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YSA Indie ARGs: An Interview with Jan Libby

Posted by admin on April 20, 2011 in Design, Development, Interview, Participation, Writing |

Jan Libby is a respected indie alternate reality game designer, whose day job is a freelancer working with brands to create interactive experiences. (Her impressive bio is at the bottom of this post.) Jan has recently run an indie ARG called Snow Town. I unfortunately missed the participating through the whole experience, but I wanted to hear more about how she has moved from doing long complex ARGs to short ones – an approach that would benefit new ARG creators. Wired covered the beginning of Snow Town, and here Jan shares a post-mortem on how she made the “short story ARG”:

Tell us a bit about your Snow Town ARG.

Snow Town is a short story ARG that is actually part of a larger indie project I’m creating titled “The Legend of the Snow People”. Long legend short: every 100 years the Snow People come to life, wreak havoc (crazy rituals, wild parties, etc.) and eventually terrorize the people in this small Maine village. This year, 2011, with the help of an on-line community (the ARG), the Snow People’s reign comes to an end… we hope. Of course, we won’t know for sure until 2111. Most of the ARG’s story played out on the main character’s blog, and the local library’s site. Although we used the comments section for some “in-game” conversation, there were also personal emails (between characters and players), voicemail messages, a guestbook, a virtual book club and also a hidden page within the library’s site.

You’ve commented that the short length of the ARG meant you could do more of your own indie ARGs, more frequently. Could you share more about what you did with this ARG to make it more manageable?

There is an enormous difference between creating a 10 to 12 week (or longer) ARG and a 2 week ARG. Finding the time from my brand work to design, write and prep a 3 month ARG is impossible, right now. So, last summer I began to shift my thinking about the size and scope of ARGs. I knew I wasn’t interested in making something “lighter” or more “casual”. Then, while searching for something to read at my town’s library, I stopped on a short story collection and had my aha moment. I realized I could still do a story that has the details and character development that I love, but change the scope from novel to short story. Seems ridiculous that I hadn’t thought of it before that point. So, to answer your question.. the story is shorter, fewer characters (due to time constraint), story delivery is a bit more centralized and the design of the roll out must fit into 2 weeks vs. 10 plus. This means you really have to figure out how to intro your characters and get them to connect to the community/players via the unfolding story within your first week. Last part of the first week and beginning of the second week are devoted to the characters and players, together, diving into the meat of the story events (conflict). Last part of the second week takes everyone to the climax and finally the conclusion.

Tell us a bit more about keeping the story and activity constrained to two weeks. Did you have a sub-plot for instance? How many player activities did you end up doing?

So many sub-plots with so little time… ha! With every ARG or Interactive Story I’ve ever launched, there are always many sub-plots that are “available”. Which sub-plots get explored depends on the choices and or interests of the Players/Participants. ARGs are like Soaps in this way. There can be a sub-plot tied to each character. Snow Town had sub-plots revolving around Ruthie Randolph’s love life, Edward Harmon’s love of Gin and drunken late night emails, Clare Haynes Triplet’s breakdown, Natasha Triplet’s secrets, a small one that never really unfolded involving Charles Gulliffer and another involving the ghost of Louise Hoskins that will be explored in the “Legend of the Snow People”.

Activities… Of course we were set up for heavy Character Interaction via email, comments and a Voicemail System. Most of that was designed to allow Players to build a relationship to the world and characters at first and then later to enter and impact the story. Due to the secretive nature of the story, we had 9 or 10 puzzle that had to be cracked to move forward. All of these puzzles tied to the “legend”. We used the pigpen cipher for most because it tied to the history of the legend. Other puzzles came out of character’s needs. Meaning, how would that particular person hide a message. And we had a live virtual Book Club Meeting that was really due to the interest of the Players.

How did you manage updates during the two week period: ongoing characters interactions and frequent updates?

