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The POrTAl TwO ARG: The Whole Story


May 6, 2011 Article Start Previous Page 2 of 5 Next
 

ARG Puzzles

The indie developers created far too much content for the ARG to cover it all here. Thankfully, many of us took the time to talk about our puzzles on our own blogs. If you're curious (and don't mind a few spoilers), follow the links here:

Fan Coordination

As is often the case with an ARG, the players set up their own wiki where they could track the community's progress and coordinate efforts on specific puzzles. A few individuals made an impressive feat of keeping the community organized. In fact, the developers used the fan wiki extensively to keep abreast of progress. I would guess that none of the individual developers knew about more than 20 percent of the total puzzles, so we were often pleasantly surprised to learn about fun content from the fan wiki.

Due to the high volume of traffic, the wiki had to twice be relocated to other servers. In retrospect, we think it would have been a good idea for Valve to offer to host the bandwidth-intensive servers. On one hand, this type of offer can compromise the fiction of the ARG. On the other hand, I think the player community would have really appreciated this assistance.

Fans also used IRC channels to coordinate their efforts. During the later stages of the ARG, it was common to find more than 500 individuals in the main IRC channel.

The fan-maintained resources were impressive, but despite that, we think that the ARG may have benefitted from an official Valve-hosted webpage where players could check in to stay abreast of any progress. If done right, a clearinghouse page could serve multiple purposes:

  • Hint at when players are spending too much time chasing red herrings.
  • Key players in to when they're making good progress.
  • Provide a central location where new players can get quickly caught up on everything that's happened so far with screenshots, videos and other easily digestible summaries.
  • A gallery of fan content.
  • Allow press to easily stay abreast of what's going on.

We owe the ARG community a lot of credit for enforcing limits on their own behavior. At one point, the actions of a few hackers threatened to bypass a big section of ARG content. A few individuals managed to crack the system that Steam uses to distribute beta versions to developers for testing, giving them early access to the content. Thankfully, Valve quickly caught on and pulled the content down. At the same time, some of the indie developers hastily beefed up their own in-game security measures. This quick response sent a clear message that this type of hacking was unexpected and unacceptable.

When leaders in the ARG community figured out what was going on, they sent an official apology to Valve and issued a statement on the wiki that this type of behavior was unacceptable. While some amount of hacking continued, this scolding helped.

Player Types

Over the course of the ARG, we observed several types of player behaviors. When planning future ARGs, I think it's worthwhile to take these player types into account to try to design puzzles that target each audience and also to try to predict player behavior.

Librarians. These players had little interest in actually playing the games. However, they were intensely focused on the metagame. This is the type of player who organizes the wiki, directs conversation in the IRC channel, and collects screenshots from other players.

As soon as it became clear that #PotatoFoolsDay was an ARG, these are the types of players who quickly came on board. It took longer for each of the indie teams to motivate our core fans. Some of the librarians were instrumental in advancing the ARG, yet they didn't own any of the games or earn a single potato.

Gamers. These are the core fans of an indie game who were thrilled to offer their player expertise to help advance the ARG. It took a while for us to draw their attention to what was going on, but once they came on board, their familiarity with the games was essential for spotting suspicious changes that would otherwise escape the attention of a new player.

Hackers. For a lot of ARG players, their first instinct is to hack. Hackers enjoy decompiling the code and searching the executable binary for plain-text strings that may provide hints. In some ARGs, light hacking has often been a legitimate and expected way to move the game forward. It's not unusual, for instance, for an ARG to hide an important clue in an HTML comment so that the player needs to view the page source to advance. This precedent sometimes makes it difficult to draw a clear line to indicate to players what is and isn't acceptable behavior.

Collectors. In the second and third phases of the ARG, players were awarded a small image of a potato in their profile for every puzzle they successfully solved on their own. This incentive drives a significant number of players to seek out walkthroughs that show them exactly how to earn every potato. As with rare hats in Team Fortress 2, limited-time collectibles provide a surprisingly strong incentive for this group.

Take-a-Hikers. In the first wave of ARG content, one of the games written by Two Tribes revealed the GPS coordinates of their Dutch office in a clue. The glyph and nonsense phrase were printed on a piece of paper and taped to a light pole about 3m off the ground. Once this established that some clues might involve physical locations, some players eagerly sought out any opportunity to explore the real world, for better or worse. This sometimes mean that they spent hours driving to a place, only to conclude that they were chasing a red herring.

The second and third rounds of content pointed to a slew of physical locations in Seattle, but in retrospect it may have been a good idea to target more content at the Take-a-Hikers. Clues hidden in the real world often make for great stories and powerful impact. For instance, the guy who climbed the pole at the Two Tribes office instantly became an ARG celebrity.

Even a player who chased after a red herring had a good story to tell. One guy got the idea in his head that he was supposed to find a clue at The Couch Potato, a furniture warehouse in Santa Cruz, California. Team Meat learned about this by monitoring the IRC channel, so Edmund McMillan of Super Meat Boy fame intercepted him at the warehouse and surprised him with a signed copy of Super Meat Boy.


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