“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?
Stewart described trust as a capital that puppetmasters can earn and spend. If your balance falls below zero, you are really in trouble. Building trust starts at the very beginning of the game with the rabbit holes: the very thing that gets you to play also should be the first step in establishing a trusting relationship. Drawing an analogy between the player-puppetmaster relationship and a dance, Stewart went on to remark that the rabbit hole should indicate that the experience will be enjoyable — if you take the puppetmaster by the hand and step onto the dance floor, you will have a good time. As with dancing, running a game is a partnership, and the puppetmasters have to take steps to demonstrate their respect for their ‘dance partners,’ such as never entering the audience’s space uninvited and staying true to the base audience. Also, as I mentioned before, they should be able to change aspects of the experience if the audience demands it.
This led to the idea that the PMs and the players are actually on the same team. This cooperation is a delicate balance that relies on certain factors, some of which Lee and Stewart brought up during this segment of the keynote. One of the concerns for puppetmasters of which Lee spoke specifically was never making players feel stupid for playing: if that happens, the PMs have failed the audience and the trust is lost as a result. Another concern was always treating the players with respect, which both speakers seemed to hold in the highest regard.
The address moved to the topic of why the PMs should care about trust. The overall idea here is that alternate reality gaming is still a new genre which continues to be fleshed out and defined, and if the players do not trust the puppetmasters, the inevitable mistakes which are part of the trial and error, experimentation and innovation needed for the genre to grow will drive the players away. If the players trust the puppetmasters, however, they will forgive mistakes and allow the designers to try again. To prove this point, Stewart and Lee brought up two examples where experimentation and improvisation occurred in their original, pre-42 Entertainment ARG, The Beast. The speakers touched on two specific aspects of game play, the Red King character and the Founder puzzle, and related to the audience that these game aspects did not work as planned or thought originally, but were then implemented in different ways to enhance the game’s overall effectiveness.
As anyone who has tried to explain an alternate reality game to someone outside of the community might know, ARGs usually have a rather complex design. To accentuate this point, Lee used a drawing to demonstrate how the characters of I Love Bees were all somehow connected, resulting in a very confusing chart of lines and bubbles. This made it difficult for players to “pitch” the game to their friends. So, why do players stick around after a failed game element? Why do people continue to invest a substantial amount of time into playing an ARG? The speakers had an answer, of course.
Lee and Stewart suggested that alternate reality games require a unique kind of player, making a few references to The Beast and the type of audience that showed up to play the game. Back in 2001, during the game’s run, a standard of sorts was established regarding collaborative play, as the duo saw what was originally thought to be a competitive environment morph into a cooperative audience. A statement made by Stewart in which he alluded to how those players changed his faith in humanity supported what was now coming across loud, sincere, and perfectly clear– those unique players are the key audience members.
The session ended with a Q&A session for attendees, which ended up being short and to the point, touching on how Stewart and Lee responded to unexpected player actions, and the asymmetrical resources between players and puppetmasters.
Overall, this keynote address closed the panel discussion sessions of ARGFest-o-Con on a rather high note. Sean Stewart and Elan Lee are not simply business owners, marketing professionals, authors, and puzzle makers. They are lovers of their art, friends to their audience, and passionate about what they do. After hearing their roundtable discussion earlier that day and this keynote, it is clear why 42 Entertainment continues to amaze people with their intuitiveness and great work in the genre, which is why so many fans (myself included) are looking forward to their upcoming projects.