Saturday 15 November 2008

ARG criticism

ARG. It's a dirty word and one of these days I'll write #2 in that series about it, if it's not pipped to the post by Interactive. I'm going to overextend it in this post just the way I hate it, to mean any online/crossplatform interactive.

There isn't any forum or space, to my knowledge, where ARGs are criticised seriously and robustly. This isn't healthy. No art-form has the chance to grow tall without criticism nourishing the good and weeding out the poor. Works and artists define themselves and develop by failure as much as success, by discussion as much as promotion. Not only that but the fog of secrecy that tends to drop over most 'traditional' ARGs means that - without the critic as documenter - there is no record even of what actually happened. Other than by the two types of documenter least likely to remain disinterested, makers and fans.

Any player who stays the course will likely be a fan. The traditional ARG tends to last for months, has its narrative broken into little pieces scattered and hidden across platforms and media, and discovered and played by its audience. If you're going to experience anything approximating a reasonable chunk of it, you're going to spend a lot more time and effort than the 90 minutes spent sitting watching the 'traditional' event of contemporary new theatre.

Adrian Hon and Jane McGonigal are two high-profile (and most excellent) game-designers who have started a trend for blogging about their own game. These posts are invaluable as documents and often insightful, but invariably and inevitably they deliver a positive spin on the game. Why should they do otherwise? It's not in their own interest to highlight relative failings. But I worry that these well-meant pieces are contributing to a certain public puffery and hyperbole whenever we talk about ARGs and their ilk. 'Yeah, they're amazing!' Because the audience to this hyperbole are the commissioners of the next work. So everyone is afraid to break the magic circle.

It's still such early days for the medium that any new work is talked up as ground-breaking, where the discussion about the work becomes itself the best PR for the work and the brand backing it - viz We Tell Stories, a neat portfolio of beautifully-rendered digitally-told short tales that attracted amazing column inches in print and the blogosphere, hundreds of thousands of first hits but a big tail off towards tens of players for the ARG beneath (according to one of them).
I am reminded of a commission my brilliant friend Chris had from Pizza Express to make a theatre miniature version of The Godfather to play in restaurants for diners. Chris has made hugely acclaimed work that plays in the houses of the audience - I had the quite perfect We Must Perform A Quirkafleeg! in my living room - and so it was natural for Pizza Express to commission him for this and then equally natural for the press to write about this as a phenomenon, how you as a diner might be surprised by innovative theatre at your table, or in-tertainment in brutal PR coinage. The first performances played to tables of only press all over the country. And then PR job accomplished, you can perhaps guess how many performances for the public actually happened.

Is the quality of an ARG reflected in its metrics, the numbers of playing audience that engage? If it is, the problem is that no one is telling just how many players they get. Again this is partly so as not to discourage the commissioners, and because simple numbers don't yet tell the full story. Received wisdom in the industry quotes Jimmy Wales' 10% power law or 90-9-1 as the ratios of players in levels of activity termed casual, immersed and hardcore (although yet to know how and if the numbers from this particular power law extend across all interactive participation or just Wikipedia)

So an interactive Emmy-winning TV ARG - The Truth About Marika - quoted figures of 300,000 viewers but only 3,000 online players. The Lost Ring had 500,000 viewers for its first (well-marketed) trailer on Youtube (comparing very well to 850k for the latest Bond trailer) but only 60-odd players worldwide running the Lost Sport in its finale (from a guessed head-count in the broadcast video which had itself 1200 views in Youtube). In comparison, The Gold-Bug that I worked on had 4,000 site visitors and the two finales had attendances of 60 and 80-odd.

It isn't just about the numbers, of course. But it'd be nice to know more of them so we could see. And an understanding of what players would have to do to be counted at a particular level.

Plus... I wonder if we need to lay a time axis for the length of event along the power-law figures too. The longer an event goes on, the harder it is for players to enter, not least because if it's using the player forum of the traditional ARG, the sheer volume of player posts generated is itself a barrier.


Andrew Field said...

