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GDC: Frank Lantz On Creating area/code's Chain Factor

At the GDC Serious Game Summit, area/code's Frank Lantz discussed his game Chain Factor, and challenges and opportunities around developing alternate reality games.
In a GDC Serious Game Summit keynote, Frank Lantz of developer area/code discussed his game Chain Factor, as well as the challenges and opportunities around developing alternate reality games. Lantz led by comparing traditional non-electronic games -- "almost like dance, a stylized form of interaction with other people" -- to computer games, which he calls "a match made in heaven" due to their ability to provide enormously complex yet seamless interactions. Although single-player video games became the norm, he noted, in recent years more of the types of physical and social interaction inherent in pre-electronic games have started to find their way into the medium, by way of the Wii, Rock Band, alternate reality games, and more. Developers of "real-world gaming" have an interest in "the way that modern electronic games can still have a relationship with the real world," Lantz said -- and that is area/code's main focus. "We make games with computers in them, rather than the other way around," he added. In some cases, the company's games are still heavily dependent on computations being done by computers, but their fundamental interactions from the players' perspective are less so. Chain Factor itself was created as a tie-in with the CBS television program Numb3rs -- "it's not a great show," Lantz admitted, but there was a lot of overlap between the numerically-themed mystery-solving of the show, and the concept of an ARG. Lantz laid out some qualities of a "bona-fide ARG:" collaborative puzzle solving, rather than competition; participatory storytelling, which Lantz believes is what drives "real passion" among ARG enthusiasts; puzzles; and a narrative arc. There are other components that area/code specifically wanted to avoid, even though they are frequently present in ARGs: fake websites, fake blogs, improvisational writing and performance, and a focus on multimedia. "We wanted to do something that wasn't as much about content creation, and was more about system design," Lantz explained. The company wanted to solve the "player experience" problem -- frequently, people who are not already familiar with ARGs are confused when they attempt to engage with one, due to the medium's frequent "intentional ambiguity" and obfuscation. "To live up to their potential, they need to be played well," Lantz said. "It requires the player to have a bit of literacy about what they're doing and where they're trying to go." For that to be the case, the game needs to provide meaningful direction, feedback, and rewards -- and Lantz believes those elements are often missing from ARGs. To avoid the traditional "story to puzzle to story" attitude to ARGs -- which is essentially the same as the classic adventure game model -- area/code would "focus on gameplay, not content," and would be procedural, and rule-based, with a focus on dynamic systems rather than discrete chunks of content -- while still "being an ARG that our neighbors and our moms could play." The team came to the conclusion that, rather than being distributed around a network of fake websites, Chain Factor would be structured around a single "casual puzzle game." As it turned out, Numb3rs' writers were creating an episode about ARGs, so area/code suggested having its own puzzle game be something that, in the show's fiction, was created by one of the characters. Lantz pointed to some major influences on area/code: Oulipo, the French group of "puzzle fiction" writers in the 70s; Christopher Manson's puzzle book Maze; Vladimir Nabokov's novel Pale Fire; and Planet Puzzle League, the DS version of Panel de Pon. As players played the game on its website, apparent error message began popping up increasingly frequent, showing "commented-out" discussion between the game's two characters, villainous game designer Spectre, and another character named Frank. The game also allowed players to unlock "powers" and story fragments by entering codes, based on clues present within the show itself, as well as on in-character banner ads displayed on CBS-owned websites. The game's story was delivered in two tracks: Spectre's "intentional" story delivered via the code unlocks, as well as the supposedly "accidental" story revealed through the error messages. "Our design goal was that the casual players would be an integral part of the overall system," Lantz explained -- the different communities around the game would be necessary to one another to get the whole picture. The people just spending lots of time playing the casual puzzle game, rather than engaging in the high-level code solving, were in reality unlocking some of the most meaningful fiction by way of the error messages -- no single player could possibly have the time to complete both "sides" of the game. Lantz also pointed to Valve's Portal, which similarly has two parallel stores, one of which emerges over time -- the actual narrative story, and the story of what is happening with the game itself -- as a major influence on Chain Factor's structure. The story itself was about Spectre's goal of enlisting players worldwide in a casual puzzle game that farmed data, allowing him to figure out numerical relationships that could crash the world economy -- which, hopefully coincidentally, seemed to occur in the Chain Factor universe just around the same time the real world's markets went into turmoil.

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