The Economics of LARP (part 3) — What do other pastimes charge?

Other interactive experiences and how they compare to LARP

This is the third of a series of articles about the economics of LARP and the failure of market forces when applied to the hobby. This series is derived from one of the keynote lectures which I gave at Camelot UK LARP conference held in November 2019.

  • The first blog of this series, about LARP and the Failure of Market Forces, can be found here.
  • The second in the series, about What LARP Should Cost, can be found here.
  • The fourth post discussing What are we Charging? can be found here.

“Interactive immersive narrative events” are current buzz-words in the entertainment industry. Just look how excited everyone is getting about Disney’s Galaxy’s Edge Star Wars ride. The genre has become even more topical with the newly announced multi-title collaboration between Secret Cinema and Disney, promising immersive events in a range of favourite blockbuster titles.

There is also a promised collaboration between Games Workshop and Escapologic to produce a Warhammer 40,000 themed escape room. The initial launch page suggests that the site, opening in April will allow players to “touch, smell and feel all areas of the ship and everything on it — including a talking Servitor.”

It’s not as if these interactive, immersive, narrative concepts are new. Many LARPers will have enjoyed similar immersive experiences, but without the high price tag. There are lots of pastimes which I would classify as similar to LARP, but how do they compare in style and price tag with LARP?

This range of narrative experiences has been discussed by others. I came across the diagram below, by Rachel Pendergrass, when I attended NarraScope 2019, a conference celebrating narrative games held in Boston, MA. It was referenced in an excellent presentation on creating escape rooms by Laura E Hall. I think this a fascinating framework to use to analyse different types of games and activities and you might want to consider how the following activities fit into this model.

There are many experiences which are called interactive or narrative by designers or marketers, often with apparently little idea what those terms might mean. This can mean that those of us, such as LARPers, who are used to very interactive events can feel let down by the lack of reactivity and player agency in such experiences. My perception was that they often provided a poorer game experience with a higher price tag, but I was curious as to whether this was actually true, or just my bias.

I wondered how these entertainments compared to LARP in game terms and financially. In terms of economics, the easiest way to compare cost was to identify how much they cost per hour, to enable us to compare them to each other and LARP. This allows for activities of different durations.

As can be seen from the table below, LARP is cheaper than many similar hobbies when you take the cost per hour using the current volunteer model. If you look at the cost per hour of game time, LARP is very good value.

Site costs are generally the major items on any larp budget. However, cost per hours is relatively small, because LARP events generally take place over weekends; a much greater time period than most comparable activities. Glastonbury is one of the few activities with a similar duration and as you can see, although it has a high ticket price, it has a low cost per hour.

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If you consider running LARP commercially and actually paying those involved for their time, LARP becomes relatively expensive. This is due to the time-consuming customisation and tailoring of the event to individual characters and players. The final figure for a weekend would be particularly high, due to the length of time larps run for.

However there do appear to be members of the public who will pay an eye-wateringly high amount per hour of entertainment. But, are any of them LARPers? There may be some crossover, as LARPers who started as students many years ago have become successful and more affluent.

This got me wondering whether larpers would be willing or able to continue with a hobby that cost equivalent sums to entertainments like The Crystal Maze or Then She Fell. I approached both event runners and live roleplayers with questionnaires about the financial side of the hobby. I found that 80% of LARPSs are run as a hobby, rather than a commercial venture, which supports a falsely low ticket price. There are many other fascinating pieces of information about our hobby and those who organise and play LARPs. You can read more about the financial truths of larp in my next post.

This article continues with more details about activities which are comparable to LARP. The next blog post in the series will explore and discuss the responses to the questionnaires I sent to event runners and LARP players. This original research contains fascinating insights into the world of running and playing LARP events.

Which might be reasonably compared to LARP?

High Street, Location-Based Games

Escape Rooms

I’m sure most people will have tried an escape room by now, but for those who haven’t, an escape room is a location where a group of participants are asked to solve a series of puzzles to ‘win’ and allow themselves to ‘escape.’ These rooms have a theme and varying degrees of narrative and interaction. It can range from a minimally set dressed rooms with a series of code locks that you have to crack to a beautifully immersive environment with a range of clever puzzles which use magnets and electronic locks to move items and open secret doors without any human interference.

