pcx.jpgAs reported earlier this week, the Perplex City ARG has recently ignited a few flames of contention within the ARG community with its controversial announcement of what appeared to be a pay-for-play model based around collectible puzzle cards and, more shockingly, the possible payout of a large reward. Indeed, a prize of £100,000 (about $200,000) may be claimed by whomever locates the Receda Cube, Perplex City’s pet McGuffin Device, and returns it to its rightful owners (assuming Perplex City’s ownership of the mysterious cube is indeed rightful).

These developments have brought up plenty of questions, from whether the announced reward is real (it is), to whether players will have to buy puzzle cards in order to continue playing the ARG (they won’t), to concern about whether a large cash reward will end up factionalizing and splintering the existing community of players (maybe, but hopefully not). It certainly seems as if the recent “Group 333” launch managed to cry havoc and let loose the dogs of Meta across the forums, blogs, and news sites that populate the ARG community space. Opinions a-plenty can be found everywhere, many based on little to no concrete information, yet liberally daubed with some speculative glue to hold them together. A recent article posted to the Perplex City Sentinel helped to clarify some of the aspects of the game as related to the puzzle cards, but the best way to find out more was to secure an interview with one of the Perplex City Puppetmasters. Unfiction.com spoke at length with Adrian Hon about several issues related to some of these revelations.

Interestingly, the Puppetmasters like to play themselves as in-game, speaking as if the existence of an alternate universe containing a puzzle-consumed civilization that has developed independently of, but with many striking historical and cultural similarities to, our own was not to be questioned. Mind Candy Design isn’t to be considered just another production company – instead, it’s billed as the Earthly liaison for the inhabitants of Perplex City helping them to their quest of having their national treasure returned. “All of this isn’t just a bit of fun – Perplex City needs the cube to be returned,” said Hon.

According to Hon, the cards are both a part of the game and not, being able to stand on their own as a separate product which just happens to be set in the same universe as, and provides additional background for, Perplex City. The puzzle cards aren’t the alpha and omega of Perplex City – the search for the Receda Cube is its driving motivation and plot. Nonetheless, the puzzle cards will give players an extra glimpse into the Perplex City universe and flesh out their understanding of the world being created (or, as they might have it, simply revealed to us) by the Puppetmasters.

According to reports from those of the Group 333 who have already received their parcels, the cards really can stand on their own, as the production value of the card sets is high, and, as seen on the forums, the six puzzles shown to players so far are interesting, not insultingly easy, and of a diverse nature. The solutions to the puzzles on the cards do not seem to rely on knowledge of Perplex City and the ARG, but at the same time they do provide Perplex City trivia and atmosphere. The backs of the cards have sections of a large map of Perplex City itself, as if a jigsaw puzzle had been fashioned into a deck of cards, adding atmosphere to Perplex City, perhaps acting as another doorway to the ARG, capable of drawing in more ARG players.

Alternate Reality Gaming is far from a mainstream genre, though it continues to grow and experience successes such as the recent I Love Bees game, produced by 4orty2wo Entertainment, and the currently running Audi promotion, The Art of the Heist. One of the recurring questions that has been bandied about for years is whether or not it is possible to build an ARG around a self-sustaining business model. Generally, any discussion of this question will encompass the idea of a subscription model, which usually ends up being shot down as unsustainable without a much larger audience than is available. Such an idea becomes more of a chicken and egg question, boiling down to how to attract enough people to the genre in the first place before beginning to charge them to play.

firebox2.jpgIn the case of Perplex City, Mind Candy Design has come up with an extremely clever way to sidestep this dilemma by introducing their puzzle cards. With the expected purchase price of a pack of cards to be around five dollars, if a pack a month were purchased by a player, the hit to his pocketbook would be about equivalent to that from his XBox Live subscription. Yet a subscription is not a perfect analogy for the cards, because they offer in themselves a tangible product, rather than access to a product, and more importantly, are not required to play Perplex City. “It’s simple enough,” said Mr. Hon, “the person who returns the cube to us will receive £100,000. That person can do whatever they want with the money. They may not even have a single [card] point to their name!” In fact, Hon also implied that it would be more difficult to locate the cube and win the reward by only playing the cards than it would be by only playing the ARG, “since a strong familiarity with Perplex City will be required to figure out exactly who took the cube, why, and where it is now.”

This approach also sets up the potential for an interesting scenario in which the puzzle cards could become popular, drawing their own audience that outstrips the audience formed around the ARG, and in fact financing the free Alternate Reality Game without the ARG players having to pay a dime. One would hope those players of the Perplex City ARG would wish to support the game themselves by buying a pack of cards now and again, but it’s entirely possible they would never even have to do so. Many will obviously be encouraged to, however, by the promise of increased depth added to the game by the information and clues on the puzzle cards. Certainly, it becomes harder to complain about the puzzle cards requiring a purchase when it turns out that neither the purchase nor the cards are necessary in order to play the ARG. On the other hand, a similar uproar may be heard from the collectible card game and puzzle-solving communities when they discover the Perplex City cards and realize they are being “required” to fund the associated Alternate Reality Game.

The puzzle cards may not be a perfect solution to ARG funding, though. As with any collectible, an aftermarket for the cards, especially uncommon and rare cards, will likely spring up as they gain popularity. Unfortunately for Mind Candy Design, such resale of cards between players will not contribute to the coffers of Perplex City as they only stand to earn royalties on the initial sales of card packs. Perhaps knowledge of this caveat will encourage the ARG players who purchase cards to refrain from reselling them and stick instead to trading with other players. It is, of course, impossible to stop resale completely, and those who are interested only in the cards will likely have little compunction to recoup some of their expenditures by reselling cards they do not want.

This brings up another clever move made by the Puppetmasters: the ability to receive clues to card solutions by sending a text message to a denizen of Perplex City. Such clues are available via return text for a small charge (in addition to any carrier or service costs levied by the players’ cell phone operators), generating another revenue stream that is dependent on the puzzle cards yet not dependent on their initial sale. The desire of the holder to text for a clue to solve a card may be amplified by the inclusion of a “leaderboard” at the Perplex City site, where according to Hon, its purpose is to display individual achievement in solving the puzzle cards, providing an ego-boost for those who are into rankings or who wish to play in a competitive manner. “To be honest, I don’t think that many forum community players will care about the leaderboard that much. I believe the real interest will be in the search for the cube,” said Hon.

Adjusting to new ideas can be difficult, especially when those ideas appear radically different from the norm or seem on their face to have discounted past failures in their vein. But don’t discount Perplex City just yet: it must be noted that Mind Candy Design has been working on Perplex City for at least a year and likely spent more time prior to the initial announcement of the game. Those in charge are unlikely to have simply ignored the history of the genre or to have given no thought at all to how their ideas may be received by the ARG community. It is also clear that the Puppetmasters have set their sights, and rightly so, on a much larger target audience than that comprised of our little niche in the gaming world. After their initial reactionary shock, maybe the Perplex City players will embrace these new methods of funding and delivery and find them to their liking after all. In fact, perhaps the card collectors out there could fancy up a list of local gaming shops that might like to carry a trial run of Perplex City cards for the Puppetmasters’ use. Heck, send the list to Scarlett and tell her to pass it on.

For more information, read the full interview with Adrian Hon at Unfiction.com.