Editor’s Note: The original byline for this article had to be changed, as have some details in this article. Please see this article for an explanation.
If you’ve been playing indie ARGs for more than a couple days you’ve probably experienced a game that started off with a bang but ended with a whimper and a quiet death rattle. Most of us take a few moments to grieve the loss of the imploded game but quickly get over it and start looking for the start of another game. As someone who is drawn to the idea of creating my own games, I dwell over the loss of a game a little longer and crave a eulogy that helps me understand why the game didn’t reach it’s full potential. One of the biggest challenges in analyzing a failed game is that the creators of failed games rarely come forward afterward to share the behind-the-scenes missteps so that the rest of us can learn from their mistakes. So, with that said, I’d like to share why I stopped playing a recently staged game Tyler Greek (also named PHH Interception) and invite the creators of the game (and anyone else in the community who’s interested) to join the discussion.
Tyler Greek was the story’s protagonist who led a group of paramilitary soldiers in an alternate timeline where the TR Corporation unleashed an army of “super soldiers” on the world and destroyed most of the major US cities. Tyler, along with his tech support guy Jacob, were trying to provide humanitarian supplies for survivors and planning a counter-offensive against the TR Corporation minions.
The story was introduced and played out primarily on Twitter, YouTube, and through instant messenger chat clients like Skype and MSN Messenger. There was an attempt to deliver story elements on a TR Corporation website and on Tyler’s MySpace page along with some leaked documents which filled in some of the backstory, but those delivery mechanisms went stale soon after they were discovered.
Personally, I was rooting for this game to be successful. The story line wasn’t all that original (Evil corporation tries to take over the world with the help of genetically altered mutants), but I liked some of the game mechanics and the opportunity it presented for players to contribute to the narrative. For example, I played as a member of a group of displaced journalists who were trying to set up an intelligence network for a burgeoning resistance. I even went so far as to provide intelligence reports to Tyler based on my travel to different parts of the country looking for survivors and tracking down rumors of “freedom fighters”.
1. There has to be more than just role playing.
My first impression was that this was an interesting story that pushed the role playing aspect more than the “solve a puzzle – get a banana” methodology. There was a feeling among the players that the game was launched too early and didn’t have the requisite websites or other content ready, or that we had stumbled onto an online role playing community that didn’t have a clear beginning, middle, and end for the story. My guess is that is was a combination of the two – we discovered a role playing community that tried to introduce ARG elements and couldn’t keep up with player’s demand for content.
In my own ARG concept development this forced me to consider the fundamental differences between online role playing and Alternate Reality Gaming. Although similar genres of storytelling, I think the reason why I’m drawn to ARGs over role playing is the confidence in knowing that there will be a resolution to the conflicts presented in the plot. I may not like that resolution, but there should be some kind of planned endgame. In role playing, everything seems much too chaotic with the odds of a satisfying resolution to the narrative being extremely low. In fact, in many role playing communities the fundamental goal is to extend the narrative for as long as possible so that the role playing can continue indefinitely.
It was fun playing a role in the story world that was created, but after a while it seemed that the game designer wasn’t interested in guiding that player interaction into a clear story plot and a satisfying ending.
2. Give me a task–reward system.
After the main characters conveyed the backstory and current situation, information slowed considerably. Each chat session rehashed the information that was already provided, and when pressed for more details the characters would abruptly end their chat because of an “attack on the base”. They had presented the premise and gave us the boundaries of the story world, but didn’t carry that momentum into a well developed plot. Players were trying to think of creative ways to coax the game creators into telling them the objective of the game. Were we supposed to “Save the world”? Were we supposed to defeat the superhumans? If so, what were we supposed to do to accomplish these feats?
Setting up a reward system would have gone a long way to keep players engaged. ARG designers can learn from video games that start with a tutorial that unlocks levels with simple tasks then rewards the player with new content (cut scenes, new levels, more story, etc) as they master certain skills and complete those tasks. This game did have a few task/reward elements, but the players were constantly prodding the game to give them a “call to action” that came with a requisite reward upon completion.
Late in the game, the game designer did give the players a task that could have advanced the narrative, but at that point many of us had lost interest. In the story, the source of the superhuman’s mutant powers came from a formula created by the TR Corporation. A syringe containing some red goo was discovered at a live event location and presumably was a sample of this formula. A video was released by James Serbus (FreakonaPeach) asking the players to give him advice on what to do with the syringe. Soon after the video was released, most of the players (including myself) abandoned the game — read on to find out why.
3. Stop peeking at the audience from behind the curtain.
Most ARG players are very forgiving when it comes to ignoring the little things that break the illusion of the events in a game being real. We’ll ignore the fact that the protagonist’s twitter account was created in the last month, or that a company that has operated for years has only recently created a web domain (and registered it anonymously). I was even able to accept that Tyler Greek was communicating with me through Skype from an alternate timeline even though Tyler himself gave just a virtual shrug in response to players asking how that was possible.
So, what killed the illusion? After one canceled live event a second was scheduled, and even though a few people expressed an interest, apparently no one attended. In an attempt to get information that was supposed to be revealed at the event to the players the game creator released a video of himself claiming to be the only player to attend the live event. Upon discovering the video, the established players invited the new “player” to join the community discussion at Unfiction only to get the single word email response of “TINAG” making it clear that the new player was an in-game character.
Here’s what ruined it for me. The game creator decided to use his own YouTube account to release in-game video instead of bothering to create a new account. So when players searched through the archived video blog entries of this new character to find clues or other material relating to the story they only found the ranting of a teenage video blogger. To make matters worse, after three game related videos were released the game designer went back to his “regularly scheduled video blogging” and started the next video with an apology to his “regular viewers”:
“Hello You Tube, again. Well, actually this time it’s for real, cus uh well yeah my last video I posted the uh Hail to the Master one thats… my regular viewers can either ignore that or watch it. Its just a uh… little project I’m doing, don’t need to worry about it I’m not going to die”
It also didn’t help that he grouped the three game related videos into one playlist and labeled it “PHH ARG”. The game designer also communicated with the players overtly through the unfiction forums using the profile Liesoften, and apparently has done this in a past ARG (Bookerville).
I don’t want to sound to harsh, but this is just laziness on the part of the game creators and just ruins the experience for the players. I support the idea of game creators taking ownership of their games, but there should be a clearly defined line between what is in-game and what is in the realm of meta discussion. If the game designers want to communicate with the players on a meta level they can do what David Flor has done and set up a meta-blog. That way players have the choice to either peek behind the curtain during a game or stay oblivious to what is going on behind the scenes.