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A new year has begun and it is time for another 15 Questions interview.
Have you ever taken part as a player in one of the big American Alternate Reality Games? Then you will know his name already. Are you often online at the unforums? then you will know our interview-partner, too. It is Steve Peters, who also goes by the name of vpisteve on the unforums.
He was founder of ARGN and build up the first news and information hub for Alternate Realit Games in the US. Then he worked for 42 Entertainment and brought some really interesting ARGs to us like The Dark Knight, but we don’t want to spoil you any more at this part of the interview. Go on and read for your own…
Hmm, for that you have to go back to the wild days of slow dialup internet connections and this new thing called Flash that took forever to load! I was watching CNET on TV in 2001, when they mentioned this cool internet mystery having to do with the upcoming Steven Spielberg film AI: Artificial Intelligence (the game that became known as The Beast). They mentioned cloudmakers.org, and I had my laptop open, so I went to the website, started reading the player guide they had set up there, and was instantly fascinated! Spent that first night going through all the websites, really getting immersed in the world. It was all pretty new and amazing and awesome.
I followed the events, even was the first to solve a puzzle (which was very fun), but the game really hooked me in one day when I was just leaving my office headed to lunch. As I was getting in my car, my mobile phone rang. It was a character from the game! I instantly forgot about lunch, ran back into my office, fired up my computer and went to see what new things had updated in the game. It was then I knew that this was the future of entertainment!
2) Did you take part in some ARGs as a player, too? Which?
Absolutely! After initially playing The Beast, I played the first (mostly) grassroots games to follow: Lockjaw, Plexata, Search4E, and Majestic. In fact, I was a moderator for Lockjaw, along with Sean Stacey (Spacebass), and after the game was over, we together launched the first dedicated player forums at what was then my company site. After a month or so, I moved them to ARGN where they lived and grew for a while until Sean founded Unfiction. Little did we know at the time how things would grow in the subsequent years!
And then of course, there came I Love Bees. It’s kind of hard to ignore a game that begins by sending a jar of honey to your house! I Love Bees became a true phenomenon, and it was another of those special times when everything seemed to come together in a perfect way.
I think the last game I really played seriously was Art of the Heist. So much cool new stuff they did! I even got to stalk a character on the floor of the E3 show. Fun times.
Others I played to a lesser extent but still enjoyed were (in no particular order, and surely forgetting something) Perplex City, Sarah Connor Chronicles, World Without Oil, This is My Milwaukee, Regenesis, Exocog. I’ve collected lots of cool swag from a lot of these games too, over the years.
3) In which ARGs have you been Puppetmaster/BHTS and what was your job in those?
The first game I worked on was Metacortechs. The team that did Lockjaw approached Sean and me wanting us to join them in making another ARG, and I had a little inside info that the upcoming Matrix sequels weren’t going to be doing one, so we decided to do our own. That was in 2003. The trailhead site is even still there, pretty much as it was, at www.metacortechs.com. I never had the heart to take it down. We all shared designing/writing tasks in that game.
After that, I did some BTW work on Chasing the Wish, and then was hired by 42 Entertainment in 2005 as a designer/community lead. Over the next 3 years I did numerous great projects with them:
Last Call Poker: Designer (2005)
Dead Man’s Tale: Lead Designer (2006)
The Vanishing Point: Designer (2007)
HiveMind Corporation: Lead Designer (2007)
Year Zero: Designer, Community Architect (2007)
Why So Serious: Lead Designer (2008)
Project Abraham: Experience Design Director (2008)
Stop the International (Phase I): uncredited
4) Which ARG do you like best and why?