Interesting stuff Mr T.

Some thoughts:

I agree completely that one of the fundamental problems of such a medium is that, like space travel, it seems to have a paper thin window for entry.

Audiences for anything build over time but with these events you ostensibly need to have been on board from the get-go or it's like wading through treacle.

Problem being that this is I think somewhat endemic to that particular format. Engagement is rewarded with further narrative/involvement/immersion in the event. This being so then it's somewhat problematic to provide an easy means of accessibility to everyone at any time.

The pilgrimage has already started and it's going to cause some consternation if you get driven up to the gates of the temple just as everyone else is arriving on foot and want to be considered as much a part of the event.

For me it seems there's a couple of potential solutions to this that are fundamentally about reconfiguring that basic model to make it either all about the journey or all about the destination.

In other words - you could either have an ongoing journey without any specific points of climax or conclusion. Something I suppose akin to the tradition video game where you have the opportunity to travel at your own speed. How would this work in terms of the administration/performance of a real-world event? Well, possibly through unmanned technologies - texts, audio/video etc but also possibly through allowing those hardcore players to take ownership of the game. To become responsible for its running and maintenance - potentially the ultimate reward for your involvement is that the game becomes yours in a truly meaningful sense.

Alternative the game as destination model might mean that you attempt to create an experience that isn't reliant on the fairly basic, linear pull-back-and-reveal of most ARGs. That the game is essentially in an environment in which there are a number of potential points of engagement that enrich your playing experience in a collage-y way. Narrative breadth rather than narrative length. I'm thinking pockets of. Here anyone as soon as they start to engage with it is incorporated into the body of the experience without them needing necessarily to do any 'catching up'.

TS said...

Interesting event models. I like the journey and destination visualisation very much.

The challenge to the first one is how can anyone - not just the hardcore - can have the opportunity to take ownership of the game but if they choose not to, it feels just as good.

The challenge to the second one is how to enable depth for those who choose to take it, together with the breadth. Otherwise you have the solution from the Punchdrunk archetype of providing too much breadth for any one person to catch, and easter-eggs of experience - but no more than that - for the few who are bold enough or lucky enough. Which works, natch, to a degree. But the way you describe the model begins to suggests another solution which is more interesting to me.

Vic said...

good to see some opposing thoughts on the subject, but who are you to comment on ARGs? what involvement do you have in them? not a trying to discredit you just i would love to quote you in my dissertation and would be good to know who you are and what qualifies you to talk on the subject?

TS said...

Hello Vic

Thanks for dropping in. Now I'm curious as to which are the 'opposing thoughts' you find interesting enough to quote?

I've made many interactive crossplatform pieces and at least one I'd be happy to be described as an ARG. But my original background was theatre, before I discovered game-design (or at least reincorporated it). Which makes me a little different from most, perhaps.

If you want to know any more about what I've made, then feel free to drop me a line on theconeydoctor splat gmail dot com.

I can also put you in touch with the elegant Mr Field if you want.

Steve M said...

It seems to me that the problem is not dissimilar to that faced by the producers of heavily serialized television programs. The solutions they use are (a) "Previously on ..." synopses and other forms of recap and(b)periodic stand-alone episodes.

New viewers can continue watching and accept that they will miss some nuances of the programme, or invest more heavily by watching prior episodes via DVD, iTunes, Hulu or whatever.

Analogues of these approaches could be used within ARG environments: some kind of "the story so far" , and occasional/regular elements of gameplay that do not rely on prior experience of the game environment (as indeed was the case with The Goldbug).

TS said...

Good comments, Steve M. Certainly I think that designing elements of play that are regularly refreshed and stand-alone is extremely helpful for drawing in casual and new players, although the challenge is how to keep those feeling relevant. Excellent comparison with the TV serial to the ARG's event structure. But I fear not only that it is less fun to watch (or read) a round-up than it is to play, but that there's the risk that latecomers feel an inequality between themselves and existing players that does not exist between serial viewers; this feeling of inequality itself disengaging.