Alternate reality games and other kinds of distributed story/play projects place heavy demands on their creators’ abilities to manage and deploy content. To meet these demands, many commercial ARG developers have built proprietary software packages that streamline and automate the process of managing and delivering content (for more on this [and much else -- including many useful resources for independents] see Christy Dena’s post, “Cross-Media Management Technologies”).
A few years ago, these kinds of systems were out of reach for most DIY designers and artists. This is no longer the case. Thanks to freely-available social media, mobile technology, and web publishing tools, ARG producers with shoestring budgets can now roll their own custom ARG management and delivery systems.
About this resource
For the purposes of this post, I’ve chosen to focus on providing examples of free technologies and services that can assist designers in managing/deploying content, architecting participation, and articulating game mechanics. To this end, I’ve organized things according to six key logistical requirements designers might encounter when running an ARG; these requirements are:
- The need to organize game assets and personnel
- The need to create and manage player profiles and communities
- The need to manage multiple web presences and social media profiles
- The need to deploy content on mobile devices
- The need to analyze participation and buzz
- The need to create and distribute physical artifacts
Obviously, not all ARGs are going to have every one of these needs, and some will have others that aren’t listed here. If you can think of a significant category of content-oriented requirements that should be here, please let me know in the comments and I will expand this resource accordingly.
Organize game assets and personnel
Keeping track of game assets such as websites, physical installations, performers, events, story flows, and the rest of it can quickly turn into a full-time job. For a really big ARG, production management presents challenges on the same order as the logistical operations seen in feature films — and often well beyond. Here are a few tips for how indie ARG designers can keep their games organized:
- Master the whiteboard Whiteboards are perfect for organizing the sprawl of media assets that characterize story- and interaction-heavy game designs like ARGs. If you don’t have a whiteboard, you can just paint one onto any wall. Don’t forget to take a photo backup of the board after you update it in case someone stumbles in and erases your game.
- Map game assets and story elements Mind-mapping software is an indispensible companion to the whiteboard, and can be the perfect tool for planning and tracking nonlinear distributed story-game activities like ARGs. My favorite instance of this kind of software is IHMC Cmap Tools, a free program (created with US tax dollars by the good folks at DARPA) that enables you to create semantic network maps like those described by Douglas Hofstadter in his book, Godel, Escher, Bach. Cmap Tools goes a long way toward automating making such mind maps, and it enables a bunch of other neat features, too, like embedded media, linked maps, parametric layouts, and more. These charts can reveal a lot about the interconnectivity of your story-world’s various components, and are great for visualizing the different ways that players will flow through the experience you are creating.
- Production management and collaboration tools Take your pick: Zoho, Google Wave, Campfire, and Ning are all great free online collaboration apps. For media-specific pre-production and production tools, try Celtx, “the world’s first all-in-one media pre-production system. It replaces ‘paper & binder’ pre-production with a digital approach that’s more complete, simpler to work with, and easier to share.”
Create and manage player profiles and communities
Customizing individual player experiences in an ARG requires being able link profile information to game states and story elements. Even a simple profile system can unlock powerful game mechanics and storytelling options such as progress-dependent content and in-game ability unlocks.
- Leverage existing profiles ARG designers can lower the bar to entry to their games — and take advantage of the affordances of mature social networking platforms — by making use of players’ existing accounts instead of asking them to sign up for yet another social service. APIs like Facebook Connect can bridge the gap between your game and your players’ everyday media flows — and provide you with a ready-made means for tracking game progress and delivering content. If you have a coder on your team, creating a dedicated app will be relatively easy; if not, Facebook’s developer documentation will help you to get started.
- Create dedicated social networking sites For designers who feel they absolutely must create a standalone player profile system, open-source software packages like Elgg, or free web services like Ning (for which many players will already have an ID) can be used to set up community hubs from scratch (as seen in this top-secret ARG and this fitness game). BuddyPress is perhaps the most interesting of these options, as it makes use of the massive developer community around WordPress, and has plugins that can link player profiles automatically to Facebook accounts.
Manage multiple web presences and social media profiles
Maintaining social media identities across a range of services is essential for running an ARG with a heavy online component. Here are some DIY content management and delivery tips for streamlining this process:
- Post status updates to multiple profiles Most readers are probably familiar with apps such as Seesmic Desktop, HootSuite, CoTweet, or Tweetdeck, all of which enable easy management of multiple social media profiles via a single interface. These apps also make it easy to track responses to your updates, post images to a variety of hosting sites, monitor keyword searches, and, in the case of HootSuite and CoTweet, schedule timed updates (great for producing “Twitter Drama”). There are dozens of similar apps, both offline and on; depending on the range of services you need to update, finding a handy desktop client or cloud app (not to mention one for your mobile devices) shouldn’t be too hard.
