Posted by: Waern | March 27, 2009

Chain Factor at GDC

There were several pervasive games presented at GDC. I particularly enjoyed Frank Lantz from area/code, who presented the game Chain Factor, a promotional game tied to the TV series Numb3rs. As his presentation has been covered in great detail in several other blogs (check out Gamasutra in particular) I will just focus on the pervasive aspects of this game.

For area/code, Chain Factor was their first “ARG”. Frank and his students have previously done several ‘big games’, pervasive games that use the city grid as their game board. So when they were approached by CBS with the proposal that they would do an ARG, they started to review the genre and pick and choose what they liked and did not like about it. The major ARG trace that they wanted to get rid of was ambiguity – it should be very clear when you played the game. They also wanted to cator both for casual and hard-core players, and avoid the information overflow that an ARG newcomer faces when entering the game late in its cycle.

The result was a pervasive game with an online hub, where the core gameplay consisted of a rather simple puzzle game. There was also a way to enter something similar to ‘cheat codes’, each of which gave access to a set of powerups that made the puzzle game easier to solve. These cheat codes could be found through lots of clues which were spread in the real world; primarily in online, billboard and news paper ads but also in the actual TV show.

There was a story in the game too, which surfaced in a manner that is very similar to the traditional style of ARGs: when a player had solved a puzzle he or she would occasionally get a strange error message. These messages (that became increasingly more common as the game progressed) told a story that unfolded during the course of a couple of months.

This game structure cators for two types of players: causal players that just like puzzle solving (just as they like filling in Sudoku in the news paper) and the more espionage-oriented players who would seek out the hidden clues in the world and on TV. This is a much more interesting model for tiered participation than what ARGs normally offer, with a hard core group that solves almost all of the game and a large group of active spectators. Here, both groups actively contribute to solving the overall puzzle and uncovering the story, but they do so based on their preferred playstyles.

It was particularly interesting to note that this game again moves away from the obscure interaction model that ARGs typically use, in favor of a very clear and narrow interaction structure. To advance in the game you solve puzzles and enter cheat codes, that’s it. But since the actual clues are spread in the real world, the part of the game that consists of finding and dechiphering clues still offers infinite affordances. This means that both Akoha and Chain Factor are moving in the same way – away from the open but obscure interaction structures of the ARG genre, into more well defined game structures that rely on mixing online and real-world activity.

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