Mind Candy Wants You!

I’ve been at Mind Candy, developing Perplex City full time, for almost two years now. Sometimes I feel like I’m in a Bruce Sterling novel, jumping from neuroscience to a job which didn’t exist five years ago and is still difficult to explain to people. It’s obviously been a fun, if hectic, time, and it’s great that Perplex City is doing so well now, with almost 40,000 players to its name. A consequence of this success is that we’re expanding, and we’re now hiring for an Alternate Reality Game Producer.

Producing an ARG involves a byzantine combination of skills and experience, including project management, story-telling, web-savvy, a simultaneous willful disregard and healthy appreciation of previous games, and the ability to contemplate the impossible. It also requires having to think up solutions to seemingly disastrous situations in the space of a few minutes, so having a cool head is pretty useful. You don’t necessarily need a background in game design – technically, I didn’t, although I had been deeply involved in ARGs. You just need to appreciate and understand the concepts related to the genre. For some people, that comes from experience in RPGs; other people, from screenwriting. There are no set requisites.

You’d have to be willing to learn – to a reasonable degree of familiarity – odd and sometimes obscurely documented fields such as cryptography (of course), particle physics, celestial navigation and city planning. It really does help if you can pick up stuff quickly – what we do is often at the leading edge of technologies like printing.

You need to be able to take criticism well. Everyone who works with the ARG team is warned that their story ideas will be exhaustively analysed, picked apart and reassembled, sometimes in a completely unrecognisable form. We’re all good-natured though, and have a wide range of backgrounds, from playwrights to Orange Prize-winning authors; there’s a good reason why Andrea’s title is still ‘Ad Hoc Polymath’.

Alternate Reality Games are still young and there are a lot of possibilities. Sometimes you’ll take a chance on one of them, and fail. You have to be willing to fail again, and fail better. And eventually succeed wildly. It’s a funny old world, ARGs – full of contradictions…

For all of that, you get to develop a game that can go anywhere and tell any story, using the web and any medium available. There’s a lot of hard work, to be sure, and it’s not all hiring helicopters or creating fictional companies, but it’s absolutely fascinating and totally, genuinely unlike any other job in the world. There are only a handful of people who could legitimately call themselves ARG designers, and fewer still who would have access to the the audience, resources and independence that Mind Candy can command. Yet in one way, it’s a job as old as the hills – it’s storytelling, but in a way that speaks to people through the way they live, immersed in information, and with an opportunity to participate in and mold that story.

Plus, it’s a fantastic line to use at parties. Although I feel obliged to point out that you will rapidly tire of explaining, for the hundredth time (literally), what an alternate reality game is…

Anyway, if you’re interested and want to apply for the job, don’t email me. I’ll get quite annoyed if you send an application to my email address – there’s a dedicated one for that in the link above. However, if you want to ask any questions about the role, feel free to email, but bear in mind that I’m horribly busy for the next few weeks and in any case you can probably find answers to most of your questions on the web, with appropriate Googling. Good luck!

San Francisco

Part of the reason I’ve disappeared for over a month is because I’ve been completely immersed in organising the upcoming San Francisco live event for Perplex City. Let’s just say that it’s a step up from what we’ve done in the past, and it’s really demanding a lot of my time.

Anyway, it means that I’m going to be in San Francisco in mid-August. San Francisco is the last major US city that I haven’t yet visited (that’s my definition of ‘major’, by the way), so I’m hoping to do a bit of exploring and meeting up with friends – incidentally, if I’ve missed anyone out, let me know if you’re in SF and would like to meet up.

2005 In Review

A few weeks ago, Stuart from feeling listless emailed to ask if I’d like to contribute to a ‘2005 in Review’ thing he was doing at his blog. The idea was that contributors would write about:

“…something they’ve always wanted to do this year. It could be as simple as being able to see a film, trying a type of food or going to a concert. It doesn’t need to be a life changing event, but it really could be. It depends how open you would like to be. But what really counts is how it made you feel.”

It sounded interesting, so I said I’d write something. I thought about it on and off since then, and eventually came to the conclusion two days ago that I just couldn’t think of anything that fit the bill. I honestly don’t feel like I’ve done something I’ve always wanted to do this year. Under normal circumstances, I like to have at least two or three ‘projects’ on the go at once, from creating a new website to planning a conference; however, this year has been unusual and I’ve been pouring most of my energy into Perplex City.

So really, the one interesting thing I could write about was Perplex City. I wasn’t sure I liked the idea of this, though, because it felt too self-promotional. Stuart sensibly told me that all blogging is self-promotional in a way, and that I should just go ahead and write about it, and that’s what I did – check out my 2005 in Review. It’s the closest I’ll get to writing ‘The Making of Perplex City’ before I write a book on about it someday.

The Night Before Launch

(DISCLAIMER: This is a personal message – it is not from Perplex City. It most definitely is not a CLOO and launch is not actually tomorrow. It’s something I wrote for the fine folks at Unforums and so may make little to no sense if you aren’t familiar with ARGs or that crowd. Without further ado…)

‘Twas the night before Launch, though all through the land,
The posters at Unforum had once thought the Project’d been canned;

Their posts were expectant, their comments excited,
And every one of them was sure they’d be delighted;

Wherever they looked, near and far and in all abodes,
Naught reached their eyes but ciphers and codes;

And Shish with his scripts, and Tanner with his plans,
Were confident they could defeat all other ARG clans;

When out on the web there arose such a noise,
That they sprang from their chairs and put down their toys;

Away to the forums they flew like a flash,
To discover that their beloved site’d suffered a crash!

