Category Archives: alternate reality games

BBC’s “The Code” maths/TV game/ARG: pre-run commentary

The Code is about to start, and Adrian’s on good form here with some concise bashing of ARG-design stereotypes:

“the ‘inverted pyramid’ model of engagement for ARGs and transmedia! But I don’t like it

feels like a post-facto justification of why only a few people get really engaged in most projects by suggesting that what you’re making is just way too awesome/hard for the public, who’ll have to make do with lightweight stuff (yes, like Flash games).”

He’s been banging this drum since PerplexCity, but IMHO there’s been comparitively little success. He’s long been wrestling with ways to make that actually work in practice, as opposed to a believable bit of theory. From the tone of this blog post, I’m pegging this as “one to watch”, and see if there’s a big step forward.

Something else to highlight, too; something *I’ve* been banging on about for a long time:

“The fact is, most people are smarter and more engaged than you might think.”

4 games, 4 *educational* games, on the BBC (who publishes some of the best pre-school games / learning content in the world). Fingers crossed this does something new and novel *and which actually works* :).

Graduate/intern games job, London (SixToStart)

Details here

a six-week paid internship, beginning in October. We’re looking for smart people who are interested in making social and story-based online games. You must be able to demonstrate experience of having worked on games in the past, whether you helped make a big game, or worked on your own in your spare time, and we’re particularly interested in:

* Front and back-end web developers
* Game designers
* Artists and graphic designers (aimed at games)

This is one of those “exceptional” opportunities – SixToStart is a tiny tiny company, but they have a habit of winning awards for their unique mix of modern games, at the cutting-edge of game-design, using computers as only a part of the overall game. Google if you don’t know them…

GDC09: Meaningful Social Reality Games

Austin Hill, Akoha


Conference organizer introduced this as “during this first talk, think about the platform they’ve made, as much as you do the game; that could be especially interesting for this audience”.

I totally support the principles and the ideals. The game looks fun and interesting, and at the same time taking a very “Don’t worry, be crappy” approach to core game design: lots of classic mistakes made, obvious stuff. Is this a case of being brave enough to deliberately make the mistakes they understand (because they’re easy to fix later when you’re more successful – and it leaves you more spare time to focus on fixing/avoiding the mistakes you don’t understand yet) – or just naivety?

Interesting to hear the philosophy that fed into the creation of the game, the speaker’s personal journey and how it informed the design. On the other hand, I was a bit disappointed how little actual content there was in this talk. It was perhaps 50% or more made up of a few long video clips. They were long and very little was pulled-out / emphasised from them. Most had very little information content per minute. Worst example was a mildly entertaining video of one of their players giving an intro to the product – but, frankly, so what? This was “new” and “interesting” 4 or 5 years ago, but by now it’s happened thousands of times over, and we’ve all seen it for many games. I didn’t understand why we were watching it.

I have a sneaking suspicion that – given he’s a VC – the speaker was pitching that video stuff to show “look, we have players who love our game”. That’s interesting and exciting to investors who have little or no immersion in the online world, but IMHO for game developers that’s just par for the course these days. No?
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The Secret of Viral Marketing

The secret of Viral Marketing (VM) is that it’s all about popularity. Which is to say … sooner or later, it’s all about sex.

When we made Perplex City, the Alternate Reality Game, I learnt a lot of basics about VM just from going out there and trying so much new stuff on a week-to-week basis. It was a small startup, so (at least at first) everyone got involved in everything, and you got to see the things that crashed and burned in as much detail as the ones that shone like gold (this was before the company grew enough that people started covering-up the failures).
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Dan Hon rips into ARGs

Dan’s put up the slides from his talk at the Let’s Change the Game Conference – but more importantly he’s done a long writeup with the slides embedded in the text, so you can get the flavour of the talk he gave even though you missed it.

He set out to be mean and nasty and ranty, but I think Dan is far too nice and friendly a person with too little viciousness in him to be like that in person. IMHO, on the day he was much more genteel, and so in some ways I think the written version of the talk is even better than the talk itself.

Anyway, well worth reading if you have any interest in making better ARGs. Don’t expect to get any concrete advice, this is a talk aimed at prodding you to re-think objectively just how often you give in to temptation and use weak devices and shortcuts that if you saw someone else doing you’d berate them for. Although it may not seem like it, I think Dan’s talk is an excellent intro for beginners to ARGs, since it will likely warn you off the big temptations that experienced ARG makers avoid or use with care, but newbies these days may find it easy to go overboard on. Don’t take it too literally, if you know all about ARGs already.

