A Tale from the Academy

To my utter amazement, I turned my computer on this morning to discover an email from none other than Kurt McAllister! As far as I was aware, communications between Earth and Perplex City were strictly monitored, and as you might imagine, these days I simply don’t have the clearance to send or receive anything at all.

From what I can tell, Kurt created some kind of text adventure and sent to it me, perhaps by mistake, or perhaps just as a strange joke – he’s just that kind of guy. Anyway, here it is: A Tale from the Academy, by Kurt McAllister!

But seriously, guys…

The old PXC story team have been talking about old times lately – how much we loved working together, and how much we loved our players. So we decided to write a little unofficial Perplex City fanfiction as our gift for the Restitution of the Cube. We hope you enjoy it!

Go and read Andrea’s, David’s, and Naomi’s – they’re fantastic, and I also had a little help from all of them in writing some fun easter eggs into the adventure…

Brain Enhancement

One of the many sad results of Perplex City being put ‘on hold’ is that I can’t explore the effect of cognitive enhancement on society. As a former neuroscientist who studied experimental psychology at university, I always enjoyed writing about my pet fictional company, Cognivia, and its range of cognitive enhancements including Ceretin (wide-spectrum enhancement), Mnemosyne (memory booster), Cardinal (maths), Synergy (creativity) and others. I still think the names are really cool as well.

As usual though, reality is catching up to fiction at an breathtaking rate; The New York Times published an article today covering the use of cognitive enhancers in universities and society in general:

In a recent commentary in the journal Nature, two Cambridge University researchers reported that about a dozen of their colleagues had admitted to regular use of prescription drugs like Adderall, a stimulant, and Provigil, which promotes wakefulness, to improve their academic performance. The former is approved to treat attention deficit disorder, the latter narcolepsy, and both are considered more effective, and more widely available, than the drugs circulating in dorms a generation ago.

… One person who posted anonymously on the Chronicle of Higher Education Web site said that a daily regimen of three 20-milligram doses of Adderall transformed his career: “I’m not talking about being able to work longer hours without sleep (although that helps),” the posting said. “I’m talking about being able to take on twice the responsibility, work twice as fast, write more effectively, manage better, be more attentive, devise better and more creative strategies.”

Would I take cognitive enhancers? I would certainly like to give Provigil a try, if only to see what it’s like. I have concerns about its long-term efficacy, and obviously there are issues of developing a dependency on it (if not physiological, psychological). There are already many people out there who regularly use caffeine and Pro-Plus to pep themselves up. You could argue that the stimulant properties of caffeine are merely a side-effect, and that the reason people drink coffee is because it tastes nice, but I find that as hard to believe as the notion that people drink alcohol only because they enjoy the taste.

The fact is, we already widely use cognitive enhancers, whether it’s caffeine or sugar. They do improve our performance. They are not natural in the slightest, unless natural somehow means ‘old’. So the question becomes, are we prepared to allow use of cognitive enhancers that are even more powerful, more reliable, and with fewer side-effects?

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.

Perplex City, aloha

It’s said that it takes 4000 hours of study and practice to become an expert, whether it’s for sport, music, dance or academia. 4000 hours works out to be about three years of full time study – the same length as an undergraduate degree.

For the past three years, I’ve worked at Mind Candy as Director of Play, which really means I was the lead designer of Perplex City. I’m pretty sure I worked more than 4000 hours during that time, but that doesn’t make me an expert; it just means I’ve figured out a lot of ways of how not to make ARGs. I know that I shouldn’t dangle random strings of numbers in front of people who are looking for secret messages everywhere. I know that I shouldn’t expect weary players to be able to decode a signal being flashed by torches across the River Thames – while being several hundred feet above the ground. And I know that I should never underestimate our players.

