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).
Sean Stacey kicked off the panel with a discussion about development time. In general, it seems that grassroots games have the luxury of a longer development process than corporate games are usually allowed, although Clark’s later observation that like films, ARGs are never so much “finished” as “abandoned” to public consumption seemed to strike a chord with many of the panelists. Perplex City was in development for about a year before launch, but Clark said his games usually have a three-month turnaround, an observation about corporate games seconded by Dave Szulborski. Jan Libby, as an indie puppetmaster, spent a year and a half working alone to develop Sammeeeees.
The panelists quickly moved the discussion from development time to the importance of the story in an ARG, about which most of them seemed to feel very strongly. For Clark it’s often a matter of finding a way to entertain the target audience his clients want to reach, whereas for Evan Jones, working with a TV series’ established “Bible” presents both unique challenges and chances to test the boundaries of TV series’ depths.
Designing mechanisms to deliver that story is a concern that enters the process at different times for each developer. For Szulborski and Clark, it’s present from the very beginning and shapes how they write the story. Libby, on the other hand, worked out the story first and then chose avenues of communication for each character that seemed to fit best with his or her personality. Jones defines early on how each character is going to communicate and uses that to help determine which plot points are revealed by which characters.
Most of the panel members said they develop their games with a particular audience in mind, but whether or not the existing ARG community is the target, it has to be taken into account. In some cases, panelists’ games reached demographics they never expected. Greater accessibility to a wider audience, however, seems to be one of the most pressing concerns for most of the corporate developers.
Clark asked the other developers how much of their story actually made it out to the public, which prompted a tangent that produced a few fascinating insights about the nature of online storytelling. Jones described the depth and breadth of the story that his teams develop — much of which the public will never see — and estimated that half of what they create never overtly makes it out to the public. But the invisible backstory creates a tone and feel that informs the rest of the story (and, one imagines, it’s useful to have a solid backstory for any character that interacts with players just in case the players ask unexpected questions).
For Mind Candy, on the other hand, almost nothing is ever wasted because much of the content is created just in time for the public to see it.
One of the more surprising revelations was that the technological sophistication of the development tools used by puppetmasters doesn’t seem to correlate with their budget or whether the game is corporate or indie. Libby used foam-core boards tracing out each character’s development, and Jones’ “bread and butter” is flow charts drawn on easels. Mind Candy and GMD both use Base Camp, an online collaborative software tool, but while Mind Candy’s other secret weapon is a wiki, GMD uses Microsoft Excel to keep track of storylines and characters. The Deus City developers do much of their collaboration via email. Brian Clark summed up the diversity of development methods by pointing out that even the biggest corporate game is still, in some senses, an “independent media project,” so the line between “grassroots” and “corporate” developers is a lot thinner than you might think.
A corporate concern from which indie developers generally remain free is ensuring that game developers and sponsors have a matching understanding of what constitutes “success.” ARGs don’t have a ratings system like the Nielsens, and everyone uses different metrics to measure game’s popularity, which does not always inspire the confidence of the game’s sponsors.
The longest and most animated segment of the panel was devoted to the many forms of player-created content: both in its benign forms, such as fan sites, and in more troublesome forms such as gamejacking. For the most part, the puppetmasters seemed to agree that gamejacking is not something they worry about more than any other security concern, although Jones pointed out that attempts to gamejack are often useful to the designers, since they point to areas of the story that the audience wants to know more about.
The panel concluded with a wry reminiscence of mistakes made and lessons learned, which pointed up the importance of making sure that everyone down to the editor who changes an email address or the guy who’s supposed to unlock a car understands what’s going on and just how bedeviled the details can become if the tiniest aspect of the game is changed without the puppetmasters’ knowledge.