We could all use a little time at PAX South from time to time.
Promotional tie-ins are a dying breed. I’m not referring to the stray licensed game, or schlepping Mario around as a pizza incentive, or even the shamelessness of Yo! Noid and Chex Quest. The fast-perishing sales pitches I dream of in my restless slumber are often more subtle, more insidious, and entirely more ridiculous. I speak of corporations invading the virtual space, their commercial viruses inserting themselves into the genetic code of established titles: Neopets allowing users to visit spaces made possible by Coca-Cola and 7-11, Second Life budding into a patchwork mutation of integrated brand spaces, which now stand as vast and trunkless legs of the companies of yesteryear.
While it’s certainly easier to find these errant pieces of cash-cow coding in the veins of internet-based titles, there was a time when single player experiences might ship with another product to sell as well. For today’s purposes, we’ll swing the magnifying glass over RollerCoaster Tycoon 2, a wonderful game, which incidentally, wanted very badly for you to visit the nearest Six Flags amusement park. In addition to featuring scenarios based on Six Flags parks, a number of the game’s coasters are modeled after real-life attractions found at, say, Six Flags Over Texas. Recently, both RollerCoaster Tycoon and RollerCoaster Tycoon 2 (with Six Flags content) were remastered in a combined package called RollerCoaster Tycoon Classic. Although it’s a wonderful release, Classic isn’t actively trying to sell me something. As a fan, I found this disappointing.
Then, I had a revelation. Tie-ins aren’t what they used to be, because brands aren’t what they used to be. In our day and age, brands can be amorphous: expressed and integrated through any means possible. A phrase, a meme, even a lifestyle. I thought, to what limits does the definition of a brand extend? Similarly, to what ends can RollerCoaster Tycoon Classic be pushed? When it does it become impossible to separate the advertisement from the fundamental experience of the game? Why can’t RollerCoaster Tycoon advertise something completely separate from amusement parks? This leads to the real question: can I transform RollerCoaster Tycoon Classic, a game once used to sell Six Flags tickets, into an interactive brand experience for the restaurant Olive Garden™?
I knew representing Olive Garden™ wouldn’t be easy. As far as I knew, this was uncharted territory – after all, nobody ever used The Sims 2 to create an immersive promotion for TGI Fridays. How could I create a theme park from the ground up that would represent the world-famous, semi-casual Italian eatery both aesthetically and thematically? As I like to say, it’s best to begin at the beginning. I launched the process (or rebirth, perhaps) by selecting the closest thing RollerCoaster Tycoon 2 had to a sandbox: the create-your-own Six Flags level. It felt like an appropriate playing field – from one promotion to another. I booted up the park and took out the maximum loan of $100,000; no expenses spared.
The next step was to deck out the pre-made section of the park with theming as representative of Italian cuisine as Olive Garden’s™ white-bread suburban neutering allows. Thus, I settled on some cobblestone paths, fruit trees, cupid fountains and Roman columns. As RollerCoaster Tycoon Classic lacks comically large wine glass or spaghetti dish props, I was forced to keep things somewhat tasteful. I took advantage of the game’s custom signs to post a ten-foot clarion call to park goers at the entrance: “WHEN YOU’RE HERE, YOU’RE FAMILY.” This mantra is the core of the Olive Garden™ experience, and as such, needs to be front and center. I set the admission fee to $9.99, the price of Olive Garden’s Never Ending Pasta Bowl™. From these seeds, a garden would sprout.
However, the weeds were already growing. I had made a mistake: opening the park without rides. Nobody wanted to pay the price of a Never Ending Pasta Bowl™ to tool around in an empty (but very tasteful) lobby. I had to get on brand integration, and fast. Thus, I plotted my first two rides, which would represent the fine selection of appetizers available at local Olive Gardens™. To begin, something classic, something to draw in the crowds: a merry-go-round, which would represent the fun, yet gentle taste experience of “Endless Breadsticks” for an excruciating 25 full rotations. I followed up this can’t-miss starter with something a little more daring: a thrilling spin-ride known in-game as an “enterprise,” which would deliver the seasoned kick of a “Spicy Shrimp Scampi Fritta.” The crowds began to flow. Welcome to flavortown.
