A Glimpse Behind The Curtain with Cisco’s Game “The Hunt”

January 12, 2011 · By Celina Beach in Features, Interviews, Opinion 

In mid-August, I had the opportunity to work with No Mimes Media, one of the major players in the ARG/Transmedia-creation world, co-founded by ARGNet founder Steve Peters.  My role: to “scrub” the websites and puzzles for an alternate reality game (commonly known as an ARG) – what I call “QA” in my day job, consisting of assorted tasks like verifying website content against design documents, and playtesting puzzles to make sure they can be solved as designed.  However, it also afforded me the opportunity to see how ARGs are designed and run – a glimpse behind the curtain, and into the inner workings of a development team (often referred to in the alternate reality gaming space as “Puppetmasters” or “PMs”).

Background

The Hunt is the second game by Juxt Interactive and No Mimes Media created for the Cisco Global Sales Experience (GSX), Cisco’s annual sales meeting.  For the second year in a row, Cisco has conducted this meeting virtually, using their own products such as Telepresence and WebEx to virtually gather their sales force together for training and information sharing. Including an alternate reality game enhanced the experience while providing education and experience using Cisco’s products by putting the sales force in the center of the action, using Cisco tools to help solve the mystery.  An important game mechanic involved players discovering “Key Asset Codes” which are entered into the game’s Hub for points, where the player with the most points at the end of the game is declared the winner.

This year’s experience centered around Isabel Travada, a Cisco System Engineer on a leave of absence to do volunteer work with the Red Cross. Upon returning home one day, she discovered that her apartment has been ransacked, and her father’s journal stolen.  Isabel’s father, Ferdinand, traveled the world as a cartographer before his death, and kept a journal of his adventures which he shared with Isabel when she was a child.  She was recently featured holding the book on the cover of a magazine that covered her father’s work on an important communications project in Africa, and someone who saw the article broke into her house to take it.  Curious about why anyone would want such a private journal, she went through his papers and realized there was more to his writings and drawings than she had noticed as a child.  Being very familiar with the book, she is able to recreate some of it from memory, but some portions like the pictures from the places Ferdinand visited are beyond her ability to recall.  However, as she pieces her memories together, she realizes the journal is filled with puzzles and clues, and calls upon her friends in the worldwide Cisco sales force to help her solve the puzzles, follow the clues, and send pictures to replace the ones lost.  As the players solved the puzzles and figured out the clues, Isabel found herself traveling the world with her father’s former colleague Keith, retracing her father’s steps and coming closer and closer to solving the mystery of the journal, and the man who stole it – and why.

The Team

The first thing I noticed upon joining the development team was the quality of talent behind it: from No Mimes Media, Behnam Karbassi (Lead Producer and Content Director as part of the BnZ directing team), Steve Peters (Lead Experience Designer), Maureen McHugh (Lead Writer), and Daniël van Gool (Live Event Coordinator); from Dog Tale Media, Dee Cook (Writer); from Universe Creation 101, Christy Dena (Experience Designer); from Digital Trail, Jonathan Waite (Experience Designer); from LiveTribe Productions, Karen Lavender (Content Producer) and Jamie Bullock (Experience Producer); from Cisco, Frank Jimenez (Design Consultant and “PM Spy”); and from Juxt Interactive, Jaeha Yoo (User Experience Director), Alli Taylor (PM), Les Cheong (Technical Director), and Aaron Feiger and Renato Braga (Art Directors).  Along with the quality of talent was the diversity.

You’ll notice I mentioned seven different organizations involved, each bringing their particular areas of expertise to bear.  By the time I joined the project, the game was about a week away from launch, so I wasn’t able to see for myself the division of labor in these stages – so I asked both Juxt and No Mimes about the division of responsibilities between the main three companies. According to the two companies, Juxt and No Mimes collectively did the creative heavy lifting, partnering to draw the broad creative strokes of the experience. No Mimes wrote the story details and alternate reality game through design documents, scripts, asset lists, and other reference materials.  No Mimes also produced the game’s audio and video elements, conducted the live events, provided character-to-player interaction, voiced the characters in real time, monitored the community, and made the occasional on-the-fly redesign. Juxt provided the rest of the creative production, technical development, and general creative oversight.  Cisco signed off on all strategic and creative decisions. Bill Fleig, Director of Project Management at Juxt, said about Cisco “a really great client to work with, willing to push boundaries, but at the same time staying very responsible to their audience.”

