Note: This article covers two SXSW Interactive 2008 events: Cross-Media Cross-Pollination: Mashing Up Video Games and ARGs (Saturday, March 8th, 3:30-4:30 p.m.), and its follow-up, Core Conversation: What Can the Video Games Industry Learn From Alternate Reality Games? (Monday, March 10th, 3:30-4:30 p.m.).

A last-minute change in programming on Saturday, March 8th, at SXSW Interactive 2008 brought together familiar faces from the Alternate Reality Games development community: Dan Hon of Six to Start, Tony Walsh of Phantom Compass, and Dee Cook, a freelance writer and designer who has written and developed content for games such as “The 4400” Extended Reality, World Without Oil, Unnatural Selection, and many others. Hon, Walsh, and Cook presented the panel “Cross-Media Pollination: What Video Games can Learn from ARGs”. The follow-up conversation on Monday afternoon with Steve Peters from 42 Entertainment, and input from Jane McGonigal, Ken Eklund, Hazel Grian, and others, rounded out Saturday’s panel.

Currently one of the most popular past-times world-wide, video games have an audience both extensive and diverse. Gamers are consistently asking for more from game designers – better AI, more content, more interaction, more story and narrative, more immersion. What can Alternate Reality Game designers learn from video game design and the needs of video game players (many of whom also play ARGs), and what elements of ARGs might video game designers consider when making games for gamers in a world of rapidly-evolving technology and techno-culture?

The panel opened with the question: what elements of ARGs might interest and engage video gamers? “I Love Bees”, a well-known ARG, tapped into the fan base of Bungie’s Halo video game by providing a glimpse into Halo’s (and its predecessor, Marathon’s) detailed backstory. Many Halo players enjoyed ILB because of the opportunity to explore more of that game’s mythology. The puppetmasters presented a Halo story that the players could interact with in a different way, affecting the game not by moving the controller but by problem-solving with other players, answering payphones, emailing the Sleeping Princess, and convincing an AI that they were, in fact, human, and one of her crew.

Perhaps, Steve Peters pointed out in Monday’s follow-up conversation, cross-media is one answer to a demand for more interaction and individualized response. A player’s progress through a game could be tracked, with content delivered not only through the console but also through SMS, phone calls, or even the post office! Similarly, Tony Walsh raised the idea that ubiquitous computing, the imperceptible integration of computing systems and functions into every day life, might indeed be the next game platform, heralding the end of the “couch-potato” gamer.

Some gamers might prefer keeping their video game world and real life separate, or might see the cross-media features as a distraction from the game. “You want to make multi-tiered games,” Peters pointed out. Many ARG designers already use the multi-tier design system to allow different levels of interaction and play for both casual and hard-core players. Walsh added that if video games do start to have these extended experiences, there should be an opt-out system so that players can specify their comfort-level of interaction.

One view of the differences between video games and ARGs is that video games are competitive while ARGs are collaborative. While this is true on some levels, Jane McGonigal from The Institute of the Future pointed out during the core conversation that ARGs can, in fact, be competitive, and that games by their nature are about competition. According to McGonigal, designers have to create that competition, and in ARGs, where players are cooperating with instead of competing against each other, the competition becomes the players versus the puppetmasters as players try to anticipate the PMs’ next plot twist while the PM stays one step ahead of the players while spinning out the narrative.

Dan Hon pointed out that competition between player and developer is much harder to accomplish within video games since the developer is not actively monitoring every player on every game. In answer to this, GDC’s Game of the Year, Valve’s “Portal” was mentioned. In “Portal”, the player completes a series of increasingly difficult puzzles under the guidance of a treacherous, lying computer. Someone pointed out that in the voice of GLADOS, Portal’s computer, the players were really hearing the game designer’s voice moving the players through the game.

Rather than viewing the puppetmasters in an adversarial role to the players, Steve Peters compared ARGs to “dueling banjos”, with players and PMs together adding a little bit more to the evolving pattern of the game, complicating and enriching the game as it progresses and as its puppetmasters and players try to keep up with and outmatch one another.

Finally, one of the major discussions on both Saturday and Monday focused on game communities. Many video games and MMORPGs already have highly-organized communities, with players setting up and maintaining wikis and even generating content for the games. Can video game designers do more to harness the power of their player communities by giving players an opportunity to contribute more content and add to the storyline? Games such as Half Life and Neverwinter Nights (among many others) already give PC players that ability. How can this be extended to console players? What are the benefits of utilizing the community formed around games? In regards to ARGs, how can the communities formed during game play be better utilized? Could ARG designers incorporate more ways for players to add to and influence the storyline?

Community is already essential to the success of video games. As John Bates of Entropia Universe pointed out at the conversation on Monday, games that don’t form and nurture a community of players ultimately don’t generate high sales. People, Bates pointed out, are more interested in other people than in AIs, even when they’re playing a highly-immersive and cinematic game. Since video games are re-playable or, in the case of MMORPGs, pervasive, the communities formed around the games tend to be self-sustaining.

But what about ARG communities? Ken Eklund, lead designer of the award-winning game “World Without Oil”, pointed out that players who involve themselves in game communities could be deputized to continue story and community management. The impact of “World Without Oil” on its community has not faded entirely, and in a sense the game continues as players maintain some of the changes they made to their lifestyle when the game was “in play”. Although the game has ended, teachers can find lesson plans for their classes on the WWO website, allowing the dialog opened by the game to be moved outside of the game’s boundaries into learning environments.

Hazel Grian spoke briefly about plans for the community of her new game, The Sky Remains, which is set to launch this April. The community of the game, it is hoped, will sustain itself and stay active organically as the players continue the story, adding to the fiction of the world.

Steve Peters pointed out a few drawbacks to maintaining ARG communities once the games have ended. ARGs are not generally “re-playable”; they create a unique experience within a limited time frame. Once a game is over, in-game communities may become “ghost towns” as discussion of game content diminishes.

“I like people to play where they live,” Peters commented, meaning that ARGs can play out in numerous communities on the web without puppetmasters having to create in-game communities. For example, “Year Zero” played out in Nine Inch Nails forums and Vanishing Point players primarily congregated on the NeoWin forums. He also pointed out that once a game ends, eventually in-game communities and online game assets have to be shut down if they’re incurring maintenance costs. This can be tough for both players and designers. In the case of Last Call Poker, he said, people who had played the game continued to visit the website after the game ended – to play poker! – until the site finally closed.

What I took away from both the panel on Saturday and the core conversation on Monday was that the gaming world is evolving and branching out as technology advances and becomes more integrated with our daily lives. Gamers, too, are evolving and looking for content that is engaging, immersive, and interactive. Serious games have found a niche in the game world as game designers turn society’s search for “fun” into a dialog about social and political issues. Gone are the days when video games or role-playing games were relegated to the basement. Games of all types are more popular and more social than ever. I think ARGs and video games can learn a great deal from each other, and it’s important for designers of both to continually re-evaluate and incorporate new technology and social trends into their games.

One of the panel attendees pointed out that people don’t want to find themselves a game to play – they want to find themselves playing a game. As someone relatively new to ARGs, I remember the excitement of checking my inbox – and my mailbox – for clues, watching billboards and commercials suspiciously, waiting for the game to reach out to me. To create a game that reaches out to its players is difficult to imagine from a game designer’s point of view. However, designers of video games and ARGs can strive to tap into the childlike sense of wonder in all of us that wants to be amazed… and included.

Image courtesy of b_d_solis.