Speaking of flavor, more attendees means more mouths to feed, so my next step was to construct a food court of six (6) Olive Garden™-approved eateries. First, drinks: “Nectar of the Garden” for soda, and “Olive’s Olcohol” for (adult) lemonade. Then, “Lickin’ Chicken” for iconic platters such as chicken alfredo, followed by “Chef Boyarpizza.” To round off the selection, I included a stand for frozen desserts (“Gelato Roboto”), and a purveyor of fine Italian meats, “Hot Dog Stall 1.” While the RollerCoaster Tycoon Classic experience isn’t quite robust enough to cater the full palette of Olive Garden™ dishes, my guests didn’t seem to mind. As long as they’re fed, they can focus more on the true draw of the Olive Garden™ theme park experience: the rides.
At first, I found myself at a loss to follow up “Endless Breadsticks” and “Spicy Shrimp Scampi Fritta.” Thankfully, the slump didn’t last long. What would follow the appetizer in an ideal Olive Garden™ dining experience? The answer, my friends, is soups, salads, and drinks. Much like my next attraction, you’ll want to follow your appetizers with some “Berry Sangria”: a rousing water ride with a sharp drop; exciting enough to give you a buzz, but not to send you barfing berries. Then, you’ll place an order for “Minestrone,” another water ride themed with giant carrots and vegetation, intended to convey the gentle, soupy transition from pre-meal eats into the main course. With these two integral portions of the Olive Garden™ brand in place, it was time to move on to the main course.
At the risk of packing too much into a park which I had, admittedly, not planned too well in terms of layout, I decided to wrap up the Olive Garden™ park with a powerful one-two punch. First was the main course. People love tradition when they come to Olive Garden™, so what better attraction than a huge, pulse-pounding wooden coaster? It’s this kind of experience which best represents the flavor of “Braised Beef & Tortelloni,” one of the undisputed stars of Olive Garden™ dining. Once you’ve pounded down this flavor train, you’ll want to let things settle before heading to “Warm Apple Crostata,” the final destination of taste buds. In this case, the mouth-watering dessert is embodied by a more modern roller coaster, full of twists and turns that deliver the sweet-yet-savory flavor of a robust apple pastry. Once you’ve taken a ride on these two titans, you’ll know this park is the real Garden™ deal.
As I put the finishing touches on my first (and assumedly final) draft of the Olive Garden™ Experience, I couldn’t help but feel a little empty inside. Was this really the most I could do? I had technically created the perfect representation of Olive Garden™ in RollerCoaster Tycoon Classic, but that’s likely because it’s the only representation of Olive Garden™ in RollerCoaster Tycoon Classic. Could I find satisfaction in my park’s visitors? Sure, fifteen people think “Berry Sangria was great,” but do they really mean it? Do these virtual representations truly appreciate the nuance of an experiment in advertising Italian food through a video game? No, they don’t. They might be able to ride the rides, but they’ll never be awash with the flavor of braised beef umami.
Unfortunately, dear readers, the ultimate RollerCoaster Tycoon Classic advertising experiment ends here. I planned to release the files for the Olive Garden™ park to put the power of brands in the hands of the people, but I immediately hit a snag. As soon as the package went up on Dropbox and entered “The Cloud,” I received an email from RollerCoaster Tycoon’s creator, Chris Sawyer, begging me not to use his child in this way. I told Mr. Sawyer that my work was too important, too groundbreaking to be concealed. I awoke the next day to find my Dropbox account suspended, and the file deleted. At the time, I was upset, but now I fear that Mr. Sawyer was attempting to protect me from a more insidious force: Olive Garden™ itself.
I was soon visited by a pair of men in black suits, who I believe to be agents of “Big Garden.” They “heard through the grapevine” (grapevine: another possible hint of “Big Garden” connection) that I was working on something big. They introduced themselves as Al Fredo and Lin Guine, and asked to see the RollerCoaster Tycoon Classic file, which I denied. The men became angry, stating that I would “regret my words and deeds,” and left. Although I fear for my safety (there’s a white panel “Olive’s Gardening” truck parked down the road), I can’t compromise a brand experience of this magnitude. The men visited me one more time, extending an olive branch by offering to buy the file instead. However, I still refused. I won’t let my advertising work become corrupted by the capitalist dollar.
If I disappear, it was the casual Italian-American dining that did it.