Preparation

The second thing I noticed was that the amount of design documentation was on par with most of the larger software products I’ve worked on in the past.  As noted above, No Mimes created a master Design Document detailing everything in the game: Initial story, overall game plot and conclusion, characters, timeline, and the integration of Cisco technology.  The game was divided into six “beats,” with each beat lasting between one to three days.  Beat length was determined by a number of factors  such as puzzle complexity, but the main determinant, to my amazement, was character travel time.

Over the course of the game, Isabel and Keith found themselves traveling to Australia, Norway, The Netherlands, India, China, and then back to the United States; and in planning the beat lengths, actual flights between these locations were researched to determine how long it would take the characters to reach their destination.  This greatly added to the realism of the game, to the point where the PMs had to be careful not to mention particulars of each flight for fear the players would attempt to intercept the characters at the airport. I suspect this level of detail surprised me because, as a player, I took all this as a matter of course; but being on the other side of the curtain gave me insight on how much work goes into making the story fit real-life scenarios, which increases realism and really draws players into the game universe.

The Design Document provided a brief summary of every beat before providing a more detailed description, including a summary of what the players should accomplish in the beat, websites to be introduced or updated, social media updates (both Isabel and Keith had Facebook and Twitter accounts), Cisco technology being used, which assets were being employed (audio and/or video, pictures, and website copy), detailed puzzle descriptions and solves, and a flowchart to show how the pieces fit together.  The sheer number of assets involved led to the creation of another document: an Asset List spreadsheet, also broken down by beat, including website URLs, media (photos, video, audio) to be included on each site for that beat and files uncovered or passwords revealed as part of puzzle solves.  It also listed the responsible party for each asset and update’s creation and implementation.  This level of detail made website scrubbing and puzzle playtesting relatively simple.

Launch Day

Before I knew it, Launch Day arrived. All planning and preparation had been completed, the first beat was scrubbed, and all the bugs were fixed.  The players were assembling, anxious to see where the experience would take them this time. Players were informed the game had started via an “overt rabbithole” – a broadcast email sent to all GSX attendees from a known GSX email address.  The email pointed players to The Hunt hub – an out-of-game, meta website with all the latest game information and links to the player forum, wiki, and in-game sites.  Every beat, a video would be placed on the site to start things off.  For the first beat, the players found a video from Isabel describing the break-in and theft of her father’s journal.

There were definite benefits to producing a game for the same audience – I asked Juxt and No Mimes if they were able to build on their work from Threshold, knowing their audience would be almost identical.  Bill Fleig, at Juxt agreed, explaining that “not only did we know the audience would be the same, we knew that we could probably leverage a community that carried over from the previous year. The Hunt had to have a certain amount of momentum from the get go, given that we had a two week window to work within, so starting with an existing social network was incredibly helpful. We also had the great benefit of hindsight in knowing how smart and collaborative the audience was, so that allowed us to “tune” the difficulty of the game and know roughly how much of a commitment the game would be to the audience.” Steve Peters at No Mimes added,

this was a double-edged sword, as the audience definitely had its veteran players. On the one hand, it took them a lot less time to get up to speed with the game mechanics this time around, but on the other hand, the vets were prepared with their own private chat and messaging platforms, making their work and progress pretty much invisible to us. One thing that was very different this time around, however, was a much larger international audience. I think this was in major part due to us designing key pieces of story in a non-English way. As an example, the very first video the players found contained no dialogue at all. Also, we purposely created numerous assets in their native language, and made sure that most of the puzzles were not English-centric. This turned out to work really well, as our international audience was MUCH larger than last year. In fact, the winner of the game was from China.

