My background in games and the current state of things
I have been a game player since my grandfather taught me to play chess at the age of 4. In my youth I played AD&D, Shadowrun and many other role playing games – usually at the DM. At my high school there were a bunch of us who played all types of games on a regular basis, we played many boardgames after school, had AD&D campaigns including one we ran at times over lunch in the cafeteria and were regulars at the local games shops.
In fact the father of one of my high school classmates was a professional game designer at the time for Mayfair Games where he lead the development of many classic board games, games such as Cosmic Encounters. A number of us, myself included, occasionally were drafted as gametesters for new board games.
At the local games shop, a massive, custom designed building built by a serious historical minatures gamer, we would spend hours many evenings and weekends playing a wide range of games, including historical minatures, roleplaying games and all types of boardgames.
I always assumed that I would stay playing games on a highly regular basis when I entered college but that didn’t happen, somehow I didn’t stay as active a game player, though I did play the occasional game of chess and lots of card games with friends.
In the 90’s I spent many years as literally a professional Magic the Gathering player and dealer, in one year I earned over $40,000 trading pieces of cardboard and won prizes valued into well over $5,000 in many tournements which I often won or placed very highly. Friends of mine were even better, winning at a global level and traveling around the world to play Magic the Gathering (and winning well over $10k from some tournements in the process). I quite my regular job at the time when I realized I could make far more money in a few hours than I would earn in days.
A bit later I also became active in a range of Live Action Role Playing games, mostly around White Wolf’s World of Darkness game. The game I played started in the mid-90’s in Chicago, grew rapidly to include nearly 100 games in cities all around the world all sharing a common set of rules and world and which allowed players to play their characters from one city at the games held in other cities. As a result players could and did interact across continents (friends of mine went to Brazil to play the game) and there were games happening multiple times every week near to Chicago.
It was great fun – immersive and engaging. While we did play in spaces we reserved just for ourselves (we would contribute to rent spacees from time to time) we also played in the midst of other events – often in nightclubs, once very memorably at the Chicago Museum of Modern Art when they stayed open for 24hrs to celebrate the Summer Solstice. Playing in the midst of 100’s or even 1000’s of people who were not playing the game added layers to the interactions and was extremely fun.
In the past few years Alternative Reality Games (ARGs) have become increasingly popular and successful, though with some notable caveats. Most, though not all, have been run as commercial promotions for a specific event or product – very often a movie or TV series. Currently the upcoming movie District 9 for example is running an ARG where you can play either a human or an alien in the world of the movie.
The model of ARG’s has become in some ways fairly formalized. They start with a series of clues usually embedded inside of something in mass release – billboards & posters, movie trailers, occasionally other forms of advertising. The clues in these ads, often a phone number or a web URL lead a player to signup to the ARG. From there a series of clues lead to other sites or phone numbers often with embeded small games or challenges.
Over time additional clues are released which further the ARG’s storyline. For most ARG’s the model has become a bit of a funnel, with fewer and fewer players continuing as the puzzles are released, usually these ARG’s lead up to a final end clue and often the players who figure it out in time arrive at an event or get a prize of some form (a sneak preview of a movie for example as well as other gifts & prizes). Then often the ARG comes to an end as the movie or TV show is released (or the season ends in the case of ARG’s such as Lost’s or Fringe’s where there were clues embedded inside of each episode).
These games are effective ways of engaging and building fans for a new media property but they have many unfortunate side effects of this model.
- They generally are less and less engaging for new players as they grow in complexity – sure most of the time players set up Wiki’s or other sites to explain what is known so far, but as the game goes on it becomes less compelling for new players – and once the final reward is given out it often is far less interesting to new players (and even existing players may cease engagement)
- While some ARGs have included a wide degree of player driven content & storytelling, for most there is a very heavyhand of the ARG designers at work in telling the story and though players can visit many parts & sites in any order they want there tends to be a very linear path of the story being told by the nature of new clues being released on a specific timetable.
- A few ARGs have had occasional “real world” events but the global distribution of most media for the most part means that most ARGs now primarily employ mass media & the Internet for the game play (also often voicemail/800 numbers for some parts and frequently SMS messages to players).
A few weeks ago a variation of a type of game which has been popular for a few years inside of social networks such as Facebook was released on top of Twitter – Spymaster – these games build upon usually preexisting social elements and relationships to form part of the game play. In the case of Spymaster your twitter followers become the size of your “spy ring” and you gain game play advantages by having more of your followers also playing Spymaster (they become “spymasters” in your “spy ring” and give you game bonuses).
Add in the fact that social tools such as Twitter (or Facebook) have many ways for you to communicate with people – and the games take advantage of these tools to send out messages about your game play activity to your social network (with your permission) and not surprisingly these games can and do often experience rapid, exponential growth as large networks of friends all start playing.
However while fun games such as SpyMaster or the multiple Mafia based games on Facebook (and in those cases now also with iPhone apps) suffer from (but also benefit from) a fairly simple game play and room for interactions between players. They offer only relatively limited sets of actions, have constraints on what you can do in a given period of time, and allow for only a handful of direct in game ways to interact with other players. Though often players evolve ways alongside of the formal game play elements to interact. In the case of SpyMaster many players have set up Twitter accounts only focused on playing Spymaster and have builtup networks of followers with whom they coordinate in game actions and for strong in game cliques.
