Friday, June 27, 2008

This Was Never a Game

I'm speaking on a panel @ Hide and Seek today cheekily called "Why ARGs Don't Work." It's an awesome topic -- as an ARG designer I like to pull wrestle with the difference between the hype (god knows there's a LOT of it when it comes to ARGs) about how and when ARGs work, and also to talk about the real challenges of making what we currently call an ARG. (We're also taking about what today's ARG developers really want to be making and in almost every case it's not what most people who know what an ARG is think of as an ARG).

It's a non-blogging panel so no one will be repeating what we're saying (awesome). But I don't mind sharing, so here are some crazy shorthand notes. Not meant to be controversial -- mean to share what I really think and am really excited about.

MY THEORY OF WHY ARGs DON'T WORK (remember, this is a cheeky title)

The big thing I want to say is this: ARGs are not at the leading edge of game design or game development. I see myself as a game designer/developer first and foremost, so this matters a lot to me. ARGs are NOT the future of gaming.

ARGs, as traditionally designed and developed simply aren’t games. They often have games embedded in them. (e.g. lost sport in The Lost Ring) but they are not games they don’t work like games. That’s what *I* mean when I say ARGs don’t work. They do work, but they don’t work like games.

What do they work like? There are three things ARGs are good at. These are basically the three fields ARGs have been at the leading edge of since 2001 (The Beast and Lockjaw, the two games that more or less cemented the "rules" of the genre).

1) collective intelligence
2) social or dark (formerly "viral", but that's kind of sleazy sounding these days) marketing
3) small groups/existing social networks and communities entertaining each other

I say ARGs are good at this with some reservation – more than 50% of ARGs fail to be good at either of this, not through any failures of the designer, but through the failure of players to show up and actively participate. Which, by the way, is the standard percentage of social media projects that fail to reach a community size of any viability and fold within the first year. More on social media in a moment.

So if you are interested in CI or marketing, ARGs are good for you, with some caveats.

If you want to do 1) CI, then you have to have a real mystery. With ARGs that actually produced CI, there were real unknowns. What is this, how does it work, who is making it, etc. are always a good one (see The Beast, see I Love Bees, see Lonelygirl15). The CI is often a byproduct of the meta investigation (how does this work) rather than the actual interactive content (puzzles, distributed e.g.) The other option is to have an open-ended problem as the core of your game (see World Without Oil). Players can produce real CI when they are dealing with a giant, actually unsolved but potentially knowable terrain. The thing is, there has to be a REALITY to what the CI is investigating. The meta stuff is real (someone IS making this) or the topic is real (we ARE on the verge of facing extreme oil prices) I could spend a lot of time explaining this in more detail but for now I’ll just say that I’m pretty sure this is right and I’ve been thinking about it for years.

So: If you want to teach CI through ARGs, don’t manufacture an experience with the ARG “aesthetics’ or ARG “mechanics”. I refuse to work on any projects like this, they’re in my opinion a kind of sham. I DO believe in educational ARGs. (see my 2007 MacArthur essay) but I now firmly believe the “game” needs to be about something real. Pick a real mystery or problem and do a real investigation and give players social platforms like ARG players use, and have puppet masters oversee the pacing/tempo of the investigation, giving feedback and showcasing excellent play/work. So borrow the SOCIAL STRUCTURE and PUPPET MASTER dynamic of ARGs, but all this distributed story/multi-talent puzzles/interactive characters stuff for my money is besides the point.

By the way if you want to see the best ARG every created, Google search "Bachelorette spoilers" and check out the spoiler community for the ABC TV series The Bachelorett. I'm not kidding. IT IS MY DREAM ARG, and it's just a bunch of passionate people investigating a real mystery (the end result of the series and everything juicy leading up to it)

If you want to do 2) viral marketing then first of all, you must understand the pyramid of participation. The power law curve. 80% of your “players” won’t DO anything except casually look at it or poke at it. That’s how ALL social media works. 1% of your players will do 90% of the active “gameplay”. Which isn’t really gameplay by the way, it’s social media creation (wikis, forums, videos, etc.) So when you imagine your great big player base, be realisit. Don’t try to make social media work like a game. Social media thrives on superusers, not the base, not the typical user. Games ARE played by everyone at roughly the same levels – gradients of activity yes, but not a power law curve! There are no passive players of WoW, chess, C2BK, whatever. So if you are making an ARG, you better get some awesome power-players involved early, because your players are the real entertainment, just like in all social media. You can't make a mass experience through ARGs, at least no one has EVER. and I don't think it's possibe for as longibut you can ente

