Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Guest Post: Lessons Learned Designing a Mobile Game for Balboa Park

Today, a guest post from one of the people who inspires me: Ken Eklund. Ken is a game designer and writer who develops narrative, collaborative augmented reality experiences about serious issues. When I worked briefly with the Balboa Park Online Collaborative to conceptualize a mobile phone-based game to connect visitors to the park to its cultural institutions and history, I knew Ken would be the perfect person to make it happen. Now, that game, GISKIN ANOMALY, is live. In this post, Ken shares some surprising lessons learned so far.

What’s the opposite of Voicemail Hell? Giskin Anomaly

Right around Thanksgiving 2010 a strange story began to unfold in Balboa Park, San Diego. An official-looking decal for the “GISKIN ANOMALY SURVEY PROJECT” appeared on a window in the park. It has a 800-number on it (877-737-3132) and a three-digit ID number (131). But “official” it is not. When San Diego visitors dial the 800-number and then the ID number, they get past the smoke screen and hear a character named Pandora, who tracks down "anomalies", leave messages for someone named Drake, who then decodes them. The “anomalies” are ghost thoughts from the past left by people who were in Balboa Park during World War Two, and still somehow tethered to the landscape.

As I said, a strange story. Mysterious! Intriguing! And of course, not exactly true. GISKIN ANOMALY is a “historical fiction” game I created for Rich Cherry and the Balboa Park Online Collaborative. They asked for an experience that could transform how you perceived the Park – whether you were new or had lived in San Diego all your life. And widely accessible. Play any time, as much as you like, and play with any cellphone. The goal was to design an audio tour for people who never do audio tours.

GISKIN ANOMALY is now pretty much complete, getting good numbers, and winner of the silver MUSE award at AAM in the Games/Augmented Reality category. What are the lessons learned?

Lessons Learned 1: Build it, and they will come
We thought GISKIN was cool and different, but was it cool and different enough to actually attract people to the Park? Was it too weird? We had a hard time describing it (still do) and worried about this.

We shouldn’t have. We got over 1,000 calls our first day. Lesson: Have faith in your community. If you think something’s cool, chances are they will too.

Lessons Learned 2: Learn as you go
GISKIN has 7 episodes, and it would have been normal, I suppose, to get them all ready, then launch. But as it happened, I got the first episode completely ready (to completely test out the concept and the voicemail system) and then launched it. Then I wrote the second episode, produced it, launched it, and so on. This had an expected benefit – we got something in front of people quicker. And an unexpected one – everyone on the team could learn as we went along what worked and what didn’t, and we could dial in more of what worked.

Lesson: when your project, like GISKIN, really depends on the end experience, there’s no better way to evaluate it than to produce a bit of it and experience it complete and in situ.

Lessons Learned 3: This is not a museum talking (what a relief!)
Being a museum must be exhausting – you have to know so much and speak so carefully. What a relief it was to not have to worry about that. In GISKIN, Pandora and Drake aren’t museum people: they have no special knowledge; they ask the same questions the audience is asking and don’t always get answers. They leave LOTS of room for the audience to ask their own questions and fill in their own answers.

Lesson: An answer is like the proverbial fish: it only feeds someone for a day. The freedom to ask questions, however, will feed someone for a lifetime.

Lessons Learned 4: The stakes are high stakes
GISKIN players follow Pandora’s directions to find markers that show Drake exactly where the anomaly is located. We use simple plastic surveyor’s stakes. To get permission to place stakes like these in a city park is not a trivial matter (it can be hell, in fact), but it’s absolutely essential for the gameplay. Finding the stake is a simple moment of pure joy for the player.

Lesson: don’t compromise on the gameplay.

Lessons Learned 5: Something for everyone
I happened to see a family playing GISKIN, and I asked the young boy (maybe 12 yrs old) what the game was all about. “It’s the coolest ever,” he said. “You find one of the markers and then you call the number and there’s blah blah blah, but then they tell you where to find the next marker.”

Lesson: one person’s carefully crafted, incredibly nuanced narrative is another person’s blah blah blah. Embrace this truth. And then make your game rich enough that it is still “the coolest ever.”

Lessons Learned 6: The storyteller’s ego
In GISKIN, Drake and Pandora are following the thoughts left behind by a small group of people during WW2. The first episode are thoughts from 1941, shortly after Pearl Harbor, and the last episode is 1945, shortly before the end of the war. It’s a great storytelling arc, but... it takes you a couple hours to experience it all. Most people can’t or won’t (certainly, they don’t) take that much time.

The lesson here is a really important one for today, and it’s this: the storytelling ego that’s so important in non-participatory media can be a liability in participatory media. I probably should have considered a series of standalone mini-stories. Watch out for that moment when your desire to tell a story your way begins to undermine your player experience.

Lessons Learned 7: Use your mythic power
GISKIN works well because, at heart, it taps into something mythic: we wish places really could talk and tell us about events that happened there and the people who were there before us. It’s hard to explain this well in words, but it’s dead obvious when you’re in Balboa Park and listening to a spooky-sounding voice out of World War 2: you wish this were really real.

Lesson: what myths are working for you in your game or participatory project? If none, why the heck not?

Ken will be checking in to answer your questions on the blog all week. You can find out more about GISKIN ANOMALY at http://giskin.org. To experience it remotely, try the Online Walkthrough.

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