GDR’s Managing Editor John O’Sullivan visited Monopoly’s new live-action theatrical experience on London’s Tottenham Court Road to consider what brands and retailers can learn from the innovative, category-blurring space.
For years we’ve been hearing about the rise of a new breed of consumer that values experiences over things. Pine and Gilmore’s seminal book The Experience Economy foresaw this back in 1999, while during the last decade study after study found that first Millennials and then Gen Z were putting less stock in buying things, and more in actually doing things. This paradigm shift has presented a new challenge for brands, and particularly those traditionally in the business of selling products. At GDR we’ve been fascinated to see the different ways companies have been experimenting, pivoting, and innovating to satisfy this emerging consumer demand.
One of the surest expressions of this trend to date is Hasbro’s Monopoly Lifesized, which reimagines the classic boardgame as an energetic, live-action experience that merges Monopoly’s gameplay with elements of theatre and Crystal Maze-style physical and mental challenges. A collaboration with international theatre producer Selladoor Worldwide, whose new gaming division Gamepath has designed the experience, it promises “a dynamic, lively, interactive experience and a great night out,” according to Julia Posen, development head at Gamepath.
Having opened on London’s Tottenham Court Road, just a stone’s throw from GDR HQ, I felt compelled to head down to assess if it achieves what it set out to do, and what retailers and brands can learn from the execution.
Moving beyond retail
Arriving at the venue the first thing that struck me was that Monopoly Lifesized has taken the place of a previously key retail location on a well-known shopping street, most recently occupied by a sprawling multi-level store from now-beleaguered stationery brand Paperchase. This in itself gives us a snapshot of the direction of travel of the UK high street, as many towns and cities previously anchored by retail stores are slowly building in more multi-purpose developments built around community and leisure. In this sense Monopoly Lifesized gives us a glimpse of the future and hints at the type of new, exciting experiential spaces that will drive footfall to our towns and cities as omnichannel logistics networks continue to make non-differentiated legacy retail space redundant.
This hybrid approach continues inside the location where, alongside the headline experience, you’ll find a Monopoly store selling all the branded merchandise you could ever imagine and a restaurant and cocktail bar called Top Hat with a menu that merges traditional fare with cocktails and dishes inspired by Monopoly characters and locations. Hasbro doesn’t just want you to come for the 90-minute experience, they want you to stay all night and go home with gifts for the whole family.
The Monopoly Lifesized experience
The experience itself started in a holding room where the participants are split into four teams, which can include up to six people each. Here we met the real stars of the show: the actors. Mr Monopoly – appearing in a trademark black suit and top hat and sporting a white moustache – explained the rules of the game before introducing four more real-life characters inspired by the game’s iconic pieces – the duck, the thimble, the ironing board and the ship. Each team was given a character – my team got the duck who enthusiastically introduced himself as “Pond, James Pond” – who plays a key role throughout the experience, explaining each new challenge in theatrical style, giving useful tips and updating the team’s progress on an iPad that allows Mr Monopoly to keep tabs on who owns what property and how much money each team has in the bank.
We then moved up to one of the four main events spaces, which are Classic, City, Vault and Junior. We played on the City board, which is essentially a 15sqm Monopoly board featuring locations inspired by modern London, with a door featuring a hidden experience positioned next to each square. As in the boardgame version, competitors roll a dice, which in this instance is human-size, and move around the board to collect property, which they can then charge rent on. Unlike the traditional game, though, players can’t just buy property they land on, first they need to complete the mental or physical challenges in the room next to that property. Experiences we took part in included re-organising the departures board at Fenchurch Street Station after it had been muddled up, breaking a code to light up the Piccadilly Circus lights, mastering a Guitar Hero-style game at Tottenham Court Road and trying to guide a golf ball through a maze that can only be controlled by standing on top of it and swaying side to side.
Every other turn, teams move to the centre of the board to either dip into the community chest, or build a house or hotel, which involved physically building a model with wonky, ill-fitting blocks that need to be pieced together in exactly the right order. Teams also pick a chance card every second turn to build in more familiar gameplay features from the boardgame, such as “Advance to Go” and “Pay half rent” and they can also end up in jail if they land on the wrong square. While this is theoretically something to be avoided, the jail room, hemmed in by bars, is an escape room environment that players need to crack to get out of. It was billed throughout as the headline feature of the experience, so it seemed a real shame that not a single one of our groups was able to experience it.
Evaluating the experience
Overall the experience was really enjoyable and quite unlike anything I’d done before. If you’re a fan of the original boardgame and you like murder mysteries, pantomime humour and Crystal Maze or Escape Room-style challenges, you’ll have a great time – there’s no doubt about that.
However, where I struggle is with the price point of £52 per person, which puts it a notch above very good escape rooms and on a par with tickets for leading London theatres, Premier League football games and more tried and tested live-action venues like The Crystal Maze Experience, which offers a more polished, varied and immersive experience.
While some of the challenges felt unique and worth the entrance fee, others did feel like they were there to make up the numbers, and not what you’d expect from a premium entertainment experience run by a leading global brand. The community chest and house/hotel building, which took up half the time, was also extremely repetitive and it felt a real shame to be constantly doing this when we could have been exploring other rooms or trying to “escape from jail”. I was also disappointed by the lack of any really immersive or cutting-edge technology in any of the challenges that I took part in. Additionally, while Mr Monopoly did re-emerge at the end to announce the winners (full disclosure: my team The Bird Brains was hit by some big rent payments late on and slipped into last place) it did feel like the experience ended very abruptly before we were hurriedly ushered out of the room, despite being told there would be loads of time for photos.
What can we learn from the execution?
Does all this mean I think the space fails to deliver? To answer this I think it’s important to interrogate what Hasbro is aiming to get out of the launch. A little research shows that they’re not a company being forced to reinvent their business offer because of the shifting tides of the retail world. According to Euromonitor the value of the global Games and Puzzles market has risen from $10.4bn in 2019 to an estimated $12.1bn in 2021, while ResearchAndMarkets.com is anticipating that revenue in the board games market will grow by another 13% between now and 2026. In addition to this positive trend, Hasbro continues to be the largest company in the sector both globally and in the UK, so it’s fair to say that they’re innovating from a position of strength, rather than out of necessity.
I suspect that Hasbro sees Monopoly Lifesized in London, not as a finished product ready to be rolled out across the globe, but as a live beta-test to assess the viability of the proposition and figure out what works, and what doesn’t. This feels like the first step in a long-term journey for an experience that needs a little more polish and an extra helping of wow factor. But that doesn’t mean the concept isn’t an interesting one.
As we enter an exciting new era of retail, all brands should be looking at the relevant white space around their products and services and considering how they can reinvent or reimagine their offer to create something that is more meaningful or more embedded into their customers’ lifestyles. In addition, as I touched upon earlier, Monopoly Lifesized also proves that brands now have permission to start thinking about their town and city centre locations as much more than just standard retail stores.
So while I’m not convinced that Monopoly Lifesized is the finished article just yet, I do think the way it merges so many different entertainment categories (board game, theatre, murder mystery, escape rooms, as well as retail and dining) and brings the brand to life in a new way in a former offline retail flagship space, is something that all retailers, brands, and property developers can take inspiration from as they consider the changing role their companies, products and physical spaces will play in consumers’ lives in the next decade and beyond.
As ever, if you’re interested in talking to us in more detail about any of the themes discussed in this article, or the challenges you’re facing as a business, we’re here to help. Get in touch with firstname.lastname@example.org