Escape Rooms are highly interactive and can be atmospheric, but there is often a very linear path to follow through the puzzles as they can only be solved in a certain order. There is a narrative in the setting and introduction, but frequently little story driving the actions of the players. I have spoken to escape room designers about this and they say it is very difficult to include narrative in the room as players are so focused on finding clues and getting out as quickly as possible. In my mind as they are more atmospheric than narrative.

The waiting area of Escape My Room

Escape My Room in New Orleans had lovely set dressing and character interaction with staff from the moment you stepped in off the street, including a nice on-boarding experience and an in-genre waiting room with extra puzzles. They even provided costumes for the players to dress up in. It is my favourite of all the escape rooms I have played and is the closest escape room experience to LARP that I have found (which may be why I feel like this). If you have the chance, I would particularly recommend The Inventor’s Attic.

Cost per player $36.12 = £27.89/hr.

There are other Escape Rooms which are a little cheaper, eg. £20 per hour in Cardiff.

Magiquest (‘interactive live-action, role playing game’)

Magiquest has several locations in USA, Canada and Japan. They are often found in hotels, but the site I visited in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee was a set of rooms in an entertainment centre. This site on a strip mall also had a mirror maze, laser maze and various arcade games.

Players create a character, or at least a name for their alter-ego and are given a wand and an Ancient Book of Wisdom (hints and tips). By browsing at computer terminals players select quests, and then wander around the environment, pointing their infra-red wand at items and locations to add them to the inventory or interact with them.

It’s a bit like a scavenger hunt — collect the items on your quest, watch a video of congratulation from an NPC and then save your progress at the terminal. There is little problem solving, in contrast with an Escape Room, although the clues are opaque and often given in rhyme, so they are not total clear cut.

There are various set dressed locations, including a village and a forest with some restriction of where starting characters can go. Certain quests have prerequisite items which have to be collected before the player is allowed to undertake that quest. This and the location restriction means there is some degree of character progression. Players have a saved character which can be returned to.

Cost $14.99 = £11.58/hr

Wizard Quest (‘a magical interactive scavenger hunt’)

This game is similar to Magiquest. It’s a fantasy-world team game, where players are sent on quests. We played in The Wisconsin Dells, a USA vacation town. Participants use a tablet to interact with the environment and answer clues based on the things they find.

The set dressing is better than Magiquest and the environment is cleverer, with secret doors and slides between levels. There are more advanced quests for returning players, so although there are no characters, there is progression. There were choices to be made for example between helping the good guys or the evil overlord, so there is some degree of interactivity and player agency affecting the outcome.

Cost $14.99 =£11.58/hr

The Crystal Maze

Based on a 1990s TV series, since resurrected, this is a warehouse location where players can participate in the tests and trials from the show they enjoyed watching. The original London site was set up with crowd funding and a new site in Manchester has recently opened. A quirky and charismatic host leads the team of six players though four different set-dressed zones e.g. medieval, aztec and futuristic where players take turns to play games which are classified as skill, physical, mental or mystery.

Players who successfully complete the puzzle room within the allocated time leave with a crystal. Some rooms have automatic lock-ins where, if unsuccessful players are trapped and other team members have to decide whether to use a crystal to gain their freedom.

The crystals collected at the end of the game buy seconds within the crystal dome. This dome has fans on the floor and is filled with gold and silver pieces of foil. The team has to collect as many gold tokens as they can, with points deducted for silver ones.

£57.99 for 90 minutes = £38.66/hr

Theatrical Experiences

There are a number of famous and innovative theatre performances which are to-some-degree interactive. Probably the best known company in the medium is Punchdrunk, although there are many other theatre troupes out there who are creating interesting experiences. For some having a promenade performance appears to make the marketers think it is interactive, whilst others actually manage to give different audience members different experiences, sometimes with a degree of audience member agency.

The Drowned Man

The Drowned Man was one of Punchdrunk’s previous theatrical performances, where the company took over a warehouse near Paddington Station in London and set dressed the inside of the whole building as a Hollywood studio and surrounding environs, in the peak of the silver screen era. The set dressing was superb; walking out of a stairwell into an indoor desert which seemed to stretch for miles, was jaw dropping.

The Drowned Man: Punchdrunk publicity shot

The audience is free to roam the set and watch stories play out in particular locations or try to keep up with a character as they go through their story loop. There are degrees of individuality; some audience members are selected for small groups scenes or one-to-ones with characters, but it has never seemed to be to be particularly interactive, although I love the immersion and idea.

