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Why Nintendo and other game companies are teaming up with theme parks

The Green Lantern: First Flight Ride Opening Media Day At Six Flags Magic MountainThe Green Lantern: First Flight Ride Opening Media Day At Six Flags Magic Mountain
Rollercoaster enthusiasts at a Six Flags in California.Mathew Imaging—WireImage

Interactive entertainment is starting to take on an entirely different meaning.

Several video game companies are looking to expand the brand footprint of their big franchises—only this time, they’re moving beyond traditional methods, like movies and toys, and focusing on theme parks.

Nintendo (NTDOY) kicked things off in May, announcing a partnership with Universal Parks and Resorts that will bring Nintendo’s extensive collection of characters to the popular resorts in the form of Nintendo-themed rides and character appearances. Next up was Ubisoft, which raised the stakes in September by announcing plans to open its own 10,000 square meter “next generation” theme park in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in 2020.

Now Electronic Arts (EA) is unveiling a pair of similar collaborations, which will result in a Mass Effect-themed attraction at California’s Great Adventure and what’s being called a “intra-active 3D game experience” based on Plants vs. Zombies Garden Warfare at North Carolina’s Carowinds. Both rides are scheduled to open in 2016.

While the trend might seem a bit unusual, officials at the companies say it’s a logical extension for the brands—as companies look to expand their intellectual properties beyond consoles.

Ubisoft’s first foray into the world of theme parks, for example, came in 2014, with 3D dark ride based on the Raving Rabbids: Travel in Time game for France’s Futuroscope. The ride was named one of 2014’s top attractions in the world—which piqued the company’s curiosity.

“When we started Ubisoft Motion Pictures, [CEO] Yves [Guillemot]’s intention was to bring our IP to different worlds,” says Jean de Rivières, senior vice president of Ubisoft Motion Pictures (the division of Ubisoft which will oversee the park). “We built a ride based on the Rabbids in France and it did super well. … The reactions from visitors made us feel we have something that we can pursue, so the logical next step for a company like Ubisoft is to be really ambitious and plan a park.”

MORE: Virtual reality theme park being built in China

While they work in entirely different mediums, theme park ride designers and video game developers have, in many ways, the same job. They both are charged with creating an experience that takes people out of their day-to-day lives, if only for a few minutes.

Those similarities are, in part, fueling the recent moves.

“From the very first meeting, we had a very good common understanding—where they had a tremendous amount of respect for our development process and we had respect for what they create, how they create and their adherence to safety standards,” says Shinya Takahashi, general manager of Nintendo’s entertainment planning & development division. “That fit with our corporate culture. So from the beginning we’ve had a common understanding.”

As a protective move, though, all of the publishers are leaning on partners to do most of the heavy lifting for the rides—both literally and financially. Representatives say they realize theme parks are not their core business and they don’t want to extend themselves too far and put the company at risk—but they do maintain a fair level of creative control over how their licenses are used.

The theme park pushes come as the theme park industry is in the midst of an upswing. Last year, the top 25 theme parks worldwide saw attendance increase 4.1%—with 223.5 million total visitors, according to the Themed Entertainment Association.

Publishers, though, say the number of visitors is less a factor than the broader appeal of the parks. Rides can create shared experiences for families—which could later translate into a greater interest in the games that inspired them.

“Parents are looking for experiences with their kids,” says de Rivières. “We need to add some ways that are not tech oriented where they engage in it together. … It’s not about technology. It’s about the technology serving the story. I think that’s the biggest challenge. … Ubisoft is in a world where we have to reinvent ourselves every day.”

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