Exocog’s Jim Miller

Did you tweak the story based on player interaction or insert any players into Exocog as in-game characters?

We were always watching the vpmusic board to see how things were getting received. There were occasional points in the game where we had to know that certain things had gotten established among the players before the game could proceed. For instance (excuse the descent into specifics), when Debbie got fired for helping Jason, we didn't want to turn her e-mail off, and thus suggest to the players that she had indeed been fired, until her collaboration with Jason was well-known to the players. So we watched the board, and waited to shut down Debbie's e-mail until her actions had clearly shown up there. We had a character ("seeker") on the WeTheFuture forum who was ready to spill the beans on a couple of occasions, but the players ultimately came through, and we didn't have to use her for that.

You focused more on developing the Exocog story than on the puzzle aspect. Did the players respond well to this?

I think it worked out fine. Some of us had tried to follow other web-based games but had fallen out of the game because the puzzles in those games — including The Beast, to be honest — simply took more time than we could devote to them. And once you fall out of games like these, it's very difficult to get back in. So a primary design principle for us was to make the game very easy to get into, but compelling once you got there. As much as we loved the people who put a lot of time into their participation, we also hoped to attract people who might spend only five minutes on a game site, but would come back every day. Some of that is based on a naive theory of marketing that says that you want people thinking about your product all the time, but it's also just another perspective on what makes for an interesting game. Nevertheless, if you were looking to be challenged by big, nasty puzzles, this wasn't the game for you.

Of course, we did add some puzzle components into the game as it progressed — a few variants on password guessing, and a little bit of document encryption. But even these were pretty simple, to keep the cost of entry to the game low, and they were tied back into the story in various ways. For instance, we had no doubt that the players were going to plow through the ROT13 encryption on Richard's "random stuff" document pretty quickly. But by using something as simple as ROT13, we were able to preserve at least the feeling of a player breaking the encryption on a document, especially to those people who would have found it difficult to handle something more sophisticated, and to bring out something about one of our characters (i.e., that Richard wasn't the most computer-sophisticated guy around).

But another way to interpret the interest in puzzles is that it's really an desire for interactivity — of being able to do something more with this world than sit back and read about it. So a place where we ended up putting a lot of effort — none of which was planned before the game, by the way — was the volunteer testing and the various submissions on the Institute site. These provided outlets for people who wanted to really dig into the Exocog world, and I can't say how pleased we were by what those folks did. It also meant that we got some help in creating the content for the site, which was also great. One of the feelings you get in doing a game like this is that there's a large number of people out there, all of whom are shouting "FEED ME!!!". You can never create enough content to keep your audience happy, and bringing the audience into the game as co-creators is not only a pragmatically smart thing to do, it's one of the unique opportunities of this genre — it's something you just can't do with a traditional book or screenplay.

Do you have an opinion on why most of the alternate reality games so far have sported SciFi storylines?

I think it's a combination of things. I hate to fall back on the old stereotype of Internet people liking sci-fi and RPGs, but, well, there's some truth in it (albeit less and less as the Internet becomes more mainstream). Plus, there's a tendency to "look where the light is good": designers want their games to be popular, and so they go to where other games have found an audience. But those aren't very deep explanations.

A more substantial thought is that, since these games take place primarily on the Internet, they're well-suited for depicting a world in which the things the players interact with are also on the Internet. So it's easy to do a future-oriented story on the Internet, because you can safely assume that all the stuff you need is there. (Plus, it's the future, after all, so who's to say you're wrong?) I suppose you could do a game set in the 1880s where people go to the "Western Union office" to send "telegrams", but it would take a little extra suspension of disbelief on the part of everyone.

Finally, science fiction stories tend to bring along a lot of backstory with them. How far in the future are we? Do we have space travel? Interstellar, or just local stuff? How smart are the computers? Any relevant medical advances? Just creating such a future world for exploration by its players could be a viable game if it were done right — sort of an Everquest, but in the future instead of the past. (Hmm…. :-) But, beyond that, if you're marketing a movie or TV show about such a world, you can use a game to get people familiar with your backstory so they'll be ready for the movie when it comes out. Or, you can just use it as a raw marketing tool — a way to get people thinking about your movie for an extended period of time without giving away anything critical about the movie itself. The presence of a substantial backstory needn't be a bug, it can be a feature.

But, having said all that, we need to be thinking more broadly about these kinds of games. If we don't push ourselves out of this sci-fi rut we're in, these kinds of games are going to remain a niche — an interesting one, but a niche nonetheless. I actually think it wouldn't be that hard to move to other areas, but that's another conversation….

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