£95 for 3 hours, so £32/hour

The Void

The Void is a stadium Virtual Reality experience, where participants wear a VR headset and earphones and move around a fictional environment. This is a virtual reality overlaid on the real world and allows travel into a film reality or fictional world. Players can explore a their physical surroundings and feel immersed in an absorbing world.

£30 for 55 minutes = £32.72/hr

Then She Fell

Then She Fell is an immersive, Alice- In-Wonderland-like experience inspired by the life and writings of Lewis Carroll for a group of 15 audience members. The set dressed environment allows audience members to explore, often by themselves, discover hidden scenes, encounter performers one-on-one, find clues to hidden secrets and drink custom cocktails designed by a New York mixologist. I haven’t personally experienced this production, but it seems similar to Punchdrunk in style, but with a much smaller audience.

$200 for 2 hours, £75/hr

Broken Bone Bath Tub

This is a touring theatre production which takes over a bathroom in an actual home. The single female character, Siobhan, has had a serious bike accident before the play takes place and has ended up with her arm in plaster. The small audience (6–15 people) take on the roles of Siobhan’s close friends, help the actress bathe and share their experiences with others in the room. It explores themes of trauma, suffering, human generosity and connection. Depending on the audience members, this creates an experience which could be very similar to LARP.

$25–50 for 1–1.5 hour (depends on venue)= £29/hr

Secret Cinema

The Secret Cinema team take blockbuster films such as Return of the Jedi, Moulin Rouge and Blade Runner (or in the care of their latest production; the Netflix series Stranger Things) and set dress a London warehouse in the style of the film. The audience are free to wander the environment, interact with NPCs and solve puzzles. The evening culminates in the audience watching the source material, with the performers acting in front of a big screen.

It is possible to treat it as if it is just a costume party, but for those those who want to, there are secret environments which you need to interact with actors to get clues to get access. The performers are improvising, so it does feel as you are enjoying a personal experience. Stranger Things felt to me to be the most interactive of the Secret Cinemas I have visited, with rewarding problem-solving elements. It is a branching linear narrative which has to be collected back onto the rails at the end of the night though as they have a single climax to the live action section.

£85 for 5 hours, £17/hr

Galaxy’s Edge

Disney’s Galaxy’s Edge Star Wars theme park and ride. There is a location, set-dressed as a Star Wars spaceport, with costumed actors who are in character. It culminates in a Millennium Falcon ride.

Galaxy’s edge $129 for 4 hours = £24.65/hr

Street Games

There are many different street games, including festivals where multiple short games are played one after the other. However here I have considered the stand-alone games, which are played in public streets, parks etc. The key elements to these games are generally an initial briefing, often given in-part by an NPC character, with other interactions with costumed NPCs during the game.

The level of interaction and vary a lot, with some games relying heavily on technology to drive the game forward. In an Alice in Wonderland street game we played in London last year, many of the steps were treasure hunt type clues, where players sent an SMS and received an automated response with the next step in the puzzle. In other games, participants bring the answers or physical objects they have found to NPC characters to progress the game; more like quest sections in a computer game.

Zombie Run/ 2.8 days later

These are zombie chase games, played on the streets and in selected indoor locations which the players visit during the game. The players are arranged into teams, although often these teams are just formed by the organisers to make their logistics and briefings easier. They frequently do not survive contact with the zombies and the players split back up into the small groups of friends they arrived with. The aim is to survive to the end and not to be ‘bitten’ by an infected zombie. These zombies can be either the rapidly-moving type or the slower, lurching and moaning variety.

There is some story and a trail of clues designed to lead the players from one location to another. Some of the locations can be amazingly atmospheric, such as an abandoned church containing shrines to the lost, or an deserted three-storey shopping arcade with multiple sets of open stairs, so you could see the zombies approaching.

There is some interaction and improvisation from the NPC actors in these games, although this varies a lot between games. If you book and play as a team, you can have great fun role-playing within the scenario, although it is not specifically designed for this. I encountered a particular favourite team in Bristol who were playing an investigative reporter and TV crew, complete with Go-pros and microphones.

Often there is a bar and disco at the end of the game to allow everyone to share their war stories.

