by Joe Tracy, editor of Theme Park Magazine
(last updated: July 5, 2022)
Mighty Coconut’s Walkabout Mini Golf game has been tearing up the virtual reality world since its launch on Meta’s Quest 2 on September 24, 2020. The game has consistently been near the top of the Meta Quest 2 (previously Oculus Quest 2) sales chart since shortly after its launch. It has spawned three downloadable content (DLC) expansions and a partnership with the Jim Henson Company to take Walkabout Mini Golf into the fantastical lands of LABYRINTH.
Some questions one might ponder are:
- How can a “game” about miniature golf be so popular among more than 200 titles selling on Quest 2?
- What’s so immersive about miniature golf?
- How is it that a small animation company formed after an animation retreat off the coast of Belize would eventually turn out a game that resonated so well with the public?
- And what’s next for Walkabout Mini Golf after Mighty Coconut’s acquisition of top talent, including a former Walt Disney Imagineer?
In order to answer these questions, let’s take a modified Delorian to 88 miles per hour and set the year to 2012, then work our way forward…
Lucas Martell is an animator and artist who spent five years, prior to 2012, creating an animated short film, Pigeon Impossible. After its success, Martell pulled an idea out of the clouds for another animated short, The OceanMaker.
The OceanMaker is a story about a famine-torn land with no oceans. The only way to get water is by flying into clouds with planes that gather moisture. But clouds are scarce, so whenever one appears, people fight each other in the skies for access. The story follows one brave woman who uses a new machine to seed the clouds in an attempt to create rain. But can she survive the battle in order to deploy the technology?
To make The OceanMaker a reality, Martell knew he would need a much bigger team. So he made a promise to several animators, in 2012, that involved a trip off the coast of Belize in a place called Caye Caulker.
According to Martell, he said to them, “If you’d be willing to work for deferred payment, we’ll cover the costs for you to travel and live in a tropical paradise.”
Seven artists and animators made the commitment and joined Martell on his film-creation retreat adventure. Eight weeks in the inspired setting of the island of Caye Caulker resulted in close to 50% of the film being complete… on laptops.
The OceanMaker was released on August 24, 2014, with a runtime of 10 minutes. It played at many festivals and has achieved more than 12 million views online, most coming from the popular YouTube channel, Dust. Why is this part of the story important? For two reasons:
1) It shows the uniqueness of this company and how inspiration can bring a group together to accomplish great things.
2) This is how Mighty Coconut was born.
The magical eight-week island work retreat was a bonding moment for the artists and animators working on The OceanMaker. The environment – an island with coconut trees, blue skies, and beautiful ocean views was very inspiring. When the retreat ended, the desire to continue the adventure beyond The OceanMaker grew. Harkening back to the stunning coconut palm trees at Caye Caulker, a company was formed for animation and visual effects projects – the Mighty Coconut. As Martell tells it to Theme Park Magazine:
“When we returned, we wanted to ‘keep the band together,’ and the name Mighty Coconut was a way to honor those roots as something that essentially started on this little island.”
In its early days, Mighty Coconut focused on commercial work, Web series, and short productions to fine-tune the company’s animation processes. It also did custom visuals for events and concerts like the Rihanna / Eminem MONSTER TOUR.
As smartphones progressed in technology, soon Mighty Coconut found itself venturing more into the world of augmented reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR).
Mighty Coconut’s first foray into gaming came in the form of a “choose your own adventure” type game called 57° North. You could use just your phone or combine it with Merge Cube for deeper gameplay. The mystery adventure game, released in 2017, had hundreds of decisions a user could make with multiple endings based on choices made.
A year later, in 2018, Mighty Coconut released its second game, Laser Mazer. Classified as a “survival game,” Laser Mazer is an iPhone/Android game that scans your environment, then overlays a maze environment with moving lasers that the user must avoid. It might remind some of a movie or TV show that features a spy or thief who has to avoid lasers to obtain something of value. Laser Mazer not only requires users to dodge lasers but also to navigate and solve unique mazes.
After Laser Mazer, work began on another game, one that would propel Mighty Coconut to new heights, like the coconuts high up in the trees of Caye Caulker…
Walkabout Mini Golf – The Origins
Walkabout Mini Golf was originally envisioned as an iPhone/Android game, much like 57° North and Laser Mazer. In an interview with UploadVR (see Explore More: Resources at the end of this article), Martell reveals that Walkabout actually started as a game for iPhone and Android where you swing your phone like a putter. But a couple of things happened along the way that would drastically change the vision of using your phone to putt balls:
- First was that VR was starting to increase in popularity and the release of the Meta Quest 2 VR headset was around the corner.
- The second was the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. Cities shut down and people were quarantined, vastly limiting their ability to connect. Mighty Coconut was ready to change that by allowing people to play as they could in the outside world: by being together.
