In November 2009 myself, Brandon, and Dolly published an article about Alternate Reality Games in the eLearning Guild's Learning Solutions e-magazine (download a copy here).
Since the article was published, several instructional designers have asked us to pull out some practical tips on how they can get started designing their own ARG. For this post, we thought we would reference eight key tips from the article that provide a starting point for you to consider as you embark on your ARG design.
|1. Establish Clear Goals||Document what are you trying to achieve with the game. What are you trying to get your audience to experiment with or learn? After all, participants should be learning something while having fun. The Threshold, a game designed by Cisco had clear goals from the beginning, generating very positive feedback from players: "The Threshold was a four-week long alternate reality game designed to build teamwork, build awareness of Cisco products and services, and to provide an entertaining and fun experience."|
|2. Tell a Meaningful and Entertaining Story||Make your story relevant to your audience and engage them in the unfamiliar by tapping into what is familiar to them. Don't get too carried away with the story to a point you forget it's all about the audience. The designers at LAMP (Laboratory for Advanced Media Production, Australia) felt that an intriguing story about the school's production studio would motivate new students to participate in their game. The "Safesets, Sabotage and Madame Blash" mini ARG (mARG) is an excellent example of a game that has a relevant setting and background story that is sure to entice players.|
|3. Don't Become Overly Attached to Your Story and Characters||Be quick to adapt to your audience's responses. Let them participate in the design process as the story unfolds. Interact directly with them (via non-player characters), respond to their reactions, be prepared to change strategies, puzzles, and/or storylines to conform to how the audience is changing the game. The Cloudmarkers were a self-organized group of players involved in the famous ARG "The Beast." They initiated a Yahoo! group in order to discuss the latest findings in the game. Their discussion was closely followed by the developers and, since ARGs are normally developed as they are delivered, the developers would often include members of the group in the game plot as it unfolded.|
|4. Plan, Plan, Plan||Even though you need to be flexible, lay out a plan of the events and outcomes. For instance, create a flowchart of the action items such as clues, puzzles, characters interactions with the players, next moves, etc. This will make it easier for you to visualize and strategize how the game is going to be played and will give you a better idea of when, what and how to adapt. Here is an example of a flowchart being used to plan the actions in Ascendency Point, a live event for the game Perplex City.|
|5. Create a Reward System||No matter how cool your game design is and how engaging your characters and story are, chances are you may still have difficulty getting people to participate. Instill competitiveness and collaboration by offering rewards. Make it fun. In the Duke's Quest ARG we created, it was a challenge to get players involved without a reward system. This can be a challenge when organizing small group ARGs which tend to involve even those who might not be interested in games just for "fun's" sake. A reward system might be that extra incentive they need to get involved. The Dark Knight ARG (developed for The Dark Knight movie), had a message from the Joker requesting players to submit photos of themselves in Joker make-up in order to receive a mystery package in the mail.|
|6. Leverage Social Media||Consider using social media utilities to both design and deliver the game. Services such as blogs, YouTube, Twitter, Facebook and others can serve as a medium for puzzle delivery and for players to interact with each other and non-player characters.|
|7. Have Closure||It's OK to have cliffhangers for a next instance of the game, but make sure your game has closure. Players need to feel like they've achieved something at the end. This can be a live event at which players gather with characters for a final announcement, conclude the game going over their achievements, distribute rewards or even set up expectations for a segue.|
|8. Play an ARG||It is true, the best way to design something effective might be to actually get your hands dirty. If you want to know how to design a good ARG, play an ARG. By actively joining a game you may learn how to relate to your audience's feelings and expectations when designing your own ARG. You can find active ARGs and read up on old games on websites and communities like ARGnet.|
I hope these tips can help you get started designing your own ARG. The potential for active engagement is inherent to ARGs and may help you deliver a truly effective and experiential learning activity. I'm interested in hearing your thoughts on ARGs in general. Please feel free to contact me or add to the comments here with your responses to these questions:
- Have you designed or played an ARG before?
- Was it specifically designed to teach or motivate the audience to experiment with technology or a concept?
- What are your best practices and advice for those interested in using ARGs for learning?