Understanding Your Audience
The following essay on audience was written as part of the 2006 Whitepaper published by the International Game Developers Association Alternate Reality Gaming Special Interest Group (IGDA ARG SIG) and presented at PICNIC ’06, the cross-media conference held in Amsterdam every September.
In any game design, the audience needs to be carefully considered. Whether the goal is to appeal to a mass audience or targeted set of users, players need to be allowed to participate in the experience at a level they find comfortable. This is a challenge for alternate reality games which tend to have a loose structure that blends real and game world elements through a variety of media. Collaborative community play, various levels of engagement, and player roles all combine to engage players.
Alternate reality games can be complex, and are often lengthy experiences, played over a number of weeks. Additionally, most promote a collaborative game play system which encourages communities to form. With online communication being what it is, there are a number of resources that players have created utilized in the past that are seen, in some form, in the majority of games.
Unfiction & ARGN
There are several websites that focus on alternate reality gaming, but there are two that stand out: unfiction (http://www.unfiction.com) and ARGN (http://www.argn.com).
ARGN serves as a news portal informing readers of new games, reporting on major game or genre events, and interviewing various game designers. For players, press, and academics looking for a brief overview of the current events, this is the place to go.
Unfiction is home to the largest forums devoted to alternate reality games. Many forum regulars are genre enthusiasts who have participated in a number of games and, because of this, they are very adept at organizing themselves and creating resources shortly after games are discovered. This can be rather intimidating at first, because they are so quick to work through the process of discovery. However, their experience also allows them to support a strong player community, one that can quickly help newcomers become involved and engaged in the game world by explaining the game concepts and answering their questions. With sections devoted to specific games and active, experienced moderators, the forums tend to remain focused and on topic even with the busiest of games.
Forums or message boards are central pillars of player community. It is on the forums that players meet other players, discuss the game and story play, and create or promote other player created resources. Forums may exist as a part of the game world or completely separate from it, they may or may not be officially sanctioned, and they may be created solely for the game or created as an extension within a larger community. The various types of forums all have their advantages and disadvantages that, when developing or analyzing a game, should be considered.
A number of games include forums within the game environment. Notable examples of this from the past year would include ReGenesis and Who Is Benjamin Stove. Both games provided players with forums on a website that had a primary focus of uncovering the story and exploring the mystery. The forums, while under the control of the game designers, are officiated by a character. Therefore, it is not unusual for players to interact with characters on in-game forums. While a number of players thrive on this level of interaction, it does create several issues. Not only does it increase the work load on the development team by requiring online actors to interact with the players, but it also requires that they maintain the forums. Additionally, it can make it difficult to maintain the players’ suspension of disbelief when players want or need to discuss higher level issues such as story speculation and game mechanics.
Forums outside of the game environment are typically player created and maintained. They appear on websites which focus on alternate reality game play, on websites created by fans specifically for the game, or as a part of other pre-existing community websites which may focus on subject matter or intellectual property found within the game (conspiracy websites, existing fan forums, etc). Discussions on these forums tend to be more open as players feel comfortable discussing higher level game and story topics without fear that it may affect relationships with game characters. However, because these online forums are not a part of the game environment, they may be playing at different speeds and levels of understanding.
While online chat is typically engaged in by only the most active and devoted players, it has been used effectively both within and outside of the game environment to the benefit of the community. Chat may occur one-on-one between a player and character, but due to logistics and the desire to disseminate the information to as many people as possible, when a character is involved, it tends to be an open group chat. While these chats may occur in traditional chat environments such as Internet Relay Chat (IRC) or other chat rooms, innovative contexts such as the online poker rooms in Last Call Poker have been utilized. However, chat is not reserved solely for player-character interaction. A number of players enjoy chatting about the game with other players, especially when there is a time sensitive mission that requires collaboration between players.
Players at unfiction, for example, congregate on a number of game specific IRC channels as well as a general unfiction channel that is utilized primarily for non-game discussion. The website includes a browser based applet to make the somewhat intimidating IRC platform approachable by players new to the environment. While the numbers in chat are a small proportion of all players, reaching in the hundreds only on the busiest days of the biggest games, those in chat often drive the discovery process and then report their findings on the forums or other player created resources.