The one exception here is that if you are marketing with ARGs, and you have an intellectual property people already care about (again a REAL thing people want to investigate, like a backstory for a new film or videogame or spoilers from a TV series) then a broader base of people will show up. You might still only get 5% of your players actually doing something, but the 80% of people not doing anything WILL be watching a lot more closely and talking a lot more. (See the Lost Experience, the NIN game, the Dark Knight game, the Halo 3 Iris experience, etc.) So they’re not playing exactly, still, but they’re more active social media users. So if you want to do a marketing ARG and you have an actual IP people care about, this bodes well for you.

3) Dating back to Lockjaw (google it!) existing communities CAN effectively entertain each other, like making scavenger hunts for your friends or school or fans you know of your favorite show. I can make an ARG for my husband for his birthday, or for all my favorite people in NYC, or whatever. If there is an existing community of people who like to interact with each other and have that fun built in, AND you're not trying to make money off of it. In that sense, it's an art form, a medium. And it's cool for that. And I don't want to discourage anyone from making awesome ARGs, indie ARGs, but it's ART, it's intimate, it' s not some kind of mass audience thing.

So: the summary: ARGs that HAVE worked are social media. NOT GAMES.

By the way, as it turns out, I WANT TO MAKE GAMES. .I want to create experiences most people participate fully in. I don’t want the core experience to be conversation, I want to it to be action and post-action storytelling.

I also still want to help create and teach CI. I think the future of non-marketing ARGs is really around building real CI by investigating fun unsolved mysteries (science, TV spoilers, whatever!) and open-ended problems and maybe even the future. That's why we're developing something called massively multiplayer forecasting games at IFTF. It's going to be awesome and new and different and very social media intensive -- so, ARGs that work like social media, but maybe a little gamier. More on that in September when Superstructure launches! (oooh)

I think I’m a very good game designer (lost sport, c2bk, tombstone hold em, werewolf hacks, e.g.) and an awesome mission designer (the early days of the go game, flash mob activities, payphone missions for I Love Bees, missions for World Without Oil, ministry of reshelving) but not necessarily a great social media developer, and that’s why I’m not even sure I’m really going to be in the “ARG” business much longer, unless the ARG is a real mystery (see above). I want to make GAMES! Like The Lost Ring's The Lost Sport! and The Lost Ring Trackstick Missions! Like C2BK! Like Tombstone Hold Em! I LOVE MAKING GAMES! I'm going to make more games and more missions from now on.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

June 29, 2008 - London - Play The Lost Sport with me!

I'll be in London on Sunday June 29, 2008 to play the Lost Sport of Olympia at the Southbank Centre. We're part of the Hide and Seek festival, and it's going to be awesome. Come play with me!

I'll bring the blindfolds, the stopwatches, and the chalk... you bring your ancient strengths, and your friends!

We'll meet Sunday afternoon between 3 and 3:30 PM at the Hayward Gallery overhang (shown in orange on this PDF map!).

Sign up now -- we've already got 75 people registered, and it should be a much bigger crowd than that (we had over 150 players at our New York City last weekend!)

Get the details and register here!

And as always, you can learn the legend behind the lost sport in this Lost Sport podcast...

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Chaotic Community (UPDATED)

Here's a little thinking out loud on a topic I call "chaotic community" -- or, "the really crowded sandbox".

It's a really long post, which I thought about a lot before posting. So if you just want the quick version, here it is (and also, a new P.S. at the bottom):

1) Truly global game communities are fundamentally different from more localized game communities, leading to a new experience that takes some getting used to -- for both players AND designers.

2) What's so different? The social experience is way more chaotic than we're accustomed to. This chaos can both be cool and productive, as well as sometimes confusing and disruptive. Understandably,there are plenty of players and designers who really want to reduce the confusing and disruptive part of the chaos. So this post is a small attempt to make one game slightly less confusing and disruptive for all of us, so we can get on with the important part: more playing!

