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Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Alternate Reality Killed the Radio Star

So I just finished the BBC ARG Jamie Kane. As a genre, Alternate Reality Gaming is still pretty nascent. It relies heavily on an active community willing to help inform people about invitations or game starts (called rabbit holes by ARGers) and frequenly on that same community to solve puzzles brute force style. A kind of distributed detective if you will. This all feeds into the viral nature of ARGs and why they generally serve as a kind of guerilla marketing.

Jamie Kane is really a very different beast (no pun intended). The game is easily accessible via the BBC's website and offers very simple largely flash-based, mini-games in lieu of complicated logic puzzles (which the ARG community still chews through in an extremely rapid manner). Rather than gamemasters which monitor the success of the community and manipulates factors of the game accordingly, Jamie Kane moved along at a very steady pace aided by the chatterbots which comprised it's characters. Largely a daily interaction between a fake emails, fake messageboard, a fake instant messenger, and a fake online program ... Jamie Kane is designed around a solitary experience to give players about 20-30 minutes of entertainment within that cycle.

In some ways, this has to be a major turnoff to the serious ARG devotee who requires a serious challenge of combing through websites looking for wildly obscure clues and comparing notes with fellow serious ARG devot, it was ees. The community is half the fun in a normal ARG as you build and dismantle theories about the mysteries. In Jamie Kane though, everything is laid out for you by the fictional characters and they just need the occasional helping hand.

Still, it's hard not to wonder if Jamie Kane doesn't offer some serious lessons for the genre. Prior to trying out this game, I don't think I would have reacted to the suggestion of an ARG aimed for the 14-16 year old market with much more than some random blinking. The complexity of some ARGs is one of the things that becomes a barrier. Sure, they're great for viral marketing, but sometimes it's hard to feel involved with a large group of people all trying to solve puzzles. During the middle part of ILB, it was very possible to log into the Unfiction forums only to discover that every bit of new found info had been picked through and every puzzle solved. Then of course ILB finished with a payphone scavenger hunt and only people within certain physical locations were really terribly active in the game.

Jamie Kane, on the other hand, allows each player to play equally. There's got to be a compromise here. Content which is perhaps a little more mature, puzzles which might take longer to solve and more sleuthing but at the same still focused on the single player. It's hard to imagine who it will all work out though, when the examples are really very opposite from one another.

In the end, congratulations are in order for the Jamie Kane team. It was a very polished job. I had the occasional problem (like when Greta refused to talk to me just because I said "blimey"), but for the most it was without a hitch and top notch. Hopefully they'll try something again, maybe for a more adult audience.

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