot and make them laugh. I’ll be honest, it’s a skill I don’t have. In the beginning, I did things as cheaply as I could and there were times that I had to lead groups through Tomb myself – it wasn’t good for me or them!”
Tomb’s success led to more shows, including “Espionage,” a fantastical spy adventure, “20,000 Leagues,” involving Captain Nemo’s Nautilus and a giant squid, and Thea Award-winning “Operation Spy,” a more real-world spy experience at the International Spy Museum. Like Tomb, these shows dynamically adjust to each audience group, making puzzles easier, shorter, or throwing more obstacles in the way. There are multiple endings for each adventure, and the whole group succeeds or fails together. Unlike Tomb, designed solely by Matthew, the shows that followed represented a collaboration of the 5 Wits “family.” Today, 5 Wits is a collection of highly creative people who handle everything from special effects and lighting to electromechanical design for science centers, historical attractions, theme parks, film productions, and more. As Matthew explains, “The people who work here are nerds of all types: theme park nerds, game nerds, or engineering nerds – the guy who programmed video games since childhood or the girl who welded her own kinetic sculptures since high school.”
5 Wits is unique in that everyone is a “jack of all trades.” A few years ago, no one in the company knew how to weld, but now almost everyone knows how. If someone has a special skill, they teach it to the group, and if there’s something no one knows how to do, they hire a specialist and everyone learns. There is room for growth and discovery in the 5 Wits community; some of the higher-ups started out as guides themselves when Tomb first opened. What’s also interesting is that instead of having a project weave its way through different departments like most design companies, 5 Wits puts individuals in charge of the soup to nuts. This makes the process more personal, ensuring that designers care tremendously about their contribution.
5 Wits is currently developing a guideless, fully automated model that will make its debut in Syracuse at Destiny USA, one of the largest malls in America. “We can never replicate a live actor, but we are working on making a computer appear just as intelligent. It needs to be aware of where the participants are and how they’re performing to adjust the show accordingly,” Matthew explains. Destiny USA will have 4 shows: Espionage; a re-mix of Tomb; a Medieval Castle story; and another new show still in the works. In addition to being guideless, these shows will be shorter and less expensive. The Destiny USA project will be a good indication of how well the shows adapt to a different context and to higher throughput, which will perhaps encourage more discussions about franchising.
What’s amazing about the 5 Wits adventures is that they bring together old-school dark ride design approaches and forward thinking principles. Most new attractions today strive to use as much digital technology as possible: dark rides have increased their use of simulation and 3D technology (and 4D, and every #D imaginable); museums have exploded with interactive touch screens; and some theme parks have even gone entirely digital. These technology-based efforts all aim to increase audience interactivity and make them feel more a part of the story. Of course, entertainment designers are always seeking to create places that are experiential and immersive, but tech-happy approaches aren’t always the answer: “To me, if a big part of your experience involves staring at a glowing rectangle on a wall, that’s not interactive! How is a touch screen different from being on the couch or surfing the web? We deliberately try to avoid screens and glowing rectangles in our designs, because every kid will have them in their pockets if they don’t already. We compete in real space, in having real experiences,” Matthew explains. In spite of the rapid evolution of technology, Matthew believes that there will be a backlash response and a return to more physical environments in the years to come.
We found Matthew’s approach to be intelligent and well focused. Rather than trying to invent the next entertainment design technology, his company is utilizing technology for its advantages, while focusing on the one thing that matters most: making people feel transported.
photo credit: 5 Wits Productions, Inc.