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Co-Host and Contributor, WorkBook Project (2009-2012)

Culture Hacker for The WorkBook Project – Co-host a weekly podcast and contribute articles on transmedia, ARGs, and other items of interest.

Article- SXSW: What ARG Makers Can Learn from UI Designers

My visit to South by Southwest Interactive took me to a lot of talks on Transmedia – a term, by the way, that was the most overused and under-understood of the conference (Felicia Day even went on a particularly apt rant about it on Monday). Most of the “Transmedia” panels just didn’t seem to get it – there was no takeaway, there was a lot of gobbeldygook, and in one bizarre case, there was a futurist who seemed to be discussing how in 6-10 years we will all be watching programmed television. But I digress.

I ended up going to an exceedingly dry-titled panel on a whim. I couldn’t bear to attend another Transmedia panel because the term had lost any meaning to me, and “Having Fun Yet? 10 Usability Heuristics For Games” sounded like the presenters had a good handle on their topic, at least. But what I found there completely blew me away and this panel took the crown for my favorite panel of SXSW Interactive 2011. These design maxims may be old hat for programmers, but I have never heard them applied together like this for ARG development, and there they are highly relevant.

1. Increase interaction speed over time. Repeated tasks should get quicker. Make frequent transactions more easily available. There was a recent game that had information that was only accessible if you entered a username and password. The way the webpage was coded, the browser did not ask if it could save the information for you, so every time you wanted to check for new content (which showed up regularly) you either had to memorize the login or search your email for it. Not good design.

2. Avoid conceptually conflicting inputs. Be conceptually consistent throughout the game. This means that the evil genius hacker organization probably wouldn’t be using simple substitution, folks.

3. Provide immersive cues – ambiguity makes the connection between the player and their world less immersive. If you want a player to call a telephone number or email someone, telegraph that to them. Don’t make them fearful to contact your characters – “Is this in-game or out-of-game?” is not being immersive!

4. Distinguish active from inactive. Provide cues so that players know what they need to touch. If they’re supposed to be hacking into your character’s email, fine – make that clear. But if they’re not, save yourself some trouble by making that clear ahead of time.

5. Prevent surprise errors – and if the user does fail, make sure they understand why. Allow them to undo errors. The first part of this rule can be helped with careful vetting and playtesting. The second part, say if a player thinks that they need to email Character A with information when in fact it’s Character B they have to contact – simply have Character A nudge them in the right direction rather than ignore them completely, so your player isn’t shouting into the wind.

6. Be game-state aware. Provide the correct data to players at the correct time, and let them dig deeper to the areas that they want to find out more about. Practice progressive disclosure. Don’t be absolutely rigid in your game design. Some of the best and most memorable ARG characters started out as throw-aways, but players got attached to them, the designers realized that attachment, and they wrote much larger roles for the characters, creating a much richer experience for the players. Listen to your audience and adjust accordingly. As well, don’t overload them with all the information right away. Just as you read a book chapter by chapter or watch a movie a minute at a time, you don’t play an ARG all at once.

7. Reading is easier than remembering. Make objectives clear and memorable; don’t overburden with information. Reduce the players’ cognitive load. In an ARG sensibility this can be said as: provide a player summary site, and keep it current. ARGs are notorious for being complex, deep, and sometimes impossible to keep up with for all but the most dedicated players. Will you be the one who can come up with the system that lets the casual ARG player join in?

8. Remember real life. Provide quick and easy exits. Consider the environment your game is played in. Another game recently had a live feed that displayed for 24 hours. The designers did it because they wanted to include a global audience. But for those players who started watching the feed at the beginning, it was very hard to turn it off and go to bed. Even a small, tongue-in-cheek card to change viewer shifts would have helped the viewers realize that they could switch off and let someone else take their place.

9. Maintain flow. Minimize content breaks and cognitive dissonance. Does it all feel like one system? Don’t make content breaks feel like punishment. Some games release content on a set schedule and there’s nothing at all wrong with that. But it should be with a small sense of closure that the last item of the chapter is released, so that players don’t receive something highly provocative and have to wait a week (or whatever the timetable is) to receive answers. If they’re punished by time for seeking answers, soon enough they will stop seeking.

10. Ask, “What could I remove?” Don’t include information that’s irrelevant and don’t let bells and whistles overwhelm your project. In other words, consider the principle of Chekhov’s gun – never put a loaded rifle on the stage if you’re not planning on shooting it by the end of the play. One red herring? Maybe. A dozen? Not so much.

As you can see, these principles adapt extremely easily to ARG design, but I think they can branch out into many other fields as well. I’d like to give many kudos to Corey Chandler and John-Mark Josling for a terrific, old-school SXSW presentation that gave much food for thought.

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