Wikis & Other player guides
One of the most important resources is what players refer to as a “guide.” The guide serves as the alternate reality game version of a player manual or walk-thru. While this may not seem essential to the aspect of community play, they provide a catalogue of information that not only helps players catch up to the others playing the game, but provides details for players to discuss. Additionally, they provide another outlet for collaboration, as those maintaining the resources solicit the help from others in order to keep it current. While some guides are maintained by a single person on a static website, players have been exploring the use of blogs and wikis in this process.
Blogs are websites which present information in reverse chronological order. This makes them ideal for players wishing to provide other players with a linear walk-thru of the discovery process. Additionally, unlike static websites, they have built-in search functions and the ability to set up a small number of authors who can easily update the website.
Wikis are websites which allow users to add and edit content collectively through their web browser. Unlike forums and message boards, which require users to create and reply in linear threaded discussion, wikis are similar to a traditional website where pages stand alone and may be linked to any number of other pages. This allows them to serve as a searchable reference for the game.
Another form of a guide is a “Story So Far” which may be created by the players but typically exists in the game environment and is maintained by a single character. This is a brief and, often, linear discussion of what has occurred in the game from a character’s perspective. This provides players, both new and familiar, with a quick place to learn the basics of the story in order to dig deeper into the experience.
A well established guide is not only beneficial to the player community, but also to the development team. The guide provides a quick resource for the team to ascertain what information players have discovered, as well as their basic interpretation of that information. Because games are played in real time, tracking the focus of the players can assure that the game remains on course.
Levels of Engagement
With the open nature of alternate reality games, engagement levels can span from a casual internet browser that happened upon a game site, to a hardcore player that puts 60 hours a week into their game play. Designing a game with such a wide range of engagement is difficult. Looking at levels of engagement and how to support that engagement allows for an easier design process and, potentially, a better understanding of the potential player figures as they relate to registrations versus unique IP addresses versus community participation.
The devotees, often called “hardcore players,” are a very small but very vocal subset of the user base. They may be a minority of the actual player base, but you would never know that by looking at the player communities where they make up the bulk of the communication. As strong collaborators, they are very willing to share their opinions, discoveries, and theories. And, because of this, they take an active, though often accidental, role in community development, both by creating player resources and encouraging active discussion. Because of the time that they devote to playing the game, creating content, and participating with a game community, they often develop a passionate bond to the game experience. As they tend to lead the game play by discovering and reporting new facts or speculating on the details, they may overwhelm under-prepared developers.
Active players are dedicated to the game experience and enjoy interacting with the game world, but they do so at their own pace. Because of the diversity of player interests, be it puzzles or story or community, active players may participate in a variety of ways. Some may explore the game world on a regular basis and make use of player-created resource, but communicate only minimally with other players. Others may focus more of their attention on sharing information and ideas with the greater player community. Wherever they may fall on that spectrum, these players will make up the core of the audience.
Casual players explore the websites and player resources, but they tend to shy away from two-way interaction. In other words, they’ll read player forums for the latest information, but they won’t contribute their theories or information. They are also less likely to provide contact information or register, if registration is required. This is not to say that they are not committed to the game, because they are, but to a lesser degree. They want to know the story or solve some of the puzzles, but they may not have the time or desire to commit to a more active level of play. They make up a large percentage of the player base. Unfortunately, many games do not provide opportunities for these players forcing them, instead, to rely on player created guides.
Curious Browsers & Information Seekers
Browsers and information seekers make up the majority in any game experience. While most players start at this stage, the bulk will not actively participate and never had the intention to do so. They have heard about the game and are just curious to learn more. They may check in several times throughout the game run, but the story details, game play, or puzzles are often lost to them. However, they are likely to tell others about the game, either because they are writing an article on it, or they want to be “in the know” with their friends, associates, blog readers, etc. Engaging them on some level will provide them with the information that they need in order to do so with a certain amount excitement.
Along with levels of engagement, players often take on roles that mirror their game play style. Some roles require little to no interaction with the actual game, but provide the player with a strong feeling of participation. Roles such as Community Support or Puzzle Solver may overlap and, while some will self identify with such roles, many will not. However, awareness of the roles that occur within player communities allows designers to encourage community development and allow others a greater understanding of the community dynamics. As the strength of the game community is often used as a visible measure of the game’s success, having a strong game community (or communities) can be important both in earning additional press and gathering more players.
