Editor’s note: Brandie was ARGNet’s press presence at this year’s Austin Game Developers Conference. This is the first in a series on her experiences at the conference.
At the Austin GDC‘s only session devoted exclusively to Alternate Reality Games, Elan Lee of Fourth Wall Studios shared his thoughts on trust between ARG designers and players along with anecdotes from some of the most well-known cross-media experiences like AI and I Love Bees. In an interactive, real-time game-story experience, the level of trust between the designers (Puppet Masters, if you will) and the players can have a profound effect on the outcome of the game and the memories the players carry away at the end. “ARGs: Fake Websites, Invented Stories, Automated Phone Calls, and Other Methods to Earn the Trust of a Community” examined the building of trust as an integral part of the game-story experience.
Elan Lee opened the session with a look back at “The Beast” the promotional experience designed for the movie A.I.: Artificial Intelligence. Steven Spielberg came to Microsoft and said he wanted to do something promotional that would familiarize his audience with the A.I. world before the movie opened. What evolved from this was a series of websites, puzzles, and events that attracted thousands of dedicated players – who, incidentally, solved several weeks worth of content in a matter of hours. The designers had to scramble to keep adding content, altering the storyline as needed, and even responding to their audience by taking an initially unimportant but player-beloved character (The Red King) and promoting him to the character A-List.
After “The Beast” ended, Elan was surprised to receive three wedding invitations from players who had been deeply affected by their experience with the game. He realized, he said, that something magical was happening, when an audience felt close enough to a total stranger to invite him to participate in their real-life celebrations. “The Beast” and its designers had evoked a trust that transcended the anonymity of the internet and crossed over into the real world. What builds this intense sense of trust? According to Elan, one of the keys to trust is… a magnet.
After cleaning out my inbox (1300+ messages!), I found a few stories from the past month or so that I found interesting, and I hope you will too:
Over at Cross-Media Entertainment, Christy Dena is reporting on a new educational ARG called Help Me Solve a Mystery. Quoting from the Research Quest blog , Dena notes that the ARG will be “designed to teach critical thinking and information literacy skill. The game will be targeted to college students, yet will be freely open and promoted in order to attract a broad range of participants.” Our very own Michael Andersen started up a discussion thread at the Unfiction forums earlier this week. Gayla Keesee, who blogs at Ed Tech Lady, has written an article asking for assistance from people currently playing this game, so if you can help her out, be a good samaritan!
Also on the educational front comes this article by Ian Bogost at Water Cooler Games. It tells of an instructional counter-terrorism ARG called the Never Rest Game and links to a discussion thread at the Unfiction forums.
Just as the news of two instructional ARGs comes to our attention Jeremy Vernon blogs about using ARGs as an educational tool. We hope Jeremy is watching the same blogs and web sites as we are.
The last of the education-themed story alerts pointed us in the direction of Dr. Scott J. Warren, a professor at the University of North Texas. Dr. Warren is teaching his students about alternate reality gaming through a course called CECS 1000, describing the course as a “hybrid course.” Warren is extending his classroom environment to Second Life, but exactly what kind of ARG this will turn out to be is unknown, as it is closed to outside access. However, you can read Warren’s own blog at doorarg.wordpress.com.
Shifting gears now, Wagner James Au and Jane Pinckard at GigaOm have pontificated about the most-wanted games for the iPhone, and #7 on the list is Perplex City, or another top ARG. Their argument is that an ARG would showcase the multi-funcionality of the iPhone, and they are calling for Jane McGonigal to be hired for the project.
On today’s Attack of the Show on G4TV, alternate reality gaming will be the focus of The Loop, according to the show’s blog. ARGNet will have representation during the discussion as our very own Jessica Price will appear to discuss matters with 42 Entertainment‘s Elan Lee. The blog at G4 mentions the recent Why So Serious event as one of the “saving graces” at this year’s Comic-Con, and poses the question, “[A]re ARGs in general an effective means of advertisement?”
Elan was previously featured on Episode 28 of the ARG Netcast series, of which Jessica was a panelist, so this won’t be the first time the two go on-air to discuss ARGs. As well, we’re pretty sure that folks at G4 don’t know that Jessica and Elan also share a place in Cruel 2 B Kind history.
If you have G4TV on your dial, Attack of the Show airs at 7 pm ET (4 pm PT), repeats through the night, and clips are available at the G4TV web site.
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?
On December 19th, 2006, Jane McGonigal was interviewed by CNET‘s Daniel Terdiman at the CNET Bureau in Second Life, as we previewed the day before. As a follow-up, readers who were not able to get into the live audio interview may want to know that the chat transcript has been posted online for the past two weeks in the Newsmaker section at CNET. McGonigal talks about her history with alternate reality gaming, the possibilities of ARG within Second Life, Cruel 2 B Kind and the Nintendo Wii.
Speaking of Second Life, it’s been quite a while since we were supposed to have reported on the Second Life Future Salon podcast, so now’s just as good a time as any. On November 27th, 2006, the Second Life Future Salon podcast series recorded its second episode. Tony Walsh (Clickable Culture), Elan Lee (42 Entertainment), Adrian Hon and Dan Hon (Mind Candy) joined Jerry Paffendorf of The Electric Sheep Company for a discussion of alternate reality gaming and its relation to Second Life, which also gave the panel an opportunity to pontificate about the future of ARGs in the Second Life universe. While the audio quality is not the greatest, it’s an interesting discussion and is worth taking a listen to.