The Go BZRK Case Study: Interview with Rich Silverman (Part 2)

by April Arrglington on October 26th, 2011

For Part 1 of this interview click here.
10. Let’s talk structure and mechanics, how many platforms did you use for the ARG alone?

When it comes to mechanics, I believe ARGs should be heavily based on the narrative. Any puzzle elements included need to organically fit into the story, instead of just having them there for the sake of doing puzzles. They need to flow and be used as a device to further the narrative. I personally think ARGs in general are going to go in this direction anyway in the future. They’re just going to be more experiential.

In terms of platforms utilized, there are at least 8 websites that include 3 main core sites and 5 supporting sites. There are also 2 Tumblr accounts, 4 Facebook character accounts, and about 4 Twitter accounts that included the official account of the experience and a few character accounts to interact with players in real time during specific points. We also have one Google voice account set up to deliver a record voicemail message of a fictional hospital that allowed players to leave messages, which we posted through a character account on Tumblr later on. We also created a few Email accounts to tease and communicate with the players, and one eBay account to auction off a piece of fictional ephemera – we surprised the winner by giving it away for free.

11. So how do you decide to use each platform in the experience? Is it all tied to the story and where the characters live logistically?

Absolutely. For example, one of the characters is a tabloid journalist… so it just made sense that he would have a Tumblr account to publish all of his news clippings. We started him off on Facebook because he’s broke and looking for a cheap place to showcase his samples, but because he’s an anti-social miscreant he got sick of all the friend requests and moved to Tumblr where he could be left alone!

12. Did you think of experimenting with new, innovative technology or services?

The format itself of an ARG is still innovative in and of itself. We decided to stick with popular social media conventions and services that audiences are already familiar and comfortable with.

13. What about internally, to launch and run the experience? Did you considered using services like Conducttr to organize logistics?

Actually, we looked into that. But because of time constrains we realized we wouldn’t have the time to familiarize ourselves with the service fully. So instead of learning something from scratch we just decided on going old school and set up all the accounts by hand.
Meanwhile, the main service we utilized to launch the Nexus Humanus website, which is the core site, was an open source social networking engine called Elgg that was customized by Digital Intent to our specs with a points and badge system, a leveling structure, and some other tweaks. Forums were a modification of Vanilla Forums.

14. Where there any other sponsors interested in being involved in the ARG experience?

Josh Lamb, the COO of Shadow Gang, created a partnership with Spartz Media, a company out of Chicago that owns a number of successful websites – MuggleNnet is their biggest one. We utilized their Omg-Facts to post several factoids and other story content that tied into the ARG. It was a guerilla strategy that paid off well, a great example of “thinking outside the box.”

15. Ok, so let’s go back to strategy and game design for a bit. How did you structure the experience in terms of having to decide when to release new material and in what platform, etc?

Ok, so here’s Rich’s crash course on how you write an Alternative Reality Game:

The first thing I do is come up with a treatment for the entire story that runs 10-15 pages. Then I break that down into a bullet point timeline that includes the main background story in chronological order all the way to the present.

Then I look at it in terms of the three main acts of the story for the ARG and how to divide these into the actual timeline of the experience. I knew I had 3 months to tell the story, so I scheduled the 1st month as preliminary to set up background story and buzz for the ARG. Then the next 2 weeks were devoted to Act 1, the subsequent 4 weeks were devoted to Act 2, and the last 2 weeks for Act 3.

Then, I looked into the time span of those weeks and settled on a release schedule. I find that the best days to release material are Tuesdays and Thursdays cause it doesn’t conflict with the work week too much or the weekend – on Mondays people are more focused on getting back to school or work and on Fridays minds turn toward the weekend. This is pretty standard. Then you have to decide how the narrative is layered into the release schedule and what beats need to be followed up in real time, especially for the live interactive challenges.

For Go BZRK I focused roughly on three interactive game challenges per week. The first challenge was a crossword puzzle devised by a character before his rather suspicious death. That mechanic started at the end of Act 1, with a couple clues released each week that led to grid solutions. Solving two of the crossword questions revealed a bitly address that dropped a zip file on the user’s computer filled with more content. Running parallel to that was the Nexus Humanus website, which is set up as an organization in which you have to move up the different levels by doing some weekly tasks in order to unlock more information and clues about the story. In addition to that, we also had an additional weekly interactive element that tied into all the new story content released for any given week.

16. I have to say that my favorite part of the experience was the Nexus Humanus website you built because it was utilized as a way to further the plot of the experience by creating character profiles within that network that interacted with the players. I think it was cleaver because it also provided for a way to contain the audience interaction in this particular platform and obtain some sort of metrics. Was this successful or did you find the audience going to a separate forum or wiki by themselves?

Well, we found that the gamers were staying on the Nexus site which was great. But we didn’t want to split the audience in terms of setting up official forums elsewhere. People are going to do that anyway. From the beginning we were well aware of the creation of a Facebook Group by the players. I also know that there was an Unfiction thread for the experience, and a wiki created by WikiBruce. The Go BZRK website also provided a weekly recap of the experience. These resources didn’t really compete with the official forums. These sources actually provided support by keeping track of all the latest news released and status updates for the game. If anything it strengthens community participation and kept buzz rolling.

17. So how did you fair metrics wise?

We are very happy with our numbers. For an ARG of this size and scope, and without the big push a major movie or TV show provides, we’ve been quite pleased with the results.

18. Where you able to gather any useful insights when it comes to demographics from your metrics?

We have some of that information from Nexus Humanus registration, but you have to understand that registered users are not the majority of players, and metrics coming from general site stats aren’t going to tell you whether someone is male, female, 10, or 50. Anecdotally, it looks like our audience is pretty evenly split 50-50 male and female, with an age range of 18 to 30, which was our target audience.
19. Alright. So, I also noticed that all of the official sites for the ARG sported a watermark icon that links to the home site for Go BZRK. By doing this, you are making it clear that this was a game. Was that always your intention?

Yes, we made the decision from the beginning to have the audience participate in the experience knowing that it wasn’t real. It’s suspension of disbelief. In the past, ARGs tried to present themselves as “real,” but no other storytelling form is saddled with this. No one goes to see “The Thing” thinking that it’s real, and there’s no real reason why ARGs have to be positioned as “reality,” though there are times you may take this approach. The label ARG is misleading, perhaps, and I’m only using it for the sake of convenience. I prefer to call this an interactive story.

20. So, are you planning on uploading a credits page at the end of the ARG to accredit the team? Lance Weiler did that for Pandemic and I believe it should be a standard practice to proof accreditation in a portfolio.

That’s what we have you for! But yes, we will have credits on the new site… or at least I think so.

Posted in Publishing, Winning Properties, ARG    Tagged with Egmont, case study, Conducttr, Elgg, Vanilla Forums, Josh Lamb, Omg-Facts, Unfiction, WikiBruce, Lance Weiler, Pandemic, Gobzrk, Rich Silverman, Michael Grant, Nexus Humanus, Spartz Media, MuggleNet


pbemaddy - October 26th, 2011 at 9:52 AM
If they really want to make this interactive and groundbreaking, they should set up a mechanism for out-of-game feedback, evaluation, and suggestions. ARG players have a lot of talent and suggestions that they could offer to the authors/creators, thereby enhancing the experience.
April Arrglington - October 27th, 2011 at 12:10 PM
Great points... thanks for reading!

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