This article is the third in a series, providing summaries of the presentations at ARGFest-o-Con 2008 in Boston
Steve Peters left ARGNet a few years back, but he still sticks around. Supposedly, he works for some company named 42 Entertainment that sponsored ARGFest 2008 and purchased tickets to The Dark Knight for attendees. In this Showcase Presentation, Steve Peters explained how to deal with Alternate Reality Gaming audiences using the Microsoft Vista-sponsored ARG Vanishing Point as an example.
According to Peters, there are Five F’s of Fantasticness necessary for every alternate reality game: Find, Focus, Fun, Freedom, and Fear.
The first step to every alternate reality game is the FIND: discovering the game. With Vanishing Point, 42 Entertainment targeted early adopters with puzzle boxes, puzzle graphics on Windows and technology blogs, and a taunting message suggesting that the readers wouldn’t be able to solve these. Solving the puzzles led to the main page for Vanishing Point, where, explains Peters, players found the ever effective and tantalizing countdown. So effective, in fact, that Vanishing Point included dozens of countdowns scattered around the website, each one culminating in a live event.
Which brings us to the second step: FOCUS. Players need to know what to expect when they’re entering a game. While you can pick up a book and anticipate the commitment it will involve by the number of pages, size of the font, and reputation of the author, the same does not necessarily apply to alternate reality games. Sticking to regularly scheduled updates helps generate expectations for the players. Setting more explicit boundaries through iconic touches to the websites can also help guide players and protect the developer’s sanity.
The third factor is both the simplest and the hardest: FUN. Under the direct assault of hundreds or even thousands of skilled players, puzzles often need to be difficult. However, they still have to be fun, and often building upon previous puzzles can help with that process.
Next is the FREEDOM factor. Playing an alternate reality game gives a voyeuristic experience into the lives of the characters, as players piece together their lives through emails, voicemail messages, and the various artifacts left to explore. But it’s the interactive nature of alternate reality games that bring players back, and developers must remember that there is no such thing as people “playing wrong” — the ideal development experience can be compared to Dueling Banjos. Each party calls and responds in turn, modifying aspects of the conversation to generate something special.
Finally, the FEAR factor. Players should not be afraid of the design team. The reverse is not necessarily true. For the Vanishing Point game, players often got videos of the live events online faster than 42 Entertainment, and solved most puzzles in a matter of hours, if not minutes. With such fast response times, players have to trust the puppetmasters not to ask them to do anything stupid or dangerous. And that’s a healthy responsibility.
Be prepared for the unexpected, whatever that may be. Even if the unexpected is a flexing, tattooed bodybuilder flexing in nothing but a banana hammock and sunglasses.
Check back over the next few weeks for the video of this panel when it is released.
Click Here to learn more about the flexing, tattooed bodybuilder that made a surprising appearance at the end of Steve’s presentation