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  • Student Postmortem: SCAD's Project Loyola Alternate Reality Game

    [04.22.08]
    - Jeff McNab

  •  Using story block phases allowed our team to follow the Scrum methodology. Each team member was given a specific entity to develop, be it Alex Loyola or Rivera Capital. Team members were responsible for all aspects of that entity, including personality, associated web site, and so forth. Some jobs had to be given to people that had the knowledge on how to complete them, such as server scripting and web design.

    For example, the first phase involved the introduction of four characters -- Alex Loyola, Stephanie Loyola, Sophia Rivera, and Robert Morgan -- and it was later that we introduced the enigmatic codemonkey327. Entities, like Red Loyola, Rivera Capital, the Loyola Foundation, were also introduced in this phase. For each of these entities we created web sites, and for most of the characters we created blogs.

    In terms of storyline, this first phase is when it first becomes known that Alex has disappeared, and eventually his body is discovered. The players piece together this knowledge by sending messages to characters and using clues found hidden in the various sites.

    Near the end of our 10-week development cycle, we decided to move away from paid internet services and toward free ones, such as Gmail and Facebook. The reason was purely financial. After all, we are poor, starving college students.

    2. Flexibility of design. The advantage of using phases was flexibility. It put us in a position to alter future phases if things didn't go exactly as planned in the previous phases. We actually were forced to test this out after realizing that we had shown the players an image that wasn't supposed to exist. It was something we had put up for our own reference and had forgotten to take down. When the players found it, we were forced to switch the narrative to keep some level of consistency in the plot.

    We actually fixed the errors that could have caused Project Loyola to end prematurely in a 30-minute meeting. We were able to altering the intended path that players will take because future events had not been set in stone. We've actually gone through four different plot line changes since our original idea at the beginning of week one of development. Three of those occurred after launch. The general narrative is still the same, but the specifics have slowly shifted as players move the ARG in new directions. This is one of the things we as designers find so fascinating -- emergent gameplay.

    3. Team dynamics. Our team was composed of people interested in various aspects of game design, from narrative design to systems design. This variety of interest allowed most of our team members to focus on the areas that they wanted.

    The core of our team was five seniors enrolled in the Studio II class, with a group of interns from various academic levels with different majors at the college. We had graphic designers, web designers, and game designers all working together to create all the content.

    The largest role we needed to fill was writers. Fortunately, our professor was also teaching a narrative class during the same quarter. We recruited four people from that class to help us with our project, and most of them have come back to continue helping us with development. These writers were invaluable to us in getting the ARG completed because of the massive amount of content needed to create a believable scenario.

    4. Players. We love our players. They are as interested in playing our ARG as we were when we developed it. We've had fellow classmates come to us and tell us that they had to stop playing because it was taking too much of their time. The Unfiction forums group, an independent ARG forum that we utilized for the game, gives us plenty of feedback on what is going right and wrong with Project Loyola so we can not only fix it, but document it. 

    Creating a player base for an ARG is a much faster process than for other games. Word of mouth spreads rapidly through the ARG community, and our project already has a strong player base. However, sometimes it's hard to develop content that they all can use due to geographic and financial reasons. Yet, most players will take our mistakes with a grain of salt and understand that we are running our first ARG. We can't thank them enough for their patience.

    5. Design documentation. Over the past couple of months while our team was working on this project, I've had a chance to meet some of the important figures in the ARG community. When I approached them to find out about their experiences with the genre and what goes right and wrong, I found that our team is seeing some of the same problems that all ARG developers face when making their first ARG. It's nice to know that the logic behind the project (that of documentation) is something that does seem to be needed by the community as a whole.

    During these conversations, I mentioned some of the more interesting things we've noticed, such as the efficiency of design. Recently, our team put together a small clue to give out to our players as a notice of an upcoming event. This clue was converted from text to binary, and then implanted inside a picture using a text editor. The image became corrupted as a result. Basically, the players got a distorted image with little information about it. It took our team about 50 minutes to develop the message, the importance of the message to the overall plot and timeline, implant it, and email it out to the players. Thirty-two minutes after sending the email, it was already decoded and distributed to the players who hadn't originally received it. This is how fast ARGs run. (A fellow designer here at SCAD told me "The internet is smarter than you," something I think all ARG developers learn quickly.)

    This clue had a 64 percent efficiency. For 50 minutes of development, players got 32 minutes of play. ARGs, I theorize, have a very high efficiency of development to play time in comparison to standard AAA titles. This is the sort of information that we feel ARG developers are interested in, along with the pitfalls and problems that can arise.

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