Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The Obvious Ninja: a key to successful alternate reality games

I was recently at a conference and noticed the conference photographer. Yes, already you may see the problem. Photographers are supposed to blend into the scene. They document an occasion but aren't supposed to be the attraction themselves. Well, not this photographer.

Its not that she was trying to draw attention to herself. In fact, what I noticed about her was that she was trying SO hard to be sneaky that you couldn't help but notice her. Exaggerated sneaky walking. Sudden ducking and swinging the camera around. Watching her during one session caused us to break out into a fit of giggles.

That's when I named her "The Obvious Ninja."

Ironically, this concept is important for serious alternate reality game (ARG) design. Traditionally, entertainment ARGs have been very subversive, attracting a small group of players that invest significant time into figuring out the puzzles of the game in order to win. There are two problems with this type of design: "small group of players" and "invest significant time."

One of the most basic things we know about learning game design is the need to reduce the cognitive overhead and barriers of entry to play. At first glance, this seems counter-intuitive given that most ARGs are puzzle-based. But good ARG design relies on balancing making the game obvious and easy to use and keeping it challenging (because if there's no challenge, there's not much fun).

So if you're planning an ARG and are aiming to involve a broad audience, think "obvious ninja." And tip your hat to my favorite conference photographer.

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