I remember Launch Day as being the longest, and probably least productive work day of the year at my “day job.”  I obsessively refreshed my Gmail account, waiting for any word from the team on how the game was going, as that was my only means of communication with the rest of the team while I was at work. That day, I got a first-hand taste of both the joy and the agony of being a Puppetmaster – the rush of watching players find clues and solve puzzles; the anxiety of waiting and watching and wondering if a certain set of clues would lead the players to the right conclusion; the pride when the final puzzle of the beat was solved and the players communicated with Isabel and Keith, giving them an answer that would lead to the next beat.  But there was no time to revel in success – for the second beat was to launch the next day, and there were sites to scrub and puzzles to test.

Scrubbing and Monitoring

The second beat was scheduled to go live at 7PM the next day, which meant a late night of  scrubbing and bugging, followed by another round of testing when the bug fixes were implemented the next day. Thankfully, Steve Peters set up an IRC channel for the development team, making communication easier and an end to the obsessive Gmail account refreshing.  I also started performing another duty – monitoring the player forum on the Hub site.  While, as was mentioned above, the experienced players had set up their own communication channels, there was still a good amount of posting going on in the “official” forum.  This allowed us to see if players were stuck, or if they were encountering any technical issues.  One of the benefits of this type of game is the flexibility afforded to the PMs in modifying content or adding clues during the course of the game to avoid player frustration and move the game forward.  While avoiding player frustration was one reason for altering content or nudging players, another reason was the timeline.

One of the drawbacks to this type of game was how it was more or less ruled by the clock.  For this particular game, we had a deadline: the start of GSX, giving us a two week window to get the players to the end and crown a winner. I asked Steve Peters about the unexpected changes that needed to be made to adapt to the player’s actions (or inactions):

As usually happens, there was a puzzle or two that needed to be nudged in-fiction. In this case, it was pretty easy to be light on our feet due to using real-time social networks like Facebook and Twitter. We could basically improv as much as needed without breaking the fourth wall to gently nudge the players in the right direction if they’d lost their way.

Not all beats were as simple as uploading content and waiting for the next beat release.  Another purpose of monitoring the player forum was to determine when the players had solved a puzzle or found a clue that triggered the release of additional content within the same Beat.  The Hunt was a truly international game, and with the characters traveling to Norway and India and players in those regions playing along and solving clues, this often meant many late nights or early mornings.  One of the strengths of the No Mimes team was the diversity of the team members’ locations: with Christy Dena in Australia, Daniël van Gool in The Netherlands, and US/Canadian team members in almost every North American time zone.  While this alleviated the necessity of forcing some team members to stay up all night, every night, there were a couple of late nights for a few of the more involved No Mimes and Juxt team members.  Having a day job meant I was unable to participate in many of these, but I would often get up earlier than normal to catch up on overnight events, to scrub sites going live while I was at work, or to verify bug fixes after new content had gone live.

Live Event

The third beat brought the most exciting and nerve-wracking, part of the game – the live event. The beat went live at 3AM PDT – noon in Oslo, Norway where the live event was taking place.  The characters had to flee Norway to escape the clutches of Alvar Ødegård (the bad guy) and the Koristos (an evil secret organization), but were not able to investigate a clue given to them in Oslo – a diagram with the word “VIGELANDSPARKEN” on top, and an “X” marking a spot on the diagram.  The players had to first find the clue that led to Isabel’s blog password, where they learned the diagram had been scanned and placed on We Are Cisco, a private photo sharing platform used by Cisco employees.  The diagram and clue word would lead the players to a museum and park in Oslo sharing the same name, the red “X” would lead them to an Indian jewelry box cached at that location, and the box contained an item which would direct the characters to the next step in their investigation.

