An Interview with Daniel Ruke, Creator of the First Video Game Theme Park, Game Nation
On Thursday, October 10, I met Daniel Ruke, creator of Game Nation, the first Video Game Theme Park and Resort where you are immersed into a story. Game Nation is not just a theme park; it’s an interactive experience where you are able to live out any character you create, and the best part? It’s not a game, it’s real!
Game Nation’s mission is to create an interactive and realistic experience that immerses you right into a story. Visitors will be able to become the players as they walk in and become a part of the many worlds that are based on popular video games.
On Friday, November 1, 2013, Game Nation will be hosting a launch party in Fort Myers, Florida called GN Celebration. Read the interview below to find out more about the party and Game Nation, and click here to join the Celebration!
GS: How did you start with Game Nation? Did you one day wake up and say you were going to create a theme park?
Ruke: I wish, I totally wish! I did a couple of things. To start, I live in Florida, so I visit Disney twice a year since 1971. I also have four daughters, so we’re there all the time. So, I love theme parks! I built my first theme park as a kid, making jungle gym sets and hanging them from trees and charging kids around the neighborhood candy for their admission to ride my horribly dangerous ride.
GS: Haha, that sounds like fun...
Ruke: Yea, haha! So, how I came up with Game Nation was two-fold. One, well... my wife was begging me all the time saying, “You know we should develop something.”
'Cause you know, we built our own house and I put secret rooms in it—my house is pretty cool that way. So she was always telling me, “You know we need to build like a Star Wars development or a development based on Lord of the Rings where you have beautiful architecture”—fantasy-based stuff, because we saw that people want that. We had been discussing doing something like this for years.
Then when we were looking into where we wanted to move next, we realized that all communities were golf course communities—and we weren’t golfers. We were frustrated because we were looking at it and going, “This is so weird”…'cause you know, we live in a great place now, but we just wanted something different. And the question that really sparked was “Where do I park my flying car?” And she knows me, so she understood what I meant.
I said, “What promise is this?” We realized at that instance that the majority of what is developed today around the United States is NOT set up for the future. It’s not set up to what we were promised of the future or what we want.
And if you look at the lifestyle that it’s based around, it’s a lifestyle that is not going to be as relevant in 10 years or 20 years from now. So where are we going to retire? I hated that feeling. So I said, “You know what? What would we want?” So we thought, you know we would want instead of a golf course…a theme park.
Based on what? Well, video games, art, technology and culture! That’s our lifestyle. Then we realized after talking to some friends, we weren’t the only ones. And then we looked and realized no one’s ever done it and if we don’t do it, I don’t think anybody ever will. That’s when I said, we have to do something about this.
I also have a friend who inspired me at the same time, because I didn’t know how to do it—I didn’t know how to get there and that was my problem. I knew the idea would work and I knew it was great, but I didn’t know where to start. I had a friend of mine who really encouraged me and actually helped me in the very beginning of Game Nation. I was pushed and encouraged to think “We can really do this and this is how, and these are the steps to take.” He helped and then I went on and here we are today.
GS: So, you spoke a little bit about—
Ruke: Good luck typing all of that!
GS: Haha, I know right!? So you spoke a little bit about Star Wars, LOTR… and I saw on your website that you have a huge Star Wars collection. So, where did this Star Wars fascination start?
Below is Ruke's amazing Star Wars Collection. Check out his Star Wars collection here!
Ruke: Well, I saw Star Wars. I don’t know how old I was, but I was a little kid and my mom describes it as this: she actually cried seeing me for the first time, ever, quiet and fixated. Because I have ADD, HD, ABC, XYZ—you know I got it all. And she saw me quiet for the first time, fixated. I didn’t move, I didn’t talk, and I had my mouth open the entire time watching Star Wars.
Then, I started buying the toys because I love playing and I love city building. So I used to take over the house and I would build cities with my Star Wars figures. And my mom—this is probably what fueled everything—my mom, (when we moved to our second house) she took me there by myself without my brothers and sisters and she opened up the back door, and outside was 3 quarters of an acre with 172 trees on the property. She said, “This is your playground.” And I turned that backyard into the biggest miniature movie set. I built cities that covered the entire freaking yard—digging it, building it, destroying it.
That was a big encourager to my creativity. That really taught me that there’s no limits—I can do whatever I want from the creative field. Of course I’ve actually gotten a toy for every Christmas—except for one Christmas and I was little upset by that— but, I’ve gotten a toy even until my adult age. I love them, I just love the fantasy! I have every toy from Star Wars and every toy I had as a kid I still have today, and my kids play with them.
GS: Is your wife a Star Wars fan too? How does she feel about your collection being at home?
Ruke: This will be a side story, but I think you’ll appreciate it and I liked your question. No, she’s not really a big Star Wars fan, but I can’t make fun of her Twilight. I actually got a call from Extreme Collection from the Sci-Fi channel, and they said, “We saw your Star Wars collection.”
