James, one of the developers of The Hidden Park Game, talks about developing the unique I-Phone Augmented Reality Game
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Interviewer: I’m here at the ARG Fest and with me today is a special guest. How about you introduce yourself?
James: I’m James Kane and I produce The Hidden Park. It’s an iPhone game. It’s somewhere between alternative reality gaming and geocaching with a little bit of augmented reality in there as well.
Interviewer: What’s the game exactly about?
James: It’s for kids. It’s for children. Basically when they first arrive at a park they get a phone call, and they are told that in order to save the park from destruction by property developers, they have to find magical creatures living in the park.
The way they find magical creatures is they follow a map which is GPS enabled so they can watch themselves as they cross the map. It’s a little bit like a live board game. When they reach certain points, they have to take photos of specific objects, and we have animated creatures coming out of the objects. And we also have different locations where the children have to get into the photo themselves, and then we overlay digital images of dragons and different things into the photos.
Interviewer: In that case, the parent would take a photo of them.
James: That’s right. It’s something for parents, like a guardian and a child to do, so it’s a two player game. It’s really for kids who are like… My nephew is three, and he really enjoyed it, but I was a little surprised by that. Our core was four to nine, ten, but we also had all the people enjoying it just because they liked it, and all the kids enjoying it just because they like following themselves on the map. Even though they find the narrative a little bit childish, they find the overall concept design something they rather enjoy.
Interviewer: Can you talk about… You are saying that people can snap photos and then the image will also appear. You mentioned like the dragon, so they have to snap actually a certain location in the park, and then a dragon will appear in that photo.
James: That’s right, yes. So what we did, they are animated pictures. They’re quite cartoonish, so we’re not trying to make them look super real. It’s really for kids, but we put a little drop shadow on it so it blends into the photo. It’s a translucent drop shadow which kind of anchors the dragon. Because we have the guardian taking those photos, we encourage them to move the dragon around to a suitable place in the photo so that it looks like it fits in. And then they can show the kid, and the kid can see themselves with the dragon.
Interviewer: For GPS? I thought GPS was not enabled in the Apple SDK or is not?
James: No, no, no. It’s enabled and we’ve used it in all sorts of ways. There’s a point in the game where we also use it to direct a writer. Now with 3GS we can just use the compass, but when we were developing this we had no digital compass. And so in order to get the radar to work we plot the path of the player and we can, therefore, tell what trajectory they are on and, therefore, we can say which direction they need to go in. No, you can use the GPS for plotting a few things.
Interviewer: OK. As you’re developing this, how did the user testing go and what were some of the things you had to change to make it more fun or more compelling?
James: More fun or more compelling? We didn’t have a problem with the fun or compelling because the technology was so new. But, at the launch the technology was so new. The GPS element was something that they could immediately engage with and the augmented reality in the sense that they took these photos. So, no, we didn’t have a problem with that.
What we had a problem with was how do we explain how to use this game because it’s such a new form of gaming. How do we explain it in a light, light way? How do we make it like a frictionless explanation of how this was to enjoy and experience this game? And that was something we did a lot of work shopping on. We don’t want to explain every single little bit, but at the same time we don’t want people who are lost.
We also were acutely aware that we wanted to have an audience using this game that weren’t really massively, technically savvy; people who could just come in and use it. So, that was probably our biggest challenge. It was just working out what the level of competence of our users was going to be, and then in the end we actually had a lot of stripping back a lot of the explanations of what we were planning on doing. We just have an info page, so if they’re lost they just hit the information button.
Interviewer: The pictures that people take, are they saved? And they can be used in a photo album.
James: Definitely. Now, that’s probably the best feedback so far that we’ve gotten is the fact that you go to the park. You have this experience for an hour, and then at the end of it it’s all saved to your camera roll. Then, you can go home and print it out or send it out to friends, or we’ve had people publishing the photos on our website.
Interviewer: How popular is that picture thing? That would seem really popular with kids.
James: Yeah, they love the pictures. What we do as well is you take a photo of the ground, and we animate the ground opening up and then something coming out, and that’s been hugely popular with kids. In fact, they just apparently… We’ve had stories and emails about kids on the way home in the car and they just keep on making the things pop out of the back of the seat and then they make it pop out of the…
James: Even for kids, I think they just enjoy it even when they break out the narrative. They just like watching things come out. In the end it’s an animation. Instead of you watching it on the couch, you watch it in the park. It does sound bizarre. It’s sort of in the context of the game that it makes sense and it works.
Interviewer: Now, what about the family components? It’s kind of like almost where you need-the kid actually needs a parent to be there.
Interviewer: And how does that work out? Have you tried to strengthen that interaction? So, it’s almost like a multi player interaction.
James: Between the parent and the child. No, it’s sort of implicit in the game. It’s not like they would have to problem solve together. Just sort of working through the game is going to take conversation. They’re going to: OK, this is what we do next. OK, we have to walk this way.