For this live event, Daniël van Gool was the On-Site PM who planted the box, remained on the scene to observe when players arrived, and safeguarded the box from non-players.  Since direct interaction with players on the ground would be necessary for this event, dialog via Twitter and Facebook was scripted pretty much on the fly.  Dee Cook was Isabel’s Twitter voice, and as responses from players arrived in Isabel’s feed, Dee would propose responses to the team in IRC, and the team would agree or make other suggestions, after which Dee would respond in-character.  Meanwhile, Christy Dena, acting as Keith’s email voice, would also respond to email queries after similar team interaction. The team used this procedure to guide the players until they were able to find the box, bringing the Live Event portion of the beat to a successful conclusion. During this time, I had been sleeping and then commuting to the day job, and logged into the IRC channel just in time to hear the news that the box and receipt had been found.  The team’s relief and excitement over a successful live event was readily apparent, and the team members who had been up all night for the event left to sleep, leaving the rest of us to monitor.  In the box, the players found a receipt from a company in Bangalore, India which led to the company’s website, which provided an address.  The players passed this information on the Isabel and Keith, and when the Key Asset Code on the receipt was entered into the Hub site, the beat was over.

Challenges

Up to this point, no extensive player prodding had been necessary – but a puzzle in the fourth beat needed a bit of PM intervention for the players to solve, and a bit more to help the players understand where the puzzle solve was to be applied.  I asked Bill Fleig about their unexpected challenges during the game:

Well, the very end of the game got a little hairy on our part. The way the experience was structured, we had a single winner that would win significant prizes, but we had to identify a winner on the weekend before the Global Sales Experience started. The end of the experience was tweaked several times over, trying to find the balance of creating a challenging and satisfying conclusion with a very achievable solution to the game, and in the end we were really on edge watching the ebb and flow of activity, trying to determine if we needed to goose the game.

One of the unique aspects about The Hunt was the points system – entering the Key Asset Codes to acquire points was the means of winning the game, and while everyone who entered the Code would get points, the one who entered it first got the most points.  So when intervention became necessary on a puzzle solve that led to a Key Asset and its code, PMs had to be VERY careful in order to ensure that the points for that Code were awarded fairly.  In this instance, a player discovered a set of numbers that, when appended to the end of a website’s URL, would lead to the page containing the Key Asset Code.  However, the players did not know this: if the characters hinted at the solution or gave the information away outright, it would mean that the first player who happened to read the information would be the first to get the points, not necessarily the player who earned them by finding the numbers. There was discussion amongst the team as to whether the code should be removed from the asset, but the players would expect that kind of reward from such a hard-fought puzzle, and to not give it to them would be frustrating. In the end, one of the characters had to give the answer, and it was luck that the player who came closest to the clue got to the asset code first.

One of my personal scrubbing challenges came in the form of an extremely complex math problem, which, when solved and then plotted out on a graph, displayed the URL to a new website.  I had no idea where to even start testing this puzzle, and was greatly concerned the players wouldn’t be able to solve it in time (we only had about a day or so).  I finally had to let it go and cross my fingers for a good outcome.  Imagine my surprise when I checked in the next morning, and the puzzle had already been solved!

Endgame

Before I knew it, Endgame was upon us. The final beat would launch at 5AM, and wanting to see it through to the end, I put in for time off from the day job so I could watch it all go down live.  The Beat started with a grille-type book cipher using a Cisco book (Doing Both: How Cisco Captures Today’s Profit and Drives Tomorrow’s Growth by Inder Sidhu), introduced in a video by Cisco executives.  The book cipher revealed an email address to Zhang Li Wei, a Chinese Customs Agent.  Once found, the players emailed and received a reply requesting any information regarding “unauthorized possession of our national valuables.”  Alvar, the antagonist, just so happens to have an ancient Chinese ring with a dragon inscription, definitely an unauthorized Chinese valuable.  The players emailed Zhang about Alvar’s possession of the dragon ring, giving Zhang the ability to arrest Alvar.  Meanwhile, the players found a video of the protagonists Isabel and Keith at a Beijing warehouse, and discover they’ve been lead into a trap when they are detained and brought before Alvar, who insists Isabel make up for the damage her father has done in almost revealing the existence of a secret society by working for him and the secret society as a double agent at Cisco.

