Readers of this column may remember a previous interview with Sean Stewart, who was one of the puppetmasters behind the Alternative Reality Game (ARG) The Beast (“Collective Detective,” Sept. 30, 2004). An example of pull marketing, this innovative, puzzle-based narrative based in the world of Spielberg’s A.I. succeeded in gaining an intense following, independent of the movie it was commissioned for. When I saw mentions on Slashdot and in blogs about I Love Bees (a similar campaign for Halo 2) I suspected Sean might be involved — it had his trademark characterization and subtlety. Sure enough, he later mentioned in an email that he was going to the Game Developers’ Conference (GDC) because I Love Bees was getting an award — which, he said, was explained to him as “kind of like the Academy giving an Oscar for a skywriting demonstration.” I Love Bees was a real-time game that, if anything, relied on the computer even less than The Beast, requiring players to collaborate with other people in their area and involving people singing songs into pay phones. I met up with Sean and Elan Lee of 42 Entertainment at the GDC to talk about what made their game different from everything else that got awards the night before.
SEAN: Even a really good videogame is TV as a game — it’s a 1950s platform taken to the furthest degree. ARGs are a 2000 platform that we’re just now starting to build. ARGs are the sound of the 21st century. They sound like what today feels like. You’re sitting here with a mini-tape recorder in one hand and a Palm Pilot in the other… you’re talking to us after setting this up via email yesterday… that’s life. And the key thing about an ARG is the way it jumps off all those platforms. It comes at you across all the different ways that you connect to the world.
ELAN: The electronic sphere is what we’ve dubbed it.
JIM: But the telephone, which Bees uses, isn’t a new form of communication…
ELAN: Well, I think for any new platform there’s a gestation period. It needs to be accepted, it needs to be modified and it needs to find a tone. Once the technology adapts itself to what the community wants it to be, then it becomes ripe for a gaming platform. It’s pretty much only at that point that we can figure out how people are going to be comfortable interacting with the technology or the communication method and hijack it for our own purposes.
SEAN: There’s something very beautiful about playing it on pay phones, on a technology that’s going to be obsolete in two years. I was talking once to [42 Entertainment’s Chief Creative Executive] Jordan Weisman and he said, “Did you know that videogame sales have been down in Japan for the first time in history?” And I said, “Ahh, I wonder why that is.” And he said, “They’re being out-competed by another entertainment platform: cellphones. Japanese teenagers have found cellphones and the truth is, no game is as interesting as another teenager.”
ELAN: And that’s part of the reason that ARGs are a hit, because they are intensely social.
JIM: Also because they have human brains behind them rather than just a game engine. Maybe perfecting artificial intelligence in game opponents isn’t so important if you can have real people in those roles. Right now, you have massive multi-player games with puppet-masters behind them pulling the strings and rolling with the punches and coming up with new twists on the fly. Do you think at some point it’ll move on to other players exclusively creating the content?
ELAN: Yeah, there’s a famous quote that Jordan says all the time: the very few cannot entertain the very many for very long, which I think is very indicative of where this has to go. Like Sean was saying, the most entertaining thing to [one] 16-year-old is another 16-year-old. I think that sort of thing applies to most audiences. The most interesting thing to a horde is another horde.
JIM: The difficulty I see in that kind of thing is the question of authority. People are used to having the puppet-masters, so if it’s player-created, people might feel, “Oh, this sounds like this was created by someone my age, I don’t like it as much or take it as seriously.” On the other hand, you have something like punk rock, where 16-year-old kids play to 16-year-old kids and that’s legitimate.
ELAN: You can pull off player-created content as long you’re very clear with the audience; if you set their expectations accordingly. If you can communicate that the reward for solving or beating content created by another player is going to be rewarded at one level, but the reward for solving something by a puppet-master is going to change the game more significantly. If it’s clear what’s at stake, then you’ve got a very interesting world.
You can read the transcript of the whole interview here.