Emergency Management

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.

4 Replies to “Emergency Management”

  1. Something that intrigues me is the variety in audiences around: i.e. anything from regular and old-timer PXC players, to people who have just caught sight of the FIA posters. Do you think it helps to have an audience which *may* incorporate that kind of diversity (e.g. old players can help new players along, do a certain amount of “expectation regulation”, etc), or does it just make the job many times harder (e.g. by increasing the risk that 1% of players will solve 90% of the puzzles)?

    I’d guess the same challenge is a big issue for where (I gauge) MC wanted PXC to go in the future – making a collaborative game playable by *everyone*. Are we closer to finding a solution as a result of all this, or does the answer lie in, say, splitting things up – ARG leagues, maybe? 🙂

  2. I agree that all ARGs need to do better at catering to all levels of ability and immersion. Looking at other popular games, there are clearly some, like World of Warcraft, that provide useful hints.

    I think there are some easy wins, and some tough problems. One easy win would include making the first few parts of an ARG a much more structured experience, with more hand-holding; this is anathema to experienced players but many new players simply don’t know what to do when beginning an ARG.

    Beyond the easy wins are the tough problems. ARGs (well, some of them) have more depth than practically any other form of entertainment out there, and it’s not clear that anyone’s figured out how to reconcile depth with accessibility; just look at Lost and Heroes. There are a few possibilities, like episodic storytelling and recaps, but nothing that seems particularly satisfying. I think it may be worth looking into the success of web 2.0 sites like Facebook and Flickr to see their interaction models, but I’m still thinking about this stuff…

  3. The idea of an ARG “training ground” seems good – the initial trail leading into PXC (search this page, mail so-and-so, etc) seemed a nice example of how to break the “mould” of player’s expectations (e.g. it’s not all web-based), as well as introduce them to the story and characters.

    I’ve noticed that running a MUD offers some similar challenges – collaborative play vs individual play vs community. Maybe the problem is attempting to do all of these things in one go? Certainly, I think integrating shared worlds with individual ones is tricky, and would love to find out how this is done elsewhere. Sometimes, so long as people know where the borders between these worlds are (I can think of Myst’s Uru Live system), then some of the problems are avoided – hiding the divide makes things tricky. I guess it just depends how much “R” you want to make your ARG, perhaps?

  4. I know this is an old thread but I’ve just got interested in the topic of ARGs and I’ve been trying to read up a bit on their design.

    The idea of emergency management in ARGs is strikingly familiar to anyone who runs roleplay games (of their own, not the book bought scenarios).
    My husband has run a bunch of successful games with an unusually large number of players at times. It’s true that you can take the number of problems you think you will need to pose to fill the evenings session, then double it, just in case. And also that every carefully crafted and fiendishly unexpected plot twist can and probably will be ruined by some player who comes in and shoots the wrong guy. Then you are on the backfoot and have to make up equally good plot with the same level of coherency and problems, in the space of a five minute tea break.

    I am always in awe of how he manages it.

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