It’s been a little over 90 days since I wrote a Year in Review article on the state of alternate reality games in 2010, and 2011 is already shaping up to be another busy year. Read on for a summary of some of the major news items to hit ARGNet’s radar.
One of the most celebrated news items to date occurred when Fourth Wall Studios announced that it received $15 million in financing to expand into an alternate reality entertainment studio. Previous companies that secured multi-million dollar investments to enter the cross-platform market like Smith & Tinker and Mind Candy departed from their roots in alternate reality game development to focus on virtual worlds, creating Nanovor and Moshi Monsters, respectively. A recent job posting by Fourth Wall Studios indicates that the company will be retaining its roots in transmedia and alternate reality gaming development, describing the company’s games as “massively multiplayer online games and enhanced reality worlds on transmedia technology platforms” that will serve as “scalable alternate reality entertainment experiences.”
Area/Code Games experienced its own transformation in January when it was acquired by Zynga, the team behind Facebook games ranging from FarmVille to Mafia Wars. Area/Code is a familiar name to fans of alternate reality games for its work on Drop7, an insidiously addictive puzzle game that stole hours of my life away. The game was introduced as part of Chain Factor, an alternate reality game that launched during an episode of Numb3rs. After the ARG’s completion, the casual game at its heart was rebranded as Drop7. In addition to alternate reality games, Area/Code has developed a number of augmented reality games like Plundr that use geolocative data as a factor in gameplay, encouraging players to play in different locations. Area/Code is one of Zynga’s many acquisitions over the past few months, but may signify Zynga’s interest in bringing alternate reality games and augmented reality to the Facebook audience.
Finally, transmedia and alternate reality game developers may have a new source of financing for their projects now that the Tribeca Film Institute has established a New Media Fund to promote cross-platform storytelling as a means of promoting social change. In its first year, the fund will support non-fiction projects by providing four to eight grants of $50,000-$100,000.
Andrea Phillips has excellent qualifications to talk about ethics in transmedia. In addition to designing a number of transmedia narratives, she, or rather, one of her transmedia campaigns, has been condemned by NASA. In 2009, Sony Pictures launched a website for The Institute for Human Continuity promoting 2012, their disaster movie for the year. Soon after the website’s launch Dr. David Morrison of NASA’s Astrobiology Institute began receiving emails about the site from people who failed to notice the references to Sony Pictures and the film in both text and logos, leading him to declare the site to be “ethically wrong.”
This was not the first time Phillips encountered ethical quandaries in transmedia. Her interest in this issue began in 2001, after finishing an alternate reality game called The Beast. Shortly after the game ended, a smart, empowered, close-knit group of players behind who call themselves “Cloudmakers” were faced with the events of September 11. In the aftermath, some of the Cloudmakers discussed the possibility of combining their skills again, this time to track down the perpetrators of the attack in the real world. This was a source of concern for Phillips. Following a breadcrumb trail of clues in a game does not equate to the skills for dealing with global terrorism. She and other feared that people trying to “solve” 9/11 would in fact be placing themselves and others in danger.
Phillips prefaced her talk with the disclaimer that, while she intended to share some cautionary tales from the history of alternate reality games and transmedia campaigns, her intent was to highlight concerns, not call anyone out on their mistakes or cast aspersions on the campaigns or the industry in general.
So, what are the ethical concerns that today’s transmedia creators should keep in mind? In her talk, Phillips took the audience through some history of attempts at blurring the line along with more than a few war stories, focusing on the risks and consequences of excessive realism in transmedia campaigns. She followed this up with some suggested solutions.
Adam Henderson is a technical wizard. Growing up working and tinkering at his father’s computer repair shop located in the shadow of Microsoft meant Adam had access to the latest and greatest technology. By fifth grade, Adam was engaged in white-hat hacking, finding and reporting security holes to companies. By sixth grade, his attention focused on Trackers–spy devices cobbled together from video game controllers, cameras, joysticks, and even remote-controlled cars. Adam called upon three of his friends to test these Trackers, not knowing that the four would quickly get sucked into a world of crime obscured by layers of subterfuge and deceit. This is the world of Trackers, a multimedia book series by Patrick Carman that almost seamlessly weaves short cinematic sequences, puzzles, and video games into the reading experience. As with Carman’s previous books, these elements emerge organically from the narrative, playing an essential role in the story’s development.
