We met Sean Stewart of Fourth Wall Studios over a lunch. We ended up trading stories in a horrible-slash-deliciously-authentic “Irish” diner. Confidential and open discussions with experienced designers are extremely valuable for game researchers: the 30 minutes in phone with Tom Söderlund (of BotFighters) back in 2004 had possibly the best benefit/second ratio of my pervasive game research career.
I can pass on a few insights Sean shared with us without breaking our virtual NDA.
Locks without keys are a big problem in ARG design. Back in The Beast their graphic artist decided to decorate a page with a theme-fitting random string of zeros and ones. The players interpreted this as a puzzle to be solved, spending countless hours and numerous techniques to crack the lock without a key. In the end the puppetmasters had to come up with a puzzle based on that string, as there was no other way of getting the players out of their obsession with the numbers. It’s extremely difficult to totally avoid these false dead ends.
Source code puzzles are problematic. Back in The Beast they did a lot of cool tricks in source codes, DNS registries, hidden bits of info et cetera, just because they could. Now those tricks have somehow become an established standard in the ARG design: Things you have to do, not necessarily because they contribute to the play experience, but because you will run into trouble if you don’t cover your ass from all sides. And if you do something that resembles an ARG but is not (imagine a new Blair Witch Project), the people looking for the rabbit holes may very well start poking around registries and calling random phone numbers just to find content from places where none exists. It is also tedious to go through video clips frame-by-frame, whether or not there is hidden content to be found.
In the beginning, This Is Not a Game was not about creating an illusion of perceived realness for the players. It was more about story: The Beast had to have a story, characters and actors on the level of a good movie, which is much deeper than video games typically have. Only later it came to mean what it does today.
All in all, Fourth Wall Studios is moving strategically away from many traditional ARG aesthetics and making many painful but necessary tradeoffs. Instead of a massive hive mind community, they go for a guaranteed personal experience for latecomers. Instead of seamlessness and TING-illusion, they go for clear framing of the experience and then proceed towards a illusionary realness.