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Vanished at Games+Learning+Society; Pyramid Squashing
A couple weeks ago, Caitlin and I gave our first talk about the experience we had with Vanished at Games+Learning+Society. While we had previously talked about Vanished at Sandbox Summit, this was the first talk since Vanished concluded. At Sandbox Summit we had not yet had the opportunity to see the entire saga play out.
Our talk was cut short due to time restrictions (and my own tendency to be verbose), but I’d like to share the slide deck here. Over the next few weeks I’ll provide a recap what was said during the talk and cover some of the material that we didn’t have time to get around to live.
We believe that Vanished was amazingly successful at what we set out to do, but this talk was an overview of not just the design decisions that we believe made Vanished a success, but some of the weaknesses in the game and things that we should consider doing differently in the future. Certainly, not everything went perfectly. We had some places where large amounts of time went into creating an experience that just didn’t pan out. Other times, we made something I was convinced would be ignored by the players and I was happily surprised as they thoroughly enjoyed it. Of the two, I prefer the latter experience. But today I’ll just be covering something that was a success.
One of the major design decisions we made during Vanished development was a concept we think of as Pyramid Squashing and that is going to be my topic for this week. While Vanished was a large project that drew from our design experiences with multiple types of games including text adventures, 80’s arcade games, murder mysteries, and live action role playing, if I were to pick one category of games that Vanished derived from most directly, that would be Alternate Reality Games (ARGs). ARG’s are an amazing new form of gaming that has proven it’s worth in the realm of advertising, but has only had a small number of experiments trying to do something else. Adapting ARG’s for a game about science practice and to satisfy the goals of our Smithsonian partners sometimes required serious questioning of ARG standard practices.
As a tool originally designed for advertising, ARG’s don’t require that every ‘player’ of the game actually be heavily invested in the game. In fact, 42 Entertainment, one of the major makers of ARG’s, provided the picture at the top where they illustrate their view on how an ARG player base works. A very small number of players will be Enthusiastic and do all the heavy lifting. A somewhat larger number of players will be Active and talk online with others and work on low hanging fruit. Then there will be a large number of players who are Casual and just follow the progress of the game without actually putting in any investment other than their time to read the game updates over the weeks.
This pyramid is a perfectly good model for a game whose goal is advertising as you still achieve that goal with your Casual base. It’s also perfect for an experience that takes place on the Internet as this sort of involvement is natural in online settings. After all, with how many websites do we each actively get involved? This model is less good for Vanished, where we wanted to help players develop expertise with scientific practice and get youth to believe in their abilities. It’s hard to develop a sense of accomplishment in people who are passively following along. So, early in design we set a goal of trying to create activities that would squash this pyramid as much as possible and get players to be more engaged then they would otherwise be. We didn’t do this in every activity of Vanished, but it was always in my thoughts.
A prime example of this sort of design is the cipher puzzle videos that came at the very beginning of Vanished. When Vanished launched, players saw a distorted video of three MIT students apologizing that the game couldn’t start until we could solve some problems that had cropped up on the server. Players were directed to start chatting on the forums to see if they could collectively determine what was going on. Some players noticed that some sort of garbled text was appearing in the distorted video and reported this to the forums. Other players found that they had different text appearing and the idea that this might be some sort of code was suggested by a player.
At this point we opened our first Data Challenge. Here players could submit to the website what text they were seeing in the videos and it quickly became apparent that there were a lot of different codes. One player figured out that the codes could be broken with a rotation cipher, but each of the codes was encoded with a different rotation cipher. So another Data Challenge was started for decoded messages. Finally players had to assemble the 99 decoded messages into a single message which was our first transmission from Jasper in the future.
Overall, the whole experience took about three days. There were 99 coded messages and which message a player got in the video was dependant on their player id. So there was no way for a single player to complete the whole task. Instead, enthusiastic players had material to work with in the beginning and then had to enlist the help of otherwise casual players to solve the puzzle. Once those casual players got the idea of, “we can’t do this without you,” they became more involved in the game and worked towards becoming enthusiastic. Looking through the forum posts and the data challenge logs, it’s easy to say that hundreds of players were actively solving this mystery. In comparison, later in the game, we introduced a few coded message puzzles where each player had the whole coded message. Here only a few players actively became involved and raced each other to see who could figure the code out first.
This video cipher challenge in particular, and the Pyramid Squashing idea in general, was a big risk for us. A few days before we went live with Vanished, I gave the encoded messages to a few of my friends who like games and codes. These are very smart people with Ivy League Ph.D.’s and who like this sort of thing, but I’ll admit they’re not professional code breakers. They were utterly stumped by the code. When I told them how it worked and how it was going to be presented online to middle school students, I received a giant dose of skepticism. This lead to a bit of a panic around the lab in those last hours with calls to simplify the challenge, but I was convinced that our players would be able to do this and put my credibility on the line that this would be the achievement that it indeed turned out to be. Of course, I had the backup plan of creating a bunch of ‘ringer’ player accounts to help solve the puzzle if things didn’t go smoothly. Never in the entire run of Vanished did I need to use that general purpose backup plan. As staff, we occasionally had to nudge the players a bit, but they always rose to the challenge and solved each puzzle on their own.
Last Week, I was in New York City for the annual Games for Change festival. While I was there, I saw the people who designed Evoke, another serious game with ARG heritage, talk about their experience. While they said many interesting things about their game’s goals and achievements, some of which I wish I had heard before designing Vanished, the thing that stood out to me the most was a brief comment they made. On one slide with several other points, they described their player base in terms of having about 8 active players and 80 casual players for every enthusiastic player. They compared this to the Wikipedia user base and seemed to be complacent in the belief that this is just the way online experiences are (see 90-9-1 Theory).
I challenge this complacency. We’ve shown with Vanished that game designers can squash the pyramid and bring more players into active roles through careful design of activities. I believe this is essential for serious games where the goal is for players to not just follow along, but to actually be engaged. It’s risky because when you design a challenge like this, you can’t fall back on the assumption that there will be one brilliant player within your community who can solve the challenge. Instead, you need to design the challenge to be engaging and doable by a much larger number of your players. This is more difficult, but it’s worth it, because without it, you might as well be designing an advertising campaign to be watched and forgotten.
|GLS Vanished Talk.pdf||3.25 MB|