In recent weeks, a number of alternate reality game developers have called for some changes. Brooke Thompson, the chair of the International Game Developer’s Association ARG special interest group, asked developers to make postmortems of completed games publicly available to foster an environment for constructive criticism. No Mimes Media co-founder and ARG Netcast host Steve Peters asked developers to concentrate on creating compelling player experiences as opposed to relying on free giveaways to generate buzz. And now, I’m throwing my hat into the ring.
Play alternate reality games.
Whether you’re an aspiring developers or one with a number of successful campaigns under your belt, you should be playing ARGs as often as you can. Take the time to go through the experience of discovery, and remind yourself what excited you about transmedia and alternate reality games by experiencing the communities that develop firsthand. People enmeshed in the television industry will still go home and watch television: after all, Joss Whedon is a self-professed GLEEk, and George Broussard and Scott Miller (formerly of 3D Realms) love World of Warcraft. What makes alternate reality games so different?
The answer I hear most frequently when I pose that question is “time.” There’s a perception that playing alternate reality games demands extensive time commitments that developers don’t have. And since ARGs have indefinite lengths, it can be even harder to commit to a game. However, if you find yourself unable to drop in and interact with an ongoing game, I would argue that’s a design flaw that you should internalize. Assuming that all ARG players have large blocks of time to dedicate to your game is a dangerous assumption that limits your audience to players dedicated to your game to the exclusion of almost everything else. And making that assumption feeds the stereotype that gamers are people with shallow pockets and lots of time on their hands. Based on anecdotal evidence, that is far from the truth. However, if game designers continue to operate on that assumption by creating games that are largely inaccessible without absolute dedication to a single game, it may become an unfortunate reality.
Every ARG should have actionable and entertaining elements that can be enjoyed with relatively little knowledge of the game’s intricacies. And the best ARGs tend to provide these opportunities at regular intervals. In Must Love Robots, players were given the opportunity to save (or destroy) robot-kind by mixing up a suicide soda at Subway by pressing 8335 (or 5338) and posting the video on YouTube. In Chain Factor, players could uncover error message puzzles and control the fate of the world by playing the highly addictive flash game, Drop7. And in Repo Men, players were provided a steady stream of photographs and videos to parse for clues that might lead to capturing the four runners. All of these opportunities involved negligible time commitments on the part of players, with the potential for substantial rewards with regards to advancing the plot.
This isn’t the first time I’ve called for game mechanics that embrace the casual player. But perhaps if ARG developers take the time to play for themselves, it will be the last time I make the request. So I repeat my call to arms.
To all the aspiring transmedia producers, puppetmasters, and puzzlemakers: play a game. Use the skills you’ve honed on the development side to tackle a difficult puzzle, create compelling user-generated content, or build a player resource. Interact with the communities that form around ARGs to know your audience better, and to reignite your creative spark. And apply the lessons you learned as a player to your next project, so that other developers can enjoy your project as well.