Character interactors are intrigued by the possibilities of interacting with the characters from the story world. They enjoy sending email, making phone calls, and even participating in live game play events. Taking part in the performance nature of the alternate reality experience is highly motivating for character interactors. While it may seem as though personalized communication through the media is essential for the character interactors to become engaged with the story world, this is not necessarily the case. Simply including their interactions (either individually or as a group) in the story world often satisfies their seemingly insatiable appetite.
Community supporters tend to be of two types: extremely casual players that have only the slightest grasp of the game and are playing more for the friendships formed, or highly attentive players that are so involved that they become instrumental to the community. These players may also take on roles such as a chat room or forum moderator, and they tend to try to bring new players and lurkers into the community through fun and welcoming discussion.
Information specialists are essential to a large popular campaign, as they catalogue all of the various information presented in the game world. While a few may take such efforts to an extreme by creating or maintaining well designed guide or wiki, the majority of information specialists store the information locally and/or create smaller, yet vital, websites. By providing the information either on the forums or by request, they are essential in helping casual players follow along with the game developments. This aids new players by getting them up to speed quickly which often helps them to become engaged with the game experience.
Puzzle solvers enjoy the mental exercises provided by the mystery. While they come in all shapes and sizes, they tend to be rather analytical, and drawn to the more analytical characters and story elements. Many puzzle solvers will only follow the story enough to be able to work through the puzzles, and some may not visit the related websites unless it has a puzzle that has been brought to their attention. With the more difficult puzzles, their participation is often required. And, because of the difficult puzzles, puzzle solvers will often congregate and build on the work of others. With proper placement of puzzles in a variety of topics and skill levels, puzzle solvers can be drawn into the story. If engaged, may become strong story specialists, as the ultimate puzzle is figuring out where the story is going.
Readers are, by far, the majority of participants. They browse the various websites, both in-game and out-of-game, following up on the story narrative and reading what other players are doing and saying. To best engage the readers, the narrative must be strong, and participation in some of the more interactive components should not be mandatory. Readers are essential in marketing the game offline where they may be more willing to point friends, family, and co-workers to the “interesting website”. This is possibly because they are not so involved (and possibly embarrassed by that involvement) to be unwilling to point others to it. While many readers may peruse out-of-game community sites, a welcoming community with easily accessible information may increase the likelihood of readers turning into more active online participants.
Story hackers, like character interactors, are fascinated by the possibilities of interacting with and influencing the story and game play. Taking part in the performance nature of the alternate reality experience is highly motivating for the story hackers. As they tend to be outgoing, at least behind their online identities, they can be quite vocal about their (dis)satisfaction. Hackers often enjoy playing with the game and story boundaries. This occasionally leads to them creating websites or other assets that extend the game universe. Providing possibilities include their creative additions or opportunities for them to feel as though they have impacted the story may encourage them to participate with the game experience.
Story specialists actively attempt to figure out the overall story arc. They spend their time engrossed in the story that is presented, and speculate on where that will lead in the future. A strong consistent story that provides hints at information and relationships is key to engaging the story specialist. This provides outlets for speculation, while not being so open ended that speculation is a futile exercise. Like puzzle solvers, story specialists tend to congregate and build off of each others ideas and so those that are active in the player community tend to share their ideas. Those that are active in the player community tend to share their ideas with one another. Though they may not think of themselves as puzzle solvers, they tend to excel in puzzles that require slight logical leaps and/or social engineering, as they are more familiar with the intricacies of the story. Story specialists tend to be the most passionate about the experience, and often hold onto that passion long after the experience has concluded.
The Audience Relationship
Alternate reality games tend involve three to four months of intense work and play, and a relationship does form between the audience and the developers, with the characters, story, and game play serving as conduit. As with any relationship, there needs to be a mutual level of trust, respect, and consideration. Because there is no direct interaction between the two groups, the only way that those essential bonds can be built is through the game. A consistent story with regular updates and solid game play is the base line. When puzzles fail or are solved by the characters for the players, the level of respect drops. When the game updates slow down or fall off schedule, the level of trust drops. When the live events are not as promised or the websites fail, the level of consideration drops. And, as these levels drop, players become hesitant to donate more of their time and energy to the experience. However, players can be very forgiving when the problems are fixed and worked into the game story. Some of the most memorable game events were created by teams that were familiar with their audience, and were able to react appropriately to fix problems on the fly.