Martell designed and developed the original Walkabout Mini Golf game, transforming it from an imagined iPhone/Android experience into something more immersive where people could talk, laugh, and play. And users could do it from the comfort of home while feeling like they were on a real miniature golf course. The initial reviews for Walkabout Mini Golf were stellar.
Walkabout Mini Golf – The Launch and Reviews
When Walkabout Mini Golf launched in September 2020, it wasn’t long before the praise began piling up. It blew away VR game reviewers. Techradar’s review title summed it up nicely: “Everyone with an Oculus Quest 2 Needs to Play Walkabout Mini Golf.” In the review, writer Hamish Hector stated:
“No matter your approach to mini-golf – be it light, accurate taps in the right direction, or swinging in a wide arc and yelling ‘FORE!’ – your playstyle will be perfectly translated into this virtual space. This realism not only immerses you in this virtual experience but ensures the game feels fair; the only thing keeping you from that hole-in-one is your own ability rather than finicky controls.”
It wasn’t just online publications and review sites praising the immersive ability of the game and its ability to unite. Users are singing their praises too. On the Oculus Quest Website, Walkabout Mini Golf has more than 6,000 reviews, with the mass majority being 5-star reviews. Why? Because the game not only immerses, but it also connects.
Many users praise Walkabout Mini Golf’s ability to connect with family and friends, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic. For example:
- “My brothers, dad, and I have been avid players throughout the whole pandemic. It gave us the perfect backdrop to share time with one another and connect across the country.” (Adarak – Discord)
- “This game has meant a lot to me and my friends during the pandemic. Even with things opening back up, I’ve found it to be such an awesome way to stay connected with my long distance pals. Mini golf is just the perfect activity to hang out and have fun.” (thomasg86 – Reddit)
- “…my friends and I love your game to pieces. It’s brought us together during the pandemic in ways nothing else really has. I’ve never felt so guilty for paying so little for something I’ve enjoyed so much.” (dakodeh – Reddit)
- “I absolutely love this game. The social aspect of it caught me by surprise. It allowed my friends and I to be together in a way we had not been able to due to the pandemic. And also distance. There was a moment that really hit me while waiting for a couple of newer players to finish a hole, I sat down on a rock near the hole. My buddy who had also finished the hole slid over to where I was and sat down next to me and started chatting. Miles away, but together. Thank you for that.” (fields-mitch – Reddit)
Those sentiments are echoed by many other users who not only get lost in the socialization and gameplay aspects but also in the simple, yet well-designed (by VR standards), environments that seem to improve with every DLC released. And, despite the limitations of VR, the graphical look of Walkabout Mini Golf is about to improve even more thanks to the hiring of Don Carson in late 2021.
Don Carson – Former Walt Disney Imagineer
The success of Walkabout Mini Golf made it clear that growth needed to happen in order to take Mighty Coconut to the next level.
In an Animation World Network article (see Explore More: Resources at the end of this article), Martell is quoted as saying, “Don was the ideal person for what we’re building, having led theme park design, attraction show design, theatrical event design, computer game design, VR experiences and commercial illustration.”
Some of Carson’s work at Disney included art direction for Mickey’s Toontown and Walt Disney World’s Splash Mountain.
As a freelance Concept Designer, Carson has worked with Universal Studios, The Jim Henson Company, Microsoft, Coca-Cola, Herschend Family Entertainment, California Academy of Sciences, and other well-known companies.
One of the great things about the hire of Carson was that he was a fan and avid player of Walkabout Mini Golf well before joining the team.
Bringing Carson on board as Senior Art Director was a big move for Mighty Coconut. However, Carson wasn’t Mighty Coconut’s only big hire in 2021. Mighty Coconut also added Michèle Martell, Licensing & Legal Counsel; and David Wyatt, Head of Communications & Business Strategy. Michèle has worked with Hasbro, Crayola, WWE, and The Muppets. David has used his communications experience to help hundreds of brands, global corporations, and startups. The addition of all three will help take ongoing and future projects – like the Walkabout Mini Golf: Labyrinth DLC – to evolving levels.
Jim Henson’s LABYRINTH and the Walkabout Mini Golf: Labyrinth Game
Since the release of Walkabout Mini Golf there have been three DLCs added to the game:
- Gardens of Babylon – one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.
- Shangri-La – a unique exploration of the mythical lost city.
- Sweetopia – who wouldn’t want to golf in Macaroon Meadows, Mallow March, Garden of Gummy Delights, and Hard Candy Mountains?
Like with the original game, all three Walkabout Mini Golf DLCs received rave reviews and showed the ability of the game to progress in areas like immersion. But that may be nothing compared to what is next… Walkabout Mini Golf: Labyrinth.
