2012-01-23 : ARG Thoughts

Down here, Marhault says:

Hey, Vincent. I'm not sure if there's a post in this or not, but I'd still love to hear your thoughts on ARGS.

Back at PAX Dev I attended a presentation about ARGs - hold on, I bet I can find the description from the con schedule.

Yep, here it is:

The World's Largest ARG
In December 2010, Valve brought 9 indie studios together to participate in what became the largest ARG ever created for the launch of Portal 2. Their goal was to do what had never been done to this scale before - community involvement in the launch time of a AAA title, in-game interactive puzzles, and a story that spanned 14 games, facebook, blogs, twitter, and the real world. In this lecture, Michael Austin, lead designer of Defense Grid and CTO of Hidden Path, will cover what happened from an insiders view - how it was planned, how it all came together, and what the challenges were along the way. In addition, he'll go over the metrics used to track the ARG and the surprising results of what brought the community together far better than anyone expected.

I went into it not even knowing what an ARG is, and spent the first half of it not really caring. It seemed very large, far beyond my own endeavor's possible reach. But then he said the thing that made it interesting, and it's the surprising thing the listing mentions. Forgive me any mistakes in the telling, I'm going from memory:

They had a bunch of puzzles that were really hard. They had a million players or something, though, so eventually even the hardest ones - and they were stupidly hard, full of logical leaps that one person in a million would make - had that one person who made the leaps and solved it. He told us about one where you had to interpret these weird graphics as lego instructions, then notice that the constructions you'd built fit on a particular given map, then realize that since the fictional character's online dating profile said that he hates the color yellow, you should remove all the yellow bricks, and if you THEN shine a flashlight through them they cast a password in shadow on the wall.

They were tracking player involvement with the puzzles and he showed us graphs. These one-in-a-million puzzles had a sharp spike at the front as people encountered the puzzle and then a sharp fall-off as they discovered how stupidly hard it was, with only a tiny blipping wiggle of a tail. People encountered it, got discouraged, then quickly gave up and stopped caring.

But then they made some puzzles where, instead of needing that one person in a million to solve them, they needed a thousand people to contribute a sliver of the solution. They had a fictional recruitment drive, for instance, where your login name or something hashed to a specialty and a district, so maybe I'd be a xenobotanist from N-district and you'd be an anthrophysicist from Y-district, and they'd send me a message saying "dear lumpley, we urgently need an anthrophysicist from Y-district, and you happen to know one," so I'd scramble to figure out which of my friends fit the bill. Something like that.

And these puzzles, with a thousand mini-heroes instead of a single one-in-a-million hero, and community-based instead of lonely, sustained player involvement over a longer term at a much higher level. Which makes sense in retrospect but had surprised Austin and his colleagues, and opened my eyes sitting there in the audience.

OH! I said to myself. It's game design. How neat!

Soon thereafter I proposed a notional panel discussion of my own (here edited to reflect my current thinking):

The 4 Problems with Tabletop RPGs
The way I see it, there are 4 serious problems holding tabletop roleplaying back: opaque content, oppressive social footprint, counterproductive procedures of play, and closed-door performance. Come find out how ambitious rpg designers are tackling these problems.

Then we have our 4 well-informed and excited ambassadors talk about how Jeep and Nordic larp, for instance, are taking on trite content; how the Cel*Style publishers, for instance, are taking on the oppressive social footprint; how the Forge diaspora and the OSR, for instance, are taking on counterproductive procedures of play; and how Failbetter and Elizabeth's company, for instance, are taking on the problem of the microaudience.

There's not one cutting edge, there are four.

See "closed-door performance"? An online game with a thousand mini-heroes and community involvement could blow that thing away.

So there are my thoughts about ARGs. Questions and comments welcome, as always.

1. On 2012-01-23, Kit said:

This reminds me of something we had wanted to do?and might still do?over at We made a little game that played in a very dreamlike fashion, with one person narrating, until a crux, and then asking the person on their left which way the fork went, and the person on their right how and why.

The game made lots of pieces of the dream, like people and places and objects, with little lists of known facts about them. What we wanted to do was figure out how to make it such that sometimes, you had to enter the thing you had just made into an online DB, and sometimes, you had to draw a random thing from someone else's dream-game via that same DB. It would, ultimately, be like Spore's content-sharing mechanism, if you remember that.

That's fallen off our plate, but we might yet do it!

Anyway, that's only sharing the artifacts of play, not the performance, but it might suggest some interesting routes for opening performance.


2. On 2012-01-24, Evan Torner said:

A cooperative, million-person occult-based RPG is my dream of what Shadow Cities shoulda been.

Maybe it still will come to pass?


3. On 2012-01-24, Ben Lehman said:

I have an amazing idea that is too long to fit in the comments of this blog post.


4. On 2012-01-24, David Berg said:

Here's an idea I've been pondering attempting for a while:

Magical world with lots of unknowns.
Modular system for adding useful knowledge.
2 ways to get knowledge:
- earn it in play
- trade for it online

Go play tabletop with friends, earn useful knowledge.  Go online and type up your adventure, with the knowledge in a passworded field at the bottom.

At end of session, confer with group on knowledge you'd really like to have next session.  Afterward, go search for it online.  Read of other groups' adventures.  If you find someone whose secret knowledge you want, you offer them a trade of your own secret knowledge.

If a deal is made and knowledge exchanged, then you go back to your group at the beginning of next session and recount in character how you met some fellow adventurers and swapped tales, and here's who they are and here's the knowledge I gained.


5. On 2012-01-25, Marhault said:

I hate that I asked for this and now I don't have anything intelligent to say.  Except, maybe... "interesting, interesting..."


6. On 2012-01-26, Josh W said:

You know, now we have games that people are actually happy to play by the book, maybe structures like the old "organised play" things don't need to be so strict..

There would probably have to be nothing gained from cheating against other players, and in contrast the rules should help people integrate stuff from one campaign to another, and there shouldn't be strong in-fiction justification for negative or too in-depth interactions between groups (ie not simple stuff like neighbouring geographical areas), groups could still run crossovers, but it'd probably be better as a stretch.

That way, maybe there'd be this natural incentive to slowly link these games together so that what you do in one echoes or comments on what happens in another.


7. On 2012-01-27, misuba said:

Everyone needs to get Dave Szulborski's book This is Not a Game from Lulu. (I understand there's a sale on right now?)


8. On 2012-01-31, Olle Jonsson said:

Useful headings defining the different frontiers, the cutting edges. Thanks.

Games, or game-like events that can pull in thousands, thousands of people that can perform a small piece, contribute a little bit: that's the kind of fun that makes Open Source software such a hit.


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