Since the story was playing out in real time, the pacing of updates had to feel like it was actually happening in Snow Town at that moment in time. But, we also wanted to accommodate Players in different parts of the world, you shift some of your Characters habits. So, we had Clare and Edward for the late night crowd. Peg was usually up early updating. The Library and Ruthie had a schedule and rarely moved beyond it. So, back to your question.. we first thought about how we could have updates at different times of day to make the world feel like it was “living” and then connected (or assigned) those times to characters. Of course, some of the updating as we built up in the second week changed due to story events. We had a few nights where everyone was up late.

You’ve also commented on the ‘community theatre’ nature of your cast and crew, could you tell us a bit about that?

I’m living part-time in a very small New England town. The town’s history and people inspired Snow Town. While I was researching and working out the story for Snow Town, it became obvious that I should definitely make this project a “community ARG”. The cast and crew are my neighbors. My local library, general store and church became important locations within the Snow Town storyworld. Everyone was involved in one way or another… acting, making the snow mounds and snow people, puzzles, props, etc. I’m incredibly lucky to have some amazing artist, musician, photographer and filmmaker neighbors that jumped onto the project and truly made it come to life with me. Making Snow Town became the buzz of our town. We were all getting a little nutty from being snowed in all winter… and Snow Town became our escape.

How long did you spend developing the project? Did you write and design it all yourself and then involve the town for the production?

I started writing out the idea last summer. Probably spent a total of 8 weeks to dev and prep. (4 part-time and 4 full-time)This town is filled with a cast of characters and I must say that they inspired a lot of my story. They aren’t these exact characters but, let’s say they have some of the same “colors”. I was also fascinated with the history of this area. My research revealed so much about the violence that the early settlers created and endured. Maine was a brutal place. One thing that I touched upon, but didn’t have time to explore with the short story ARG, was the presence of many alternative religions. My high school history classes skipped the interesting fact that not only Puritans fled England to practice their religion, but many other, more off-beat and occultish, religions came as well.

Yes, I designed it… but like all my indies, my Cast, Crew, Friends and most of all the Players add and subtract to it as we roll it out. That’s true for the story as well. Some details get fleshed out and added as the Characters develop their relationships to the Players and other Characters.

Do you have some other tips for helping indie ARG creators get their projects actually out there, and finished?

Make it doable. Take a look at your story, characters, events and players. Is this ARG something you can execute? I see so many indie (and some pro) ARGs that are developed and then never launch due to the fact that the creators aren’t being realistic. ARGs don’t have to be delivered one way. You don’t have to make a “Why So Serious?” or “i love bees”. You could make a “Must Love Robots” or “Rookery Tower” or “Snow Town” or something like the recently launched “Abandoned Windmill”. Or maybe there is no linear story. Maybe you have an amazing idea that’s more of an ARG poem. Design to your talents and capabilities… what kind of experience is it? HUGE like an epic novel or more of a short story? What can you and your team execute? how many characters, events and platforms needed? where/how does it reach your players (and vice versa)? how many players can your story and design (and team) handle? Figure it out and then just do it.

Yar! Thanks Jan!

Jan Libby Bio: She created the popular indie alternate reality games – Sammeeeees & Wrath of Johnson (Sam II). The following year she was writer and interactive designer for LG15 Studios (on the hit Lonelygirl15 Series seasons 1 & 2). While working with LG15, she began to develop and write brands (Neutrogena and 20th Century Fox) into the show’s ongoing storyline. Jan then developed a transmedia television pilot with Kiefer Sutherland’s East Side Entertainment. She also partnered on Book 3 for the horror/sci-fi ARG, Eldritch Errors, with Brian Clark & GMD Studios. Jan now works as a writer/creator & consultant for media companies and agencies. Most recently, she wrapped on the Levi’s GO IV Game/Experience, an Interactive Adventure for Toyota Scion, and the Transmedia/Interactive Ford Focus Rally (with Amazing Race Prods) to launch the new Ford Focus.

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