That’s a really tough, tough question, after so many during the years, but I’ve actually thought about that quite a bit. While I loved The Beast, and it was really the game that “started it all,” I really have to go with Lockjaw. Why? Well, I always compared the two games (The Beast/Lockjaw) with two kinds of cruise ships: The big Carnivale ships vs. the smaller more intimate sailing cruises. While The Beast was huge and amazing and majestic (pun!), I liked the intimacy ofLockjaw’s smaller player base. It was definitely less intimidating, and you got to know almost everybody! Lockjaw did a great job of re-capturing that magic, somehow, and had a very compelling, fun story that really drew you in. It’s weird, I really feel a very specific emotion when thinking back on those times. I guess that’s what I always hope players of my games will experience as well.
5) Which was the funniest/nicest happening while doing/playing an ARG?
Last Call Poker surprised us with the truly meaningful experiences players had while playing. As part of the game, we gave players the opportunity to go to any local cemetery to perform any one of numerous “missions” that could be played out anywhere. Things like finding a neglected grave to spruce up, looking for someone with your birthday, things like that. They got extra poker chips to play with if they did these things, heh.
What was cool were the truly touching emails we would get from players who sent stuff in describing the experiences they’d had. Folks would tell how they’d been particularly touched by something, or had gone with their parents or their children, which resulted in great moments for them. They came away appreciating their lives, their family, and even the lives of others who they didn’t know. It was really inspiring and humbling to read. That’s when we knew we had stumbled into a place where this game we did was actually, tangibly affecting peoples’ lives in positive ways.
6) Are there any memories to happenings that you wanted to forget about?
I guess the most unnerving moment came during Metacortechs. You see, there are dangers when you do a game revolving around computer hackers. Real computer hackers think it’s a great opportunity to show what they can do, heheh. We all had our personal computers being constantly probed by unknown people trying to sniff their way in. Ultimately, though, someone succeeded in using an exploit to get into the root of our server. A lot of our game was pretty much laid bare, and they really could’ve done whatever they wanted at that point. Luckily, we got everything shut down and finally patched, but man, it was a terrible day!
7) How do you explain ARGs to your family / friends / relatives and how do they react?
Well, I usually just say “I, um, do Alternate Reality Games. They’re kind of hard to explain, so just look them up on Wikipedia!” OK, seriously……I build cool entertainment experiences that are broken up into puzzle pieces and spread all over the world on the internet, phones, emails, real locations, etc. Your life is the platform. Have you ever seen the film The Game, or Amélie? Sort of like that, except real. Oh, and I usually mention the Joker and cakes somewhere along the way.
Their usual reaction is stunned silence, but every once in a while someone responds, “Oh….sort of like I Love Bees?”
8) Which 3 things does an ARG really need to have, to be a good ARG in your opinion?
1: A great story
2: A great story
3: No mimes
9) Do you have a favourite character from an ARG?
Can I say the Joker? Is that cheating? Well really, he was just about the perfect character for an ARG. He had total freedom to really do whatever he wanted, on either side of the 4th wall. And despite being an anarchist/murderer/psychopath, you liked him and even rooted for him. You actually wanted to be one of his henchmen, and make him happy, to do what he said. Plus you didn’t even really care if he played mind games with you or betrayed you. He could get away with anything. It’s amazing. Plus, I hear he’s a really good bowler.
10) What are you currently working on? (if you may tell us/are allowed to tell us )
Well, the big difference for me now is that I’m no longer with 42, but I’m now doing a few freelance projects for various developers. Probably all I can say is that they’re for stuff like upcoming films, TV show, etc. In addition, I’m starting up a shop (No Mimes Media) to do my own stuff, so we’ll see where that goes.
11) Which puzzle from past ARGs do you like best/was real fun? Can you tell us why?
I really liked the meta puzzle we did for The Vanishing Point. This was a large puzzle trail that lived outside the actual sweepstakes game itself, where players had to solve and put together clues over a 4-week period of time in order to discover the identity of Loki, the fictional puzzle master behind the Vanishing Point game. Loki was a fake employee at Microsoft, and she even had her own office, email and voicemail accounts there. Players had to track her down, watch videos for subtle clues, solve very tough puzzles that she had hidden for them to find. There was even a physical puzzle built into her office at Microsoft for those who found it. In the end, players realized that Loki was actually four identical quadruplets, which explained why she was such an over-achiever!
