Playgrounds aren’t what they used to be.
If your kid is getting bored of his school’s old, rusty jungle gym, he may want to check out Slime Zone, Nickelodeon’s virtual playground.
It’s no secret that VR is, for the most part, an enthusiast’s world. Oculus and HTC Vive continue to release high-quality headsets, but they’re too expensive, and the games aren’t good enough for the general public to catch on to.
But SlimeZone has, perhaps wisely, taken a different approach. Nobody buys SlimeZone. Instead, it’s set of HTC Vive headsets in the lobbies of IMAX theaters in Los Angeles, New York, and Toronto. Kids (or adults) pay $15 for thirty minutes of play.
Released in March 2018, SlimeZone is a collaboration between Nickelodeon and IMAX.
It’s set up, along with a number of other VR experiences, in the lobbies of IMAX theaters in Los Angeles, New York City, and Toronto, and soon to roll out in Shanghai, Bangkok and Manchester, according to Nickelodeon.
I entered the Slime Zone in the lobby of the Kips Bay AMC. After a brief tour of the center, I put on my Vive headset and a harness (to keep me from walking into the wall, which I absolutely would have done otherwise), took my controllers, and entered an adorably bright, loud, colorful Nickelodeon world.
Nickelodeon is very adamant that SlimeZone is not a game. “It’s an opportunity to connect kids to our brand,” Nickelodeon SVP of Entertainment Lab Chris Young told me. “It’s another chance to connect with our audience outside of this linear channel.”
While Mr. Young may not have intended for SlimeZone to be a game, that’s certainly what it feels like.
Users choose a Nickelodeon character to play. After selecting some variety of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle, I found myself in large, colorful arena, holding a squirt gun.
The first thing I saw when I appeared in SlimeZone was a massive inflatable Spongebob looming over me. Startled, I shot it immediately. Slime erupted from my gun, knocking Spongebob over. He reset himself soon after, but a number in the sky indicated that my ambush had earned me points of some sort.
You moved around by selecting an area ahead of you and teleporting yourself there by clicking the controller. You can make yourself much bigger or much smaller, changing the sizes of the various characters and other props around you in turn.
The arena is large, full of nooks and crannies, and various items litter the floor. One room contained a basketball and hoop, which I dribbled aimlessly and tried (and failed) to dunk. Another was full of small tubes of paint, which you can use to create art if you’re so inclined.
Random objects were scattered about, including balls, fish, pencils, could be picked up and put down at will, but it was unclear what I was supposed to do with them. Would they get me points? Did I want points?
Fun, but what’s the point?
As I barrelled through the Slime Zone, shooting down my inflatable nemeses, I noticed that I continued to accumulate points, but it seemed somewhat random. Hitting a smaller target didn’t correlate with a higher point return, and I was never sure how exactly to get myself higher on the scoreboard.
Neither, it appears, are Slime Zone’s developers.
“It’s more of a sandbox,” Young told me, emphasizing that it’s not supposed to have an objective. “It doesn’t really take a level of skill.”
Fair enough. At the same time, there’s a bit of an aimless nature to Slime Zone play, to the point where I felt like I was doing a lot of wandering, and not a lot of anything exciting. That might be okay on the school swingset, but I’d expect more stimulation from a $15 playground.
At the end of the day, Slime Zone was a cute experience. But I’m still not quite sure what kids are supposed to do.
Young says it’s up to the players. “You could pick up a paint tube and start to play your own game, or draw a heart in one of the very far corners of the space,” he told me. “Some people use bananas as shields when other people are sliming at them. Other people start throwing bananas. Here are a bunch of objects. Do what you want.”
Again, fair enough. But at that point, I wonder what’s unique. Painting, dribbling basketballs, and shooting squirt guns are all things you can do for free at home — so why pay $15 to do it for 15 minutes in VR?
But more importantly, the beauty of a digital, interactive medium seems to me to revolve, in at least some part, around organization.
What games, from League of Legends to Fortnite to Final Fantasy, have in common is that they guide your action towards an objective. Yes, that eliminates some freedom. But it also ensures that your kids are getting their money’s worth out of their experience, seeing and doing the best of what developers intended, and emerging from the experience feeling some sense of accomplishment. With young kids, who could easily spend all 30 minutes trying to figure out how to use the squirt gun, or wandering aimlessly around the main hall, this could be a real concern.
I love the Slime Zone. But it would need a bit more structure before I’d pay $15 for my kid to play.