3) My personal POV: Chaotic community isn't going away, in games or in other online collaborative environments, and it isn't all bad. It's fun and cool to bump up against something you don't recognize and to try to figure out what it is and how it works -- even if it seems like it might "break" the bigger system at first glance. Getting all of those moving parts to work together in a bigger, more interesting machine -- well, that's awesome. And it's a challenge worthy of really smart, creative people -- in other words, the ARG community. So even if there are bumps along the way, it's an exciting time for all of us to be experimenting and playing with each other. It's an exciting time for both players and designers to be inventing new ways of interacting with the rest of the really crowded world.


If you're playing The Lost Ring, then you're standing in a very crowded sandbox. Go ahead and wave hello to all those other players in other countries wielding their own brightly colored buckets and shovels. It's pretty chaotic, isn't it? You might not understand what they're saying, and you might not recognize the way they're playing. That's because players in China, Brazil, Japan, France, Spain, Argentina, the United States, Singapore, Germany, and so on -- well, they don't all approach games in exactly the same way. Global gaming styles are different! And if you're trying to find the lost ring, then you get to spend a few months playing together differently in the same sandbox. And that means you have a very unusual opportunity: the chance to be intrigued, and perhaps not-a-little confused, by what people you've never played with before are doing. To me, that intrigue and beautiful confusion is maybe the most fun and most important part of the game.

Some sandbox background: Alternate reality games have always been a bit of a "sandbox" for the players. In the videogame and MMO industries, "sandbox mode" means a player gets to turn off or simply ignore offical game missions, in favor of self-guided exploration. In sandbox mode, players explore the game world however they want, with whatever goals they invent for themselves.

The thing about ARGs is that historically, players have almost always been thrown immediately into sandbox mode, by design. There is no other way to play, no linear path to take. The puppet masters create an immersive world -- that's the sandbox. And the sand is everything the PMs create: the characters, the missions, the media, the stories, the puzzles, and the games.

Out of all of this sand, the players pick up their favorite clumps of the game and build new and interesting things. Usually, when it comes to ARG player creativity, we think about "player-created content" like wikis, videos, podcasts, guides, in-game blogs, and swag. More subtly, the players are also creating unique "journeys" that focus on favorite characters, or the real-world missions, or on unpacking particular aspects of the mythology. They dig their own tunnels through the sand to pursue what in the ARG world they love the most.

PMs watch what the players pick up and burrow through, and then the PMs throw more of it into the sandbox, to help the players build and tunnel through more of what they like. That's the fundamental art of puppet mastering. (Fun fact: when the PMs temporarily run out of new content for the players, which inevitably happens on any popular ARG, the players may choose to keep playing anyway, trying to solve puzzles that might not exist or provoke interactions that fall outside the scope of the game. This is typically referred to behind the certain as "chewing on sand.")

Now usually in videogames, sandbox mode is an intensely personal style of gameplay, and if you're the player, you don't have to worry about other players arguing with you about the experience you decide to create for yourself. Even if you're playing online, the virtual world is big enough that other players will leave you alone to play however you want.

But in ARGs, because gameplay is often so collaborative, and there's supposed to be very little experience that a player can have alone, sandbox mode can create interesting -- and sometimes contentious -- intersections of personal gameplay style. That's because some players might be building an elaborate sand castle, and other players might be racing through the box to make supercrazy tunnels, and other players might just want to squish the sand between their toes. And when your castle meets my tunnel and their toes, well it takes a bit of paying attention to let everyone have their fun.

The Lost Ring is kind of a more crowded sandbox than a lot of other ARGs, in the sense that it brings together multiple communities who are playing in different languages and often with particular cultural differences in gameplay style. And one thing the PMs have noticed is that the player communities often crave different game experiences. One group wants lots and lots of live roleplaying with characters; another group barely seems to notice that the modern characters exist and are entirely focused on the ancient legend. One group wants to discover clear, straightforward explanations of the game mysteries; another group seems to crave a never-ending unraveling of a mythology that is more fun the messier it gets. (Here, I'm talking about -- in no particular order -- North America, Brazil, Spanish-speaking Latin America, and the UK. Can you guess which is which?)

As a global puppet master team made up of 8 multi-lingual PMs, we have the benefit of watching everything unfold from above and explaining it to each other. One thing I've learned from this project is that it's not always easy for the players to notice how different their gameplay styles are, especially if they can't read the content on the Japanese wiki, or the unusual game summaries on the Chinese MSN Live pages, or the chatty messages on the Brazilian Orkut community. Yes, some translation happens, but they're not immersed in each other's communities the way our PM team can be. So the players don't necessarily realize how many styles are being expressed simultaneously, and they don't necessarily see how much fun another group of players might be having approaching the game content with a different cultural frame of reference.

