Accelerating Mass

The last couple of episodes of In Our Time on Radio 4 have been particularly good. The first was on Pragmatism, not a topic that I initially had much interest in until I discovered that the philosophy of pragmatism, especially that of Charles Peirce, is rather close to what I support – unsurprising, given that it has large similarities to the scientific method. Peirce’s pragmatism seems to be a very solid middle ground between complete relativism (an accusation leveled at some versions of pragmatism) and the idea that there is some immutable ‘truth’ out there. I feel like reading up more on this subject now…

Last week’s programme covered Gravitons. Again, not a terribly inspiring subject – I went off physics when I was about 13 or 14, and never seriously looked back. Still, the guests were unusually good at explaining the subject (much better than the guys who talked about Asteroids a month ago, at least). There was one explanation I liked in particular:

“There might be an analogy between the production of gravitational waves and the production of electronmagnetic waves. Electromagnetic waves – light waves or radio waves – are produced by the acceleration of electrons. If you accelerate an electron, it radiates electromagnetic waves – light. But we know that light can either behave like a wave or like a particle, depending on how you look at it.

“By analogy, accelerating mass can radiate gravitational waves, or perhaps we can think of the gravitational waves in some way of having particle-like properties – gravitons. But the difficulty is, if you want to think of the graviton like a particle, if we can detect gravitational waves, really what we’re detecting is large numbers of gravitons. We won’t see individual gravitons, but it’s kind of equivalent to when you detect radio waves, you don’t detect individual photons, you detect a large number of incoming photons.”

This was by Sheila Rowan, Reader in Physics at Glasgow University, and I thought it was a wonderfully elegant analogy. I assume it’s accurate as well, given that neither of the other physicists there disagreed. It was amusing that throughout the programme, the host kept on referring to Sheila for these sorts of clear explanations of the difficult concepts that were being talked about; to be sure, the other physicists tried to be clear, but they weren’t always successful. I’m looking forward to hearing the final half of the programme on the walk to work tomorrow.

School of Dreams

School of Dreams by Edward Humes

My secondary school (or high school, for you American folks) was a rather pleasant private school in Birkenhead, across the water from Liverpool. You could make a fair argument for saying that it was the best secondary school in the area, although there were a few others that were close. But even if it wasn’t the best, it was almost certainly the most competitive.

Every term, teachers would post a Mark Order on the wall of their classroom, detailing the mark of every single student in every single subject, and their rank. The arrival of the Mark Order was a highly anticipated event which always strangely came unannounced – since teachers would always put them in the same place, a new Mark Order could often go unnoticed for a while. Sooner or later though, a crowd would develop around it as people tried to see who had the top position, and what they’d say to their parents when they found out their new position. Unsurprisingly, competition for the top few spots was fierce, both among students and parents. Even worse was the fact that most students were separated by a mere few marks out of a thousand or so.

And yet for all of this, after reading School of Dreams, I can see that all of the competition and pressure in my school would’ve been less significant than an idle daydream for some schools in the US. Edward Humes watched the top Californian Public school (Public in the normal American sense), Whitney High, for a year in order to write School of Dreams. Whitney High is a selective school that gets good students, and turns them into excellent ones. It has a two-thirds Asian population, and only 12% of the students are white. It is rather odd.

If you’re as interested in the plight of competitive high school students as I am, the news that some students are pressured by their parents to become lawyers and doctors, and work themselves to death not only with academic studies but also innumerable extracurricular activities, will not be surprising. There are plenty of students who do nothing but try to get into HYP (Harvard, Yale or Princeton) every year. However, the School of Dreams shows that this really doesn’t do students any justice. Humes tells of kids (that is, 12 and 13 year olds) who have to chug coffees all day and night just to get their work done, and of parents who throw their child’s artwork out in the street for cars to run over because they see art as a demeaning profession (as opposed, naturally, to medicine).

That’s pretty much how the book starts – plenty of outrageous and unbelievable stories of students and parents being extremely driven and ultracompetitive. After a while, you get a bit numbed to the stories of Asian-American students having only a couple of hours sleep every day. Humes jumps from student to student for the first hundred pages of so, seemingly in a hurry to introduce all of his main cast. He also takes the viewpoint of some of the teachers as well.

That’s right – he switches between first, second and third person tenses during the book, and mostly takes the role of an omniscient narrator. Now, this is OK in fiction, but it becomes problematic in a book like this, especially when he talks about a private meeting between a student and teacher, and you’re left scratching your head wondering how on Earth he knew what they said, let alone what they were thinking. It remains mildly irritating throughout the book (along with his run-on sentences and freakish comma placement) but no more than that.

After a mediocre first half, Humes suddenly kicks things into high gear. He finally tells us about the history of the region the school is in, and explains how the school was founded and why it has become what it is now. And then suddenly everything clicks – he starts to pull out all the really interesting and dramatic stories of how the top physics students fall behind when they have to do actual research instead of rote memorisation, and how George Bush’s brother, Neil Bush, gets shown up when he tries to sell the school on the joys of high tech teaching devices. Maybe this is because of the way that the book loosely follows a school year, and all the interesting stuff just happens to occur at the end. Or maybe he just left all the good stuff to the end. In any case, it’s worth sticking it out to graduation.

Despite all of the faults I’ve listed above, and others that I haven’t (Humes should keep his politics to himself, even if I agree with them), I loved this book. Partly because I love the subject, but mostly because Humes clearly established a strong connection with the school and its teachers and students. By the end, you stop wondering whether he’s using artistic license when filling in people’s thought bubbles because it all just reads so true. It also talks about the tragically broken state of the US educational system, and the way that politicians seem determined only to worry about the worst schools rather than seeing what they can learn from the best, but Humes cleverly concentrates on individuals rather than abstracts, and that’s what I kept on looking forward to.

