CULTURE HACKER focuses on how tech impacts storytelling. Media consumption is changing and Culture Hacker looks at how the collision of gaming, music, film and technology is changing the way stories are told and delivered to audiences.
You may have also heard there was an ARG associated with it – or maybe you didn’t. While the game received some media attention right before the launch of Portal 2, it slid past ARG communities without making much of a wave.
The Portal 2 ARG project was a collaboration between several indie studios and Valve. Most of the game was rolled out through hidden content in 13 indie games sold together as “The Potato Sack” on Steam. Playing those games led you to hidden levels and messages from the Portal’s antagonist GLaDOS, and ended up being the key to getting Portal 2 several hours ahead of its official release time.
This game tried a lot of things that are outside the normal scope of ARGs, and I feel like there are valuable design lessons to be learned here.
1) Partnerships are Awesome
Because the ARG was created as a partnership between a large group of video game designers, they were able to deliver the game as a series of easter eggs in video game that were already fully developed and polished. That’s something indie ARG creators wish they could do, but very rarely can.
The additional content inside the games was polished, and the sort of content you could only get from putting quality designers on the project. The GLaDOS levels in Rush and Toki Tori were designed to have the same feel as Portal – they challenged you to be creative with the game’s existing teleportation mechanics. I felt like I was getting a little taste of Portal 2 as I was playing them.
After the game came to its conclusion, we learned that these indie designers were principally involved in designing the entire experience. They created everything from tweets to puzzles to youtube videos and music. The total budget? $100.
The ARG was a labor of indie love designed by Portal fans, who were given free reign to work with the Portal characters and access to Valve resources. I wish I had known this from the beginning because it would have made a big difference in my second point:
2) Don’t Build Your Pay Wall Too High
The primary content for the ARG was distributed through the Potato Sack – 13 indie games that sold in a package on Steam for $38.72. For someone with very limited entertainment cash, that is quite a lot of money.
However, about four days before the release of Portal 2, a little birdie let me know who was responsible for the ARG, and my attitude toward the pay wall shifted completely. Over the course of the next 3 days, I bought Cogs, Rush, Toki Tori, and The Wonderful End of the World for a grand total of $15.
The pre-sale for Portal 2 was priced at $45, so the Potato Sack cost almost as much as the game it was promoting. By contrast, $15 felt like a pretty natural stopping point. (This is pretty comparable to other experiences behind pay walls – the print version of Cathy’s Book retails for $17.95.) That $15 was doled out in four purchases of $5 or less. The option to buy the games individually was the only reason I didn’t just smack into the pay wall face first.
The only thing I can conclude here is:
3) Screw the Curtain
If there’s something cool about the way your project was established, there is no reason to keep it a secret. Valve partnering with indie game designers to create a Portal ARG is cool, and worth supporting. The desire to keep coy and quiet about the history behind this ARG may have kept it from ubiquity.
There’s also a fundamental sales pitch difference. The idea of paying $39 to be advertised to is ridiculous, but it’s reasonable to spend that money to support an indie ARG team.
4) Countdowns Can be Compelling
As the endgame approached for the ARG, a page with a countdown timer was revealed. When that timer ran out, it led to another countdown timer. It sounds like a parody of ARG design, but it worked – and very well – because player interaction drove changes in the final countdown.
Participants had to play the games in the Potato Sack, and earn the secret challenge badges in them, to release Portal 2 ahead of the release time given on Steam. The countdown was a measure of player progress and a call to action, which made it far more interesting than a countdown alone could be. This was another area where the video game roots of the ARG really made for something great.
It didn’t hurt that it was counting down to a much-anticipated event, either.
5) Exclusivity is a Design Flaw
I’m not going to lie. Several times, especially near the end of the game, I was earned my potato badges by replicating cheat videos on YouTube. The extra levels in each of the games were more than challenging; they were hard – and as the clock ticked down, I realized I didn’t have time to beat them by my wits alone.
The previous Portal 2 extended reality campaign, which released last year with the free release of Portal, also had this issue. I had no idea that the extra content in Portal was extra, because I was playing the game for the first time. The content was also a challenge to get to, and in many later levels required a lot of experimentation and gaming skill. It seemed as though the experience was designed to reward veteran players who had mastered the game years ago. That seemed odd, considering the point of giving Portal away was to bring in new players.
This may be a fundamental philosophical difference between video game design and pervasive fiction design. As a storyteller, I seek to create intimacy with the audience. Making players struggle to reach content is one way to make an interaction seem meaningful and personal, but it is far from the only way.
More importantly, it is a bad way to do things if you want to make an experience that will engage a lot of people. To experience the Potato Sack ARG in its entirety, you not only had to buy all of the games, but master them and beat their most challenging levels. That’s quite a lot of work to get to the meat of an experience.