Making one’s own courses is one thing. But doing it for a respected IP is a completely different story. When asked what the creation process would be like for a DLC based on the LABYRINTH movie, Mighty Coconut told Theme Park Magazine:
“As with every Walkabout Mini Golf course, the process of designing Walkabout Mini Golf: Labyrinth is about imagining and building a physical space with a mini-golf course at its center, which will be satisfying for players of all skill levels. We generally start with pen and paper and then move to a program called Gravity Sketch to sculpt the landscape in virtual reality. From there, it is a multidisciplinary process of modeling set pieces, props, characters, surfaces, and lighting, just as one would with a physical themed attraction.
There is no one application that we use to create the Walkabout Mini Golf course, like many game developers we jump back and forth between a variety of applications many of which allow us to both build and arrange the environments while inside VR.
With a partner like the Jim Henson Company and a beloved IP like LABYRINTH, there’s obviously a great deal of care in discussing, faithfully recreating, and in approving everything from the overarching aesthetic to the smallest details—while staying true to our low-poly style, which affords us continuity from course to course as well as lively game performance. They are a wonderful collaborator in that they give us what we need and are very encouraging to our artistic team.
We are huge fans of both LABYRINTH and the Jim Henson Co. This new course is our love letter to the cherished IP and we pinch ourselves on a daily basis that we are getting a chance to recreate these iconic places and characters.”
One challenge of entering the LABYRINTH world is the creative artistic environment. It’s a challenge Carson looks forward to tackling with the Jim Henson Company.
“We’re working closely with the Jim Henson Company to ensure that we’re staying faithful and also we’re constantly referencing source material, and debating how things should look and function,” says Carson. “In VR, the key is to balance aesthetics with performance, hence our low poly design style, so Walkabout Mini Golf: Labyrinth will both feel like the world brought to life by the 1986 film and very much part of the larger Walkabout Mini Golf universe.”
Carson brings up an excellent point about performance in VR. When it comes to VR, companies that create games for cordless VR headsets like the Quest 2, have to pay close attention to polygon counts, texture size, and other technical challenges as these factors affect playability. VR games have a lot more graphic renderings to process than computer games and smartphone games. Until processors, particularly those in cordless headsets, can improve to meet demand, maintaining an ultra-realistic environment is not easy. In fact, the game looks different based on what VR system you use and whether it is using your computer to boost graphics and processing or just the headset.
The lead designers for Walkabout Mini Golf Labyrinth are Carson, Martell, and Henning Koczy who imagine and implement the levels in the game. Koczy was part of the island adventure group of animators who worked on The OceanMaker, which inspired the creation of Mighty Coconut.
So what can Walkabout Mini Golf and LABYRINTH fans expect from the new DLC? According to Melissa Segal, head of Consumer Products for The Jim Henson Company, “People will be able to explore the world Jim Henson created, encounter the creatures from the film, and have friends from all over the world join them in the fun—all around the inclusive game of mini golf!”
The game will contain:
- 36 LABYRINTH-themed holes (18 in easy mode and 18 in hard mode).
- 18 new Lost Balls (balls you can discover around the course and grab to collect).
- A LABYRINTH-themed treasure/scavenger hunt in hard mode.
- Original soundtrack by Walkabout Mini Golf’s composer, Chris Reyman, inspired by LABYRINTH. The music is used as ambiance as not to overpower the gameplay or conversations of the players.
So why did Mighty Coconut choose LABYRINTH as its first licensed IP for Walkabout Mini Golf? Martell says that LABYRINTH has an amazing nostalgia factor, unique characters, universal appeal, and that it makes for “a fun setting to explore even for folks who haven’t seen the movie.”
Walkabout Mini Golf: Labyrinth will be released on July 28, 2022. It will require the base Walkabout Mini Golf game to play. The base game is available on several VR platforms including Quest, Quest 2, Rift, Steam VR, HTC Viveport, and Pico (China).
On Quest 2, the base game costs $14.99 and the three available DLCs are $2.99 each. It’s likely that Walkabout Mini Golf: Labyrinth will be priced higher than the other DLCs due to it being a licensed IP with more in-game features than other DLCs.
An Immersive Experience
Part of the success of Walkabout Mini Golf is that it is very immersive. A lot of time is spent not just fine-tuning the graphics and gameplay, but also the sounds, the ambiance, and the feeling of “being there.” Players can design their own avatars so that when in multiplayer mode, the association with others is more real.
In an article titled, “Zen and the Art of Mini Golfing,” TheGamer writer Eric Switzer writes the following:
“When you hit the ball you get haptic feedback in the controllers based on how hard you hit it, as well as the satisfying plinking sound of a golf ball being hit. These are things that make the experience feel authentic, but for me, the natural gameplay and intuitiveness of the controls are working to keep me present in myself, not as a function of some transformative immersive experience.”