I’ll be writing more about interesting bits and pieces from School of Dreams over the coming week…

Books galore

I’m not sure why, but for some reason I’ve been going on a reading and writing spree in the past couple of weeks. It may have something to do with the fact that I’ve stopped playing Civilization 4 (at least until the patch comes out) – that saves an hour or two every night, but it’s not just that, since I wasn’t reading much before then either. Perhaps it was just some ‘reading potential’ that was building up in me. Here’s what I’ve been reading:

The Company of Strangers by Paul Seabright

This book is emblematic of the sort of thing I really find interesting. The central idea is that humans have developed the ability to deal with strangers without robbing or killing them, and this is what’s driven economic and social progress over the last few thousand years (and also caused countless wars). It’s a combination of biology, psychology, history and economics, and it’s really very well written. An illustration that runs through the book is the sheer number of strangers who work together (often unknowingly) in order to produce a single cotton shirt.

Ripples of Battle by Victor Davis Hanson

I can’t recall where I read about this book – it was either from The Economist or some worthy site linked to from Arts & Letters Daily. In any case, Hanson writes about how three battles spread over history (Delium, 424BC; Shiloh, 1862; Okinawa, 1945) have influenced the world in very unexpected ways. When I received the book, I was expecting it to basically be about military history, and the the influences of the battles Hanson would consider would be on military knowledge. After reading the lengthy introduction about how Hanson’s uncle was killed during the battle for Okinawa, which initially left me wondering why he was spending so much time talking about it, I realised that the ‘ripples of battle’ he was going to talk about would not just be about military matters.

To be sure, the first chapter, on Okinawa, mainly dealt with the consequences of the huge bloodshed there and how that affected short and long-term military thinking with regards to attacking the Japanese mainland, and also dealing with Korea and Vietnam. However, the next two chapters on Shiloh and Delium are rather different. Shiloh started off just as I expected – all sorts of interesting stuff about how Sherman’s strategy of taking the battle to the heartland of the South was a prelude to the sort of ‘surgical strikes’ on infrastructure employed by the US in the future. Unexpectedly, Hanson spent several pages talking about how wonderful Albert Sidney Johnston (the general in charge of the losing, Southern, side at Shiloh) was. I was rather puzzled by this, until Hanson tied Johnston’s death at the battle to the way in which the South felt that they had only lost the Civil War by an accident (rather than being totally outclassed by the North). There were a couple more examples to do with Ben Hur and the KKK as well.

Delium goes much the same way – Hanson relates it to the development of battle tactics, the development of Western philosophy, and much besides. Ripples of Battle was a fun book to read, and all the more pleasing because it confounded my expectations. Unfortunately you won’t have that same experience because I’ve spoiled it for you, but perhaps it might convince you to read it anyway.

Code: The Hidden Language of Computer Hardware and Software by Charles Petzold

I began reading this book about a week ago, and finished yesterday. That doesn’t sound particularly impressive until you realise that Petzold explains exactly how computers work, starting from binary and a simple circuit consisting of a battery and light, slowly building up to electrical relays, logic gates, adding machines, random access memory, transistors, microchips, operating systems and finally culminating at graphical user interfaces. And I mean exactly – he doesn’t gloss anything over; if you read this book, you’d understand how to build and programme a computer from scratch, providing you had the parts.

I love these types of books. I always had some trouble with complex concepts like these in maths or physics, where you’d spend a lot of time on some outrageously simple example (like a lightbulb circuit) and then suddenly jump to a calculator, without enumerating the steps in between. Petzold fills in the steps, and he explains them clearly and concisely; not too fast, not too slow. He also takes the time to properly explain how to construct all those interesting things like logic gates that we all know about, but don’t really know how they work. This is the sort of book that I would like to write – an interesting, enjoyable book that leads you from simple beginnings to highly complex systems. In some ways, it’s not too dissimilar to Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything in its clear writing style.

Next:

I’m going to break this chain of factual books with Wonder Boys by Michael Chabon, one of my favourite authors. I’ve read most of his other books, but oddly enough, not his most famous. I have a bunch of other books on their way, including The Emperor’s New Mind, which I’ve already read but could do with rereading, School of Dreams and A War Like No Other. I figure that if I’m in the mood for reading, I might as well keep the books coming until it passes.

Through the Rabbithole: ARG Lecture

The proper title of this talk was ‘Through the Rabbithole: The history and potential of Alternate Reality Games’. It was presented at the 2005 Montreal International Games Summit and is an introduction to the alternate reality gaming genre.

Below is an essay based on notes that I prepared for the talk. It is not a transcript of the talk, and it differs slightly in many areas. I have undoubtedly missed stuff out and added other stuff in, but it is largely the same.

Before I launch into a definition of alternate reality games, I think a good way of learning what they’re like is telling you something that happened in a game that I’m working on, called Perplex City.

A couple of months ago in Perplex City, we had a live action text adventure event, which consisted of two developers pretending to be a computer for several hours. At the end of this event, we left a clue for our players. The clue was four words: ‘Manchester City Centre Sky’, and we thought it was pretty clear what it meant – go to the city centre of Manchester (in the UK) and look up at the sky. See, we were planning for a plane to fly over Manchester for an hour with banner with another clue.

Unfortunately, the players weren’t sure what the words ‘Manchester City Centre Sky’ meant – did it mean they were supposed to go to Manchester City Centre and look up at the sky (yes), or go to the Manchester City Sky Centre? (definitely not). On reflection, we should have probably checked for the existence of such a building, and so for a while we were worried that the players might go off to this Sky Centre and miss the aerial banner. Eventually, though, one of the players came up with unconventional solution. She said that she’d look into police records about the usage of the building. ‘Isn’t that illegal?’ asked one of the players? ‘Yeah, but it’s fun!’ she replied.

And to me, that shows what alternate reality games are about – they involve the creation of an immersive story universe where players work together to solve problems, often in unconventional ways.

There’s a whole bunch of stories like this, where players who crazy things. In ‘I Love Bees’, the promotional ARG for Halo 2, there’s the famous story of someone walking into Hurricane Ivan to answer a payphone as part of the game. The lengths that people playing alternate reality games go to is truly incredible.