We usually design ARG experiences with late rabbitholes, and mechanisms that allow trailblazers to unlock content for everyone. If you treat every new player as though you expect them to be a trailblazer, only the trailblazers actually play the game. That’s not such a terrible thing if your goal is to create buzz – but when you want people to cross a pay wall, things get a little different.
6) We Can Still Pull Players “Behind the Scenes”
Several players who had been active on the game’s wiki were “kidnapped” during the course of the game. At first, I wondered if Valve had planted fake players – an unpopular but unfortunately common practice.
As it turns out, those players were brought behind the scenes and invited to Portal 2’s launch party as a reward for being active in the ARG. This is something Dave Szulborski did in Chasing the Wish, and it adds a nice layer of audience collaboration to the mix.
7) April Fool’s is a Bad Launch Date
The Portal 2 ARG launched on April 1, which might be aptly called “International Online Fiction Day.” The internet is flooded with interactive and pervasive fiction pieces on April Fool’s, most of which don’t go any deeper than a few web pages and only last one day, as our yearly ritual prescribes. This game got lost in the static, especially after it picked up the name “Potato Fools Day” – which implied that the game was a joke.
BONUS: Music Keeps the Experience Alive
This one is more of a protip than a serious lesson. The popularity of Portal spread in part thanks to Jonathan Coulton and his catchy end credits tune. “Still Alive” has become such a gaming anthem that children’s choirs are performing it, and Portal 2 is continuing that tradition two key songs for the new game. The ARG creators took cues from that, and (along with several remakes of Still Alive) released some original music for with experience.
As disruptive technology is forcing the entertainment industry to either evolve or die, more creators should talk to smart people like Henrik.
Below is our interview.
Please introduce yourself.
My name is Henrik Werdelin. I am the managing partner at Prehype. We are a group of product developers who bridge the world between entrepreneurship and corporations by spinning new digital startups out of big companies and then selling them back to them. My background has always been around experience design and innovation; from running the product development for MTV International over startups like Joost and Hotpotato to working in venture capital.
What were your highlights from SXSW? One big moment was the when I experienced first hand the power of social promotion as I stood next to Gary Vaynerchuk when he announced the location of his yearly SXSW wine flashmob. It was incredible to see a room filling from 5 people to over 300 in under 20 minutes. It made me think about how much impact our new social tools have. Normally when we do products and get e.g. 10.000 signups, we feel its only a marginal win. However, seeing 300 people poring into a room within such a short time was quite humbling.
Based on your background in experience design and innovation, how would you tell a transmedia story? I know it might sound like a bad answer, but I think it very much depends on what the story is. New media are just tools that you can use to tell stories in a new – and often more engaging way. I feel too many media companies try to add new media components to their storytelling just to add those tools – and not because they add value to the story. They also often forget to fully understand how a users daily flow is – and then mold their use of technology around peoples behavior – instead of assuming that they can move people across different new mediums.
Who do feel are the most innovative storytellers and what can creators learn from them? I think good storytellers – are good storytellers. Most of the more innovative ones uses new technology too add impact to their narrative. That can be from clever use of social media to establish suspense (like the blairwitch project), to simple game shows that adds user participation via sms (think American Idol), over CNN’s way to include their viewers via iReporter and finally people who use digital tools to tell a story. (like the guys who did http://pleaserobme.com/). However, clearly the game developers have managed to engage users in self-made storytelling and that is where I think we will see the most innovation come from.
Favorite books and blogs? - The Singularity is Near
- The Paradox of Choice
- A mind of its own
How would you make social games more social? Move more of the gameplay outside the web and into real life.
Can film studios learn anything from startups? I think everyone can learn from startups. A few lessons;
- Its hard to judge your own ideas in a board room. Therefore, find methods where you can produce components cheap enough to test it against real users and then build on it if it turns out to be successful.
- Identify if your incentive structure is aligned with your objectives. E.g. if you dont think your teams take enough risk, you probably have a structure where only playing it safe is compensated
- Think less – do more…
Will Netflix keep winning in an increasingly competitive market? Yes. By being restrictive in their deal structures – studios have up to now prevented a healthy industry of innovative distribution partners
What are going to be the next major trends in the entertainment industry? Gaming seems to be one of those industries that keep taking market share from the traditional entertainment industry. I think we will see more innovation from the game world. The last sprint was social gaming – but I think this form of entertainment that engage users will see more growth. Finally I think the user generated trend will continue also. As the barrier to entry into the entertainment industry goes down you will see a raise of independent overnight sensations.
peter katz is an award winning filmmaker based in Los Angeles. Peter has produced genre films that have screened all over the world from the AFI Fest to the Rome Film Festival. His first picture Home Sick starred Bill Moseley from The Devil's Rejects and Tom Towles from Henry Portrait Of A Serial Killer. Next Peter worked with Tobe Hooper (director of Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Poltergeist) on Mortuary, which premiered on the Sci Fi Channel. Most recently he was a producer on Pop Skull, a psychological ghost film, that has received great reviews in Variety and numerous film web sites. Currently, Peter is developing projects across various mediums including film, comics, and the web.
