In the fourth panel discussion at ARGFest, titled “Defining ARGs and the Future of ARGs”, I was fortunate enough to moderate what turned out to be a lively and entertaining discussion from a panel full of people I have professional and personal admiration for. The panel consisted of Brian Clark (GMD Studios), Adrian Hon (Mind Candy), Jane McGonigal (Avant Game, The Institute for the Future), Sean Stacey (Unfiction), Brooke Thompson (Giant Mice) and Evan Jones (stitch Media).
There was an opening round of statements in which McGonigal talked about her latest project, The Institute for the Future, and spoke about how alternate reality gaming can have an impact on the real world by delivering messages about important world issues. She also discussed World Without Oil, which is poised to launch in two weeks. In his opening remarks, Clark went on to state that he was interested in the idea of sustainability, noting that the community needs to find ways to embrace and celebrate all forms of ARG.
The first question for the panel was, “When asked by others outside of the industry, how do each of you describe what alternate reality gaming is?” Clark described ARG as “platformless gaming,” while Thompson focused on the story and narrative and how pieces of the story can be broken up and distributed in many different forms. Stacey agreed, and as he talked about the “collaborative storytelling process,” he added that player actions ultimately color the experience and make it unique. McGonigal focused on the idea of “massively-scaled collaboration,” where game elements “can’t possibly be solved alone,” and real-time game design. Hon interjected with humor as he talked about a “decision tree” approach that he had used in the past, and discussed the ideas of controls and using real-life interfaces within game design. Jones wrapped up responses by bringing up the accessibility and cross-platform aspects of ARG, adding that talking about the idea that “characters believe that they are real” is one of the ways he describes ARG to others.
After a number of panels featuring discussion between independent puppetmasters and members of different design companies, 42 Entertainment‘s Jim Stewartson (Chief Technology Officer), Elan Lee (Co-Founder, Vice President of Experience Design), Sean Stewart (Co-Founder, Creative Director), Steve Peters (Game Designer) and Michael Borys (Visual Design Director) sat down for a roundtable discussion, moderated by Kristen Rutherford, about how their team works together.
Stewart began the roundtable with a discussion of a chemistry puzzle in the Beast that was intended to look “cool and spooky” but be relatively easy to solve, and 42’s subsequent efforts to reproduce that effect in their other games. One of these attempts was Flea++, the “programming” language used in I Love Bees. In a similar vein, players would “teach” the character of the Sleeping Princess to speak as she cobbled together words and phrases from their emails and replied to them. Stewart’s favorite draft reply was “I want a cupcake.” Lee told him they couldn’t use it because it was too ambiguous — it could be a call to action for the players. According to Stewart, one of Lee’s main roles within the company is removing ambiguity from what the players see (Stewart’s summary: the creative process at 42 consists mainly of Lee saying, “That’s really good but can we have another draft?”).
“Delivering a keynote address to this audience is really difficult. What can we talk about? We can’t talk about anything we’ve done in the past because you were all there experiencing it. We can’t talk about anything we’re working on right now because that would ruin the fun and the mystery of the experience. We can’t talk about anything we have planned for the future because frankly, you are the competition. All that’s left is self-deprecation and the elephant in the room…trust.” — Elan Lee
Those words kicked off one of the most fulfilling experiences of the ARGFest weekend, according to many of the participants. The keynote address by Sean Stewart and Elan Lee not only educated the audience (composed of players, puppetmasters, aspiring puppetmasters and other interested parties) but it also provided memorable insights into the successful games that helped establish 42 Entertainment as one of alternate reality gaming’s lead design companies.
Early on, the speakers noted that alternate reality gaming has a unique cability to evolve at any given time in accordance with the audience’s wishes. That characteristic allows mistakes to be quickly assimilated into the game in a way that avoids the perception of failure (“Yeah, we meant to do that!”).
The discussion was split into three main sections:
— How is trust established?
— Why should puppetmasters care if the players trust them?
— Why do ARGs require trust?
The second panel discussion at ARGFest focused on Running An ARG, and it had a diverse selection of panelists. Sam LaVigne and Ian Kizu-Blair of SF0, voice actress Kristen Rutherford of I Love Bees fame, and Unfiction administrator Jackie Kerr delivered a multi-perspective approach to the subject which in turn provided a thorough look at player relations. It was moderated by Unfiction moderator Krystyn Wells.
Kerr began the panel by enumerating three design difficulties that can create problems with community relations: badly-defined game boundaries that confuse the players to the point of frustration, games that break down the community’s collective intelligence rather than supporting it, and design decisions that provoke so much meta discussion that it becomes difficult to interact with the game itself in a natural manner.
ARGFest attendees were privileged to be able to sit in on — and participate in — dialogues between many of the field’s leading developers during the panel discussions held on March 3rd. The first of these panels, Developing An ARG, consisted of Adam Brackin (Fundi Technologies — Deus City), Brian Clark (GMD Studios — Art of the Heist, Who Is Benjamin Stove), Adrian Hon (Mind Candy Design — Perplex City), Evan Jones (Xenophile Media/Stitch Media — Regenesis, Ocular Effect), Jan Libby (Sammeeeees), and Dave Szulborski (Chasing the Wish, Urban Hunt). Unfiction’s Sean Stacey (a.k.a. SpaceBass) moderated the discussion.
As one might expect from such a gathering of alternate reality gaming’s better-known puppetmasters, the discussion was packed with information and insights from behind the curtain (although Brian Clark’s frequent wryly humorous interjections kept it entertaining as well as informative).
One week after the Greatest Show in ARG, panelists Nicko Demeter, Sean C. Stacey, Marie Lamb and Jessica Price join host Jonathan Waite for an hour long look at recent game developments and the fallout from ARGFest-o-Con 2007. Read the show notes (coming soon!) at the ARG Netcast web site. Subscribe to the ARG Netcast feed through this link or via iTunes.