Now, alternate reality games have a rather grand title, but not everything that they do is completely new. However, they deserve their own genre due to two unique characteristics.

1) Immersive, cross media, make-believe drama.

ARGs attract players because of their compelling story and universe that pushes as far into other media as it can go. Alternate reality games these days might start with a phone number that leads you to an email address that leads you to a website that leads you to a live event. And while most activity in ARGs takes place online, the use of other media renders the game much more believable and real; it also heightens the drama.

2) Highly social, collective action.

This has been a feature of many recent ARGs, where puzzles have required up to hundreds or thousands of players working together. These puzzles might be ‘distributed puzzles’, such as those in ‘I Love Bees’ which required players to answer payphones all over the US, or merely very hard puzzles, which require a very large player base in order to have someone with the requisite specialist knowledge to solve it. Interestingly, a recent ARG produced by the BBC called ‘Jamie Kane’ is single player and does not feature this social or collective action, and I’ll be coming back to it later on.

First, a brief history of alternate reality games. The first ARG was a promotion for the movie A.I. in 2001, produced by Microsoft and Dreamworks SKG. This game was called ‘The Beast’ and the entry points to the game – the rabbitholes – were as diverse as a fake name on the movie poster, or a code hidden in the movie trailer. As people explored these rabbitholes, they discovered a network of websites that all pretended that they were based over 100 years in the future and centred around the story of a man called Evan Chan, who had been murdered. The interesting thing about ‘The Beast’ is that at the time, no-one knew who was responsible – neither Microsoft nor Dreamworks owned up to being behind it.

The Beast was a great success and attracted an awful lot of publicity; unfortunately the movie itself didn’t do so well. Very shortly after The Beast, Electronic Arts released a game called Majestic. Majestic was produced in parallel to The Beast and was a very technically accomplished game, but it never really took off. There are a few reasons for this. Firstly, it suffered in comparison to The Beast; while The Beast was free to play, you had to buy a monthly subscription to Majestic. Partly as a result, Majestic didn’t involve the same sort of highly social, collective action that The Beast featured, although this was also down to the way the game was designed. A few months after its release, Majestic was wound up.

The failure of Majestic to attract a big, paying audience put a dampener on the genre for a while, and during this time it was kept alive by the thriving grassroots scene. Despite the fact that ARGs have a lot of fancy stuff like coded adverts in newspapers, live events, telephone calls and aerial banners, the only thing that you really need is web hosting – and of course, insane amounts of free time. Due to this low barrier of entry, some of the grassroots games were very good, such as Lockjaw and Metacortechs.

There were a few other ARGs during this time – generally promotional ARGs for companies like Sharp – but nothing that produced the same impact as The Beast. And then in 2004, a new ARG called ‘I Love Bees’ came out, as a promotion for Halo 2. I Love Bees was produced by the same guys who did The Beast, but at a new company called 42 Entertainment; like The Beast, it attracted a lot of players and involved the payphone mechanic I mentioned earlier. It also won the 2005 GDC Award for Innovation, which made a lot of people take notice of the genre. 42 began another ARG called Last Call Poker a couple of months ago, which is tied into Activision’s new ‘Gun’ game.

Also in 2005, the company that I belong to – Mind Candy – released Perplex City. Perplex City is different to many other ARGs, with the possible exception of Majestic, in not being a promotion for a game or a car or movie or anything like that. Instead, Perplex City is a standalone game that ties into a puzzle-based collectible card game. I’ll talk more about Perplex City in a little while.

So that’s the brief history of alternate reality games, but where are we now? What’s the significance of ARGs relative to the rest of games and entertainment? Well, ARGs are realisation of actual immersive, cross-media gaming, which no-one has really done before. Instead of just using the web and newspapers and radio and TV just for adverts, ARGs make them part of the story. Making an advert that is part of story of an ARG is difficult, but it can be very successful – people always prefer being part of story, part of adventure, than just being sold something – it’s better to treat people intelligently.

Related to this is the issue to interactivity and free will, which obviously features heavily in alternate reality games, with their dynamic, real time stories. ARG designers obviously plan the game and story in advance, but they don’t do it in high detail. If they do, events and players tend to have a habit of doing the opposite of what you want. So while designers might know the endpoint of their story, and checkpoints along the way, they won’t necessarily know exactly how they’re going to get there. That’s what the players do – by interacting with the characters in the story and solving problems and puzzles, they help create the story themselves.

Other media is creeping in this direction. Take Lost, for example. How many people here watch Lost? A lot. You probably know about the mysterious numbers then. The creators of Lost hadn’t intended for the numbers to play such a big part in the story, but after they saw the reaction of their viewers to them on all the internet discussion forums, they decided to increase their importance. They’ve also created a bunch of mini-websites online that pretend that the Lost universe is real, so there’s an Oceanic Airlines website, for example. It’s not the same as an ARG, but it’s a step in that direction. The most popular drama in the UK this year was Doctor Who, and they also created websites that were part of the story.

But this is a games conference, not a TV conference, so let me give you an example from there. For their game ‘Far Cry’, Ubisoft produced a travel booklet called ‘The Rough Guide to the Jacutan Archipelago’. Obviously no-one actually believes that the Jacutan Archipelago is real, but it’s a nice example of a videogame crossing over into another form of media in a way that isn’t merely normal advertising.

Alternate reality games are not first time people have created a believable fictional reality, though. Going back almost 4000 years ago, the most popular ancient Egyptian story ever, as measured in extant copies, is the Tale of Sinuhe. This story basically pretends that it’s a recounting of real events, and it’s told in the way of traditional official letters or records of that period. It’s possible that its popularity was because of this mimicking or subversion of ‘traditional media’.

