Tuesday, November 6, 2012

NYU 9th Floor Talks: Creating an ARG

Frank Lantz, director of the NYU Game Center, gave a talk about Chain Factor, an alternate reality game that his company, Area/Code, developed for CBS.

  • Games were about human social interaction. In the modern era, games met computers and became more about the player's relationship to the machine. Recently, however, especially in NYC, people have become more interested in social interactions again and public space games have been on the rise. Some examples include Rockband, Payphone Warriors, physical space games, and real-world games.
  • Area/Code was about real-world games, big games, and cross-media games. They focused on location-aware technology and games that connect or overlap with the real world. They transform public space and social media into new gameplay.
  • "Area" stood for location-based media such as graffiti and billboards, while "Code" meant technology. The company had about 6-8 people doing work-for-hire.
  • CBS approached Area/Code about making an alternate reality game (ARG) for their television show, Numb3rs. At that time, ARGs were really popular with the success of A.I's The Beast., ilovebees, Year Zero, and Perplexity.
  • 42 Entertainment pioneered ARGS. The David Fincher movie called The Game also popularized the genre. ARGs are about reality hacking, making simulation seep into reality so that the players don't know what's real and what's part of the game.
  • CBS actually didn't know what an ARG was. They would sometimes confuse it with MMO, LARP, Geocaching, and VR.
  • Area/Code tackled ARGs and tried to solve traditional problems with the genre. Almost all ARGs are entirely unplayable, requiring advanced literacy of the genre and requiring players to be involved from the start. There was also no replayability given that they were focused on narrative, which plays out only once. Most people who say they love ARGs have actually never played them.
  • They identified four core values of ARGS which are collaborative problem solving, participatory storytelling, puzzles, and a narrative and performative arc.
  • The things that they didn't want to include were fake websites and blogs, improvisational writing and performances, and multimedia.
  • The problems they wanted to solve were a difficult player experience, brick walls caused by puzzles, confusion, ambiguity, obfuscation, lack of feedback and rewards, lack of progress, the requirement of specialized literacy, multimedia, and the traditional flow of story to puzzle to story.
  • Their gameplay goals included making it procedural, rule-based, emergent, fluid, accessible, suspenseful, dramatic, mysterious, challenging, intriguing, thought-provoking, and casual.
  • They wanted to make an ARG around a casual puzzle game. Numb3rs also wanted to make an episode centered around an ARG. Area/Code helped the producers of the show write the episode. The episode, Primacy, was about an evil ARG game designer named Spectre who was making a game called Chain Factor.
  • Area/Code wanted to make the game as a narrative artifact. They were inspired by several works including...
    • Oulipo, an experimental narrative collective from the 1980s who did procedural generated literature. They wanted to make sure that the story was the puzzle.
    • Maze, a choose-your-own-adventure book with illustrations of mazes. The book release was tied to a real-life prize for the first person to find the shortest path through the maze. The voice of the narrator was great and jester-like, and it served as an unreliable game master.
    • Masquerade, another book that was tied to a real-life treasure hunt. There were clues on every page that led to the location of a golden rabbit.
    • Pale Fire, a novel where the theme of the story was expressed through its structure. The writer himself is a fictional character in the novel.
    • Planet Puzzle League, a casual puzzle game based on Panel de Pon. It exhibits both lightness and depth.
  • Chain Factor's pre-production was suppose to be 30 days. Kevin Cancienne, the lead programmer, was suppose to develop a new prototype everyday for 30 days, to which he said it was "bullshit." The team built one prototype, which ended up being Chain Factor, and then stopped. It was already really fun.
  • The prototype was very configurable, which allowed the team to discover the best version of the game and find the fun. The paper prototype before the digital prototype took about 10 minutes.
  • The core mechanic of the game involved dropping numbered discs into a grid. When a number on a disc matches the number of adjacent discs in that row or column, that disc disappears.
  • On the Chain Factor website, there's a quote of the day and a FAQ, both sometimes with deep philosophical text. While playing the game, there would be random error messages that tell the backstory of the two developers, Spectre and Frank.
  • Power mode has locked boosts that can be unlocked by entering multiple keycodes. These codes were hidden all over the place outside of the game, including in the Primacy episode, posters and billboards in the real world, fake banner ads on websites, forums posts, and television spots. When you find and enter a secret code, you'd get an e-mail from Spectre.