It was fun, because she was really challenging the puzzle elite, throwing down a gauntlet of sometimes really tough puzzles, and we didn’t have to worry about the classic “why would this character put a puzzle here” dilemma. The puzzles were fun, I think, and ultimately the person who solved it had their name immortalized on an AMD chip that was used in an entire production run. The best part, she included the names of the two online communities who helped her:Neowin and Unfiction.
12) Do you have something like a “phrase”/”objective” which you follow while organizing and running an ARG?
I have a few:
- “Is it fun?” Anybody can make a tough puzzle, or a clever experience. But the thing to keep asking yourself every day is, “Is this fun for the player?” If it’s not, fix it or throw it out.
- “Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.” Self-explanatory.
- “Players can’t break things, only design can make things that are broken.” In other words, don’t blame the players for doing something you didn’t anticipate, or being dumb, or “playing it wrong.” If something’s broken, it’s because you didn’t take something into account, so step back, take a breath and figure out a way to fix it.
- “See how it plays out before you react.” Don’t make knee-jerk decisions when your game is live. Give things a little time. Players are still having fun, can’t see the bedlam going on behind the scenes, and 9 times out of 10 the problem will fix itself.
- “Jazz, not chess.” Remember, your not in competition with your players, you’re more like playing Dueling Banjos with them. Together you are shaping the experience, and it just may go in a different direction than either of you anticipate.
13) Do you remember a situation, in which you wanted to give up anything? What happened?
Do you mean like give up a hint to something that wasn’t being solved. Or just give away a secret? In either case, no. I just don’t understand all these people who assume that we have shills on community forums posting hints or something. That just makes absolutely no sense to me. If I were to hand out an answer to someone, I’m essentially robbing somebody else of the thrill of solving it themselves.
It’d be like working really hard to throw someone a surprise birthday party, getting everybody there, the place decorated and all the work that went into it, and then as you lead the person to their apartment door you tell them “Hey! I’m throwing you a surprise party on the other side of this door!” I mean, why’d you go to all that work just to ruin the surprise for them??
This goes back to my point above about not reacting too quickly. Give players time, they’ll usually work it out. If, however, what you’ve built is broken, that’ll become apparent too. Then, just work on a way to fix it within the context of the experience. There’s always a way to do that, somehow. At least, so far.
14) Was there something like a favourite item from an ARG that you didn’t want to give away, but you had to, because the IG-Character had to?
Bowling balls. Cool, purple and green swirly bowling balls. I surprisingly got very attached to them. I ended up buying one for myself, which is good because they don’t make them any more.
15) How do you see the future of ARGs?
I’m always thinking about this, and the biggest problem is, I can’t ever give specifics because not only don’t I know, but I wouldn’t want to give anything away even if I did!
I still look at where ARGs are today as like being at Kitty Hawk, watching the Wright Brothers launch the first flight. Or more accurately, like early film or TV as the genre struggled to find its most effective narrative form. I mean, it took quite a while before what we consider normal editing or a three-camera shoot to become what it is today. People had to experiment; the technology was changing really quickly.
It’s the same with ARGs today. What worked even 6 months ago just might not work now. It’s still changing and growing and morphing. But one thing I know for sure: What we see now are the beginnings of The Future Of Entertainment. I’m not talking about TV shows being put on line. I mean a form of entertainment that you can experience from every direction in your life, truly platformless, that you can touch and immerse yourself in like never before. And you’ll be able to take part by yourself, or with friends, and even re-experience it if you want!
But it’s tough to see the specifics of what may come, just as the Wright Brothers could never conceive of carbon fiber wings, on-board WIFI and free drinks.
OK, I’ll give up one specific: Whatever it is, it will involve networked appliances and clues burned onto toast!
Steve, thank’s a lot for taking the time to answer our 15 questions. We hope to see a lot more great ARGs designed by you in the future.