Carowinds Takes Aim With Unreal Engine 4 Plants vs. Zombies Attraction

By John Gaudiosi

The theme park business continues to innovate with interactivity on new rides and attractions, and even using video game technology to design experiences. Cedar Fair Entertainment turned to Epic Games’ Unreal Engine 4 technology to bring Electronic Arts-owned PopCap’s Plants vs. Zombies franchise into its Carowinds theme park.

Plants vs. Zombies Garden Warfare: 3Z Arena is a new theater attraction that pits 34 players against 34 players in a 4D battle between the plants and zombies from the bestselling video game franchise. Carowinds enlisted Alterface Projects to build the technology behind the attraction and Pure Imagination Studios to design the digital media. The companies worked with PopCap to develop the storyline for the multiplayer infrared gun attraction.

Guests will join crazy Dave’s plant army or Dr. Zomboss and his zombie hoard and travel through time, space and amusement parks searching for the Golden Gnomes and all of their fantastic powers.

“Alterface has a state-of-the art interactive gaming system, which enables us to have two completely different, but fully synchronized experiences -- one fighting against the plants and the other fighting against the zombies,” Carowinds vice president and general manager Brad Marcy said. “The collective scores of each side will determine the outcome of the story.”

In addition, the team has incorporated “intra-active” elements where one side’s actions will have an impact on what’s happening to the team on the other screen. Motion seats add another immersive layer as guests move through the game environments from scene to scene.  

At the core of the system is Alterface’s SALTO automation software and hardware that brings together all the variables such as media content, device detection, movement, and effects to create a real-time gaming attraction.  

“Alterface uses state-of-the-art infrared detection technology based on infrared beams unseen by the human eye and super high-speed cameras,” Alterface Projects USA partner Tom Gass said. “This is the same technology used in military-grade simulators.”

Guests will compete for the highest individual, as well as the highest team scores, which Marcy said drives competitiveness and replayability. Different targets and actions will have different score values, allowing players to improve over time as they become more experienced.

Gass said Alterface worked closely with the EA/PopCap team on the overall development of the attraction from a conceptual level. Pure Imagination Studios was brought on to produce the media and gameplay for 3Z Arena. Unreal Engine 4 was used to create the big screen experience.

Josh Wexler, chief executive of fun at Pure Imagination Studios, said his company has a close relationship with the team at Epic and has been working with the Unreal Engine to develop a whole new production pipeline. 

“Coming from traditional film and television projects as well as crazy format theme-park rides, it’s been really incredible to work in a real-time production environment,” Wexler said. “It changes how we develop and produce content, and it also changes the nature of the responsibility of certain artists in the workflow. It gives them a lot more creative freedom because they are no longer just the person in the pipeline who works on animating a tail for 500 shots. They can actually touch everything from animation to lighting all inside Unreal.”

Unreal Engine 4 allowed a team of 8 to 15 people at Pure Imagination to create the gameplay experience in just four months.

“We would have never been able to produce this amount of animation and gameplay in a pre-rendered engine scenario,” Wexler said. “This had to be done in Unreal, or it couldn’t have been done.”

Wexler said one of the first challenges was that EA/Popcap had their own proprietary engine they use to develop Plants vs. Zombies Garden Warfare, so Pure Imagination had to figure out how to match that look.

“We obviously had a great place to start with what EA gave us, but there was still a lot to figure out in order to really match the overall look and feel of the PVZ game,” Wexler said. “The attraction looks great and fans won’t even realize something is different.”

Guests will see characters from the game franchise up close and personal thanks to the giant screens and the stereoscopic 3D experience. Wexler said there were a number of technical hurdles to overcome, including 68 players, huge screens and stereoscopic 3D. 

“We’ve been able to really get under the hood with Unreal and create some of our own custom tools so we could drive this kind of gameplay, frame rates and resolution,” Wexler said. “The beauty is the more we could throw at the engine, the more it could handle. At the end of the day, we are ultimately hardware constrained.”

The other advantage of using Unreal Engine 4 for the ride is that Carowinds can change up the experience in the future.

“Although we don’t currently have plans to change the experience during its first year of operation, there are definitely opportunities to update content, create seasonal variants (e.g. for Halloween) or make the storyline more dynamic over time,” Marcy said.

That opens the door for EA to use the ride to connect with future game releases and downloadable content, if it wants to. Although one of the clear objectives with this theme park ride and the Mass Effect: New Earth attraction at California’s Great America is to connect with gamers outside of the home.

“One of our goals is to push storytelling further and to create rich experiences that you can’t experience in your living room,” Wexler said. “The PVZ ride wouldn’t be the same if you were home alone."

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