‘It must be a mistake, it must be a lie,’
Said the posters to themselves with a tear in their eye;

‘For our home to disappear on such a day…
Why, we must hurry to the chat rooms without delay!’

‘Enough of this crying, let us steel ourselves visibly,
And not rest until we read ‘Connected to #syzygy’;

The ops were ready, the troops so bright and energetic,
You’d know in a moment they’d see past any trick;

‘Now, ROT! now, Google! now, reverse lookup and WHOIS!
Now Babelfish, now Enigma, now every maths whiz!’

‘Now into the web! Now through the terrible pall!
Let us find the villain, and ensure their quick fall!’

As AIs at full height, at the summit of their power,
There is no foe over whom ARGers cannot tower,

So the posters, with awful vengeance in their eyes,
For the sake of their game, assumed a fearsome guise;

Across all sites their browsers they flew,
With ‘View Source’ at the ready, and Old Nik-Doof too,

For hours they scoured the nets and combed the land,
Until none of them, not even Fi, had the strength to stand;

Their energies exhausted, their spec starting to dupe,
Who would blame them if their eyes couldn’t but droop?

And then, in the distance, a sound as of thunder,
Something was approaching that would tear them asunder;

What now, they wondered, would be their foe’s next hit?,
And yet the unthinkable happened – a disastrous netsplit!

‘Enough is enough, we will end this tonight!’ they said,
Marching off in serried ranks with Wishi at their head,

They marched through the deserts and into certain doom,
They marched for miles to reach the server room;

For how else could their adversary cause this mess,
Without the essential ingredient – physical server access?

In a righteous rage they battered down the doors,
And proclaimed, ‘You have wronged us all, and the sacred ARG laws!’

But there was not a single person to be seen,
‘Cept for the flickering of a tell-tale blue screen;

To their dismay, their enemy was but a mere bee,
It’d been caught in the server motherboard, you see!

A wonderful story, you say, but why must we still wait?
Can’t you tell us when will be the blessed launch date?

In reply, I’ll give you a wink and a smile, and in my usual way,
‘I’m sorry,’ I answer, ‘but I really can’t say!’

Still I would like to remark, before I disappear again out of sight,
“Happy Christmas to all, and to all Syzygists a good-night!”

Fluxions

Once again, I’ve neglected my weblog for far too long and unfortunately for the next month or so I won’t be able to post much else either. Predictably, I’ve been very busy, but at least I can say something about it now.

The big news is that I have decided to leave my PhD here at Oxford once I’ve completed my first year at the end of August. My particular PhD programme is not normal; you spend the first year in a mixture of taught courses and research (a little like a Masters, but not in practice) and the next three years are spent on a single ‘normal’ PhD research project. I’ve enjoyed my time in the programme and I’ve learnt an awful lot, and hopefully done some good research. However, it’s just not for me. While I love science and I will continue to pursue it in the future, I have never wanted to become an academic and continue research after my PhD.

It was a hard decision which took some time; after all, research is very good compared to most jobs and I would’ve been working in a great lab with a good salary. At the end of three further years, I’d most likely emerge with a few good papers and a doctorate to my name – and that’s about it. If I don’t want to pursue research in the future, a PhD really doesn’t help me at all, and in some ways it can harm me.

So instead, after spending two weeks on holiday in September (in North Carolina and at home) I will be joining the team behind Project Syzygy full time. This will involve me spending half my time in Oxford, and half in London. It’s going to be an enormous change from student life, but since I’ll be in Oxford for a fair amount of time it shouldn’t be too jarring. On Friday I’m moving into a shared house with three other friends which should be an improvement from my current college accommodation.

There’s very little I can say about my job in London apart from that it’ll be highly challenging, extremely fun and something which I feel I am well suited to. When I have more I can say about the job, you’ll be able to read about it here as soon as it happens.

How do I feel? It’s hard to say. I’m incredibly busy right now finishing off my current research project, packing up my things to move house and working on Project Syzygy and one or two other side projects, never mind all the time I’ve spent deciding about my future. Still, I’m confident I made the right decision and as soon as this month is over and I can catch my breath (in the metaphorical sense – probably not in the literal sense, since I’m apparently going hiking in North Carolina and there’s a 10K run I want to do at home shortly afterwards) I’ll finally be able to relax and settle in properly.

No matter how manic things get, I know I wouldn’t want it any other way.

For the early adopters

Those who emailed Project Syzygy in the first 24 hours or so of the site going online may not have received the autoresponder that was set up a bit later. So here it is. You wouldn’t have missed anything aside from the launch date:

This is an autorespond to say thanks very much for your email and interest in PS.

As promised we’ll be back in touch on the eve of the launch (late 2004) and we’ll be able to go into much greater detail then.

Your early interest and patience will be rewarded.

Yours enigmatically,

The PS team

Project Syzygy

For a weblog that’s supposed to be about ‘massively multiuser online entertainment’, I’ve been awfully quiet about the entire genre. Well, that ends now – at least partially. For a while now, I’ve been involved in a London-based venture called Project Syzygy which is developing what I feel is one of the most astonishingly innovative and promising immersive fiction games ever. Admittedly, that’s not saying much since there have been precious few, and it’s hard to be convincing when I can say so little, but believe me – I’ve spent a long time thinking about ideas for games and when I heard of this one, I was literally speechless.

There’re serious resources and experience behind this game, and I have no doubt that it will come to fruition. If you’re interested in being part of the launch team for the game, visit the website above. And if you’re interested in games in general, visit it anyway. Keep your eyes peeled as well – Project Syzygy will be cropping up in a few other places…