Today, Disneyland launched a new “interactive experience” called “Legends of Frontierland.” It’s best described as a strange hybrid of an Alternate Reality Game (ARG) with Live Action Role Playing (LARP) in which you, the guest, get to create a character, align yourself with one of two competing factions, and then do various tasks to help your faction achieve victory over the other. The premise is that two bordering settlements – Frontierland and Rainbow Ridge – are engaged in a land dispute, and whichever side ends the day owning the most land wins. Land can be purchased from the local trading post for bits (Frontierland currency) that can be earned by collecting bounties, delivering telegrams, gambling, or doing other odd jobs for the denizens of Frontierland and Rainbow Ridge.
You can also engage in duels with other players, buy property out from under its current owner, send other players to jail, and so on, and so forth. If all of this sounds excessive and needlessly complicated, well, it is. To make matters worse, the conveyance of all of this is handled really poorly. None of this is conveyed through play, and unless you take time to read the extensive rules beforehand you’ll end up being hopelessly lost; even then, things still may not be entirely clear. Couple that with obtuse gating mechanics and other frustrations, and there are so many reasons why this game should not work. Going into this I was ready to gleefully snark away at what would almost certainly be a monumental disaster, but then a funny thing happened… I actually started having fun with it.
It’s an interesting thing to reconcile, because the mechanical design of the game is undeniably bad – so bad in fact, that they break a cardinal rule of ARG design by having a failsafe mechanic built in where Cast Members are allowed to break character and explain both the game and the metagame to players – but the game’s secret weapon, the thing that makes it work in spite of everything else, is that the Cast Members playing their parts in the game are really, really, really damn good at their jobs. The interaction between live performers and guests as part of the game is a really exciting thing to experience, and the Cast Members go above and beyond – both in character and out of character – to make the experience as fun and intuitive as it can possibly be, often paving over many of the game’s fundamentally flawed design choices. At one point I was getting frustrated when I had seemingly hit a dead end in the game, but this was quickly reconciled by calling “time out” and discussing the metagame with one of the Cast Members. I was struggling with the fact that I had acquired a fair number of bits early on in the game, but was unable to use them for anything worthwhile, but a Cast Member was able to confirm my suspicion that this was essentially a gating mechanic preventing people from progressing through the game too quickly. The design of it remained frustrating, but having a Cast Member discuss this with me out of game actually helped restore some of my engagement.
Another thing I learned by discussing metagame with this Cast Member is that the game is designed to reward frequent players in a way that’s genuinely exciting. While the core mechanic of land purchasing resets every day, players get to keep any bits they have and use them when they return. In addition, as you continue to play your notoriety in the game increases. Cast Members will remember you, remember your allegiances, and some of the tasks you’ve accomplished. As you increase in notoriety you will essentially “level up,” unlocking new challenges and new ways to play. I’m not sure what they have going on behind the scenes to keep track of this or how well it will work long term, but in the time I played today I could already see some of this in action. Characters I had previously met would recall earlier interactions, and that would inform the current dialogue. I started the game as a Frontierlander, but switched to the Rainbow Ridge side partway through the day, and a character I had only briefly interacted with very early on noticed that I had changed allegiances when I met with her again much later on. For all of the game’s flaws (and there are many) this is a truly exciting idea, and something I’ve always wanted to see in these type of experiences. This live interaction that changes dynamically as you play instantly sets this apart from Disney’s previous attempt at interactive games in the parks, all of which have relied on pre-packaged responses to simple inputs. The complexity of this also solidifies the fact that while the game is open to everyone, it’s designed with locals in mind. Annual Passholders who come regularly will be able to get the most out of the game while tourists will likely only get the smallest taste of it if they even have enough time to figure out the game’s frustrating mechanics. That’s the right choice for establishing this ambitious, persistent world, but it makes Disney’s decision to launch the game during peak tourist season an odd choice.
Aside from broken mechanics, there are a few other oddities and annoyances. At the beginning of the day the scales are tipped heavily in favor of Frontierland, with five of the six permanent locations belonging to them. In addition, Rainbow Ridge’s one location is the furthest away from the entrance of the land. This seems like it will create serious balance issues with the majority of players siding with Frontierland over Rainbow Ridge due to their more prominent visibility (I didn’t stick around to the end of the day, but by the time I left Frontierland had a sizable lead in land ownership over Rainbow Ridge). Also, many of the props and set dressings they’ve set up for the game are rather unsightly, the jail being the most egregious example of this.
It was also hinted to me that eventually higher level players will be able to buy exclusive merchandise, the naked monetization of which kind of rubs me the wrong way.
From my experience today, and my out of game discussions with some of the Cast Members, it’s clear that the game is only in its early stages right now, and will continue to evolve as more people play it. Hopefully they’ll eventually work out fixes to some of the game’s more frustrating mechanics, but regardless, I’m interested to see where it goes. As of right now, the game is a mixed bag – broken gameplay tempered by stellar work by the participating Cast Members. It doesn’t get everything right, but the things it does get right are exciting and sometimes even groundbreaking. “Legends of Frontierland” is highly imperfect, but I’m honestly looking forward to spending more time with the game and seeing it evolve, and that’s A LOT more than I thought I’d say of a game I expected to hate.