Coming forward a few thousand years, the epistolatory fiction in 19th century continued on this theme, where authors would claim to have found a most extraordinary bundle of letters in their attic or cellar or whatever, and proceed to recount the letters in their book. Of course, they made the whole thing up, including the letters, but due to the nature of the story’s presentation as something that could be real, the stories becomes a lot more visceral and involving to readers.

Last century, radio provided a new outlet that had vivid, evocative real time access to comparatively naive mass audiences. The example that everyone’s heard about is Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds in 1938, but even 12 years before that, the BBC did something very similar. A normal talk show was interrupted with breaking news about Big Ben being destroyed by trench mortars and a government minister lynched in a revolution. Like War of the Worlds, a great number of people were seriously alarmed by the ‘show’ and there was a huge uproar in the press in the following days. Both shows worked primarily because they mimicked every detail of the normally trustworthy news broadcasts – not just the voices, but also the way that people stutter and interrupt each other, and the way that news reports are often confused and disjointed at first.

It would be tempting to think that War of the Worlds was a one off, but when it was adapted in 1944 for broadcast in Santiago, Chile, the governor of one province was convinced enough to briefly mobilise army units to repel the invading Martians.

In a way, radio is even more evocative than TV, because it’s so much more personal and leaves so much more to the imagination. That may be one reason why we haven’t seen dramas that are as dramatically believable or alarming on TV, although another reason might be that TV studios are just more nervous these days. The sort of ‘believeable fictions’ that have appeared on the TV tend to be straightforward hoaxes. Having said that, the Blair Witch movie did rather well out of pretending to be a true story and as you’ll recall, it used the web to push that idea even further.

And now we’re back up to the present again. So now the question is, why have alternate reality games only just appeared now? It’s not as if someone couldn’t have made an alternate reality game that used different media in the past, right? Or maybe it’s not that simple. While it would be possible to tell a story using TV, radio, newspapers and telephone in the past, the cost would have been prohibitively high for anyone bothered enough to try – how would you notify people about what part of the story was being told where? You’d need a dedicated source of information that could be updated instantly and cheaply, and that just wasn’t available. Not until the Internet.

The internet serves as glue and hub for all the different types of media involved in ARGs. It solves the problem of telling people what happens when, and it allows you to put up as much information as you want. Furthermore, it’s very easy to build in deep interaction on the Internet. Running things like live events in ARGs would be extremely difficult without the internet.

Let me show you an example of a live event we ran last week for Perplex City. (run VT).

At this event, we had about sixty players turning up in south London at short notice. This part of the story was fairly simple – the players were supposed to solve a treasure hunt/scavenger hunt in order to to find out where some secret agents were meeting. As you can see, there was a pretty remarkable mix of ages and genders.

This worked out more or less fine, and just as they were about to get to the meeting place, they realised it was a heliport, which was very exciting. Once there, players working in parallel online discovered that one of people among the players was the spy in question, working undercover! After his cover was blown, he ran off into a helicopter and flew off into the sunset. A rather rainy sunset – this was London, after all.

The reaction to the live event was great – I’ve heard the final sequence with the helicopter described as being one of the most realistic, most interactive game cut sequences in history. The players also loved the way that the spy had been watching and talking to them all day.

The current state of alternate reality games today is rather varied. You have the promotional ARGs for companies like Audi, Nokia, TV shows, videogames and movies. Then there’s Perplex City, which is a standalone ARG integrated into a puzzle-based collectible card game. Finally, there’s the grassroots sector, which is a great engine for innovation due to the low barrier to entry. What I’ll be talking about now are the challenges and potential for ARGs in the next few years.

There are a lot of challenges. The audience for ARGs is much smaller than that for videogames. A really popular ARG would be lucky to get an active player base numbering in the low six figures, as opposed the millions of sales that other videogames attract. There are a few reasons for this; the genre is new, and it’s hard to understand what an ARG even is at first. As a result, it’s not particularly easy to market, as EA discovered with Majestic.

Another problem is that the classic strength of ARGs being incredibly involving and immersive is also a serious weakness – many potential players are scared off by the large time investment that is apparently required. The pitfalls of a rich and fully realised, cross-media story universe is that it takes time to get into, let alone join halfway through. Of course, this isn’t a problem limited to ARGs – shows like Lost and 24 have very complex and intricate storylines that are practically impossible to get into after a few episodes. Yet TV does have some interesting solutions to offer ARGs for this problem, such as episodic storytelling.

Until very recently, ARGs had no replay factor. However, this is changing now; the Jamie Kane ARG produced by the BBC is completely replayable, but it’s also single player, so it loses out on the social aspects. A more traditional multiplayer ARG that was tied into the Canadian SF show Regenesis and produced by Xenophile Media – based in Toronto – is being rerun, and it’ll be interesting to see how that goes.

Some more problems: there are currently no reliable metrics to work out the success of an ARG. Do you count the number of hits? The number of registrations? At least with Perplex City, we have an ultimate measurement in terms of the number of puzzle cards we sell, but what about promotional ARGs? How do you measure whether a promotional ARG really does benefit the product it’s associated with?

Yet despite this – despite the small audiences, despite the challenges of getting people playing, the challenges of measuring success, people in the UK and around the world – many of whom are interestingly media outlets and TV studios – are very excited about the potential of ARGs. At a time when people are turning their TV off, or at least not paying much attention to it, ARGs offer a new type of richer, more interactive, more visceral entertainment that also joins people together.

Instead of ARGs merely being bolt-ons to products like TV shows and movies, it’s likely that the next generation will be built in from the start. This would allow players to actually influence TV show in a meaningful way other than voting by text message. We could see players become part of an epic story that would becoming affect and involve them more than ever before. We managed that with 60 people last week – the question is whether you can do it with 60 million people?

For games, the potential is even greater. At the simplest level, ARGs allow you to build and continue storylines in between games in a series. We’ve all been hearing how important original IP these days – ARGs are an engine for creating high quality stories and IP at the same time as marketing and extending your game to a wider, non-traditional audience. Making people care about your story and universe and characters is incredibly important, because that’s what makes it different from other games – it’s not just a coat of paint that you slap on a car as an afterthought. Story is the reason why Harry Potter and Star Wars continue to make billions even though there are plenty of novels about magic kids and movies about spaceships out there.

