Alternate Reality Game Adapts in Real Time at Dragon Con

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This article was originally published by Games@Georgia Tech, and republished here with permission because of its relevance to the Digital Media program. Click here to view the original article.

The Emergent Game Group project studio deployed a new alternate reality game right in the middle of Dragon Con on Labor Day weekend 2013 with the hopes that gamers could topple a fake but evil corporation before the four-day event ended. More than 50,000 visitors descended on Atlanta for the annual convention, the largest in the country for science fiction and fantasy fans.

Alternate reality games, also known as ARGs, are characterized by gameplay across digital and real world environments. The Emergent Game Group team tested several design challenges at Dragon Con with a focus on advancing game developers’ abilities to deploy games more seamlessly with new ARG technologies, such as those developed by the Niantic Project at Google.

For the Georgia Tech ARG, called Tiamat Media, a team of graduate students from the Digital Media program established Tiamat Media Corporation. The students posed as the shell company’s employees attempting to get Dragon Con attendees to use Tiamat Media’s “Picture Tag mini-game” while they waited in long convention lines.

“People at Dragon Con are almost always doing one of two things: taking pictures of other people in costume or waiting in line for a panel,” said lead designer Laura Schluckebier, a second year master’s student in Digital Media. “We decided to design the Picture Tag mini-game to fit into the larger ARG.”

Fans were prompted to take photos of things like “all four Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” and upload them to Twitter. The fake Tiamat Corp. – offering to build interaction around these fan photos – actually stole the fans’ work without compensating them. The ARG kicked in as convention fans playing the fake Picture Tag mini-game discovered Tiamat’s more nefarious intentions. Users found clues in the digital realm – on the Tiamat website, forums, Twitter feeds, etc. – that led them to real-life locations and characters that were part of the ARG. The game culminated with players exposing the true agenda of Tiamat.

Georgia Tech researchers used the game to address challenges that are unique to ARG developers. One major consideration for the team was designing an ARG for a particular location or event and leveraging the inherent geo-specific strengths of the locality.

“We went to Dragon Con in 2012 to understand the atmosphere and how people interacted in the space,” said Schluckebier. “We were able to take what we learned at the location and design our game mechanics around that.”

The team also took a rare approach to ARG design – beta testing at a large scale. They launched an early version of the game in April at MomoCon, an anime fan convention in Atlanta. Such occurrences are almost unheard of, according to the team, especially at the scale attempted in April at the 10,000-person event.

“It was a really great experience for us because we were able to troubleshoot a lot of problems that came up while play-testing the ARG and to address those problems in the final version,” said Schluckebier, who is currently working on designing and producing several other pervasive games, including an Atlanta version of Re:Activism.

Designing a game for real-time play also put the developers at the whim of real-world game glitches.

The ARG team learned right before the convention that they had no booth, so instead they roamed Dragon Con with a banner, handing out materials in the hotel lobbies. The guerrilla tactics ended up helping reach more players.

Also, hardcore ARG fans infiltrated some of Tiamat’s web pages that weren’t meant to be public. The Georgia Tech developers adjusted by putting the leaked information into the game’s narrative.

“It was really fascinating to see players work so hard to solve our puzzles,” said Schluckebier. “To keep the game from falling apart, you just have to be flexible and always have a backup plan.”

More research from the Experimental Game Group is online at egg.lmc.gatech.edu. For information on Games@GeorgiaTech, a new institute-wide initiative focusing on game research, education and culture, go to games.gatech.edu. Games@GeorgiaTech is supported through a GVU Center Research and Engagement Grant for FY 2014.