Steve Peters

Experience Design

SXSW Report: What Can the Videogame Industry Learn from ARGs?

**Non-micro-blog post alert**

Last month, I was part of a Core Discussion at SXSW about ARGs and what the video game industry can learn from them. I’ve been meaning to post a little about it, but frankly just haven’t had time to sit down and do it until now. Things have just been that busy (as my family will attest). Not that I’m complaining, as doing ARGs for a living is the best job in the world, and when things are live and changing and updating, I can only compare it to being on location doing a film, or doing live theater with 8 shows a day, or being on the road with a band, or all/none of the above, except that I get to go home at night (albeit sometimes late at night).

But I digress, probably due to my amazing amount of exhaustion, but I want to take some time while I have the coherence to talk a little bit about what we discussed at SXSW, if that’s ok.

First, it was great to get to sit down with a bunch of folks to talk about ARGs, and get to see some old friends and meet new ones in the process. We had a pretty lively discussion about what videogames can learn from ARGs. For me, it boiled down to these things (generally):

1. It’s all about the story
The recent console games that I’ve enjoyed the most almost invariably had great stories and characters I ended up caring about. ARGs have always been about storytelling first, in my mind, and I think the same should hold true for today’s games. It just feels like games are transitioning into more of an entertainment experience, and frankly, when there’s bad writing, it sticks out like a sore thumb, whether it’s the plot itself or just the dialogue. Keep hiring writers, and let them write, people! :)

2. The world as a platform
Why do computer games have to limit themselves to the computer? Why couldn’t the game track your progress, and contact you outside of the game to unlock things? What’s stopping the game from calling you on your phone, or sending you something in the mail? There have been games that have broached this (Majestic and Missing: In January), but I don’t think we’ve come close to seeing the full potential of more and more ubiquitous computing in our lives. I realize there are scalability issues and game lifespan issues, but hey, I can dream, can’t I? :) I’ll leave you with four words that I hope will come true some day: Secret Messages On Toast.

3. Respect your players and don’t break their trust
This is a pretty tough one to expound on, but it boils down to this: Don’t do things to make players feel stupid or foolish, don’t punish them for enjoying your game, and don’t make them feel used or exploited. As far as puzzles/gates go, make sure they have a point, make sense in the fiction, have balanced payoffs compared to difficulty, and most importantly, are fun. A good puzzle should make the players think “Wow! Look how clever I am! I rock!” not “Wow, look how clever those puppetmasters are!”

This trust and respect issue was talked about quite a bit at the end of the session. The relationship between player and game developer in an ARG is very unique, unlike just about any other form of gaming or entertainment, and trust is a very important factor.

In the ensuing discussion, I was pretty surprised to hear some folks posit a competitive attitude between players and ARG developers. For example, Jane McGonigal (who was Community Lead for I Love Bees) said that she compared the player/developer relationship to that of two Chess opponents, where the two sides are trying to outwit and outmaneuver each other.

I frankly couldn’t have disagreed more. The way I see it, players and developers most certainly aren’t at odds with each other. As an ARG designer, I’m trying to provide a fun, interesting, exciting and (hopefully) addicting experience for the players, and I’m rooting for them every step of the way. I’m their biggest fan! Can’t really say that’s how I feel about a chess opponent, ya know? :)

Now sure, there are griefers and those who just like to play on a meta level to see where a game might be broken, but good ARG design and a robust security policy will keep most of these attempts at bay (which is an entirely different subject for another post). But for the most part, I likened the relationship between players and designers to be more like jazz, or like Duelling Banjos…

It’s a call and response. We play a lick, players play it back. We throw them something tougher, they respond with a twist. We pick up on their new theme, they run with it even further. We pick up the tempo, they just play faster. Back and forth, things pick up speed, start to meld, and suddenly we’re jamming together, playing something neither of us quite expected. All with a wink and a smile. We’re not opponents by any means.

Now don’t get me wrong, tension is a good thing. That’s what competitive gaming is all about. But in an ARG, I think there should be friendly tension between players (I found a new site! I solved a login to hear secret messages!), but the major tension should come from the narrative itself, and the need the players feel to push the story forward. It certainly shouldn’t come from a feeling of “beating” the game designers.

Quite honestly, I love it when players do unexpected things, or best of all, solve something in a totally unanticipated way. Some people may call it “breaking the rules” or “not playing within the spirit of the game” but I usually just call it a valid solve. I mean, if we’re truly creating an experience that has no platform, no traditional boundaries, then we should be thrilled when players come up with a solution that likewise comes from totally thinking outside the box and using any and every avenue available to them.

So I guess that’s the point I want to leave folks with, as far as what we talked about (even though it wasn’t perfectly on-topic): The relationship between ARG developer and player should never even hint at being adversarial. It’s more cooperative, trusting and fun (Sean Stewart likened it do a dance). Now, maybe this comes from me having the benefit of having spent extensive time on both sides of the curtain, but I’d daresay that if your players mostly feel like they’re trying to beat the ARG designers at their own game, then it’s not the players playing it wrong as much as it is the designers designing it wrong…

…or not being willing to pick up a banjo. :)