The Shadow War: Getting Boys to Read

How do you get boys to read? One way is to write entertaining and dramatic books, preferably including some violence. This is what Charlie Higson did for his Young Bond series of books, and judging by the fact that they have sold close to a million copies, it’s a pretty good strategy.

Of course, in this new era of digital TV, YouTube and videogames, it can be difficult to attract boys to books, but that’s exactly what we’re attempting with Young Bond: The Shadow War, a web-based point-and-click adventure that’s fused with a book.

Working with book publishers

Being an ARG designer has put me in contact with a variety of semi-famous film, TV and game producers, but I’ve particularly enjoyed working with book publishers.

The publishers I’ve met have all had a very healthy regard for authors. Given that it’s authors who write the books that they sell, this may seem perfectly normal, but in other industries, these people are not called authors – they are ‘creatives’. ‘Creatives’, who include everyone from designers to writers to artists – in fact, everyone who actually makes stuff – are treated as a black box, into which any number of woolly and contradictory notes can be placed, with predictably unhappy results.

(NB: I recently interviewed an actor for an upcoming project, and unwittingly used the word ‘creative’. The fact that she failed to stifle a giggle confirms to me that I have fallen so very far from grace…)

Six to Start‘s first project with a publisher was We Tell Stories, in which we created six online-only stories for Penguin Books. We worked with six different authors, and Penguin placed a refreshing amount of trust in us and our work, which allowed us to get on with the matter at hand – making some really fantastic stories. 1700 blog posts later, along with features in Newsweek, Wired, the Guardian and BBC News, this trust was borne out.

This experience meant that we jumped at the chance to work on a game to promote the final book in the Young Bond series, By Royal Command. Sure, it wasn’t for the movies, but it was still James Bond. And the books were very good.

Designing the Game

When we sat down to work out the shape of the game, a few issues were apparent. Firstly, the Young Bond books are set within the proper chronology of the James Bond world. In other words, unlike the modern films such as Casino Royale, which take place during the present day, Young Bond is set in 1933. This means that we were not able to include mobile phones, websites, or any kind of technology.

Secondly, we wanted the story of The Shadow War to thread its way through all five of the Young Bond books (including By Royal Command) but avoiding spoilers wherever possible. Thirdly, the game – obviously – had to promote the book.

Here’s how we addressed it. In the first mission, you travel to a village called Keithly, where you have to steal someone’s identity by creating a fake ID based on the details from letters in the post office.

In classic ARGs, the player’s browser is used as a window into the fictional world’s websites. Therefore, if The Shadow War was an ARG, you would have visited Keithly’s town website, clicked a link to the town post office, and then doubtless ‘hacked in’ to the see someone’s letters. Of course, this would have been complete nonsense since the internet didn’t exist in 1933.

We had to find another way of representing Keithly. Any sort of traditional 2D or 3D representation was out of the question, due to time and budget constraints. Besides, a platform game had already been made for Young Bond, and we wanted to do something different. We settled on a point-and-click adventure representation, akin to a very simple version of Myst, where your browser window shows your character’s viewpoint. This suited us well, since it reduced the amount of design required, while still providing a level of immersiveness. We worked with Denise Wilton and Steve McCluskey for these design, and they both did a sterling job.

So, when you visit Keithly, you see an archetypical village noticeboard. Clicking on some of the items on the board, such as the village newsletter or a notice about the Post Office, take you to new pages with more information. Likewise, the Post Office is represented by a table with twelve envelopes sitting on top; clicking on a envelope opens it up and reveals the letter inside. In this way, we’ve been able to more or less eliminate instructions from the game – something of a company philosophy for all of our games.

Another core philosophy is making games that are easy to play. One danger that all game designers face is creating games for the most vocal players. There is nothing inherently wrong with this, providing that you are still able to make a living; but given that the number of people who are familiar with ARG-style games and puzzles is very limited, it’s essential that we design our games to appeal to the 99% of people who have never played an ARG, or indeed the 99% of people who are not looking for a serious challenge.

This doesn’t mean making puzzles trivially easy or boring, but it does mean a fine attention to the user experience, in providing appropriate hints, error messages and nudges. Much of this comes through good interface design.

Why The Shadow War Works

None of this is revolutionary; there are dozens of Flash games that do similar things. However, the difference with The Shadow War is that it is made in HTML and Javascript. This has a number of advantages over Flash, including speed, accessibility, search engine optimisation, and deep-linking.

We are great believers in the power of deep-linking. Many of the projects we work on have little to no marketing or advertising spend, and so we have to generate our own publicity. By allowing visitors to follow deep links directly to individual missions and pages in The Shadow War, we can increase the chance that we’ll become a hit on Digg or StumbleUpon or other weblogs; we also allow visitors to skip missions in this way.

There’s no doubt that opting for Flash would have made our lives easier; designing animations and interactive elements is much easier with Flash, and you don’t have to worry about how things will look in different browsers. However, Andrew Hayward, our frontend developer, did a brilliant job at making an attractive game with just HTML and JS.

Another difference from traditional ARGs is that The Shadow War is mostly single-player, and completely replayable. If someone joins the game halfway through, that’s no problem – they can just start from the first mission and have the same experience that everyone else had. In fact, there’s a benefit to joining later, since we chain together all previous missions, meaning that once the game is over, you could play the entire game in a single two hour sitting. We also continually fix bugs and make improvements to missions, long after they’ve launched.

