Jim from Awkward Hug discusses their latest Alternate 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?
Jim: All right. My name is Jim Babb. I’m part of a two-part team for Awkward Hug. We’re a transmedia production company.
Interviewer: What game did you guys do?
Jim: We did a game called Must Love Robots.
Interviewer: What’s that about?
Jim: It’s a game where you help find Oliver, the main character robot; you help him find a date.
Interviewer: So, how did you go about designing that?
Jim: Well, we started with a narrative arc, and we came up with ways to have interaction, but not only interaction we made a dynamic. So, you have a way for an audience to become more than just a passive audience. They actually get to contribute, not only content but also push the story in the direction that they want so that it becomes emergent that way. But also, there are puzzles to solve. Depending on what level you want to put into it, you can get out a different personal, individual experience almost.
Interviewer: When you say narrative arc, are you talking then about the traditional like heroes journey?
Jim: Yeah, well, the game’s not officially over yet, so I don’t want to give anything away. It’s sort of a romantic comedy. So, it follows a pretty traditional romantic comedy. This would be something, I think, if it was a movie you’d see standard romantic comedy. How it’s told through transmedia-there’s like seven different websites and they all interact in their own way, give different character development for each of these characters, including… There’s bad guys and good guys that interact on certain websites, and something happens on back pages and whatnot.
Interviewer: So, the gist of the story is a robot trying to find love.
Jim: That is the main webisode. We set up the game design so you can actually sit and just watch the web series and not participate with anything if you didn’t want to. So, yeah, it’s set up in that way so we wanted to maximize and get past the viewers as well as active players.
Interviewer: Can you talk about the differing levels of participation that you mentioned where literally someone can be passive or they can be totally active and that also will determine the outcome or the experience.
Jim: This is actually what George Watson was talking about where we try to hit that middle level. We have the top stuff which is very ARGish where you have super hard puzzles where you have to see a single frame in a video and take it off and make a… We had this one where you had to print out a piece of paper and like cut it out and fold it up into two dice sets for this puzzle, and it gives you a URL.
Then, we also have something where you can just passively watch, and the thing that we have in between is where, let’s say, you don’t really want to do the puzzles and you want to role play a little. You can record your own video and send it in to us, and then we will edit that into the show, or you can send us a song and we’ll use your song, or you can remix our videos because we believe in Creative Commons. So, everything is fair use for people to use.
Interviewer: The videos that people would make, would it be kind of like dating videos that they would send to the robot, or is it something else?
Jim: Sometimes there would be advice, or they would need to create their own character and they become part of our world. We’ll even refer to them when they’re not in the show anymore. They step in the world and they become legitimate parts, like friends of the characters. Their character becomes friends with the other characters, and they interact in that way.
Interviewer: And how has that participation gone?
Jim: Well, we would like more, but as far as a game that we’ve independently produced and our first attempt at this type of thing, I think it’s a success for what we’ve got.
Interviewer: Were there any other surprises as you’ve rolled out this game and the story?
Jim: ARGers are extremely good at solving puzzles, and they’ll solve them and come up with different ways for solving them than you’d even ever imagine. They’re so clever that it’s impossible to plan for everything, so you have to always have one trick up your sleeve and be able to guide content. Sometimes, it can be kind of difficult.
Interviewer: You mentioned transmedia. Aside from websites, are you using Twitter, Facebook, any other things?
Jim: There’s Facebook. There’s Twitter. All the characters have twitters. There’s phone numbers that you can call. There’s a robot sex podcast, and they’ll discuss mother boards that like to… Obviously, it’s explicit.
Interviewer: It’s all right. But for a podcast, do you guys just record it every week or something?
Jim: I guess it’s not really a podcast. There’s actually two podcasts in the game, but the sex advice one is that you would call up and you would get a voice mail and leave a sex question for a robot. I’m sure you’re confused about it, as I am. The robot sex therapist, Ram Savage, would create an answer for you and then post on the web so that other people can enjoy your question as well.
Interviewer: Do you find that more effective actually having a phone line versus having people submit via blog entry or comment?
Jim: We wanted, first of all, to use real world technology so you can call the phone or you can email. You do anything you wanted to do. So, people can either create this whole character because there’s a social network at robotfriendfinder.com. So, they can create the character, call in, email, do a video post and they would be able to keep the same character running throughout the whole game if they wanted to. Or they could just call up. We’ve gotten plenty of people just drunk dialing the number and leaving robot sex questions as well. It just becomes fun for whatever point.
Interviewer: What about texting? Have you integrated that?
Jim: No, not texting as much. I think that would be something we’d look into the next one, maybe, something that would have higher numbers of people that you’d want some sort of pervasive gaming where you could do it anywhere at any time. Ours didn’t have that necessity that goes along with text messaging.
Interviewer: What’s next in store then?
Jim: Next in store, we’ve got a couple things lined up. We’re thinking about a couple of little tiny short projects when we’re done, maybe, a little ARG. We’ve got an idea for an Escape the Room ARG that would kind of be like Groundhogs Day, really short and really fun and something you could complete in one sitting. But, it would be, like instead of doing a big collaborative ARG do something that’s individually based and playable, repeatable.
Interviewer: Where do you see ARGs going now and in the future, and what do you think needs to change to make it go mainstream?
Jim: I think there needs to be a level where some things are watered down of some of the hardest puzzles or create a multi tiered system. Maybe, that’s really what it is, multi tier where you try to get those really impressive puzzles and those impress people because people do want to see that stuff done. And it really impresses them that you put that much time and effort into it, but people want to have whatever levels of interaction, the passive, the step above of just like, maybe, making a phone call, maybe recording a video. You want to have all those different levels.
Maybe, you could just watch the [?] shows, or just watch this where it really is a true transmedia experience, where you can watch and participate in any part of it and, maybe, ignore the other ones.
Interviewer: Do you think that puzzles are going to go then in something that has to go mainstream, or do you think that puzzles will still be an important part?
Jim: Well, I think puzzles themselves are not that important, but I think game play is, and I think puzzles are an interesting way because the idea of an encryption online works. And so, obviously, to have a hidden area online makes sense for an ARG because you don’t want everything out in the open or it’s just like reading a Wikipedia page. There’s no fun to that-the ways to hide things, I think. Puzzles are an option for that, but also playing a game to a certain point or eliminating the exact puzzle but turning the same concept into another form of play.
Interviewer: Any last words then for other indie developers who want to do their own ARG?
Jim: You’re going to take a lot of time, and you’re not going to get a lot of sleep, but it’s really fun because all of a sudden it will become… It’s no longer about your game. It becomes this experience of story telling with multiple people. It’s really worth it. It’s really worth-I don’t know-it really taxes your creativity and you share. It’s the most collaborative form of ARG I’ve ever worked in before, so it’s really fun.
Interviewer: Have people taken you up on that Creative Commons license?
Jim: Not yet but it’s one of these things that I feel it since our show is going to be… Once it’s done, it’s going to be a complete web series, too. I don’t feel like ours is necessarily like a lot of the ARGs where it runs and then you’re not going to play it again because it’s a happening, almost.
Ours will be able to be viewed afterwards, and you could sit down and just watch it all through, and it will make just as much sense as when it was happening live. I feel like people could still, with all the music, creative comments… Everything is just free. Go ahead and remix it. Take it. Do anything you want with it. We’re totally open. We encourage it.
Interviewer: Where do listeners get started with this?
Interviewer: Thank you very much.