ARGs in Charity and Education – Summary + Keynote

This week, I was at the tiny one-day conference on Alternate Reality Games, and their use in charity and/or education, at Channel 4’s offices in London. All proceeds from the conference went to Cancer Research UK (I think it was mainly organized by the team that this year won the competition to get funding for their idea for a charity ARG, sponsored by CRUK, with help from the guys at Six to Start).

As with all other conferences I go to, here’s are writeups of all the sessions I attended. Unfortunately, Channel 4’s offices are a bit … um … 20th Century: their auditorium has no power points. It has sockets that have been covered over with screwed-on metal covers to prevent you using them. Pretty amazingly dumb, considering how funktastic the rest of the building is. So, I ran out of power halfway through, and couldn’t cover all the sessions. Sorry!
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Review of The (Former) General (part of an ARG)


Another story – The (Former) General – has been released as part of Penguin/STS’s current ARG, We Tell Stories.

This story, and the website it comes from, is all part of an ARG, from two of the key people (Dan and Adrian Hon) behind Perplex City (PXC). So … expect misinformation, deliberate errors, and stenography. I’m not playing the game (sadly; just too busy with other things at the moment), so I’m interpretting this completely cold.
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GDC08: Alternate Reality Games group gathering

(re-posted here from the main IGDA ARG SIG blog (, because the IGDA webserver is too weak and crappy to allow image uploads, which I needed to do :( )

The 2008 GDC Group Gathering went well, with approximately 20+ people turning up. We had a quick discussion about SIG activities and then broke out for the standard mingling and networking. Photos + discussion items below.
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GDC08: Thinking Outside the Virtual World


Speaker: Michael Smith, MindCandy

Another half-hour-long introductory topic talk from the Worlds In Motion summit. Short but sweet. A nice overview of lots of different things going on in the use (and sales) of real-world goods as part of online games / virtual worlds. Misses out plenty of things, but does a good job of giving a taster of the sheer variety that’s going on right now.

Like Adrian’s talk from yesterday, I would have loved a second follow-on talk – now that everyone’s been brought up to speed – that explored where we could be going with these, and looking at how these have been used in more depth / detail.
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GDC08: Gaming’s Future via Online Worlds


Speaker: Jeffrey Steefel, Turbine

IMHO, Jeffrey hereby strengthens the weight of evidence that Turbine is genuinely turning the corner from making poorly-guided foolish games to doing cutting-edge stuff and doing it well. Lord of the Rings Online (LotRO) has gone some considerable way to burying the failings of Asheron’s Call 2 (AC2) and Dungeons and Dragons Online (DDO), but it’s still far from certain that it’s a sustainable direction for them. In that context, Jeffrey speaks very convincingly and with a lot of apparent understanding about what they’ve done well and where they’re going with it in the future. Frankly, all of the incumbent MMO companies need to be doing this, and pushing at least this far and fast ahead, so it’s great to see someone senior at Turbine pushing this so strongly.
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GDC08: Scattershots of play – potential of indie games – 3


A very broad range of ideas on what should shape game design at a fundamental level. I greatly enjoyed this for the way it jumped to a bunch of related but competing ideals and perspectives.

Also very interesting for including a 20-minute section on How to Design for Alternate Reality Games (not billed as such, but that’s what it was: a theory on how to think when designing ARGs).


Section 1: Flow, and how to evaluate games
Section 2: Games break down into inputs and outputs
Section 3: Theories of design for Alternate Reality Games


[1] Kellee Santiago
[2] John Mak
[3] Pekko Koskinen

My own occasional commentary is in [ square brackets ]

Section 3: Theories of design for Alternate Reality Games

This presentation is a personal design path, because the topic is in daner of leading to too abstract things, so personalising will make it more concrete, and secondly using concrete example will probably help explain.

I was working in university game research lab in finland, then tried to get projects going between old traditional forms of art and games.

One project from last fall was a reality game that will take place in finland next fall (2008???).

Background of game mechanics, but also a choreographer, a few dances, some actors, a video artist, and theatre director. These are all controlled by background game structure.

Basic premise is that everything you see around you is actually fictional. We’re pretending you’re living in a virtual disney land, your life is part of a museum exhibition, you’re a token citizen in this piece.

