How to improve on ARGs

To the people behind the ARG: Please don’t take the following in the wrong way. I think you did a very very good job – the amount of effort that went in to this must have been incredible and I really do appreciate it.

Over the last week (or thereabouts) I have been participating in the Ubuntu-Advertising team’s ARG – http://www.thisisthecountdown.com

On the whole, the game was entertaining, puzzles were interesting and there seemed to be a good storyline. There seemed to be a relatively constant flow of puzzles to work on and progress was driven by the players (who were definitely fun to work with)

Sadly, there have been a few aspects of the game which have made it hard to enjoy properly. For the last few days,  puzzles have lead to information, but were a dead end. We got the information which drove the storyline slightly – but no new obvious clues. This leads to people generating more and more fantastic ideas about what the information we found actually means, whether a typo in a file is a clue or a typo, whether an overlay on a video is an anagram, a code, or just the name of the camera the video was supposedly taken on. And given long enough without any new information and once the obvious things to speculate about haven’t turned up anything people start ‘seeing’ clues in the tiniest of details, which don’t actually lead anywhere. Instead, we are all waiting for the person running the game to flip another switch on the server to give us the next puzzle and the wait for a new puzzle is both jarring and frustrating. Which brings me to the next issue with the game.

Timezones. All of the puzzles in the game seem to have been released after 11PM UK time (after midnight in most of Europe). This means that people in Europe need to either stay up until 5am to help contribute to problems being solved (as I did on saturday night/sunday morning), or go to sleep to be able to function at work the next day and wake up to find the puzzle has been solved and you didn’t get a chance to contribute. This game seems to be targeted almost exclusively at players in the US, which is a little unfair given the global nature of the Ubuntu community. The preferable solution would be a constant stream of puzzles, where each new discovery gave a clue to the next  (which would eliminate both the timezone issue and the problem of looking for clues where there are none). Another possible solution, if waiting for the GM to flip a switch is unavoidable, is to have the new content released evenly across 3 time periods; 6-8pm in each of the US, Asia and Europe. It may not be possible for one person to work on all of the puzzles if they are released like this, but then at least that way everyone will have a chance at getting the first shot at part of the storyline.

One of the characters in the game particularly annoyed me: The security guard which was presented as the ‘face’ of WSASec. Up until that point, WSASec had been (quite effectively) portrayed as an intelligent and slightly menacing organisation. When Pinwake changed to WSASec in IRC I was expecting something quite special, an adversary. Instead, we got a bumbling security guard who didn’t know anything about computers and was more interested in arguing about who is the best with computers, us or his computer scientist friend, rather than advancing the storyline. This original interaction took place around 8pm UK time. To make matters worse he then left, saying he’ll be back when his shift finished at 10pm Ohio time. Yup, thats right, 3am UK time. At which point a new puzzle was released. Why couldn’t the 3am conversation have happened at 8pm? As far as I can tell, the 7 hour gap didn’t really add anything, just left people twiddling their thumbs for that much longer. All the security guard really did was to hide the main countdown for a few hours by “breaking” the computer, but there wasn’t any change in how long it took.

Which brings me to the next issue. Countdowns. There are two problems with countdowns in ARGs. One is when the players can’t really do anything to change it. They could be super clever and solve all of the puzzles really quickly, and then get left doing nothing while the countdown finishes. If the countdown is an integral part of the storyline, players should be able to have an impact on it. If we do well, it should speed up / end early so we actually feel like we made a difference, rather than just being distant spectators. I realise that companies use ARGs to launch their products, and they like to know when they will be launching them, but I believe that if a company chooses to use this route for marketing, they should be willing to incorporate some uncertainty about the release date to make the game that much more engaging. The Valve ARG for Portal 2 was the same. Yes, Portal 2 was released early (about 10 hours early) – right in the middle of a planned party, complete with big shiny red button to launch the game. The players never really had any impact, it was always going to be released then, and the realisation that your actions, no matter how hard you worked, never _changed_ anything is quite deflationary.

The other problem with countdowns is when they don’t have anything exciting at the end. One of the most annoying things possible is to be sat there waiting for a countdown to end, after you’ve had days of excitement building up to it to see….another countdown.  It starts to get like Sony’s announcements that they will be posting an announcement about posting an announcement about holding a press conference about the PSVita – each time you get to the end of a period of waiting like that to just get presented with another countdown sucks that much more interest out of the game.

The above is probably more ranty than it should be and casts more of a negative light on the ARG than perhaps it should. The puzzles (when I’ve managed to work on them) have been interesting, challenging and rewarding, and I really do thank the people who have put the time and effort in to designing/writing and running this game, you have done a very very good job. Which is what makes the above points all the more frustrating – they are all that stands between “very very good” and “absolutely mind-blowingly amazing”.

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