I’m sure you’ve heard the bad news. Perplex City Season 2 will not be launching in June, or in the near future. At the time, I was being honest when I promised that it would launch next month, but there are some circumstances that are out of control of even a puppetmaster. I know that this will hugely disappoint a lot of people, and it’s a real disappointment for me. We all worked very hard on making Season 2, but it just was not to be. And so, it’s time for me to move on.

I’ve had a wonderful three years at the Mind Candy. I’ve learned a whole range of valuable and bizarre skills, from organising an event on the other side of the world to researching how bees dance. I wouldn’t be able to list all the things we achieved with Perplex City – the rich story, the friendships made and the battles won are endless. I feel privileged to have worked with some of the most talented and hard-working people in the business who helped make Perplex City, and to have had the opportunity to make a game for such a dedicated and energetic group of players.

In particular at Mind Candy, there’s the Story Team: Andrea, David, Jey and Naomi, all of whom are also moving on to different places and projects. I’ll always remember the times when we ran live events together – not just because of the sense that we worked as a team, writing and improving each others dialogue in real time, synchronised to multimedia – but because we did it with our players, who added their own melodies to what we did. It was like jamming in a band, and it made a beautiful sound.

I also remember writing the first post by Kurt, feeling so excited about writing something that would be part of the Perplex City. Almost two years later, I remember writing his final post in Season 1 and reading the comments on the forums about it. More than a few people suggested that it was made by a different writer, which I took as an (inadvertent) backhanded compliment.

And then yesterday, I wrote his post that’s up on Violet’s site. It pretty much summarises how I feel.

I’m sure people will have a million questions, but here’s the thing: I’m in Hong Kong right now, and I’ll be out of touch for a week and a half. So if you have anything you want to ask or comment about anything, send me an email and I will get back to you.

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!…

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 perplexcity.com (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.

…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.

San Francisco

Some San Francisco thoughts:

Despite being a fairly small city, it’s very difficult to get around. We used a car for most of the time, but this only worked because we had a person who was happy driving us around all the time. As for public transport, it was initially very confusing. Here were some questions: What’s the difference between the MUNI and the BART? Do they run on the same lines? Can you get passes for both? Does the MUNI include buses? Are those metro trains in the MUNI or the BART? Is the F-Market tram a bus or a train? All pretty ridiculous, and a far cry from the relative simplicity of Transport for London.

Cycling seems like it might work, although that depends on whether you can bypass hills. It’s a much better bet for exploring the surrounding areas – I cycled for 20 miles across the Golden Gate Bridge, Sausalito and Tiburon, which was an excellent and healthy way to decompress after the event.

San Francisco has the highest number of crazies per square foot than any other city I’ve been to. I can think of a few explanations for this, but I’m not convinced by any of them.

With the weak dollar, food and drink everywhere is positively cheap. In fact, rents and house prices also seem fine. Of course, this is compared to London, the most expensive interesting place to live in the world, but still – let no San Franciscan complain of high prices ever again.

Organising the largest Perplex City live event ever, in a city that’s over 5000 miles away from our base, was incredibly difficult. It was even more difficult given that we didn’t have any staff based on the west coast – which is, of course, also eight hours behind the UK. Despite all of the pain incurred while setting it up, I think it was a success – we had a great response from people there, who were glad to see us hold a major event in the US. Indeed, it’s worth noting that there are now about as many Perplex City players in the US as there are in the UK. Not everything worked as planned, which I am sorry about, but the event was incredibly ambitious (major offline live event simultaneous with online event? It’s tricky when you do it for the first time) and the important thing is that people had fun.

With 40,000 players, Perplex City is no longer a small game by any measure. Expectations have risen, and we have to raise our game to meet them. I read all the feedback that I can, and have already spent a lot of time thinking about how to do better for future events. However, the fact that we had such a good response from the players in San Francisco means that we’re obviously doing something right.

One of the best things about the event was the sheer mix of people there – there were families galore, from babies and infants to grandparents, all working together; there were men and women in equal number; and there were people from all backgrounds. There aren’t many games out there that’ll bring people together like that for a common (and fun) cause.