This led to one of my favorite puzzles in the game.  Isabel and Keith’s friend, Varin, deceived them into going to the warehouse, but also managed to record a video of the encounter as further evidence against Alvar, alongside a Telepresence transcript of a conversation between Alvar and Varin before Isabel and Keith arrived, proving Varin was forced to cooperate due to his son being held hostage.  Once he and his son had been released and  retreated to safety, Varin tweeted a clue to the location of another puzzle involving Isabel’s “Book.” Throughout the game, Isabel had been recreating her father’s journal using an online “Book” Keith made for her, filling it with both her re-creations of her father’s drawings and journal entries, and pictures sent by players from around the world.  For this puzzle, the players had to “scratch” the pictures using their mouse, much like one would scratch the silver off a lottery ticket.  Only certain pictures did this, so players had to try this technique on many different pictures until the picture flaked away, revealing a filename to an MP3.  There were 25 files, and the players had to listen to these audio files and place them in chronological order.  Once the files were in the right order, the players heard what happened after the video ended: a recording of Isabel and Keith escaping from Alvar, and Alvar’s arrest by Chinese Customs. While not a very technically challenging puzzle, the effect of scratching away the pictures was very cool.

This, however, was not the last puzzle to be solved.  Isabel’s blog post at the beginning of the Beat talked about a clue her father Ferdinand left in his journal – “GCR IH, going back in time”, along with a picture of a globe with circular lines around it.  This clue stumped the players, so Isabel hinted about overhearing pilots mentioning GCR while passing her in the airport.  That was enough to get them going, and they quickly devised “Great Circle Route” followed by “Initial Heading”.  For the rest of the clue – “going back in time” – they realized they needed to look at all the locations Ferdinand wrote about in the journal, calculate distance and direction needed to fly from one to the other, then “go back in time” – calculate those points going backwards, making note of the directions.  Ferdinand’s website had a compass on the home page, and clicking on the compass points in the calculated order opened a hidden page, which contained audio from a conversation between Alvar and Ferdinand proving that Alvar was responsible for Ferdinand’s death, and a note to Isabel from her father. This page contained the most important part of the game: the Grand Prize Key Asset code. The first player who entered it was declared the Game Winner.

At this time, all the game’s websites affiliated with Alvar and the Koristos were taken down and replaced with “This site is no longer available” messages, symbolizing Isabel and Keith’s victory in stopping Alvar and his arrest by Chinese customs, recovering the Journal, and avenging Ferdinand’s death.  I’ll admit I choked up a little when the sites went down… and, CURTAIN.

At the end, I asked Angela Smith, Senior Manager of the Global Sales Experience at Cisco if they believed the goals of The Hunt had been met:

Yes, we believe the ARG has indeed served its purpose for our needs for the last two years. For those that wanted to engage on this level, it offered them the opportunity to do so. For those that weren’t interested, it didn’t prohibit them from engaging in other minigames or content within the environment.

For me, working on this game was an eye-opener – not just in the many things needed and talented people necessary to run a game, but also discovering how much fun it was.  Even with all the work and long hours, the experience itself was reward and repayment in and of itself. Also, I can now understand why, when players cross over to the other side of the curtain, it is so tempting to stay there and pull a few more strings.

For more information on Cisco’s alternate reality games, check out case studies for both Threshold and The Hunt.

Editor’s Note: a number of ARGNet’s former and current staff members worked on The Hunt. It is generally our policy to screen staff members involved in a game’s creative process from working on an article on that game. In order to provide a behind-the-scenes look at game development from a first-hand perspective, an exception was made in this case. Any potential conflicts of interest of this nature will be disclosed.

Comments

3 Responses to “A Glimpse Behind The Curtain with Cisco’s Game “The Hunt””

  1. Varin on January 13th, 2011 9:25 am

    Great article Celina! It makes me wish I worked for Cisco once a year so I could play these games. I’m especially fond of Keith and Isabel’s friend. He sounds like a great guy! ;D

  2. Enaxor on January 15th, 2011 7:18 pm

    I absolutely agree varin, great article! And how I wish I could play those games too.

  3. Dannette Veale on January 20th, 2011 1:07 pm

    Thanks for the positive article and comments. The Hunt was a successful engagement deployment for the Cisco GSX event this year. ARGs are a great vehicle for driving cross collaboration and generating buzz for the event with the audience.

    Regards,
    Dannette Veale
    Technology Strategist, Cisco GSX

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