So what we're seeing, awesomely in The Lost Ring is kind of like a giant flash mob where instead of acting like a perfectly unified, well, mob, participants are actually interpreting the flash mob instructions quite differently, and no one is yelling at them through a megaphone to STOP BEING DIFFERENT AND ALL PLAY THE SAME WAY.

Now, according to old-school ARG rules, that might not be a good thing. Everyone's on the same team, so everyone should agree to exactly the same approach, right? And besides, it's really fun to be perfectly synchronized! Someone really SHOULD get on a megaphone and get everyone back on track, perfectly in sync.

But suddenly, I don't want a megaphone. I want BINOCULARS. I am gasping with awe and joy to see so many ways to play with the same sand. I am realizing: It might turn out to be even more fun to be open as a player, to work hard to stay open, so that I can be amazed by lots and lots of mini-mobs spinning out their own interpretations side by side, all expressing their own spirit of play.

But that's not historically native to ARGs. And whereas 90% of The Lost Ring players have probably never played an ARG before, the 10% of The Lost Ring players who have are really important members of The Lost Ring community. And sometimes it seems like they're hoping someone will pull out a megaphone.

A recent example of this phenomenon can be explored in depth in this 139-post "Couberteam" thread on Unfiction, which is the premiere forum for English-speaking ARG players, and where numerous bilingual The Lost Ring players have been collaborating with the English-speaking community. It's a really illuminating example of what can happen in a very crowded sandbox. So let me take a moment to describe what's happening, and why it' s happening. My goal in writing about it is really to encourage a diversity in gameplay approaches, and to support players in a diversity in play styles. Because I believe there are fun, important benefits (as well as obvious challenges) in supporting them simultaneously.

So: The main conflict in this Couberteam thread stems from a difference in gameplay style. One player community invented a mysterious group called the "Couberteam" as a part of their unique, extreme-roleplaying approach. Inventing this group was unprompted by the characters of the PMs. But it certainly announced their unique game style to the rest of the world, and to us!

What we understood, but what some other player communities weren't as easily able to see, was that the Couberteam group was part of a larger, interesting phenomenon: Players in Spain, Argentina, and Brazil (countries that together make up about 42% of our player community) have been seeking a more intense "role playing" experience, where even their interaction with other players are "in game" and "role played". They don't want to explain everything they're doing to other players all the time, because that would be "out of game" -- instead, they want the other players to play along and play with them as if the game really were real. Happily for those players, our puppet masters in Spain, Brazil, and Argentina share this preference, and have been able to explain to the rest of us PMs the popularity of this style of roleplay. And so they have been facilitating lots of fun roleplaying in those communities.

So some of these players announced themselves as Couberteam, which would allow them to adopt a particular style of gameplay and invent their own missions, eventually in collaboration with PMs who were happy to support their sandbox activities. As a result, one of our PMs worked with the players to create a new in-game sub-plot. We don't expect all players to engage with this sub-plot, just like we don't expect all players to engage with 100% of this very big experience. But for those who are curious about it, the Couberteam missions are a very real part of the game that the players and PMs have created together.

Most player communities were oblivious to any of this, which was fine, because it wasn't 100% essential to everyone's game experience. But one other player community was a bit confounded by it because the Couberteam WAS visible and interacting with other player communities -- and the intentions and goals of Couberteam weren't clear.

This hit up against a tradition in ARGs. Typically, the English-speaking (and really, the original) ARG community considers almost all interaction with other players "out of game". At least half of discussion on any forum is what you would label "meta" -- discussions of the game as a game, the goals, the rules, strategies, etc. They expect other players to be 100% forthcoming, and not at all coy or playful about revealing their intentions as players. There is a certain beautiful efficiency to this style of play, and it can prove very effective for creating a powerful team and lots of collective intelligence. Players who love that style should play that style! But for some players new to the ARG genre, it probably feels a little too efficient. They seem to want a little more mystery and the opportunity to expand the world, even if that makes it messier. Those players might spin off something different with some new sand that the PMs throw in. And anyone who feels like playing with THAT sand, can. Or you can ignore that sand. That's what a sandbox is. And in a global sandbox, you're STILL going to have local gameplay styles. The local within the global. It's a good and a beautiful thing.