There’s the potential to use elements of ARGs in normal games, like Far Cry has already demonstrated. This is particularly relevant to MMOGs. The Matrix Online is almost perfect in its suitability; it’s a story where the real world is a computer simulation – what better ARG could there be? They’ve taken one or two steps towards that end by creating some fake corporate websites, but what about fake newspaper ads or TV ads. Imagine what it would be like to have Agent Smith knock on your door while you’re playing the game.

We’re only scratching the surface of what’s possible here, after four years after the first ARG. We already have a lot of different types of games, but there are so many more stories and possibilities to be played out, like romance games, crime games, humorous games. You could have games that are truly cross media, that involvine every method of getting information to the public as possible. And that has the potential of attracting not only a new type of audience, or a new type of story, but a new way of playing games – hundreds of thousands players collaborating together across the world, players being part of the story, shaping the story and becoming immersed in the story. It would generate a level of attachment and loyalty to a game universe that hasn’t been seen before. To me, that’s what’s exciting about ARGs.

Here are some useful links if you’re interested in ARGs:

The Alternate Reality Gaming Network

Unfiction

Last Call Poker

Perplex City

Cloudmakers

MIGS

Astonishingly, for the second time in a single month, I’ve posted to the ‘massive’ section, with a rather wordy report on the Montreal International Games Summit. This is the conference where I spoke about ARGs, and discovered that there’s more to Montreal than the fact that they speak French there. It was a fun and useful conference, and anyone into games (and some people who aren’t) might find a few interesting bits in the report – I’ve tried to make it accessible for people outside of the games community as well.

As soon as I can clean it up, I’ll also be posting my presentation notes on this weblog as well, although they’ll be relatively sparse, since that’s the way I write them.

Montreal International Games Summit

NB: I’ll be putting up my presentation notes in the next few days.

As a game developer at the conference told me, “When people hear that I’m from Montreal, they think of two things. One, that we speak French, and two, that we almost separated.” They certainly don’t think that Montreal is a place where computer games are made; surely those French wouldn’t make such crude entertainments?

When I received an invitation to speak at the Montreal International Game Summit, I just thought of one thing – ‘Montreal?’. However, the conference’s two main sponsors – Ubisoft and EA Montreal – reveal the fact that there is a serious amount of talent in the city. Over 700 people registered for the conference, which is no small number given that it’s only in its second year, and of course, that it’s in Quebec. I was asked to give a talk introducing game developers to alternate reality games, and happily accepted.

I flew into Montreal on Saturday 29th October, which gave me a couple of days to look around the city before the first conference activity began on Tuesday 1st November. I’m not going to talk about the city at length here – you can read it over on the Middling column (when I get around to writing it). It’s enough to say that I found it an interesting place, unlike any other I’ve been to in North America, and with some decent and affordable food to boot.

So the first activity was the opening cocktail reception on Tuesday. This wasn’t too well attended, with maybe only a hundred people or so there, despite the availability of free drinks. I took the opportunity to get to know the other speakers and attendees. I was happy to discover that a lot of them already knew about ARGs and Perplex City; in fact, a couple of people were players. One of the interesting people I met there was Susan O’Connor, a writer who first found out about ARGs at the Austin Games Conference for Writers.

DAY 1 (see programme)

Opening Keynote
Warren Spector – Junction Point Studios

The conference began properly on Wednesday, with an opening keynote by Warren Spector (Deus Ex, Thief, System Shock). Warren’s talk could be summed up very simply – doom and gloom. Of course, it’s more complicated than that – he thinks that the industry is becoming marginalised in society, development costs are going up, developers’ quality of life is going down and innovation has completed stopped, meaning that there are still huge swathes of the population who are not served by games (females, ethnic minorities, elderly, etc). So, basically, doom and gloom.

He said there were two options. The first was to hunker down and wait for all the naysayers and old people to die, which would take a while but result in a happier future. The second was to start innovating and improving the games industry’s image in society. You can imagine which one he preferred. He also, like almost everyone else at the conference, proclaimed that content and original intellectual property (IP) is king!

People enjoyed Warren’s talk, as did I, and there were plenty of questions. My talk was fortunate enough to be scheduled directly after the opening keynote, which meant that everyone was still awake, but it did mean that it began 15 minutes late since Warren overran.

Through the Rabbit Hole: The history and potential of Alternate Reality Gaming
Adrian Hon – Mind Candy

My room was packed full with about 60-100 people, which was a great turnout. As requested, I gave people an introduction to alternate reality games and rapidly covered its history, current status, relation to other media, challenges, opportunities and future (you can say a lot in 45 minutes providing you don’t waffle). There were a few questions afterwards: one was predictably about ‘what if people get sucked in to the game?!’ and another more interesting one was about the potential use of ARGs as simulations for education and training. More on that later.

In general though, not that many questions. The audience just didn’t seem particularly inclined to ask much; it was the same for the EA talk and other interesting ones. Maybe it’s something to do with the Quebecois culture? Who knows.

In my talk, I took the unusual decision (compared to the rest of speakers) not to use dozens of slides with bullet points that I would just read from. Personally speaking, I can’t stand speakers who do that – the talks are invariably boring and the slides are distracting. I’d rather have people to listen to me than divide their attention between voice and screen. I understand that this is a personal thing and of course you need slides for pictures and be saying something interesting, but I’ve always found that the best talks are the ones without any slides – and believe me, I’ve been to a hell of a lot of talks and lectures.