They asked me questions, which was really cool. And they asked me “Well, how does your wife feel about it?” And I said, “My wife loves it, she collects Barbies.” Then they asked, “Well, how do your kids feel about it?” And I said, “Well what are you talking about? It’s their virtual playground! They have a Barbie Utopia that I designed for them.” Then they asked, “Well how do your parents feel about it?” So I said, “Wait, you’re looking for something negative aren’t you?” And they said, “Well, this is a reality show about collectors and we try to..,” And I said, “Well you’re making this look bad.” And they said, “Oh no, no, we aren’t going to make it look bad.”
I said, “You know, I’ve been playing with Star Wars all my life and I was privately trained as an artist since the 3rd grade. Because of all of this creativity, I jumped out into the Entertainment industry, then to the ad and marketing industry and then the video game industry and now I’m doing a video game theme park. There’s nothing negative, there’s no one in my life that doesn’t support my Star Wars collection or my creativity. And if they didn’t, they wouldn’t be in my life. And they said, “Yea, I guess we can’t use you.”
At my office in Fort Myers, my employees can bring their toys, but I already had it pre-filled with mine in glass shells and the whole nine-yard. We have different themed rooms, but Star Wars is usually the overwhelming theme. But yea, I love it! I mean that’s what we’re here to do… to have fun!
GS: Do you make your own toy models?
Ruke: Nope. Can I tell you a fun story about Star Wars one more time?
GS: Sure, haha!
Ruke: Okay, so first of all, all of my Star Wars except for one piece, which is George Lucas as a storm trooper… is not in a box. I bought two of them, so we only play with one of them. My kids play with the toys. My kids have never broken any of my toys. I believe that if you’re going to have them, they need to be played with and not treasured and kept tight.
Now, I do have some stuff sitting on the shelf, but you know what I mean… it’s not like I hoard it and go, “Oh no, don’t touch that.” So, I don’t make my own toys… I just don’t have the time to. But as a collector…as you can imagine, I have like 6 million falcons. I buy open boxes because I don’t need them in a box, so I do repaint some of them and I also do special effects on some of them.
GS: Will there be any signs or concepts inspired by Star Wars at Game Nation?
Ruke: No, because Disney owns that. But you know, it's all inspired. That cultural iconic brand is very hard to step away from. You know, Star Wars has inspired so many different things and people that it’s very hard not to have that spark and imagination that George Lucas put into us, and Disney and Universal Studios has put into us.
I do have a really cool Star Wars story though…
GS: Cool, what is it?
Ruke: My agent called to say she is having a dinner meeting two days from now with a whole bunch of powerful people from Hollywood and that I need to go and just show up. I’m like, “Okay, I’ll be there.” So I fly to Los Angeles, I go to the meeting and there’s a lot of big powerful people (very big-named people) as you can imagine, and then there’s just me... little me from Ft. Myers. I was working on Game Nation at the time and it was just an idea still. So you know, haha, I was very out of my league.
They started going around introducing themselves and I was like, “I’ll go last,” because I’m thinking what the heck am I going to say that’s relevant to this group of people who have accomplished so much? So, it comes to the gentleman sitting in front of me and he goes, “My name is Charles and I’m a former CEO of Lucas films. I started with George. It was me and him, and I always saw his operations like Star Wars, Indiana Jones… globally. And then I took a break from the film industry.”
Now obviously I immediately looked like a 13-year-old girl looking at Justin Bieber. So, I’m there thinking, “What am I going to say, so I don’t just google all over this guy?” So it came to my turn…I totally ignored everyone at the table, I looked at him straight in the face and I said, “My name is Daniel Ruke and I pay half your salary.” The table was quiet. They were probably all like: "What the heck?"
He was a very serious guy, but he cracked a smile and said, “I’ve seen your collection…you have. Thank you.”
And that’s how I met the former CEO of Lucas films. So ask me what’s negative about my Star Wars collection? Nothing, haha!
GS: In previous interviews and on your Game Nation site, you discuss how you are combining the $12 billion theme park market, and the $25 billion video game industry, why else do you want to make a video game theme park?
Ruke: I believe gamers deserve a home and I believe they need the power to affect the world around them. There’s not a place on Earth that caters to us gamers on a permanent setting and basically what I’m doing is what Disney did for the film industry, but I’m doing it for the gaming industry.
GS: How has your illustration background at Ringling School of Art and Design affected your vision for Game Nation?
Ruke: I had really cool parents who recognized my talent and my passion early on. They put me in private art lessons starting from the 3rd grade and I took on lessons until I graduated from Ringling School of Art and Design as an illustrator.
I opened up my first company in 1993 focusing on Entertainment venues, night clubs, stage production and design. I also worked at an advertising and marketing firm that started representing theme parks, centers, and destinations. I then jumped back into the gaming industry where I utilized my illustration talents again because, back in my agency day’s, people didn’t want illustrations (they wanted only computer stuff). Then I decided to combine all that experience to do this wonderful Game Nation.
GS: Will Game Nation be creating its own characters, stories, and franchises? Or will Game Nation host popular game figures such as Link, Mario, Master Chief, Commander Shepard, the assassins of Assassin's Creed franchise, etc.?
Ruke: Yes! We will be creating our own stuff and we have an amazing artist named Sean Cruz who’s helping with that. As for the second question, we will be licensing different types of intellectual property from the video game industry as we move forward.