Following the map is actually-it’s a wee thing, but it’s a challenging part of the game even though you have this annotated figurine that follows across the map. Did you think it should be quite easy, but actually people often take the wrong path and then they notice they are on the wrong path, and they have to go back and the kid will call the mom and whatever. Most of the interaction occurs outside of the game. It doesn’t occur in-game. Once we started watching, once we saw how popular the Wii was, and how popular family gaming was becoming, we felt much more confident about the concept.
Interviewer: What’s next in store because sometimes parents can go to the park. Are you going to design something for people’s homes or some experience like that?
James: No, what we’re going to do next is try a different demographic. So, we’re going to be slightly bolder in one way because we’re going to take on a more traditional game’s demographic, the sort of 18 to 35 male that has been the core of gaming. That’s what we’re going to do next. It’s probably more challenging and more demanding. They are a lot more critical, and so we’re working on that at the moment. It’s going to be much bigger, much more sprawling, but we also basically have the same concepts where it’s a closed game. It’s a closed system. It’s a lot like an ARG, but it’s not like a traditional ARG. It’s scalable and can be played in multiple locations.
Interviewer: Are you interested in more of the alternate reality part or the augmented reality part? Where do you see the potential for the gaming to really augment it or to alternate?
James: It depends on how you define alternate reality gaming because if you have a very narrow definition of it, then what we’re doing right now doesn’t fit that. I can’t really answer that question. We feel like what we’ve done is a form of alternate reality gaming. So, if you accept that, then we definitely see a future in that. With augmented reality, I think there is massive potential in augmented reality for gaming, particularly for gaming and online devices, but we need more processing now.
Interviewer: Have you seen those browsers that have come out recently, I guess, which will pop up location information as you just flash the video or something like that? I wasn’t sure if you were going to do any kind of gaming related to that,
James: Oh, definitely. At the moment Apple SDK doesn’t give us access to the live video. Once that happens, we’ll download much more cool stuff with more confidence, but that’s really just the beginning. I mean, it’s going to be shot recognition and live mapping. That’s the kind of processing that we’re after. Shot recognition is technically achievable through workarounds. You don’t necessarily need to know the rules of processing on the device itself, but it’s when you get that live mapping that things are going to get really interesting.
Interviewer: In terms of business models, do you have a free version and a pay version, or is it just…
James: No, we just have a pay version. We’ve got this thing called “Fairies Everywhere” which is just an example of the augmentary oath. It’s sort of the augmented reality. It’s just a fun free game that we handed out, and it was a bit of a tester for us, but no we don’t because if you’re going to play The Hidden Park you have to make the commitment to go to the park. And once you have made that commitment, you can’t really do a free and then a pay. It doesn’t really work like that.
You do have to trust us, and so far we’ve had zero negative feedback. No one has arrived at the park, and then has written that it was a complete disaster. Everyone that arrived at the park has sent us incredibly positive reviews. Like I was saying, people are sending us photos.
Interviewer: Now, is yours tied to a specific park, or can it be any park?
James: At the beginning we had nine parks around the world. Then we’ve just been going out and asking for people to build parks themselves which means they send in GPS locations and pictures, and we just upload that.
Now, coming up in the next couple of weeks, we are going to have a park builder which means, as a parent, you can go to your local park, build the game, set it up in the park basically. We’ve got sets of instruction that are incredibly simple to do for a parent. You don’t have to be technologically savvy at all. And then, once you build that park we can then share that information with all the other users around the world.
Hopefully, we’re going to build up very quickly a large library of parks, and then when you start the iPhone up it’ll just tell you what the closest parks are to you at the time.
Interviewer: You know, since it seems like you’ve got that beachhead in parents and kids, is there any reason why you are going to move away from them and go to the 18 to 34s. Is it more exciting?
James: More challenging [laughs]. It’s a bigger challenge. We have another couple of games that we’re planning for the kids market as well, and there’s also talk about… That’s a really good question.
Interviewer: It seems like you guys have that… People are totally into this game.
James: No, no, no. It’s a really, really fair question. We feel like at the moment, I guess, one of the reasons is that with that kids market this is kind of enough of them. You can get them to go to the park and doing this, and you can get them to go to the park and doing another game. I guess if they did it once, they might want to do a different game. That’s true. We’ve also had people who have done to the park, played The Hidden Park, and then gone back the next weekend and played the exact same game.
Interviewer: That’s what my other question is. Does replayability stop after you do it, or do you have to…
James: Well, not with four-year-olds.
Interviewer: That’s a good point.
James: Probably with nine-year-olds. But, no, four-year-olds they’ll just do it again and again and again until they are driving you mental. In New York we’re about to launch Prospect Park in Brooklyn, for instance, and Highline which is in the Chelsea area. I suspect there are going to be a lot of parents who will do the Central Park version, and then they’ll go to the Prospect Park version and it will feel like a different game and vice versa the same assets.
Interviewer: Any last words then for any other indie game developers who are developing their own iPhone game or want to get into augmented reality gaming?
James: Send us the name and I’ll list our conversation because there are so many ideas. There’s so much landscape out there to fill, and I just encourage everyone to get into it.
Interviewer: Where can I find out more about Hidden Park?
Interviewer: OK. Thank you very much.
James: Not at all.