Beating the Hive Mind

“What’s this?” I asked, toying with a white cylinder with letters printed across it.

“It’s a cryptex,” explained Eric Harshbarger, one of Mind Candy’s in-house puzzle designers. “Like the one from the Da Vinci Code.”

In The Da Vinci Code, a cryptex is a cylinder with five wheels that can be rotated independently; each wheel has letters printed on it, and if you line up the wheels properly, it’ll open. The puzzle to open the cryptex in the movie was rather boring, but Eric had come up with a much more interesting multi-stage puzzle and then constructed it himself. He’d brought the cryptex, along with some other fun physical puzzles, to San Francisco for our live event there last year.

While we walked down to a nearby cafe for breakfast, Eric mentioned how he’d visited Google a couple of days earlier with the cryptex and shown it to some of the puzzle-fans there, including Wei-Hwa Huang, the designer of Google’s Da Vinci Code puzzle quest. Immediately, Wei-Hwa and two other Googlers threw themselves on the task, and within two or three hours, had figured it out. Thus the challenge was set: could we beat Google?

Personally, I didn’t think so. Those guys not only live and breathe puzzles, they actually spend a lot of time solving them. So I passed (I didn’t have a few hours to spare), and instead played around with some of Eric’s wooden puzzles while David Varela, a writer at Mind Candy, busied himself with the cryptex.

Thirty minutes later, David had solved the cryptex. He had beaten Google. And he didn’t even have a computer, let alone a piece of paper. Continue reading “Beating the Hive Mind”

GDC 2007, ARGFest, Google…

Updated with a link to my Google presentation.

Flying from west to east, I can recover from jetlag at about 2.5 hours per day. This means that when I come back from San Francisco, 8 hours behind GMT, I take a little over three days to return to my normal circadian rhythm. I once read that you’re supposed to recover from jetlag at about 1 hour per day, which I really find hard to believe, unless it’s based on some strange sample or is measuring some more obscure physiological parameters. Anyway, I’m pretty sure it’s not health, flying east. If I had it my way, I’d just do short hops westward, lengthening my day instead of shortening it. Preferably on some sort of dirigible.

In a true race against time, I spoke at GDC this year, in a 20 minute session. You can download a PDF of my slides; I’ve added some notes to them so they’ll make more sense. They don’t, however, reflect the tortured thought processes that went into them. When I heard that my session was going to be only 20 minutes (this was after having an abstract designed for 40 minutes accepted), I preferred not to think about the problem. How hard can it be, I thought.

As the day approached, I realised that I wasn’t all that keen on talking about ‘The New Alternate Reality Games’ and the way in which ARGs associated with physical products were the way forward. Not that I don’t think the topic is interesting, but I submitted my abstract nine months ago, and that’s a long time in the ARG world. There was a bunch of other stuff I wanted to talk about as well, such as how to reach a wider audience, and a post-mortem of Perplex City Season 1.

This is when I hit upon what I thought was a brilliant idea – I would make a ‘Choose Your Own GDC Presentation’ talk! I’d give the audience three choices of topic, and I’d talk about whichever they picked. It’s interactive, it’s topical, it’s cute – and it’s really stupid. The reason it’s stupid is because the audience would never unanimously back one topic, and so I’d probably end up disappointing a large fraction of them. And doing the vote would waste valuable time. And I really wanted to talk about all three topics!

So I bit the bullet, and just crammed all the most interesting topics of all three topics into the 20 minutes. I don’t think I’ve done a faster presentation in my life, and which I know that speaking quickly is against the Rules of presenting, I was pretty pleased with the amount of raw information density that I showed – this was no fluff talk, it told people stuff that has previously remained internal at Mind Candy, and a lot of the reasoning behind what we’re doing in Season 2 to boot.

Still, I would’ve preferred 40 minutes.

Thankfully, that’s what I got when I presented at Google last week on How to Make an Alternate Reality Game or Perplex City: A Look Behind the Scenes. There are also videos from all the ARGFest sessions online now, and if you’re interested in ARGs, I’d advise you to take a look – I found them generally very interesting and useful.

I had a great time in San Francisco – so many new ideas!…


Interesting article from today’s New York Times, What a College Education Buys:

Moreover, if you’re not planning on becoming, say, a doctor, the benefits of diligent study can be overstated. In recent decades, the biggest rewards have gone to those whose intelligence is deployable in new directions on short notice, not to those who are locked into a single marketable skill, however thoroughly learned and accredited. Most of the employees who built up, say, Google in its early stages could never have been trained to do so, because neither the company nor the idea of it existed when they were getting their educations. Under such circumstances, it’s best not to specialize too much. Something like the old ideal of a “liberal education” has had a funny kind of resurgence, minus the steeping in Western culture. It is hard to tell whether this success vindicates liberal education’s defenders (who say it “teaches you how to think”) or its detractors (who say it camouflages a social elite as a meritocratic one).