After my talk, I met the CEO of KOG Studios, Won Lee. KOG is based in South Korea and makes a ‘mini-multiplayer online fighting game’ (he gave a talk about it later, unfortunately during my interviews). How many players does it have, I asked. ‘About 3 million’. Revenue stream? ‘Micropayments’. Stuff like this just makes me realise not just how different South Korea is, but how far ahead it is. I wouldn’t even imagine using micropayments for an ARG right now, let alone getting 3 million active players buying various bits of clothing and toys, Habbo Hotel-style. Although the idea would have legs in the future… hmm…

Keynote – Trends
Neil Young – VP and General Manager, Electronic Arts

Neil Young gave the afternoon keynote. He was talking about ‘How to create a next generation hit’, and the content was mostly bland, featuring some old PS3 videos that are already on the net. Neil claimed that there were three elements required to make a next-gen hit. The first is ‘good execution’ – that’s something you can’t argue with. The next was ‘1-3 innovations’. I found this idea of quantifying innovation rather mystifying, but Neil gave some examples of these ‘innovations’. One was the additional of ‘aspirations’ in The Sims 2. Another was the ‘GameFace’ feature in Tiger Woods 2005 (or 2006, who knows, they’re all the same). GameFace apparently allows players to manipulate their character’s face so it looks like theirs, and according to Neil, it was solely responsible for a $45 million increase in sales over the previous title in the series.

Suffice to say that I thought this was perhaps the most ridiculous statement in the entire conference – as if anyone gives a damn about that sort of stuff, let along $45 million worth. This so-called ‘innovation’ didn’t increase sales – it would’ve been better marketing.

Neil’s third and final element was ‘mass appeal’. The audience was notably silent on the whole ‘mass appeal’ thing, which they correctly translated as being ‘dumbed down and boring’ and later on a couple of people mutinously asked about the lack of EA innovation and its pandering to mass audiences.

So on the whole, he didn’t say anything wonderfully interesting, although the talk was a good window into EA’s priorities for the next 3 or 4 years, namely making next-gen hits and high-definition (HD) presentation and gameplay. He’s keen on getting over Zombie effect wherein game characters don’t look human. Obviously he’s not so bothered by innovation, but he did talk about making people cry and making players the actor (which no-one believed). Actually, the title of his talk was ‘Can a videogame make you cry?’, but a more accurate title would have been ‘How EA intends to make craploads more money over the next 5 years’.

What he *didn’t* talk about was very telling. He showed off plenty of demos from the PS3, but said nary a world about the XBox 360 or XBox Live, which is surprising given that it’s about to be launched.

As an aside, Neil had a lot of problems with his laptop, which delayed his presentation by five minutes or so. During this time, he made various Eddie Izzard-like jokes which I found annoying (only Eddie Izzard is allowed to do this jokes – they just don’t work with anyone else) but he got some weak laughs. All in all, I felt it was not a keynote-worthy performance. Honestly, you wonder why EA Montreal bothered stumping up the money for it – it certainly didn’t make anyone like EA more, which is what the primary purpose of any EA talk these days should be.

Various interviews

Next up for me was an interview with the Quebec equivalent of MTV, M.net. As with most reporters I talk to, he seemed genuinely interested in ARGs, Perplex City puzzle cards and the game mechanic. I tend to find that if I can talk to journalists for at least two uninterrupted minutes, I can get them onside and understanding ARGs well. During the interview, I had the odd situation of being asked my opinion about game trends and whether the XBox 360, PS3 or Revolution was better (Revolution, of course), what I thought the future of the industry was going to be, and so on. I imagine he asked all his interviewees the same questions, but it was fun being a ‘games industry figure’ for a while.

Frederic Gignac, the editor of Hardgamers.com, was my next interview. This was another interesting chat about ARGs. As usual, we talked about the possibility of people getting too far in and becoming addicted. We also chatted about innovation in the games industry in general – a fun few minutes was spent bashing Neil Young and his $45 million GameFace. It then turned out that Frederic was playing Civ4 and Age of Empires; he likened the addiction of RTSs and turn-based strategy games to ARGs. But where you are only typically addicted to such games for weeks, with ARGs, you could potentially be addicted for months. This isn’t new – World of Warcraft and Everquest were there first. I don’t think ARGs are at that point yet, not for a mass audience, but it’s something to consider.

Away From Keyboard: Designing Real-World Games
Frank Lantz – area/code

As I mentioned, I missed Won Lee’s talk due to the interview, but I made the 3:15pm talk, given by Frank Lantz of area:code. Frank is into real world gaming. This is a genre that is often confused with alternate reality games (most notably/amusingly by the BBC Culture Show) and usually features people running around cities shouting into mobile phones and chasing stuff. I already knew a lot of the case studies he mentioned, but there were a few good nuggets.

One was his description of a Japanese mobile Final Fantasy game called Before Crisis. A large part of the game is based around collecting ‘materia’ of different colours. The way you do it is by using your cameraphone to take pictures of colours, and the materia you get in the game is based on the predominant colour of the photo. Really clever stuff. Obviously a rather crude mechanic open to abuse, but it’s interesting to see the game mechanic involving real-world interaction, a bit like the recent Nintendo game that could tell whether you were playing outside or not by using a light sensor.

Another interesting indie game was called ‘The Journey’ by Mopius. It’s a text adventure game translated into the real world, where you move between different ‘rooms’ in the game by moving in real life. Due to the difficulties in getting positioning information from mobile phones (it’s much more finicky than you would think), they used the relative position of cell tower IDs, which is only accurate to a few blocks, but is adequate for this. Naturally I would love to run an ARG that could use reliable positioning information down to a few metres. Can you hear me, mobile phone operators?!

Frank’s students at NYU were also involved in that famous game of recent years, Pac Manhattan, which was a fun part of the talk. The final question was about the oldest of real world games, sports. ‘Do you buy football? Or Frisbee?’ his slide asked.

Of course, you don’t ‘buy football’, you buy a football. Ditto for frisbee. The rules are so simple, and the implementation so simple, and the IP isn’t owned by anyone, so no-one can charge anything. All three elements wouldn’t be true for an original, high-tech real world game. Plus certainly ARGs feature custom content, which is just more IP and thus more stuff to sell. Still, an interesting question.