  • The error messages that told the backstory were based on score, so people had to actually get good at the game to get the clues.
  • The backstory revolves around Spectre creating a global mathematical scheme. Millions of players thought they were just playing a simple puzzle game, but were actually solving and cracking a large-scale math problem. Spectre is trying to pull off a giant bank heist by crowd-sourcing math problems.
  • The gameflow was story, clues in the real world, unlock powers, obtain a higher score, and get more of the story.
  • The fans created an elaborate wiki that reassembled the game's structure. 
  • The core puzzle game was really good. Margaret Robinson of Lookspring wrote an article about how much she loved the game and she eventually married Kevin Cancienne.
  • Casual players were playing so much of the game that they were actually unlocking the error messages. They gradually became more involved with the ARG mystery.
  • Later, it turned out that Spectre's plan wasn't to steal money from Wall Street. He studied economy and was an anarchist. He believed the world was in dystopia and wanted to destroy the world economy.
  • This story was inspired by Ant Colony Optimization and the works of Luis von Ahn, who created Captchas and the ESP game, both games that solve real-world problems.
  • The theme of the story was reflected in the structure of the game. Both the story and the mechanics were about distributed computing.
  • Erik Wolpaw has stated that there are two kinds of stories, the story story and the game story. If he ever made a game, he would reduce the delta between the two types of stories to zero, which he did when he made Portal.
  • The climax of Chain Factor was a "shootout" between Spectre and the hired programmer, Frank. Frank grew suspicious of Spectre's plans and built a backdoor in the code to foil his plans. While Spectre's mode was the Power Mode, Frank's mode was the Survival Mode. Whichever mode acquired the more accumulated points gave that person the power to carry out their plans.
  • In the end, it was a race between the casual players who were mostly playing Power Mode and the ARG players who were trying to sway the victory towards Frank. However, some ARG players also wanted to see what would happen if Spectre won. Finally, Spectre wins in the end. The ending is a note from Spectre planting a time bomb of economic destruction and promoting distribution over accumulation. Of course, Area/Code couldn't actually crash the economic market so in the story, Spectre was merely planting the seeds of his plan. A month later, the market literally crashes and it was a great coincidence that pushed the story of Chain Factor.
  • The game played on the moral status of game choices. However, ARG players knew that it was a fictional narrative and they wanted to see how the story would play out.
  • The core puzzle game was a success. The puzzle game was an excuse for the team to make a simple abstract puzzle game instead of the large, real-world, cross-media games that they were used to.
  • Using the game as a narrative artifact led to its oblique and eccentric personality. The team needed to make a game about math and numbers to tie in with the television show, and it turned out quirkier than it would've without the story. It's good to embrace constraints because it helps guide you to solve problems.
  • Combining opposites (an abstract puzzle game with an ARG) also led to the game's success.
  • The core puzzle game was strong enough to live on its own and the mechanics were repurposed for the iOS game, Drop7.
Question and Answer
  • CBS approached Area/Code about making an ARG, but didn't exactly understand what an ARG was. It was the summer of ARGs and they were going with what was popular at the time.
  • Numb3rs fans didn't really play Chain Factor, and vice-versa.
  • The narrative was all laid out in a spreadsheet.
  • The game ran for four months.
  • Players self-organized their community.
  • How did the team design around the ads and how long it would take for players to solve the puzzles in the ads? The team assumed that once the ads were found, then the puzzles were solved, which proved to be true while the game was running. One of the animated ads was suppose to be shown at a mall. Unfortunately, the mall didn't run the ad so Area/Code faked a video of the ad and posted it on the forums.
  • Drop7 does not share any code or assets from Chain Factor, only the game mechanics. Game design cannot be copyrighted.
  • CBS wanted to find a company to help them do non-traditional advertisement. Area/Code couldn't guarantee that they'll bring more viewers to Numb3rs, but they did guarantee that they'll do something quirky and interesting that would engage a lot of people.
  • ilovebees was a good inspiration for Chain Factor because of the phone booth mechanics.
  • Chain Factor did not integrate any live events because they wanted accessibility for everyone. They also already do so many live events in the other games that they were aiming to do something different.

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