Most people would agree that being skilled in multiple areas is a useful thing, but I don’t think people realise quite how useful. At a simple level, in Mind Candy we’re setting up a page where we list people’s ‘secret ninja skills’ – skills that aren’t their primary specialty, but can be called upon if necessary (e.g. photography, drawing, designing presentations, writing HTML, etc). Yet as the article suggests, Google and similar startups aren’t the result of specific courses, but of people who had diverse backgrounds.

Becoming and remaining flexible in university and in life adds something that can’t be measured in terms of grades or marks, only in originality, success and long-term happiness. Part of the reason why this subject interests me is because I’m finding it hard to describe what sort of specific skills are useful for ARG designers, beyond grasp of gameplay and story and the ‘ability to deploy intelligence in new directions on very short notice’.

Lost and Found

After two years, the Cube has been found, and with it comes the end of Season 1 of Perplex City. A couple of days ago, we launched a new site at (we call it the Puzzle Portal); it’s still in beta, but there are going to be some good changes over the next few weeks.

We’re also hard at work preparing for Season 2. In fact, we’ve been doing that for quite a while now. I’m remaining quite tight-lipped about what’s going to be in our second season, so as not to spoil the surprise, but I will be saying a few things while I’m over in San Francisco for the Game Developers Conference (I’ll be there from 3rd to 9th March, in case you want to meet up).

My talk at GDC, The New Alternate Reality Games, is on Friday 9th at 12:20pm, and I’ll be talking about new trends in ARGs and the direction we’re heading in for Season 2. I’m also going to be giving a talk at Google on Monday, and a video will be posted on the web at some point in the future. The Google talk will focus on how you interact with ARGs.

Finally, a couple of other Perplex City things. Firstly, come along to the Perplex City Party at the Gherkin in London this Saturday! It’ll be a lot of fun. Secondly, Andy Darley’s story of how he found the Cube is well worth reading. He’s a great storyteller and we’re happy that someone like him found it.

Belgian Split

The ghost of Orson Welles strikes again – according to the BBC, ‘the Belgian public television station RTBF ran a bogus report saying the Dutch-speaking half of the nation had declared independence.’ Lots of faked footage of celebrations, traffic jams, and 2600 calls were made to a phone number given out during the show, which was intended to spur debate given growing real separatist sentiment in Flanders. Apparently a number of foreign ambassadors were fooled and sent urgent messages back to their capitals. It just goes to show that TV news is still an immensely powerful and trusted medium, and that tricks like these still work.

Notes on the Futuremedia TV conference

“No-one’s watching TV any more, and even worse, all this user-generated content is killing us.” That was the cheerful attitude at the C21 Futuremedia TV conference I went to last week. The audience was composed mainly of TV executives, with a smattering of smug ‘internet people’ like myself, who alternately confirmed their worst fears and then told them that they still had something to offer (well, some of them, anyway).

Everyone seemed to be reasonably aware of the difficulties facing the TV industry, although there were many differences on how best to adapt, let alone thrive. As the conference went on and we heard more and more speakers talking about user generated content and how wonderful it was, there was definitely a sour mood among some executives. Anyway, I’ll explain all of this in time. First, to the keynote! Continue reading “Notes on the Futuremedia TV conference”

Notes on the BBC Audio Drama Festival

On Tuesday, after about five hours of sleep following the Second Life ARG panel, I found myself at the BBC Audio Drama Festival in London. As usual, I was due to give a talk about ARGs. I did think it was a little strange that I was invited to speak, because while we do have audio drama in Perplex City, it’s not our focus, but what the hell – it seemed interesting, and I thought I might learn something.

And I did. I won’t go over my talk because it was the usual introductory stuff (although I might write up something about the audio components one of these days), but I’ll provide a few notes on the other speakers. Continue reading “Notes on the BBC Audio Drama Festival”

…in Second Life

It’s late notice, I know, but I’m going to be in Second Life tonight at midnight, talking about Perplex City, ARGs and (unsurprisingly) Second Life. It’s part of the Second Life Future Salon, and hosted by the Electric Sheep Company. You can find out more here. Also, you don’t need to be in SL to watch the talk – it’s being shown as a video at Destroy TV.

Although I have read an awful lot about Second Life and expounded many times on it, I’ve never actually played it until now. Many of my thoughts were confirmed, and some were overturned. I definitely intend to write up something about it… after the talk tonight.

Where’s Adrian? (The Sequel)

Next week, I’m speaking at a couple of conferences on Perplex City in London. Can you guess I didn’t get much notice? Anyway, if you happen to be going to either, please say hi!

Tuesday November 28th: BBC Audio Drama Festival. I’m speaking on the Gaming panel, which is at 9:30am and also repeated at 11:30am.

Friday December 1st: FutureMedia C21 Conference. I’ll be on the first ‘Case Studies from the Digital Frontier‘ panel at 9:50am.

I’m probably going to the London MetaFilter meetup on December 8th, and I’m going to be in Toronto from December 13th to 21st.

In other news, I’ve posted a rather long comment with further thoughts on religion and a ‘church without religion’, in response to Chris and Brooke’s interesting points. I’m talking to a lot of people about this (probably boring them to death) and doing a lot of thinking. It’s a very interesting subject.