Veteran Haunt Consultant Scott Swenson on Gamification and the Future of the Haunt Industry

Howl-o-ScreamWe interview 30-year haunt and entertainment industry veteran, Scott Swenson, about his legendary career and current projects!

Scott Swenson

When Scott Swenson looks into his crystal ball, the haunt industry tends to lean in to get a glimpse of what he sees emerging from the mists. As the former Director of Creative Services at Busch Gardens Tampa, Swenson was part of the team that developed Howl-O-Scream and acted as either director or producer for the first 15 years of the event. “In that time, I had written over 150 haunts and scare zones and trained thousands of actors,” he admits.

Swenson now sees a new trend headed towards the haunt and theatrical attraction industry: Gamification. “Interactive was the first buzzword that I remember hearing,” says Swenson, “and then everyone started talking about ‘immersive’ experiences, and now the next buzzword, I think, will be gamified.”

“Not just in entertainment either,” he continues, “It will be in marketing and advertising as well. Gamification is a phenomenon that takes game/escape room folks and haunters and smashes them together. It takes advantage of the idea that people want to go from point A to point B. Everybody wants to win. If I do this, then I will be rewarded with that.”

“One of the best examples I can think of right now is ZTag,” says Swenson. “It’s like electronic tag where everybody plays as either a human, a zombie or a doctor. Everyone wears a badge or a wristband with a screen monitoring your health. If you get too close to a zombie, your health shrinks until you become one unless you can find a doctor to heal you.”

ZTag

Swenson discusses topics like Gamification and many others on his “A Scott in the DarkPodcast which has recently surpassed 30 episodes. “Someone at a seminar came up to me and said, ‘I can’t get out to all of the conventions. Why don’t you do a Podcast and share all the information you’ve gained over the years?’ Since I started doing it, it has been picked up by the Haunted Attraction Network and it’s also on iTunes.”

“When I left Busch Gardens five years ago, I became an independent contractor. I took all of that passion for haunting and I became an independent consultant. I started Scott Swenson Creative Development LLC, and that has just exploded. I’ve now worked for haunted attractions as far north as Edmonton in Alberta, Canada and as far south as Tampa.”

Swenson wasn’t born a haunter, however. “I grew up outside of Chicago, and I was what they would call a chicken as a kid. I remember when I was probably 9 or 10 years old, my friends were sitting around the living room watching “Creature from the Black Lagoon” on a Sunday afternoon. I sat next to the TV watching THEM watch the movie because I was too scared to look at the screen. I was watching their faces to see when and how they got scared, which is telling now if you think about it.”

“They knew I didn’t want to see the creature, so they tricked me into turning around and looking at the TV when it was on screen,” confesses Swenson. “Instead of being shocked, my first reaction was, ‘Wait a minute! There’s a zipper! We can do better than that!’.”

Scott Swenson

Howl-O-Scream
Swenson has consequently believed that it was his skittish nature that has made him a better haunter. “I know what it’s like to be scared, which makes it easier for me to scare other people. I understand what fear feels like, so I know how to elicit that in someone else.”

“When we first started Howl-O-Scream in 2000, we targeted our base audience of young families. The resulting guest reviews and comments were terrible. What we discovered was that if you have an event that is open until midnight or 1AM, you don’t need to target kids! So we decided to go toe-to-toe with Universal Studios.”

“We didn’t have the intellectual properties that Universal had, but we did have a big, open 5,000 square foot space to come up with our own creative stories and ideas,” says Swenson. “Our model was based on Knotts Berry Farm. What I’ve discovered over the years is that it’s fine to be inspired by another great haunt. We are in an industry that has the ability to self-support—and we should.”

“If guests go to a bad haunt early in the season, they won’t go to another,” testifies Swenson. “But if they go to a good haunt, they will go looking for the next big scare.”

Swenson’s advice to new, would-be haunters is to bridge the gap between business strategy and creative impulse. “The first question I would ask someone interested in going into the haunted attraction industry is why they want to do it. If the answer was, ‘I love it and I’m passionate about it,’ I would say go for it, but put together a solid business plan first. If the answer was, ‘I want to make a killing financially and then sell it and retire,’ I would say that unless you’re 18 years old, you’re not going to get where you want to be before you’d want to retire.”

Scott Swenson

When it comes to Swenson’s theory of Gamification, he sites attractions like Evermore and a company called 5 Wits that builds immersive live-action adventures with locations in New York, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and Virginia. “They’re not really escape rooms, but they’re adventure rooms. These experiences are amazing. They have theme park quality scenic designs and electronics. Never once do you have to figure out a math problem, but you do have to do a lot of activities to move to the next room.”

Gamification is a term I expect to hear a lot more over the next couple of years. Stay tuned to Swenson’s “A Scott in the DarkPodcast for more looks into his haunt industry crystal ball.

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