Why Smokescreen is the Best Game Ever*
* for what it's trying to achieve
When we began planning Smokescreen back in late 2007, alternate reality games (ARGs) were high on our minds. We'd just finished developing Perplex City, a 'classic' ARG that used websites, blogs, emails, podcasts, puzzle cards and live events to tell a story to hundreds of thousands of people around the world.
Perplex City ran for a record 18 months, ending in 2007, and its players were incredibly engaged in the game to the point of flying around the world, writing books, and networking thousands of computers together. It was this engagement that attracted Channel 4 to the possibilities of creating an ARG-like game for education.
There have been plenty of other successful ARGs, including The Beast, I Love Bees, and the Lost Experience, and most of them follow a similar formula: they run live for 2-3 months, they're avowedly social and multiplayer, and they require a relatively high level of commitment in order to participate fully.
This formula works well for games that promote a product or TV show launch, since you naturally want attention to be focused into a narrow period of time, and there's not a whole lot of point (in terms of product sales, at least) in having someone play a game two years after the product has launched. It also works well for ARGs that can piggyback off a large advertising campaign or a well-known brand, since you'll start with a larger base of fans who'll happily commit enough time to play (and we've benefitted from this ourselves in some of our games).
Smokescreen is not promoting a product or show - its goal is to illustrate the threats, dangers and opportunities of life online (something that teens are genuinely concerned about), and its lessons will be as applicable in three years time as they are now. We're not constrained by a narrow product-launch window, but we also don't have the kind of advertising support that other games might have.
With all this in mind, we went out to design a game that was optimised for that goal and for our circumstances. Very quickly, some major changes in the formula became apparent.
While the 13 missions of Smokescreen are being launched over two months, they are all completely replayable. It doesn't matter whether you play mission 1 now or in six months time - it'll still be the same mission, and you won't have missed a thing. We also allow people to play the missions out of order, so if you want to skip a mission or go back, you can do that.
The benefits of making missions repayable are enormous - you can keep on attracting players for years, rather than confining yourself to a few months. Even now, over a year and a half after the launch of We Tell Stories, we still get thousands of readers every week, and that's with no marketing or publicity. Given the huge amount of time we spend designing, writing and developing each mission, it'd be incredibly wasteful if we didn't let people replay the missions.
Making Smokescreen replayable posed a serious technical challenge; it required us to create a way of tracking players' exact progress through every mission, and to automate every single interaction in the game. Very few ARGs have ever attempted to do this, since it's not really necessary in short campaigns, but this kind of tracking and automation generates other serious benefits. One of these includes incredibly detailed statistics about how long people spend on different points of the missions, and what they're finding difficult.
Of course, there are real downsides. The cost of automating the game means we lack the kind of human interaction and serendipity that many players love; we don't email players individually; we don't have live events where they can meet actors. Some people consider these things necessary and essential parts of ARGs, and to them, I'd have to concede that Smokescreen is not an ARG - it's something different.
Smokescreen is an avowedly single-player game. This allows players to proceed at their own pace, so they don't miss a single part of the game. Everyone gets to be the hero, everyone gets to do all the fun parts of the game (as opposed to watching someone else do them). Still, making Smokescreen single-player was a hard decision to make, since much of the joy of games and ARGs comes from social interaction. Sometimes you don't care about being the hero, as long as you feel like you've helped them.
The problem is that making a repayable ARG-style game that's also multiplayer is extremely difficult, from both a technical and game-design perspective, and it's not something we managed here. We've made some steps in this direction with our Werewolf 359 experiment, and no doubt we'll continue on this path.
But for Smokescreen, I know we made the right decision - this is a game that has a very specific goal, and it's one that's served by being single-player.
You need real dedication to play a game where there are no instructions, no feedback, and no hints - never mind any puzzles or codes you might have to solve. Yet that's what many ARGs are like (including, yes, some of our previous games).
ARGs have gotten away with this because they're either aimed at people who enjoy solving difficult puzzles (e.g. Perplex City), or fans of a particular movie or TV show who are willing to put up with any amount of difficulty to be a part of the world they love. But this level of difficulty is just not tenable for a game that doesn't have a ready-made fanbase and isn't aimed to people who love puzzles.