2.8 Hours Later were unable to make their game model economically viable and eventually went into receivership. Their charging model did not allow them to make a profit and they ended up cancelling several city locations, leading to cash flow problems.

£30 for 3 hours = £10/hr

80 days, A Real World Adventure

80 days is a street game played around Covent Garden in London. This game has a combination of NPC interactions and technological solutions. Players receive an initial briefing from a character, and receive a sponsor/mentor NPC. As they solve puzzles at various locations, answers are submitted in the app and groups receive in-game money, which can be used to purchase items (which are restricted in number, so not all teams can have all the items). Players may be given additional help and items by interacting with the NPCs.

At the climax of the game, teams return to The Reform Club and play through a choose-your-own-adventure-story on a phone, using the items collected to solve various challenges. The items collected and the team’s ingenuity when using them controls how successful the journey is and the final story that is told.

£27.50 for 2 hours= £13.75/hr

80 days from Fire Hazard Games

Physical Activities

There are those who enjoy larp because of the more physical aspects; the battles, the skirmishes, the one on one hero fights. There are a number of more mainstream leisure activities which can appeal to players in a similar way.

Lasertag

Whilst this achieved its peak appeal in the 1990s and many sites have closed, there are still lasertag centres in a number of cities in the UK and elsewhere. I haven’t played for years, but the core game seems to be the same. Your can play an individual or team game where you negotiate a maze-like location and shoot other players. This can be dressed up with varying amounts of story and indeed roleplaying, depending on the location and players.

Cost £6 for 20 minutes = £18/hr

Paintball

The notorious game of 2000s stag-dos, in paintball, players run around a location, normally in the woods, firing balls of paint at their friends. Like Lasertag, there are a variety of different types of scenarios, such as capture-the-flag or last man standing either as individual players or in teams. Some of the scenarios can involve roleplaying, others are a more militaristic game where you demonstrate your skill in tactics and accuracy of aim.

£27.95 half day with 300 paintballs = £9.31/hr

Axe throwing

This came to my attention in 2019, but I don’t know how popular or widespread it was before that. As the name suggests you go to a throwing range and throw axes at a target. I tried it in an indoor location in downtown Chicago, but there are woodland centres where you are throwing axes at tree stumps and other more rustic targets. There can be team games or individual rounds but at the basic game is like a shooting range.

Chicago, $75/ hour = £57/hr

Bridgend £15 for 90 minutes = £10/hr

Equivalent Activities

The activities which I have discussed above all play through in a relatively short period of time. One of the things I love about live role-play games is the length of play time. Although there are scenarios which take a couple of hours or banquet events which last an evening, most of the games I play are over a weekend. In many cases, ongoing campaigns last for years.

For this reason I decided I should also look at the costs of various weekend long activities and break the down into hourly costs, to allow comparison.

Glastonbury

The largest, most famous, music and performance festival in the world, Glastonbury takes place in Somerset once a year, for a long weekend. There are hundreds of different activities and entertainments happening at the same time; from blockbuster pop groups to scientific lectures to magic shows performed to a single audience member. The ticket price includes camping accommodation, similar to many LARP events.

Cost for a weekend ticket £275 = £6.40/hr

Experience days

There are many different types of experience days available to entertain and educate, with vastly differing price tags. Two which sounded similar to many larp events, although without the narrative element were Foraging with Lunch or A Bear Grylls Survival Experience.

£120 for 4 hours for 2 people = £15/hr

£380 for 2 people for 6 hours = £31.66/hr

Weekends away in a nice hotel

£132/person dinner, bed and breakfast 1 night = £5.50/hr

Alton towers

The midlands theme park has a variety of rides and entertainment shows to entertain visitors during the day.

£58 for 8 hours = £7.25/hr

The next post in this series will explore original research about the costs and financial realities of LARP.

If you enjoyed this blog post, please give it a clap and share it so that others can enjoy it too.

  • The first blog of this series, about LARP and the Failure of Market Forces, can be found here.
  • The second in the series, about What LARP Should Cost, can be found here.
  • The third in this blog series, discussing What do Other Similar Pastimes Charge? can be found here.
  • The fourth post discussing What are we Charging? can be found here.

Written by

Vet, likes all things animal. Roleplayer, LARP & Crooked House LRP. Plays and organises interactive narrative fiction. Travels as Vetvoyages.

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