I play Spymaster and enjoy it, though it is a relatively lightweight game, so I only play for a few minutes most days, if that. They haven’t yet settled on a business model, but it should be noted that some of the Mafia games on Facebook are already part of game companies rumored to be rapidly approaching over $100M/year in revenues, primarily through the same of virtual currencies to game players to use to enhance their game experiences.
A few players of SpyMaster are starting to expand the game via sites such as SpyMasterFans. There they are forming groups, sharing ideas & insights into the game, challenging each other to new interactions etc.
You may have noted that in my recounting of my own game playing background, I have not mentioned a lot of computer gaming. In the early 1990’s I ran a Muck (think an all text based version of Second Life) but I never got into computer gaming very much. So I haven’t played, though I do follow, the rise of social computer games. At present there are two very important models of social computer games.
- Massively Multiplayer Online Games (mmog’s) most famously World of Warcraft (or WOW) but also dozens of other games from companies around the world. There are three primary models of MMOG’s – subscription (usually with regular expansion packs as well) – this is WOW’s model and is the most common, free to play but game and expansions needed (Guild Wars is one of the few that use this model) and the newest model free to play including the software but virtual goods & items available for purchase (Sony’s Free Realms uses this model though subscriptions are available with additional benefits).
- Server based games. Increasingly console games as well as many PC games have multiplayer options and game companies are now often offering services that both run server instances and help players find other players to play against. Microsoft’s Xbox live for the XBox 360 and Valve’s Steam service for PC games are two examples of these game services. Often a fee is required for membership (for XBox live) and in most cases the games have to be purchased to play them.
There are many further nuances to computer and console games. For this post the most crucial of which is the number of players they are designed to facilate interactions amongst and the length of that interactions. Console games often are limited to a relatively small number of players competing against each other (4 vs 4) which can be over the Internet or over a local area network. MMOG’s differ in how many players they handle interactions amonst – many have multiple “servers” which are different instances of the world and which may have slightly different game rules, meaning that in most cases players on one server do not interact with players on another so they are limited to the number of players who choose to play on a given server. Some games are designed to encourage cooperative play where players cooperate together to achieve game goals (WOW has quests that can involve 40 or more players from a single Guild working together). Many games also have elements of player vs player interactions where players fight directly against other players – depending on the game this could occur anywhere in the game world (on a given PvP server) or in many games may be limited to a specific area of the game.
Some ideas for the future – open ended, multi-sponsor ARGs of a new form
While I know that computer and console games have many incredible aspects offering amazing graphics and game play capabilities they also have in-built limitations. Even with voicechat which is increasingly an important part of the player to player interactions in many games playing such games is limited to players who have the required equipment and financial resources to buy the necessary games & game subscriptions.
So here are a few ideas I have for where social games could go in addition the ongoing evolution of computer & console games.
Instead of an ARG which is sponsored by a single media property – and which is thus usually tied to the world of that particular movie or tv show (or less often an artist such as NIN) I would suggest a game with the following models & business elements.
- A combination of lightweight, easy to adopt technologies AND frequent, multi-city live interactions & events. Neither element would be necessary to enjoy the other but if you used both your game play enjoyment would be enhanced.
- The technologies could leverage and be built upon existing social tools such as Facebook or Twitter but would likely have a website and perhaps mobile applications as well
- Much of the world and game interactions would be driven by the players with a light touch of the people designing and running the game – they would mostly design the world & backstory and would occasionally facilitate in game activities and elements, but the game would be designed for the players themselves to evolve the plots & ongoing stories.
- In place of a single sponsor driving the event to a particular end point the game would have sponsors that come and go and which interact with the game in a variety of ways – I could see some sponsors embedding story from the game into their media (tv shows perhaps even movies) while others would provide real items and help support game related events in the “real” world (as well as having in game repurcussions). These interactions could at times be lightweight – having characters from the game (probably mostly actual player’s creations) who appear in the background of a movie – say as items in a newspaper story – this would I think be a lot of fun for players – and great marketing for those movies or tv shows.
- The game would be designed to allow for new players to join at any time and for players to play at a wide range of play cycles – some playing daily while others playing only a few times a month or taking a summer off and resuming months later. This takes careful game design to balance and to give everyone a lot to do without the game becoming boring for anyone – but it suggests that for the most part these games would only have light elements of “levels” or the like but heavy elements of role playing and interaction. Though there could also be puzzles and cooperative quests so players uncomfortable with heavy roleplaying could ease into participating in the game as well and be rewarded for that interaction.
- The business model could include clues & game elements embedded in physical items (t-shirts, trading cards, books, comic, digital downloads of many forms etc) which is a model that other similar in some ways games have already used quite successfully. Some of these products could be from sponsors who not only embed game elements in something they sell but also support the game finacially & through promotional efforts.
So that is the basic ideas – I haven’t yet designed an entire game example just started thinking about this, if it sounds like fun (or if you know of examples I should take a look at) please leave comments or contact me privately.