The immersion of Walkabout Mini Golf is so realistic, inviting, and calming, that some users have put together “ambiance” videos on YouTube to simply enjoy the peaceful surroundings (see final video in Explore More: Videos below).
Miniature golf has come a long way from its beginnings over a century ago.
History of Miniature Golf
110 years ago the first documented miniature golf course, called Gofstacle, opened to the public. The Illustrated London News, on June 8, 1912, showed a picture/illustration of people playing mini-golf with the headline: “Bridge, Stick, Tunnel, and Box: A Golf Game for Putters.” Using carpet and other materials, putters had to hit the ball and avoid various obstacles in a quest to get the ball in the hole.
In 1916, James Barber built the first recognized mini golf course in the United States at his Pinehurst, NC home. The course, named Thistle Dhu, still exists today at the Pinehurst Resort. According to Pinehurst Resort:
“Upon first seeing the home and course, designer James Barber, pronounced ‘This’ll Do.’ It was translated into Thistle Dhu and the name stuck.”
Through the 1920s and early 1930s, miniature golf started to really take off. Thanks to the formation of an artificial green by John Garnet Carter, people were playing miniature golf everywhere, including the rooftops in New York City.
The miniature golf craze, in the United States, died down when The Great Depression hit in the late 1930s. However, in Europe, the craze was picking up to the point that The Swedish Minigolf Federation was formed in 1937 and began holding Minigolf National Swedish championship matches starting in 1939.
By the 1950s, interest in miniature golf had returned to the United States and throughout other parts of the world.
Today, miniature golf is so popular that it even has its own reality TV series on a major network. Holey Moley is an ABC reality mini-golf series that is about to enter its fourth season. Contestants compete head-to-head on course holes in hopes of winning and advancing to the final round where the winner is crowned “The Golden Putter.”
Each oversized course is unique and challenging. For example, in “Double Dutch Courage,” golfers must put the ball past two large windmills, then try to make it through the windmills themselves without getting hit by a blade and knocked off the course. The entire time hosts Rob Riggle and Joe Tessitore spice up the gameplay with some over-the-top narration.
Mini golf has always had a role in the video game industry, but Walkabout has taken it to a whole new realistic level that has gained a massive following. There are YouTube channels dedicated to the game and fans who come up with new ways to play it beyond what the developers envisioned. Trickshot groups exist as users challenge each other to make the best hole-in-one on each course.
LABYRINTH the Movie
Released in 1986, Labyrinth is a fantasy musical that was directed by Jim Henson and executive produced by George Lucas. It tells the story of 16-year-old Sarah Williams who wishes away her half-brother Toby, which happens. Facing instant regret, Sarah is given 13 hours by the King of the Goblins, Jareth, to solve his labyrinth in which she’ll be able to rescue Toby. But fail and Toby will forever be transformed into a goblin, serving the King of Goblins.
The movie stars David Bowie as Jareth and Jennifer Connelly as Sarah. Along the journey to solve the labyrinth, Sarah is aided by several unique characters. Labyrinth stars several puppets and animatronic creatures created by The Jim Henson Workshop.
LABYRINTH cost $25 million to make and, unfortunately, only made $12 million at the box office. However, LABYRINTH became a hit when it was released on VHS, DVD, and Disney Channel showings. It has a 74% critic rating on Rotten Tomatoes and a 86% audience rating.
Interesting Walkabout Mini Golf Facts
- The favorite course of Lucas Martell is Quixote Valley. However, he is falling in love with some of the new courses being developed.
- You can listen to the original Walkabout Mini Golf soundtrack at Spotify.
- Martell hinted at there being some original in-game merchandise related to Walkabout Mini Golf: Labyrinth (i.e scavenger hunt prize). There will also be some unique gameplay elements related to the movie.
Explore More (Videos)
Explore More (Resources)
- Website: Walkabout Mini-Golf
- Website: Jim Henson Company
- Article: Walkabout Mini Golf: How One of VR’s Best Multiplayer Experiences Started on iPhone (Upload)
- Article: Mighty Coconut Staffs Up in Wake of ‘Walkabout Mini Golf’ VR Success (Animation World Network)
- Article: Everyone with an Oculus Quest 2 needs to play Walkabout Mini Golf (techradar)
- Article: Zen and the Art of Mini Golfing in VR (TheGamer)
- YouTube: Dust (YouTube channel)
- Forum: Walkabout: Mini-Golf Creator Answers Gamer Questions (Reddit)
- Playlist: The OceanMaker 13-part Production Series Behind-the-Scenes (YouTube)
- Web page: Pinehurst Thistle Dhu Putting Course (Pinehurst.com)
- Guest Editorial: What Virtual Worlds Can Learn from Theme Parks and Why Brands Should Care (Theme Park Magazine)