NEXT GEN Character Design: A Psychological Approach
Katherine Isbister – Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

The last talk of the day was a packed session by Katherine Isbister from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. It’s a telling indictment of the games industry that she was the only female speaker at the conference, out of maybe 30 people. She gave a talk about “Next Gen Character Design: A Psychological Approach” in which she asked developers to try and make their characters more psychologically real; they should use proper body language, facial movements, good voice acting, that sort of thing. All sort of obvious, but almost so obvious that it gets forgotten or ignored despite its benefits. Anyway, the talk was a real success because this aspect of gaming never gets addressed and game designers and programmers are fascinated by new stuff like this, especially things that might give them a ‘next gen edge’.

Everyone was pretty tired after the talk, and there was still a ‘VIP Cocktail event’ to go to, which wasn’t particular VIP given that there was rather a lot of people there. As usual, met more people, talked about ARGs, briefly talked to Rich Vogel and Doug Church, then eventually went back to the hotel so I could get up early the next day.

DAY 2 (see programme)

Keynote – What we have learned from Nintendogs
Hideki Konno – Nintendo

Events kicked off with a keynote by Hideki Konno, the Manager/Producer of the delightfully named ‘Software DeveloÏ€ment Group No.1’ of Nintendo. In case you don’t know what Konno has worked on in such an illustrious Group, he’s been involved in various incarnations of Mario Kart and most recently, Nintendogs. Nintendogs is really the flavour of the moment, in the way that it’s reaching out to non-traditional gamers.

There’s something hypnotic about listening to Japanese and hearing it translated a few seconds later. You’d lose the magic if you could speak it. I suppose it’s like listening to opera without knowing the words.

Unsurprisingly, we didn’t learn anything earth-shatteringly new from the keynote, but there was a lot of more subtle information there, about how Nintendo works. Apparently Nintendogs was developed in parallel with the DS hardware, so they were actually able to include the hardware guys with what they wanted their game to be. Konno also talked about the fact that the dogs in the game not only have to perform voice recognition (in order to understand commands like ‘Sit!’) but also voice verification – that is, telling one voice from another.

Some other interesting tidbits include the fact that not only did Nintendo count on girls playing Nintendogs, but also on guys playing in order to meet said girls. At one point they wanted to have 15 different versions of the game, with 15 different dogs, on sale at shops, with a special ‘petshop’ themed point of sale stand.

Despite the fact that the talk was entitled, “What we have learned from Nintendogs’, it was more like an extended plug for Mario Kart DS and the Nintendo Revolution (their next console). If this came from any other company, people would’ve been annoyed, but everyone loves what Nintendo does – they’re one of the few big companies left that actually seems interested in making fun and innovative games. Konno showed off the now-famous Revolution promo video, which I’m sure most of the audience had already seen but nevertheless responded with the most resounding applause in the entire conference – I’m surprised that no-one stood up!

He then held up a Revolution controller in his hand. It was a lot smaller and thinner than I expeccted. He also had a nunchuck-attachment with him – the cable looked to be about a foot long. And he confirmed that the nunchuck will be supplied as standard with the console!

On the whole, it was a pleasant talk, and the fact that he talked about the Revolution and Nintendo’s wireless multiplayer ambitions with the DS was a nice treat. For me, it was a real smackdown on EA’s ‘next gen hit’ talk, with its insistence on limiting innovation (in case players get confused) and dumbing everything down.

How to manage large-scale online gaming communities
Rich Vogel – Sony Online Entertainment

Immediately afterwards was Rich Vogel’s talk on managing large online gaming communities. Vogel worked for Sony Online Entertainment, and while much of what he said was pretty obvious and straightforward for any self-respecting online game developer, there were one or two bits of useful advice there. His talk was unabashedly practical and he implored people not to tell their players about his advice, most of which was very pragmatic. I’m not going to recount his advice here – not to keep his secrets, but because it’s not particularly interesting, and any self-respecting online gamer is bound to know all the tricks anyway (e.g. isolate and ignore serial complainers, give presents on holidays, etc).

Call of Duty 2: Post-mortem of a large budget, large team game
Grant Collier – Infinity Ward

I wasn’t sure which talk to go to next, because none were particularly related to what I do, and in the end plumped for Grant Collier’s post-mortem of Call of Duty 2, which concentrated on the practical aspects of managing a growing development team. I’ve never played CoD and I’m not into FPSes, but I know it was fairly well received. He had some useful practical accounts of the problems he experienced with the growing team, such as the difficulties of maintaining good relations and communications within the company. He was also (eventually) unusually candid about the things that went wrong – I can only attribute this display of honesty due to the fact that he was mostly pleased with the game, and that they’d gone gold.

The one really striking thing about the talk was that Collier had zero slides. I was very happy about this, and not just because it meant that I wasn’t the person with the least slides at the conference. Collier had a big audience, and he managed to keep their attention on what he was saying for the entire talk, and I think that wouldn’t have been as easy if he’d been constantly flying through charts and bullet points.

Some useful points: they had an in-house dedicated recruiter. Fostered a culture of excellence, and they had no mandated working on weekends (very nice). They concentrated on getting all difficult tasks done first, rather than putting them off until last. In a further black mark for Microsoft, he revealed that only 20 out of the 50 XBox 360 beta hardware kits they received actually worked.

Keynote – Making and Breaking Rules: Game Design As a Critical Practice
Eric Zimmerman – GameLab

The afternoon’s keynote was by Eric Zimmerman of GameLab, a sort of concept driven games company/consultancy that’s currently doing little web games. In the first half of the keynote, Zimmerman was a bit too loud and abstract for my liking – a typical neogeek person of the Cory Doctorow ilk. I recall sitting back in the dark theatre and thinking about an especially interesting problem as he gesticulated on the stage in front. He seemed like a good entertainer to me, at least. There was a lot of earnest talk about ‘What is a game?’ and suchlike.

