There are some skills that ARG designers should quite obviously have: an understanding of stories, a good grasp of how online communities work and a very creative mind. One often gets overlooked – emergency management. No matter how well you plan your game, if any part of it is live, if any part of it can be influenced by the players, something will go wrong. It’s just going to happen, and you’d better be prepared for it.
Earlier this year, Perplex City took a brief foray into the world of Radio 1 with the ‘Frozen Indigo Angel’ arc. For this discussion, the specifics of that arc aren’t important; what matters is that in May, we had a rather large live event at Radio 1’s Big Weekend festival in Preston. At live events, you have to make sure that the challenges you pose at the live event are appropriate for the number and skill of players present. Since this festival wasn’t being run by us, this information inevitably wasn’t available to us. As it turned out, there were a few more players than we expected, and they worked an awful lot more quickly than we envisaged. This Telegraph article, written by a reporter who was shadowing us that day, describes the situation:
A team from Mind Candy, the game’s designers … are orchestrating events on a cluster of computers. “They’re solving the puzzles faster than we thought,” says Adrian Hon, head of play. “We’ll have to think up some new twists.” A colleague is swiftly dispatched to B&Q to buy combination padlocks for the transmitters.
(This ‘colleague’ was actually two people, Jey Biddulph and Hannah Boraster)
The players had just solved two days’ worth of puzzles in one day. This was no-one’s fault – making too many challenges or making them too difficult is just as bad as making too few. And while it would’ve been nice to have contingencies for everything, it’s simply impossible when you’re running an extended live game and don’t have unlimited resources.
What did we do? Well, we didn’t want to let the players down, but we were worried about whether we could come up with anything decent in time. Giving up wasn’t a possibility though, so after feeling sorry for ourselves for a few minutes, we argued our way through a plan, took a little time off to think about how it would fit together and got to work. The Mind Candy staff all performed admirably and I’m pretty sure that none of the players noticed anything amiss. In the end, we made an entirely new set of challenges for the next day (e.g. constructing the transmitters and the clues to figure out the combinations) and altered the story to match, in the space of a few hours.
Personally, I think it’s quite easy to come up with an okay ARG design, just as it’s fairly easy to come up with an idea for a movie or TV show or book. And yes, there is the question of execution, but even there, I don’t think that any special skills are required – ‘all’ you need are talented designers, writers and managers. But what a lot of people don’t appreciate is that no matter how well you plan, if you’re running a live game, crises – that’s plural – will emerge, and you’d better be prepared for them. So I think that I wouldn’t mind a stint in the new field of emergency management one of these days.