We insert fictional elements into the streetlife, give roles to players and use this to nudge people out of their normal daily routines.

I had to recalibrate my game design principles, because this needs some big changes to things I’d normally done. We’d made mainly experimental computer games before, and although I had a background in roleplaying this was still pretty new different design requirements.

Games can be designed for any medium, you can make games that are sound-only, text-only. Any medium at all you can come up with a game for. Why is that?

I think that’s peculiar because other forms of expression are rooted in the medium, e.g. painting is defined by it’s being a visual medium, music is an audio onee, yet that games are simply independent and can apply any medium that they choose.

This leads to the question: where do games reside, where do they stem from?

[this is part of their uniqueness: they’re part of what we are as humans]

I have a couple of ideas…

1. Games are essentially systesm: structures and operations. The structures, and the operations that are based on those strucutres. The medium’s features are there to make the structures apparent, and make the operations sensible / understandable.

e.g. learnign chess: you can learn it many ways, physically: in your head, on paper. but what’s important is that you’re devleoping a mental-model in your head, and then you can play it in any medium.

This is true of all games, I think: the game is not part of the medium, it just uses a given medium to show the structure that the game is comprised of.

If this is the case … doesn’t that mean that the whole game ultimately resides and plays out within the player’s own mind?

The starting point for any move in the game is in my head; first I play the move in my head, to decide what to do in reality, what action to actually take in the game outside my head.

2. If these reside in the player, aren’t games ultimately “systems of behaviour”?

If I play something, I’m behaving differently from my normal self [because I’m using that custom proprietary mental model to shape my thinking and actions].

Can’t we think of game design as you coming up with a pattern of behaviour “that would be an interesting way to behave, to live, to act” and then turning it into a representation of structures and operations that forces that way to behave.

3. If we adopt this design premise, then can we design a player the same way we design a game?

[on a basic level, you would expect a definite resounding yes: this is mathematical matching at play]

I think we can.

Sturucturally the approach I used was to think that games are environments in which we play. But…we could also design games as lenses, not as environments, but as esomething placed between you and your environment, that shape how you view your environment.

This gave me the approach I needed to do the reality-game design.

I could get someone doing something that looked game-like. Then I could get some other people to walk into the room and tell them that this was an artist doing an art piece.

I could then get more people to come in, and tell them that it was a religious event.

These are three different lenses of the same activity that is occurring.

Looking to the future…

This model of lenses cuts out some thing that games can do much better than just be lenses, so it’s not perfect as a model.

Are games as we see them now the last stop in development of understanding of what a game is, and of examples of genres, or just the beginning of a fundamentally different way of looking at them.

If you look at games pre-computers, they haven’t changed for thousands of years. But it’s changed so much in 20-30 years that this suggests its still a long way away from slowing down, if you look at historical cultural changes.

I think games are the best way to take control of life: we can design our lives, we can design the reality we want, how we live our lives.

People talk about how mmorpg players are losing their personalities to another online personlity. I think this is a reflection of the fact that games have a baheriovurla background, so they ALWAYS tie up with identity they ALWAYS cause you to adopt a new identity in order to play them.

That’s one development that’s only just starting at the moment, and in the long run I think we’ll come to see it as a general thing.

Perplex City 2005 launch

I was just formatting an old hard disk over xmas, clearing out old junk, and found some files from when I was working at Mind Candy on Perplex City – probably a backup of my USB key when I was re-formatting it while still working there (we tried a couple of different keys for doing passwordless auth which we were thinking of rolling out to all staff to make life easier and in some areas more secure).

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How to become an ARG designer (Design a game to cure cancer)

(ARG as in Alternate Reality Game, of course…)

A new ARG project from Adrian and Dan, in aid of Cancer Research UK. Great to hear they’ve got this off the ground, it looks like it’s going to be fantastic. But it could also become the biggest event in helping new ARG designers a chance to get their feet wet since the start of Unfiction and ARGN:

People always used to ask me
how they could become ARG designers, and I would always say that they
should try and gain experience – but with such a small field, the
only way to do that is through grassroots games. While people might
have plenty of time to volunteer, grassroots games still cost *some*
money which people often can’t spare. This is a way to give lots of
people experience in thinking about game design, and one team the
opportunity to make a really significant game. — Adrian Hon, Six to Start