The two books in the series, Trackers and Trackers: Shantorian, are framed as the transcript of an FBI interrogation conducted by special agent Gantz. As Adam recalls the events that led to his arrest, he periodically provides Gantz with codes to access multimedia files he prepared to support his story ranging from site rips of websites he encountered to video footage recorded using his team’s Tracker devices. Readers can enter these codes on the Trackers Interface or read the text transcripts Gantz entered as appendices to the FBI’s interview transcript, located at the back of the book. While this process may sound complicated, in practice reading Trackers is fairly straightforward: every time you see a code, either go online to watch the action unfold, or read the text transcript if you don’t have internet access.
I recently had the opportunity to discuss the series with Patrick Carman, who explained, “Kids will find a way to get to the material. Kids don’t have a problem with stopping and starting . . . that’s the way they’re wired.” This non-traditional reading experience appears to be resonating with young audiences. According to Carman, the online videos from Skeleton Creek, his previous multimedia book series, received over eight million views. Carman referenced receiving “…hundreds and hundreds of emails from educators, librarians . . . talking about how these kinds of formats are helping to bring readers that we had lost back to books.” Readers are becoming similarly entangled with the mini-games created for Trackers, competing to earn top scores. The scores have become so high, in fact, that the PC Studio team has been “trying to figure out over the past couple of months if there’s some way that [players are] hacking this thing so that they’re able to get these kind of scores, and we cannot figure out how that’s possible . . . the top three or four people are way beyond what we can do here at the studio.”
As reported previously at ARGNet, sexy Formula 1 racer Lewis Hamilton had been leading a double life: when he’s not out leaving his competitors in the dust, he’s recovering stolen art and returning them to their rightful owners. According to Hamilton, he just can’t “resist a challenge,” and after his first recovery heist, he was hooked. Soon he assembled a crack support squad, including logistics expert Anna Chao, professional lookalike Lenny Rose, and his trainer Joe . . . and about 637,000 enthusiastic players from all over the world.
Lewis Hamilton: Secret Life was the epic international game created by nDreams for Reebok. Building on nDreams’ experience creating the Xi, the highly regarded alternate reality game for the PlayStation Home, Secret Lewis ran from March to November 2010, included numerous online assets, and entertained players from London to Abu Dhabi. Based on the reactions of players, some of whom flung themselves full-speed into the game world, Secret Lewis was one of the most engaging, interactive, and exciting games of 2010.
But what accounted for this success? Looking over the whole campaign, this article will try to figure out what made the game tick and explore how Secret Lewis can serve as a model for future alternate reality games.
In 2008, Jane McGonigal delivered a rant at the Game Developer’s Conference entitled “Reality is Broken” that galvanized developers into tackling real-life problems. McGonigal has since refined her thesis through presentations delivered at venues ranging from South by Southwest to TED. She has also put her theories to practical use with alternate reality games and interactive experiences including The Lost Ring, Top Secret Dance Off, Cryptozoo, and Evoke. Jane has taught audiences how to do the Soulja Boy dance, snuck on stage for a Flynn Lives event, and used game mechanics to help recover from a concussion.
McGonigal’s new book, Reality is Broken: Why Games Make us Better and How they Can Change the World, hits bookstores on January 20th, and expands upon the central point of her presentations: reality is broken, because games do a better job of making us happy. Rather than attacking games as an escapist outlet for avoiding real-world troubles, why don’t we subvert those game mechanics to make the world a better place? The book draws upon a healthy mix of psychological research isolating specific tactics for induce happiness (“happiness hacks”) alongside practical examples of those tactics utilized in both traditional and “serious” game design. The net result? A list of fourteen “fixes” that can help readers improve their lives through play. The book did a superb job of outlining concrete examples of why we like games in the first place, and how we can transform that interest into something that will make our lives and the lives of others better. While reading through the book, I often found myself cheering along with the “epic wins” documented in the book, ready to proudly declare, “We can do this! We can make the world better, if only a little bit!” Reading this book about happiness feels good: don’t be surprised if you catch yourself grinning from ear to ear a few times each chapter.
The book is structured in three sections: the first delves into what makes us happy, the second embraces the notion of entering alternate realities, and the third addresses the challenges and potential embodied in massive collaborative projects. Each section could easily be a book in its own right, with the first section providing a game developer’s how-to guide that should be on every development team’s required reading list, explaining key concepts like flow and failure in easily digestible language. Another section addresses how massively collaborative projects like Wikipedia and Folding@Home use gaming elements to achieve “epic wins.”
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”).
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.