So, Smokescreen is much easier to play than other ARGs. It has its challenging moments, and there will be some games and puzzles that may need a few plays to beat, but on the whole, it's pretty straightforward. But I'm not just talking about the difficulty of the game here - I'm talking about the structure that surrounds the game. Say you're stuck in a game and you can't figure out what to next; perhaps it's a really tricky puzzle, or maybe it's really easy but you're just overlooking something obvious. What do you do? Usually, you either keep trying until you succeed, or you give up.
There is a third option though - you can look for help. Gamefaqs.com has detailed walkthroughs for hundreds of games, and ARGs usually have player forums where you can get the same thing (I wrote a walkthrough myself for another ARG - it was a rather unwieldy 40,000 words long). These resources will almost always get you through the problem, although it can take a bit of searching and reading - and of course, many people don't know these resources exist at all.
Smokescreen has an built-in hint system. If you're ever stuck, you can just click on the 'Hint' button, and you'll find out what you need to do. And if you've just forgotten what it is you're supposed to be doing and don't want an explicit hint, you can just click on the 'Objective' button. Easy.
Nintendo is planning a somewhat similar feature for its new games, called Demo Play. The idea is that if you're stuck, you can press a button that will simply spirit you past the section you're having trouble with. Predictably, many purist gamers got very upset about this apparent infantilisation of games. From my point of view - and I suspect, from millions of others who've become frustrated with the high difficulty of many games - this is brilliant. There are plenty of games that I've enjoyed and poured hours into, only to be forced to give up because they eventually become too difficult. In any case, if you don't want the help, you don't need to press the button.
Players are also awarded achievements for completing objectives. Some achievements come naturally as part of playing a mission, and they provide a great reward and encouragement to players; others are much more difficult to attain, and encourage replaying the mission.
A major goal of Smokescreen was to make it as straightforward to play as possible. With a hint and objective system, and the lack of any kind of registration or instruction screen, we think we've made some great strides here.
I'm always surprised by the number of people I meet who know what an ARG is; I still remember when the term was invented. But I'm not surprised by what most of them go on to say - 'ARGs sound brilliant, but I don't have enough time to play them.' It's not simply that many ARGs demand hours and weeks of your life, at often inconvenient times. It's that you are usually given no indication as to what sort of time commitment is required before you begin playing, and so you imagine the worst (e.g. worse than World of Warcraft).
All of the missions in Smokescreen can be completed within 15 minutes. If you're fast, you finish do them quicker; and if you're new to games, it'll take longer, but any given mission will take less time than an short TV show. Once you've finished the mission, you're done - you can proceed on to the next one at your own pace.
So far, so good - but there's more. A progress bar shows you how far you've gotten through the mission, so you can tell if you're close to the end or not. And each mission is split up into separate tasks, so you can actually leave a mission halfway through and resume it from a checkpoint later on; no tedious retreading. This also means that if you like a particular part of a mission, you can revisit it with ease.
This is not a startling innovation; the 'save' option has been around in games for decades. It hasn't been a common feature in ARGs though, probably because it's technically difficult to implement, but we felt it was well worth the effort in Smokescreen.
Though Smokescreen has its roots in ARGs, we don't consider it to be one. It has the approachability that good videogames have (savegames, hints, achievements, etc), combined with the immersion, story, and engagement of a good ARG. Crucially, it simulates the internet. If you want to illustrate the threats, dangers and opportunities of life online, there is no better way than this.
James Grimmelmann, an Associate Professor at New York Law School and a world expert on online security and privacy, said this about Smokescreen:
"An amazing edugame about privacy and security online, presented in the form of overlapping IM windows social network site pages. I can’t begin to list the things it does right. It’s one of the best media literacy projects I’ve ever seen."
We're going to write more about some of the design decisions we made for Smokescreen, and a look at some specific missions to show how they work (and there'll be posts from a whole range of people who created the game, not just me!). We're also keen on comparing the value of using a game like Smokescreen for education, as opposed to other media such as TV, books, and video games. Watch this space...