GS: I saw one of your Hybrid Novels called GN Archives: Lab Rats. Could you talk a little about what a hybrid novel is, and what the connection is between the novel series and the theme park?
To learn more about GN Archives: Lab Rats and its connection to the park, click here.
Ruke: It’s a graphic hybrid novel and basically it’s written from a novel perspective. It doesn’t have a lot of dialogue. It has dialogue as a normal novel would, so it has that emotional perspective of a novel. But we went in and added cinematic feel into the background.
I’m a big comic book fan, but one of the troubles I, personally, have is I would read the comic and then I look at the images second or vice versa. And so we are trying to create a blend of the medium that if you are reading the words and you get a sense of emotional feel of the background, you know what’s going on.
GS: That sounds really interesting.
Ruke: So, it’s just written from a different angle, but it’s also illustrated from a different angle.
GS: Are other forms of media or content being created for the park, besides the hybrid novel series?
Ruke: Yea, right now we are working on 3rd Rule, which is our role-playing game.
GS: Can you give us a brief overview of Game Nation's launch party (GN Celebration) that will be taking place this November in Fort Myers, Florida?
Ruke: It’s going to be the coolest and biggest gaming party on this coast. Really what it is…you’re going to be able to come and well, you’ll be able to role-play, you’ll get an overview of what we are planning to do with our initial property, there will be video game competitions, we are going to have Minecraft, Injustice, Street Fighter, Super Smash Brothers, we will also have industry performers like Brentalfloss and DJ Cutman.
So, we’re going to have awesome entertainment in our fun niche here. We are also going to do Keynote Speeches about what we are doing with the park and where we are going. This is where we are really stepping up and connecting with them to let them know about this journey—this epic adventure that we are on.
We are also going to have the first inaugural Game Nation assembly. A Game Nation assembly is where you, the fans, can join the conversation. The assembly is where you guys discuss ideas and we, as a company listen. So it’s a very important part of what we’re doing.
We are also doing a real-life first person shooter. Where you and your friend are going to get in a van, take it to a secret location and you’re going to battle against Distarved, which is one of our characters…they are undead. You will be trying to save the city of Ft. Myers. Then you will be dropped back off at the hotel. So it’s a cool interactive attraction.
GS: My next question was going to be: How do you plan to create a massive, interactive story-based adventure and how can gamers be part of or affect the evolving story.., but you pretty much answered that. Do you want to add anything though?
Ruke: Nope. People will essentially be able to come and be part of the story.
GS: So when you were talking about the whole interactive role-play, will that be part of the “Save the Princess” the Game Celebration Web site mentions?
Ruke: Yea, but two things…we are changing some stuff. We realized that the three days were really spreading out a lot of stuff and so what we’ve done is condensed it into one enormous day, which is Friday. Not sure yet if we will be having the Save the Princess, I'll have to check.
GS: So, I’m not sure if you are still going to do this, but I saw on a flyer some of the competitions and events Game Nation Celebration will be having, so I wanted to know if you could tell us a bit about the competitions and events at Game Nation Celebration. For example, what would the MasterCrafter title be and what do the contests look like?
Ruke: You are going to have a survivor mode on MineCraft.
GS: So it will essentially be a gaming competition?
GS: What's the next step for Game Nation after GN Celebration finishes?
Ruke: We are going to be announcing that at Celebration.
GS: Okay, so I assume you can’t tell me when Game Nation’s opening date will be then?
Ruke: So, Celebration is the alpha test for Game Nation. Our next step is to open up a permanent facility as we actually develop the park itself.
GS: On one of your Web sites I saw that it said you have a passion and drive for societal improvement, so can you tell us a little bit about this drive for societal improvement?
Ruke: So when I said before that gamers deserve the power to affect the world around them, I think it’s going to be in a positive way. We believe that philosophically, we need to be responsible. I can tell you that when people ask me if we are going to have green technology, I say, “Of course we are.” You know, that’s what’s expected out of this generation. We are building a future and we will be able to design a very unique economy where we are empowering each other to be better than ourselves. We are taking what you find in the video games, but taking it into a real physical space.
I believe that if you ask who’s going to live in game nation when it’s built… I think the early adapters will be artists… like you guys. It will be designers, programmers, entrepreneurs—people who work virtually. I believe that if you bring them all into a single space and you give them a spark of entrepreneur education, I think we can create a brand new wonderful spark of economy there.
GS: Well, that sounds really cool and interesting and I look forward to participating in GN Celebration. This has pretty much reached the end the interview, I don’t know if you would like to add anything?
Ruke: Nope, if you’re good, I’m good.
GS: Thanks for taking the time to answer some of my questions!
Last Thoughts and Impressions
Ruke seems to be a very creative, innovative artist with a deep passion for his vision. His vision of Game Nation is not just an idea, but something larger than that. He has a ton of support from friends and family and if you would like to join in to support Ruke, his team and Game Nation you can follow them on Facebook or on Twitter (@GameNationParks).
I look forward to GN Celebration and I will be writing a follow-up article on my experience there to keep you all posted on what will be next for Game Nation.