Freshly triumphant from their most recent transmedia projects, Steve Peters of No Mimes Media and Jan Libby, recently of Levi’s G.O. IV Fortune campaign, took the stage at DIYDays LA to talk about their experiences designing Alternate Reality Games.
Steve and Jan began as players in the emerging genre that we call ARGs. Both made the transition from player to puppetmaster through their work on independent games, which led to careers for each of them in the newborn industry of transmedia entertainment. And both acknowledge that their roots in the player side of these games and experiences now inform their choices as designers. “Sure, we do this for money,” Jan said, “but our hearts are indie.” Whether they are designing an ARG for a client or for an indie game, they consider not only the story and its characters, the protagonists and antagonists, but also the audience. Jan views the audience as a character, one that will interact and possibly shape the story as it plays out.
Steve notes the importance of determining how to tell the story of an ARG. ARGs tend to distribute the story everywhere they can possibly be, he observes. It’s not just the surface story of the characters and what happened to them – it’s the residue of the story they leave behind for the players to find. For example: what did they carry in their pockets? What might be hidden in their desk? Do they (did they) have a Twitter account, a Facebook account? The audience, Steve says, finds the story and puts the pieces together, and they tell the story to each other in a way that makes it more interesting than if someone were just telling them the story in a linear fashion.
Telling these kinds of stories is a “back and forth,” Jan says. Just making a chat room for players to hang out in and talk about the story is not an experience. The question becomes: can the audience touch the story? More importantly, can it touch back?
Designing a game is like a balancing act, according to Steve. Designers have to consider their own goals for their story along with the goals of their audience and often the goals of a client, all of which can be very different.
“We started as players,” Jan says, “so we really pay attention to the player experience.” She believes that anyone wanting to create an ARG should play ARGs and learn how they work.
Talking about his work with Elan Lee, Steve mentioned that they would come up with cool ideas for experiences and games, only to have Elan end with, “that’s really cool, but how is it fun? How is it engaging?” It’s a point that designers and storytellers have to carefully consider when making decisions on how to put their story together. An ARG, Steve believes, should have that fun and engaging layer for the casual player, leaving deeper layers for people who want to dig further into the story world. Discovery, he says, is an important component of ARGs.
Jan believes in the importance of designing for both types of ARG players – the fans of the genre, the hard-core players that stick with the story day and night, and also the casual players who come and go throughout the game. She suggests that designers create an entry character or some other entry device where players can “check in” with the game, with a deeper experience for the more avid players that enriches the story without creating impediments to the enjoyment of more casual players.
In response to an audience question (apologies, readers – I wasn’t able to hear the actual question through the livestream) Jan spoke about meeting goals in terms of client goals versus storyteller goals. For advertisers, the objective is not necessarily to tell a story; rather, the goal is to draw attention from the audience. In working with clients, it’s important to convince them that an engaging story is a valuable tool, and it rewards the audience for paying attention. Some projects, she observes, are only rabbit holes with nothing at the bottom. An exciting rabbit hole can draw people in, but can also create disappointment for an audience that followed a trail hoping for something amazing.
Steve likens this to the infamous advertising moment in “A Christmas Story”, when Ralphie finally gets his decoder ring and decodes a secret message from Little Orphan Annie, only to discover that the secret message is really an advertisement for Ovaltine. It’s a question of trust, he believes. ARG designers are designing artifacts to be discovered, and they’re making a promise that the audience can trust them.
He also illustrates the power of engaging an audience by telling about his experience taking his daughter out in the rain to look for something buried in a park as part of Enitech Labs, an Alternate Reality Game created for the Sarah Conner Chronicles television series. They looked around at the designated GPS coordinates for quite some time until his daughter finally found the thermos they were looking for, which contained a camera. When they got back in the car, dripping wet, Steve’s daughter turned to him and said, “Dad, I felt like I was in a movie!” That’s a moment, he says, that defines the pot of gold all transmedia storytellers are looking for. You want people to feel involved in the story you’re telling.
Someone asked how ARGs without corporate sponsorship find their audiences. Both Jan and Steve agreed that the answer lies in first determining the target audience, then find the communities where they congregate. Find the community influencers, and target them and the communities as a whole with the rabbit holes.
Jan spoke of the need for artists to push the boundaries of the genre, to jump in and tell new stories in new ways, taking us to new places. One example she provided was the idea of projecting a film in a park and then seeing the story come alive as it moves off the screen and into the real space of the park itself. The genre, she thinks, is feeling limited and needs to be expanded by people who can look at this type of storytelling in a new way, from new angles. “I’m intrigued with people stepping over the line, into the fiction,” she says.