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

    [04.22.08]
    - Jeff McNab

  •  What Went Wrong
    1. Needle in a haystack. Making an ARG is like hiding a needle in a haystack. Players are faced with all this information that they have to sort through in order to find one nugget of information that can be used to progress the story along or solve the puzzles. Designing the needle was the easy part. Making hay takes longer. Our team got stuck making hay during the beginning of development: making web sites, figuring out server tech, developing characters' personalities, and so on.

    We decided that we could release the game because of the flexibility of our design. We thought that while players were sorting through the content, we could continue to develop the next phase. The problem is that the players worked much faster than we had originally expected. We had hoped that the players would take about a month to find our clues; they discovered them in three days. We made hay, and they had torches.

    This has caused all sorts of problems. We released the game a week before final exams and had planned on being able to focus on other classes while the players were searching. Instead, we had to have two meetings during the last week to try and figure out tactics for delaying our players. This lead to future issues, since most of our team went home for the break after finals and game development all but stopped. Hay wasn't being made, but players were still burning through things.

    2. Level of response. Most designers would be happy if they had more people playing their game than they had anticipated. But when the number of players you have determines how quickly they progress through the game, it can cause problems. It's not that we don't want a lot of players involved in our ARG -- we just weren't expecting them. Project Loyola players moved so quickly through the ARG that they caught up to us in terms of content. We weren't ready to release content when they were ready for it.

    Another issue is geography. Originally, we had planned on the majority of our players being located in one geographic area, basically around Savannah. Since we have players from all over the world now, many of our real-world puzzles have had to be abandoned and replaced with ones that exist purely in virtual space. We are working to build new puzzles that will be non-geographically centered so as to break players away from their computers to play the game

    3. Play testing. For most game development projects, the developers have a chance to play test their game. They let various people play through the game or prototype, looking for problems or ways to make it more fun.

    In our situation, we wanted to keep the content of the game as secret as possible from our fellow classmates since ARGs are linear. Once information has been leaked, there is no way to hide it again. For example, as mentioned earlier, we accidentally left an image on a web site that wasn't supposed to be seen by the players, which caused us to call an emergency meeting. The image said, "Alex is Dead: Deal with that shit." It was meant to be a placeholder for a possible puzzle clue that we would figure out later. What's more, not everyone on the development team even knew that it was there. If we had been able to play test the game in a more traditional sense, this image would have been found and removed. As such, our team was forced to scramble to try and protect the ARG's story, rewriting some of our plot line to now incorporate that found image.

    4. Our first puzzle. One of the roles that ARGs players must take is that of puzzle solvers. Certain clues are left for players to find and decode in order to find the next clues and so on.

    One of our earliest puzzles involved a color bar and a complex code that applied to that bar. Unfortunately, the players weren't finding it and began focusing on the wrong things, such as the mysterious and accidental "Alex is Dead" image. To cope with the mixed up clues, we decided to introduce one of the characters who wasn't actually supposed to appear yet, "codemonkey327".

    Codemonkey327 is a mysterious character and not much is known about him. He drops clues and converses with players every once in a while in order to help move the plot along. He introduced himself with a cryptic message that referenced chess.

    Unfortunately, the players began to think that the code for the bar was related to chess moves. Eventually, we sent them a similar color bar found by Sophia on Alex's computer as a push in the right direction.

    The code for the color bars used specific RGB values from the image as numbers inside the code. However, we never tested the color bar's color values after it was saved as a PNG file. The Mac version of Photoshop did something to the color values, making the players' resulting code completely different from our own. We ultimately were forced to change what the code was used for (originally, it allowed the player to gain access to a users-only area of the Red Loyola web site).

    5. Progress after launch. Two weeks into launch, our team was feeling good about the game's progress. Players were taking the clues we had left and using them in a manner that was conducive to progression. Then, problems started to arise. Certain team members were no longer able to work on the project because of other responsibilities. Development slowed, but players were still moving through our content at the same rate.

    This has led to a bored player base. A bored player base equals no player base. It's one of the biggest flops of the project so far, in all honesty, but something that we feel we can fix due to our design method. Future phases will come into effect to allow our old players and new players to get back into the ARG.

    Alternate Game Design Education
    Project Loyola as a whole was definitely a learning experience for everyone on the development team. We definitely recommend developing an ARG to any academic group looking for a project to work on. The low-tech requirements merged with the massive multiplayer game mechanics and emergent gameplay make it an excellent genre for academic purposes.

    Project Loyola is still underway, not only in terms of gameplay, but also documentation. Upon completion of the project, the documentation will be given to the ARG community for future developers.

    Jeff McNab is the team lead on Project Loyola and was responsible for server technologies and systems design, along with various narrative elements.

    He and the team welcome questions from the student game development community via email ([email protected]); or visit the project blog.

    Project Loyola Team
    Jeff McNab, project lead
    Ashley Waldbaum, writer/graphic designer
    Fran Rodriguez, writer
    Stephen Lawrence, writer/graphic designer
    Greg Morgan, graphic designer
    Blake Harris, content developer
    Ryan Place, graphic designer
    Shannon Hegarty, graphic designer
    Susanna Harrison, writer
    Charles Elum, writer
    Brian Shurtleff, writer/content developer
    Gwen Murray, content developer

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