So what is boils down to is this: As an ARG designer, I don't have a problem with different player communities wanting to try different approaches. I actually encourage it, because I think we all benefit from it. I think you can adopt different styles and still collaborate. That's the algorithm for powerful collaboration! So I don't think that every ARG player has to agree to the same approach just to be a part of the same game. And I certainly don't think it's the Puppet Masters' job to define a single approach to the game, or to try to prevent different kinds of gamers from proposing unique paths through the game. When their path twists and intertwines with your path, that's when minds get expanded, when individuals get amplified, when things get interesting, when powerful new combinations of personal strengths emerge.

When I make an ARG, I want to make really cool sand. I DON'T want to post a list of do's and don'ts for playing with the sand, other than: Play fair, play nice, be creative, and add something interesting.

Yes, we're playing the same game. But we're different, and in ARGs, we have ALWAYS come together as a collective intelligence to benefit from those differences, not to squash them.

Collective intelligence, by definition, is designed to aggregate and harness what is unique about everyone into a more powerful and diverse whole. It doesn't FLATTEN difference, it engages difference!

Sure, that can feel messy sometimes. A sandbox is by its very nature messy, and chaotic.

In fact: Some people have taken to calling ARGs "chaotic fiction" (a term coined by Sean Stacey). What I would add is this: It's time to embrace the chaos at a community level, as well as at a content level.

In chaotic fiction, the fun is putting the pieces of the story together to make a whole. The fiction is really widely distributed and chopped up in really difficult, complicated ways -- on purpose. Players have to immerse themselves in the chaos and create a meaningful story out of it.

In The Lost Ring, and most likely many increasingly global ARGs and MMO servers to come, you're getting not only chaotic fiction, but also chaotic community. And that's awesome. The players aren't all on the same page when you start. You have to bring them together, and find points of connection -- even though the community will always be distributed in really difficult, complicated ways. Welcome to the future of global gaming. The community is more chaotic than ever, and the rules of the genre aren't going to evolve to be simpler. They're going to evolve to be more diverse and often conflicting, and players and PMs have the truly enviable challenge of being on the leading-edge of learning to thrive in these very crowded sandboxes.

P.S. Just to add one thing: I've been annoyed by chaotic community myself in the past. The most obnoxious I've ever been in my entire life was a couple of summers ago when I was at a camp and encountered a group of people playing Werewolf with one rule differently than I had traditionally played it. I was a complete raving lunatic all weekend trying to convince everyone to play by my rule. I was more of a raving lunatic than you could possibly imagine, and to this day I can't believe any of them still talk to me. Yet that weekend, we all kept playing together, at least in the same room, even though we were running multiple Werewolf circles and playing by different rules depending on the circle. Somehow, we got through about 24 hours of Werewolf in a single weekend, eventually trying out all kinds of new hybrid forms, although also doing a lot of eye rolling and muttering under our breath at each other too as we rejected each other's favorite rules! Do I still think my favorite rule is the best way to play? HECK YES!! But eventually I came to believe that it's also cool to bump up against other play styles and rules that show me other ways to approach the same game. Let's not overlook the fact that in any game, people sitting in the same circle have to play by the same rules -- it's true. But we can run lots of circles in the same room and move back and forth between circles, too. It's the moving that makes the confusion, but we can try to get past that! So, respect the rules of the circle you're in, but if someone doesn't know them or wants to play differently in a different circle, or maybe even try to tempt you over to their circle by showing you some strange new strategies, that's chaotic community, and that's good and interesting.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

VIDEO: Saving the real world through game design

Here's a video of the entire 20 minute quickfire talk/interview I gave at the 2008 New Yorker Conference: Stories from the Near Future.

The subject I chose was The Future of Reality - a game designers' perspective. Or, as the New Yorker dubbed it "saving the real world through game design."

I really like how this talk went, and it's a great introduction to the major themes I'll be exploring in THE BOOK I'm going to be writing! (More to come)...

By the way -- I'll be in New York City, London, and Vienna in the next month running Lost Sport games and other alternate reality fun, among other things. If you're in any of those cities, please come out to play: NYC, Saturday June 7 in Central Park @ 4:30 PM or London, Sunday June 29th around the Southbank Center @ 3:00 PM, or Vienna, Saturda July 5 at a TBD location! (email me or comment if you're in Vienna and want to play)