We then engaged in a game of MMRPS – massively multiplayer rock, paper and scissors, wherein he got everyone to stand up and play a game against their neighbour. Losers sit down, winners keep on playing until no-one’s left. Nice idea. But it’s not massively multiplayer in the sense of games like Everquest – you might as well call the World Series of Poker ‘massively multiplayer poker’. Except that would sound stupid, especially when ‘tournament’ is a perfectly fine word as it is.

(I am informed that this trend of people giving lectures with ‘massively multiplayer [insert traditional game]’ is increasing – watch out at your next conference for this trick!)

After a bit more conceptual talk, Zimmerman seemed to blow a gasket or something and the talk flew off in a totally different direction, about a ‘Game Developer’s Bill of Rights’. Suddenly everything had turned deadly serious and he wasn’t joking any more. He compared it to the ‘Comic Book Bill of Rights’ that’s apparently been written a few years ago, and was convinced that coming up with a list of ‘alienable rights’ (say what?) would really benefit people.

The problem was that the rights were so biased against publishers and towards developers (like ‘Developers own everything they work on, and they have final veto on everything’) were so unrealistic that even if they were desirable – and in some cases they weren’t – they were totally unachievable. Evidently people agreed with me because after the talk, Zimmerman was subjected to a barrage of doubtful realists asking what the point of the Bill of Rights was. ‘It’s more of a guideline for negotiations,’ he claimed. But if they’re so biased and unachievable, what’s the point, others asked.

So, on the whole, a very odd and naive talk, I felt.

Tips/challenges of working with licensed IP
Don Daglow – Stormfront Studios

Two more talks until the end! The next was by Don Daglow, CEO of Stormfront Studios – they worked on Lord of the Rings. This was all about the joys of working with licensed IP. It’s worth pointing out that the current thinking is that developers should always try to develop their own IP, so this talk sort of bucked the trend. Now, there is no doubt that using licensed IP has its upsides, which Don clearly pointed out, but he did himself a disservice by ragging on original IP so much. Let me explain…

He said that original IP needs exposition, whereas if you are developing a game based on a movie or book, you save a boring two hours of introducing characters and settings. This argument is so mindnumbingly ridiculous I couldn’t believe it. Yes, if you happen to be a terrible storyteller, I can imagine it might be helpful if someone writes your story for you. But the suggestion that developing original IP is some terribly damaging burden flies in the face of games such as Half Life, Ico, Zelda, Ultima and countless others.

Another claim he made was that licensed IP – like Harry Potter – gives a game an unmistakably seal of quality. Once upon a time, perhaps it did – and maybe it still does, to clueless parents and grandparents – but not to informed gamers. Games based on movies have a terrible critical reputation that is only beginning to recover now.

Finally, the thing that bothered me most about this talk was the way in which Daglow kept on using ‘voices’ in his talk. You know, putting on the voice of an excited teenager or a slow-witted person. I don’t mind it in moderation, but not all the time. Clearly this is a subjective thing and some people in the audience found it funny, but it just drove me nuts. It was just distracting and facile.

Serious Games, Serious Opportunities, How to Crack New Markets for Old Skills
Ben Sawyer – Digitalmill

The final talk was one of the more interesting I went to, given by Ben Sawyer of Digitalmill, about Serious Games. These are not merely educational games of the Carmen Sandiego genre (which are more like books on computers than games) but training games and simulator games like SimCity. Sawyer’s argument was simply that an awful lot of companies and governmental organisations now want ‘serious games’ and they have a correspondingly large amount of money. Maybe not as much as you’d make with Halo 2, but a decent enough chunk of change as it is. This of course relates to alternate reality games and their potential use in education and training; people have made ARGs for corporate training and team building in the past, but nothing much beyond that, and clearly there’s a whole range of possibilities out there…

Surprisingly for such an interesting talk, I don’t have any notes at all, but I just put it down to being tired. Straight after the talk I had to head back to the hotel and then catch a taxi to the airport, thus missing the Game Design Challenge and the IGDA party in the evening.

THOUGHTS

I had a useful time at the Montreal Games Summit. While there were few talks directly related to alternate reality games, there was a lot of lessons that were applicable to what I’m doing. As usual, I met a lot of interesting people and the experiencing of speaking at a major games conference was fun. I’m not sure I’ll go again next year (unless I’m invited again) but I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the speakers and the venue.

Joystiq is sick of ARGs

The popular games weblog Joystiq regularly posts about promotional ARG campaigns, generally to do with new games or consoles like the XBox. Until today, that is. Today, they proclaimed that they were sick of viral marketing and sick of ARGs. Their list of complaints include the fact that ARGs are predictable, not entertaining (this is more of a thing against viral marketing, I think), superfluous (arguably true), artificially difficult (again true in some cases) and delayed gratification (yeah, we’re talking about countdowns here).

You know what? I agree. I’m sick of ARGs like that. They give the genre a bad name. Campaigns like Our Colony and Origen to name but two are not even deserving of the title ‘ARG’, but since they share some of their characteristics – cryptic websites, difficult puzzles – the public thinks they are representative. And this applies to other recent ARGs as well.

Promotional ARGs have a lot of shaping up to do. I’m not going to predict their demise because I think there are still fresh ways for ARGs to go about promoting products, but the problem is that the people ARGs are often aimed at – early adopters – are also incredibly sensitive to marketing, and it’s very difficult to get past that sensitivity. The more badly designed ARGs there are, the more likely the chance that even more websites like Joystiq will simply write off the whole genre.

The sad thing for me is that people think ARGs are synonymous with viral marketing campaigns (which is probably the most unfortunately-named marketing technique in existence). It’s true that ARGs are often promoting other products, but it’s not a rule. Just look at Jamie Kane or Regenesis for examples of good non-promotional ARGs – or a certain Perplex City, for that matter. For me, the brightest future for ARGs lies in entertainment and education – not promotion. That’s what gets people excited.