The Chase is On!

by Jonathan Waite, contributing author
Dave Szulborski took a smidgen of time out from his hectic day and replied to some questions about his wildly popular new ARG Chasing The Wish. We appreciate this intimate look into the Alternate Reality of his world.

Chasing the Wish is an impressive campaign so far. Were you blown away from the flood of traffic upon launch, or was it within expected parameters?

The expectations for CTW have changed and grown during the period of development and then through the first month of the game. Based on my previous efforts and what I was initially trying to accomplish with CTW, I originally would have been happy with 200 or so registered players. As the game started to receive substantial "pre-game buzz" and the pre-registration numbers went above 500, I adjusted my expectations and goals. Even so, by the time the game went live, the numbers were reaching the upper limits of what I had ever dreamed of. And finally, the exposure on Slashdot and MetaFilter put everything through the roof and literally doubled the registration database in a day. I (and my various hosting companies) had to do a lot of scrambling to handle the increased traffic. Unfortunately, there are a couple more interviews and articles coming soon in other major media and internet outlets that may just double the size of everything again.

The interactivity is intense, although primarily limited to emails currently. What can players expect to see in the near future?

My plan always was to "ramp up" both the interactivity and the immersiveness as the game progressed, the desired effect being to make the player feel like they are constantly being more and more drawn into this imaginary world. So there will be a natural progression in the game, starting with basically e-mail only interaction, adding phone calls and IMs and eventually moving on to some live, real world, face-to-face interaction. Of course, with thousands of players internationally, it will be impossible to give everyone a chance to interact on all these levels but we're doing our best to distribute the interaction as evenly as possible. The increased levels of interaction are also intended to enhance the immersive nature of the game; everything should seem even more real as players start taking phone calls from live people and receiving actual items and artifacts from the game.

How are things around the CTW 'office'…any Puppetmasters ready to check into Klepsydra?

Anyone who has ever tried to do a game like this knows how demanding and time intensive they are; unfortunately, people who don't have that experience have no conception of how much work and dedication is involved. Consequently, there have been a good number of Behind The Scenes volunteers who haven't been able to participate or continue participating as they originally thought they might. I actually anticipated losing some of the volunteer crew as the game went on due to the projected length of CTW but didn't think it would happen so fast.

Luckily, in most cases, as people have dropped out, there have been more than enough volunteers to take on the specific tasks and roles required, necessitating only minor adjustments and additional work on my part. The bad thing is, when you are already literally devoting every waking moment to something, even minor adjustments can seem stressful and devastating. So, in answer to your question, I'm probably the only one ready for a stay at Klepsydra so far. I have them preparing a room for me now.

You say the game is scheduled to last six months. Have the players been keeping pace with what you intended from the beginning?

We're actually about a week behind my original intended timeline, but it's not really a big deal as the game is designed to be very flexible and responsive to the players' actions. These things are so very hard to predict and schedule accurately that you have to leave a lot of room for improvisation or risk having your well-constructed storyline fall apart. Some puzzles or tasks that I think will be solved or accomplished right away stump players and others that I think are tough, they solve right away. So it's dangerous to plan story related events around definite days or times, if they require the players to solve something first. CTW is actually designed, once we get past the introductory material, as separate story arcs or chapters that, for the most part, can be unfolded in any sequence or even simultaneously. Once we reach a certain part in the storyline, I will be able to extend or condense the timeline however I need to.

How does the team feel about automated archivers or site spiders? Are there tools that players are using that aren't "fair game?"

We're not really worried about the archive or web spider programs and what they can potentially turn up or find. In any work of fiction, no matter how carefully crafted, there will always be ways to prove it isn't real or consistent with the "real world." Fictional material, whether novels, movies or ARG games assumes that the reader or viewer or player is willing to "suspend their disbelief" for the duration of the experience. A player who spends their time looking for and obsessing over the "cracks in the facade" is going to find stuff; it's unavoidable, so why waste your time worrying about it? As far as other tools, for the most part, things have been okay. We've obviously had to stay away from puzzles that were entirely Flash-based due to the Flash de-compilers available (even though I don't believe anyone's broken the encryption scheme written into the scripting of the Flash based Synthasia password portal yet!) but we're constantly finding new technologies and methods to keep things interesting (can anyone say "self-destructing e-mail?") Just wait, there's a lot more fun stuff to come.

Who's the big fan of math coding on staff? Will we have to bone up on our linear algebra skills next?

The math encryption you've seen so far is just part of our attempts to give the players some new and different puzzle types. There are so many different types of encryption and secret message encoding out there that it's a shame that so many games depend on the same techniques and methods. This particular mathematical-based method happens to fit in very well with the concept behind the people or group using it too, so it just seemed like a perfect fit. Upcoming puzzles are going to require everyone to learn some new skill sets, we believe.

Chasing the Fish – brilliant. Player-run or PM creation?

No comment except to confirm that yes, it is brilliant.

Are you impressed with the amount of press, mainstream or otherwise, that the game has been getting?

Impressed and overwhelmed, actually. I mean, how many people can say that something they've created has been mentioned in both the New York Times and on the BBC in the space of a week? And, as I mentioned before, there is more on the way. I have already completed two interviews about Chasing The Wish for major media and internet outlets with a few more scheduled in the near future. I've also been contacted by a new up and coming international wireless network that is interested in licensing CTW or new game content for the debut of the network sometime next year. More on that as it unfolds.

To the best of your knowledge, are there any players going through on their own, without being part of a larger community? If able, can you express the split between players playing in communities and players playing individually?

I haven't broken out the actual numbers yet but my estimate from handling several of the e-mail accounts and viewing server traffic statistics etc, is that there is probably about a 40/60 split between players who interact regularly on the various ARG community sites and those who are playing entirely on their own and may never post on a Forum type site. More than half of the e-mails that we answer are from people that I never see on any ARG sites. Another interesting and challenging division in the player base has been between experienced ARG players and absolute newcomers to the genre. It's been a very difficult task to balance the experienced players' cries of "too easy and not enough content" with the "I'm overwhelmed" comments of the newcomers.

I'm not convinced we've found the right balance yet but I'm constantly monitoring and interacting with select groups of players to try and "fine tune" the story and the release of new material.

There are over 2,100 posts in the CTW area of Are you impressed with the ability of the players to track things and keep material organized? In that vein, any advice you want to give the masses about what to keep note, particularly?

Overall I've been very impressed with the organization and ingenuity the collective player base has shown so far. They have found a lot (but definitely not all) of the hints, clues, and intended mythological and literary references we've built into the game. The need for staying organized is only going to increase, however, as the game progresses and more and more sites, characters, and unsolved mysteries are added to the mix. Besides, it's a great source of reference for the PMs as the game goes on to try and make sure we stay consistent with what's come before. So please, encourage all the players to keep up the great work.

Jonathan Waite is a stalwart in the ARG community. He writes under so many aliases that he couldn't decide which one to use for this interview. He actively participates in the destruction of all things pink and fluffy. He thinks about the kittens.