A big reason why The Shadow War has been received so positively, both by the media (coverage from the Daily Telegraph, the Guardian, BBC 1, Radio 2, Radio 4 and Radio 6) and by fans, is because Charlie Higson has been extremely supportive. Initially, I think Charlie was a little wary, partly because he was already very busy promoting the book, and because the whole concept of the game seemed a little strange. However, he quickly got on board and wrote a detailed plot outline for the game that had some brilliant ideas; his outline forms the backbone on the game and ensures that it’s faithful to the books.

This was a serious concern for us. You just don’t mess around with the James Bond universe; there are legions of fans out there who have a right to expect that games follow the canon where possible. Our intern, Marc McGinley, spent a lot of time researching the books and the world of James Bond, making sure that all the details were correct; Ian Fleming Publications were also very helpful in this regard, pointing out any mistakes or contradictions in our story.

Reading, Writing and Playing

The Shadow War has some modest-sounding goals – promoting By Royal Command, and getting more children to read. However, we’re so used to thinking of games as involving no text – and frankly, very little story – that it can be a challenge developing a game that has both. Based on the reception so far, I think we did a good job.

It won’t go down in the annals as a game that changed the world; the resources available for the project didn’t permit that. But there’s a quote from the engineering firm Arup that goes well here:

“Only a job done well, as well as we can do it – and as well as it can be done – is that. We must therefore strive for quality in what we do, and never be satisfied with second-rate.”

That’s what we did with The Shadow War, and that’s what we aim to do with all of our games.

3 Replies to “The Shadow War: Getting Boys to Read”

  1. Interesting and measured report on the process of making the game – thanks. I played it myself – despite being *well* outside the age demographic – and found it a mixed bag. Visually beautiful and super-intuitive interfaces – like everything you do 😉 – but I wondered about the emphasis on the point-and-click puzzles as the most exciting thing you could do for that audience with that Young Bond property (and the live finale didn’t really fly, not just to do with the tech problems). But I guess not just the limited resource but also the constraints in working with an under-age audience rule out quite a lot of possibilities. Was that part of the discussion?

    Also… given that I’m a peer levelling (I hope generous/constructive) criticism it strikes me that this isn’t something that gets done much in the ARG business, unlike other media, although for good reason. But I think it’s necessary. Am I dumb in missing an existing space where players and makers can review and discuss these games more openly when they’re over? If there isn’t one, should it be set up?

  2. Hi TS – first, let me say that I am genuinely *very* happy to hear your feedback on this, the negative and the positive stuff. There really is no space for people to provide good criticism for games, mainly because historically people have been very sensitive about doing it in public, but obviously that’s quite harmful in the long run. It would be nice to set up a space.

    Are point and click puzzles the most exciting thing we can do for young people? Perhaps not – but we felt it was a good way of giving kids a good impression of what the books are actually like (as opposed to, say, a shoot ’em up game).

    We did discuss things like phone calls, emails, etc. The reason we didn’t do them is not really due to resources (although that played a part) but, as you guessed, age restrictions. If you’re dealing with people who could be under 13, legally you must have parental consent for pretty much everything, which can be tricky to get and really hampers things. It certainly rules out live events of any kind.

    As for the live event, the tech problems were obviously a distraction for us, which wasn’t helpful. All I can say is that isn’t as reliable as one might have hoped (even with extensive testing); and trying to fix it took our concentration away from running the game. Again, resources, etc etc, but we got some great feedback from players – to old hands like us, the finale live event was pretty standard, but we had thousands of comments from the people watching.

    One interesting issue for us was difficulty. Basically, it was *way* too easy for anyone remotely interested in puzzles or ARGs, but surprisingly, even adult fans of the books found several of the puzzles very challenging.

  3. Hi A

    Good to hear from you. And yeah, that all figures. I guess with players under 13 if you are facilitating any kind of communication, game-player or player-player, you have to have moderation present. Or as you did you make it exclusively a one-player experience.

    Part of my disappointment was that the starting choice of which side you’re on – Brit or Soviet – ultimately wasn’t more meaningful than a change in the language and dressing of each puzzle (unless I missed something). I guess resource swung in here but I’dve really liked to have been on one side all the way through, then even have an opportunity for turning traitor or sniffing out an NPC mole in my side’s midst.

    Did you run any playtesting of the puzzles with different age-groups? I guess with more resource you could have had puzzles with levels of difficulty – not literally as that would break immersion – but both a simple solution and an elegant solution that opened up more goodies.

    The live event was interesting, even if it didn’t work for me. During the race I’d fired in (quite a few) comments but it was frustrating to not get any response or acknowledgement to those. Granted you posted the comments of the first (?) players to crack the puzzles but – unlike in the asynchronous forum of the traditional ARG – the pace of the live synch’d forum meant I felt disconnected from their success. I wonder if making it live was a red herring, given the other restrictions and tech problems prevented more interesting interactions. The jeopardy of the race between the two sides – great idea – could have been tighter controlled in a recorded setting, and we could have had the Higson broadcasts ‘as live’.

    Those are my thoughts. Sure others would have found it differently.

    Well here we’re having an interesting and open discussion about a game. Maybe all we’d need for a space for criticism would be a space like this. It feels important that it’d be open/public but that also there’d need to be some id authentication. I guess as a maker you’d be less likely to respond to anonymous criticism, and as a critic you have to take more responsibility for what you’re saying.

    Right. Back to work.



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