I wrote this article nearly a decade ago, after the first ARG, The Beast, had reached its conclusion. I interviewed the lead writer on the project, Sean Stewart, about what their vision was and how they managed the execution of it as it expanded and evolved.
Many people anticipated the release of this summer’s blockbuster hit A.I., the brainchild of Stanley Kubrick and Steven Spielberg. Much of the anticipation was the direct result of Dreamworks’ and Microsoft’s unique joint advertising venture. Instead of simply using normal print and broadcast media, the media giants took a gamble on a writer to create an interactive online game that tied in with the movie.
“They wanted to make a game,” says Sean Stewart, lead writer for the online creation, “but if you’ve seen the film, you know that it’s not something that you walk out of thinking ‘Oh man, I’ve got to play the game.’”
Stewart is an award winning science fiction writer who grew up in Edmonton, Alberta. Feeding off influences like Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, he started writing science fiction at a young age. Now at 36, he’s published seven novels and he can count William Gibson among his devoted fans.
Dreamworks’ intent was not only to provide a new advertising medium for the game, but to broaden and deepen the world of the movie. That’s why they contacted Stewart about the project; they needed an experienced writer to develop the world and he had come highly recommended. The team, who became known to players as the “Puppetmasters,” worked at first for several months on a project that never ended up happening. The meeting they had for the new project was on Jan 4 of this year. That gave them less than 2 months before the sites went live on the Internet, March 8.
The game starts when you watch the trailer or look at the movie posters and notice that there are some strange notches above “Summer 2001.” If you take the time to decipher these you’re rewarded with a phone number which has a very odd message. Searching the Web site given in the message catapults you into a futuristic world of robots, full of murder, puzzles and intrigue.
The world is comprised of 36 beautiful Web sites, including some in French, German and Japanese, 15 different phone numbers for the voicemail of various characters, faxes, countless email addresses and nearly 100 puzzles. The puzzles include decoding hexadecimal, creating a relief map out of clay, folding a paper into a crane to reveal a message and reciting Shakespeare texts.
“The game was absolutely based on the premise that there would be a group intelligence,” says Stewart. This game is the first of its kind and they had to anticipate how players might react to the situation and their environment. “Any Web-based mystery had to understand from the get-go that the resource base of the potential player pool was effectively infinite. This was never intended to be a game that one person could play on their own. It was just too hard, and you can’t make it easy enough for one person to play without making it irrelevant for Web-based play. That’s one sense in which it is completely matched to its medium in a way that I don’t think another Web-based game has been.”
Shortly after the game received its first media coverage from Aintitcool.com on April 4, Cloudmakers was formed. Named after the murdered man’s boat, this group grew quickly to become what some called a “distributed biological processing unit,” and Stewart and his team had to feed the beast.
“The biggest underestimate we made was just how interested people would be,” Stewart says that within 3 days, the players had gone through material that should have lasted them weeks. “We realized that we were literally going to have to double the amount of content we put out for the rest of the game because the rapacity with which the content was consumed was so overwhelming.”
The group works together using an online message board. They post hundreds of messages a day, discussing the puzzles, the plot and the Puppetmasters. Stewart himself watches the messages boards to monitor the progress of the players, but is proud that his team has never posted on the Cloudmakers site, “We want the players to know that every single puzzle they solve, they got on their own.”
“It’s an unbelievable project, once in a lifetime experience. Let me tell you, as a guy who’s published a lot of novels, the chance to put something out there and have 800 people read it down to the semi-colon and comment on it excitedly for three days is something most writers never, never get to experience.” The thoroughness of the players even changed the direction of the game.
Stewart laughs remembering one incident where a Puppetmaster accidentally used the same piece of stock photography twice: on the Donutech site for one of Evan’s co-workers and on the Belladerma site (a company that sells sexbots). “Of course this was instantaneously pointed out, and so we had to write what I think was one of the better little side stories for the whole game, Svetlana and the step-self. So we’ve had to be extremely responsive to among other things, when we screw up.”
“We’ve been using the Trail (the player-created encyclopaedia of the game) to do our continuity checks because there’s 7,000 Cloudmakers and we’re way to busy to sit down and make lists of everything. There’s no way our resources are any where near as comprehensive. So when we need something, we look it up on the Trail.”
His knowledge of the way the players interacted came in handy when Stewart made a cameo appearance in the game. The players were led to a phone number, but instead of the usual voicemail recoding, they reached a real person on the other end. After six hours on the phone, the players had moved the plot forward by convincing Stewart’s character to act on some information they had.
Stewart’s other experience interacting with the Cloudmakers was at the ARM rally in Los Angeles. Players had been invited to show up, wearing red, to take part in some real life activities in bars in New York, Boston and Los Angeles. “I went there as a guy who’d come in after work just to get a drink and found all these weird people wearing red deciphering posters. I had a number of them very patiently explain to me what the game was and dial Mom (one of the first characters introduced) on the phone and listen to the message and show me how to work the posters to reveal the clue. So that was inwardly amusing.”
When the storyline came to a climactic finish in mid-July, the project was considered a success by all. “Even if it doesn’t make a lot of money for a corporate sponsor, down the road people are going to be doing things like this for the same reasons they make other kinds of art, in the same almost irrepressible way that art comes into being. This is the most fun I’ve had in my professional life.”