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“The Greak Work” is a documentary by two Swedish filmmakers, Oskar Östergren & Fredrik Oskarsson (details at the end) about 30-year-old Christer Böke from Malmö, Sweden. He has taken one year off from his well-paid job as an IT-salesman to become a full-time Alchemist. The film concerns mankind’s eternal ambition of wealth and immortality and one mans dedicated struggle to solve “The secret of all secrets”. This struggle is known at The Great Work.
What’s particularly interesting about this project is that the filmmakers have teamed up with an independent game designer, Niflas, to create a game to complement the movie.
The Great Work will be screened on SVT (Swedish Television) as a 58 minute version, winter 2011. So don’t forget you heard about it here first!
Here’s the movie trailer…
About the Documentary
The documentary follows Christer from the day he leaves the city to the first day back at work the next year. During this year he moves to the island of Gotland on the Swedish countryside where he builds a laboratory in his dead grandfather’s garage, he lives three months in France to study the language and exchange ideas with French alchemists. He keeps a blog and starts writing a book. He has a big argument with his best buddy and fellow alchemist since 15 year (they later reunite). He uses his “detective skills”, makes lots of experiments and gets closer and closer to his interpretation of the “recipes” of how to make The Philosophers Stone.
The Idea for The Game
Rob: How did the idea for a game come about?
Early in the process, we discussed that it would have been nice to make a game for the film because the topic of alchemy itself invites such thoughts. We had spent hours with our friend and the main character Christer Böke where we tried to solve “word puzzles” in old alchemical manuscripts and quotes that could lead you to the right subject which the great alchemist Fulcanelli was talking about.
At the same time I read an article about “Nifflas” and his game, Saira. We thought that a collaboration with him would be exciting and he lived in the same town and we had some common friends.
Together, we concluded that the game should stand on its own but our main goal was off course to use it as advertising for the documentary film. We had never really heard about a collaboration between a documentary and a indie-gamemaker. We have a strong interest in games and its form of narrative, and we thought the theme of alchemy would be suitable for Nifflas as a game developer. And, after our first meeting we felt that it could work out very well!
When we contacted Nicklas the first time he was skeptical about cooperating with us. He had expected the documentary would be about a major political topic and could not see the similarities with his own narrative, often based on a specific mystery and a character-driven portrait. Once we met everything fell into place and our collaboration has been great.
Nifflas never had any problems understanding our characters who defied science in search of “the philosopher’s stone”. Many of our financiers from the world of television and film were very doubtful about whether the story was real and at the same time are provoked by a person who claims to believe that he will be able to solve this amazing riddle. People think our documentary character must be a crazy guy or else we’re trying to fool them with a mocumentary. In the game world, however, these kinds of stories are not so strange and Nifflas could directly relate to our character and never doubt our way of telling his story.
The Relationship Between the Documentary & Game
Rob: How would you describe the relationship between the documentary and the game – in terms of story, marketing, possible revenue model?
Our main story in the game is very similar to the film’s alchemical elements, that through the characters and manuscripts find different things that will lead you to new discoveries that will then guide you through the story of the great goal of making the Philosopher’s Stone.
All these characters are people from the alchemical history or allude to contemporary alchemists from the documentary and their aliases used on various internet forums. For example, you will meet our main character (Christer) who in the game is called “Spintheros”. Google that name and you will find a number of posts and articles written on various forums of our man Christer Böke.
From the beginning, we had much bigger ambitions for the game. We tried to make a budget so that Nifflas could work full time for a long time. We were sitting with Nifflas and Christer and brainstormed ideas that later turned out to be too advanced for an average gamer to understand. We had some intense discussions with Christer about this. He knows so incredibly much about the subject and couldn’t really see why some things were too advanced. For example we had a long discussion about whether people know the Periodic Table and all the latin names and planet/gods related to these.
Together with that and a much smaller budget we developed a simpler and much shorter game. We found 50% of 30 000 skr (4500 dollar) to pay Nifflas to program our idea. We got this money from Filmarc (www.filmarc.net) and he started to develop environments and how the puzzles could be adapted in the game. Then we discussed the characters and which different material we would use in the game. Material like Stibnit, Galen etc. It was very important that this material was familiar to alchemists. when people play the game they should know that this is not just some random stuff – it’s the real thing. You will get a very good idea how to start your own alchemical experiments by playing the game if you want…and some grand secrets too.