- Enable collaborators to easily post to blogs and other social media services Posterous is a powerful email-to-post blogging service that has a lot of potential applications in the DIY ARG space. Running a group blog with Posterous is ridiculously simple and fits into any workflow since the system uses ordinary email to make blog posts. Posterous will convert any images, audio files, or videos into web-friendly formats and lay them out nicely. But its most useful feature is the way it can “Autopost” content to a variety of other services, including WordPress-powered blogs, Facebook, flickr, and Twitter.
- Aggregate posts from players and/or in-game characters Aggregate your content into one place using WordPress plugins like FeedWordPress and Lifestream. These plugins, alongside WordPress’ already-formidable content management features, can enable ARG producers to gather together not only the social media content that they produce, but also — and sometimes more importantly — the content that gets produced by their player communities. FeedWordPress is particularly impressive, as it will archive, categorize, and tag everything that it aggregates — providing you with another layer of content to feed back to your players.
Deploy content on mobile devices
Engaging with players and storytellers via their mobile devices opens up exciting new realms of location-based gaming and participation.
- Automate SMS interactions and/or make a location-based game As GPS and smart phones become increasingly ubiquitous, third party apps for developing and managing games that take place in the physical world are starting to emerge. SCVNGR is an interesting early arrival to this space. According to their website, SCVNGR is “the world’s first platform to enable anyone, anywhere to develop, manage and deploy sophisticated interactive location-based mobile games, tours and experiences.” I’ve used the system for a few projects, and it works quite well. Just a couple of years ago, setting up an SMS-driven interactive location-based game was a serious coding challenge that required serious money and time. Now it’s free and easy. Also, it should be noted that games designed with SCVNGR will work best on iPhone or Android, but are also fully playable via SMS (significant for designers who want to keep the bar to entry for their games as low as possible).
- The WAAG Society‘s 7scenes application goes a step further than SCVNGR, enabling all manner of location-based interactivity. The app is supposed to expand beyond Nokia phones in mid-2010, meaning that you’ll be able to develop GPS games for iPhone and Android using 7scenes’ great interface. The only drawback: the full service isn’t free.
- Piggy-back on an existing game or platform If it makes sense in your story, why not just use existing mobile media services to extend your game into physical space? Just as social media services like Twitter and Facebook have long been used by in-game characters and agencies, so too can web-connected mobile media services like Foursquare, Brightkite, and Gowalla function as vehicles for cross-media storytelling (for an example of this, click here). And since many of these services provide RSS feeds for user profiles, you can easily connect the mobile end of your game world back into your web presence.
- See also: Locative media resources
Analyze participation and buzz
Committed participants are easy to track. They post in Unfiction forums, attend events, set up profiles, and communicate with in-game characters. Tracking lurkers and occasional participants is a different matter — but a significant one, since casual observers will often compose the bulk of a game’s audience.
- Monitor Twitter activity Web apps like Twitalyzer, Twitter Analyzer, and Twittersheep (to name just a few) can help you to track and understand your player community. Thanks to Twitter’s remarkably open and flexible API, new tools for analyzing buzz and influence on Twitter come out almost every day. Try a search like this one to see what’s current — or check out top-n lists like this, this or this.
- Monitor link sharing Link shortening services like bit.ly may present serious problems to future archivists, but for real-time web projects, they’re an easy way to track traffic flows and spreadable media. From bit.ly’s FAQ: “bit.ly users receive a unique bit.ly link that lets them track clicks and other data separately, while still seeing totals for all bit.ly links pointing to the same long link.”
- Monitor site traffic Google Analytics is a free service that enables you to monitor traffic sources and activity via a simple script that you can copy and paste into your site’s header. This is particularly useful for ARGs that have large lurker populations and/or are geographically dispersed. It’s also a good way to see which parts of a website are being read — and which are being skipped over.
Produce physical artifacts, merchandise, and e-commerce
Locative media isn’t the only way to bring your game into the physical experience of your players. Artifacts such as books, clothing, and other customized items have enormous potential as vehicles for real world storytelling and play.
- Publish books and pamphlets Print on Demand continues to revolutionize indie publishing, which is good news for transmedia producers who want to incorporate novels, graphic novels, comic books, photo albums, or other printed materials into their projects. Lulu.com will print your books on demand using the same kinds of presses that are used to make the trade paperbacks published by the big “legitimate” presses — and they’ll help you to distribute them, too. Setting up a Lulu.com storefront is almost as easy as creating a blog with Blogger — only the output is a real book, an item with heft and presence.
- Make stuff — and retail it Merchandise can be a good way to generate money for charitable causes. It can also be a clever way to tell a story. Indie ARG Must Love Robots did both of these things with their in-game clothing brand, Inactiveware. Like Lulu.com, Cafe Press and other on demand services make it possible for transmedia producers to quickly create and retail a variety of physical media artifacts — from t-shirts and mugs to mousepads and posters — that can extend and enrich their story worlds.
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