Marketing & Business Model
Already at the first meeting we decided that the game would be free and marketed freely from both our site www.grtwrk.com and Nifflas website. We were aware of Nifflas position among indie gamers and wanted them to recognize his style. To access the gamer audience, we have made a menu in the beginning of the the game that includes the trailer for the film, we will also add a direct link to the film that allows players to download the movie via the game. This could get us in some trouble with the Swedish Televison but I think they will understand our idea when we release it – they tend not to like it when you put stuff from the film on internet before you have screened it on TV. (www.studioparallell.com who made the menu for both the movie and game ensured that they’re the same style).
Last but not least, we will use open-source code so people can make their own puzzles and characters – perhapsbased from the discussions in the film or from discussion that will come after you seen the movie. Alchemists always debate “the true matter”.
We have also discussed posting the script ahead of the movie release. The script contains the high-end solutions based on Christers hardcore alchemy puzzle. Some of the puzzles in this game will certainly also be discussed on alchemy forums and then it will be interesting to see if you are able to influence the game. For example, if it should be Stibnit or any other topic and then the player can change this can do their own version of the game.
We see the game as an interesting model to distribute the film in larger circuits because we think some relevant audiences might otherwise never discover our film. Even after several days, Nifflas’ game trailer 10 000 hits on youtube. All these people also visited our website to learn about the film. Similarly, Nifflas will get people who never played his game to visit his site and maybe even play more of his game. It’s a great cross-collateralization of audiences.
Partnering with a game is also a way to get the film’s story to survive and develop. Our main character and our film will hopefully create a movement on the internet which questions the scientific truths and interests people to go deeper into the subject. It is obvious that Christer has become very well-educated when he read and researched about alchemy. And, imagine if you in a playful way, can get people to understand that learning can be presented in different ways than through ordinary books or teachers that is rarely questioned. So we hope this cooperation will both promote our film and the game as entertainment but also educate and raise ideas that can live on after the premiere of the movie, and become more than a DVD and a game on your PC.
We must look at how the gaming industry markets itself. The film industry is hopelessly behind and the music industry has begun to learn with Spotify, itunes, etc.. To survive as a documentary filmmaker, we need to think outside the box to survive. This may be one way?
In order to spread among gamers we focus on blogs and forums. To get them to see the film, we understand that we need to make it as easy as we can for them to download the movie as well. We hope to find a solution to this by uploading the movie on iTunes or similar channels and then place a link to this page in the game. We also run a facebook group and website and through these we hope to communicate with our audience. Then we will try to get som material published in traditional media like newspapers and say, culturalnews on TV. But, above all, we hope that the movie and the game spread itself through short clips on youtube, blogs, forums, Twitter, etc.
Example Puzzle & Initial Game Meeting Video
Mineral Stibnit + Mars (Iron) + owen – regulus of antimon + Caput mortuum
Give the Regulus av antimon to character ”Newton” – he will then give you a glove, that you can climb with.
Give Caput Mortuum to ”Spintheros” – and he will give you the second glove and now you can climb the roofs.
This video is from one of the first meeting together with Nifflas and our main character Chriter. They discuss ideas about the developing of the game (it’s in Swedish, naturally!).
We hope that both the film and the game is fully completed in June but we still have not decided whether we will be releasing the game a bit earlier.
We will soon have a meeting and try to find a good strategy for this. Anyway, the documentary has been scheduled for a television premiere in October in Sweden.
We would also like to show the movie at some film festivals abroad and try to do a screening in which the visitors before and after have the opportunity to test the game at the cinema. One could also imagine an exclusive screening where our main character performs a simple experiment with the audience. We try to think that we should give the people who come to watch the movie something beyond the expected.
About The Filmmakers: Oskar Östergren & Fredrik Oskarsson (oskar&oskarsson)
Oskar Östergren(born 1976) and Fredrik Oskarsson (born 1979), both born and raised in Swedish Lapland. We are educated at ”Nordens Documentary Film School, Biskops-Arnö” (2002-2004) and, since 2003, we run the film production company oskar&oskarsson based in Umeå, specialising in documentaries. Our productions have been co-produced with SVT Dokumentär and Film i Västerbotten and besides directing and producing films we teach documentary film making at The Academy of Fine Arts in Umeå and work as photographers and editors for other productions and TV-shows. Our last SVT Co-production “The Police and Lapland” has been seen by more than one million viewers on SVT.
Contact: +46 70-555 13 17 (Oskar) or +46 70-640 23 67 (Fredrik); Email: oskar at oskarochoskarsson.se or fredrik at oskarochoskarsson.se
robert pratten Robert Pratten is CEO and Founder of Transmedia Storyteller Ltd, an audience engagement company and provider of Conducttr, an pervasive entertainment platform. He has more than 20 years experience as an international marketing consultant and has established himself as a thought-leader in the field of transmedia storytelling. He is author of the first practical book transmedia storytelling: Getting Started in Transmedia Storytelling: A Practical Guide for Beginners.
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