Xi - A Digital Adventure


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Writer/producer David Varela talks about 'Xi', the world's first console-based ARG, at the Power to the Pixel event in October 2009 (at the London Film Festival). As well as details of the game itself, the presentation covers structure in digital storytelling; finding the right balance of gameplay and story; and working with the PS3's own virtual world, PlayStation Home.

The presentation includes full notes. A video of the talk can be found at http://www.babelgum.com/4005332?action=info

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  • I’ve only got ten minutes, so I’ll try to keep this short.

    First, I’ll tell you a bit about me and why I’m here.

    Then I’ll give you a very brief outline of Xi - the world’s first console-based Alternate Reality Game - with some background about PlayStation Home, which is where it lived for much of the time.

    And I’ll try to draw some coherent conclusions about storytelling, how to measure success, and how all this could help you.
  • I’m a writer. That’s my main skill. That’s my training.

    Really very traditional in background, writing for theatre, radio, poetry, advertising, and film. Also directing and producing shorts.

    First exposed to games professionally when working on PXC in 2005 - an ARG that ran for two years, offering a £100,000 prize at the end of it. Started as a writer, but got more and more hands-on, producing a lot of the video and audio and getting stuck into all aspects of the production process.

    And I get bored easily. I never want to do the same thing twice - which means I’m always exploring but also might be why I was terrible at learning the violin. (Didn’t even make Grade 3.)
  • So, let’s talk about Xi. That’s the greek letter ‘xi’ up there, by the way. Or ‘xsi’, depending where you’re from.
  • Sony have created a virtual world called Home. You can access it for free through any PS3.

    You get an apartment, you design your own avatar, and you can hang around and meet your friends in the many public areas, like the bowling alley and the shopping mall. It’s a big social space.

    It’s already being used by movie marketers. Watchmen and Star Trek both recently gave away virtual clothes and furniture, and hosted Q&As there.

    But around 18 months ago, there wasn’t much to do there. It was very beautiful but vacant. People would come in once, have a look round, and see no reason to come back.

    Our challenge was to be that reason to come back. Like most websites or social networks, Sony just wanted to attract more of the people more of the time.

    And they wanted to build a sense of community between players - to actually help them make friends and have something to talk about even outside Home.
  • So we created Xi.

    I think of it as a 21st century soap opera - in the sense that soap operas were originally produced to keep a large audience coming back to watch the ads in between, and essentially, Xi is just an extension of that tradition. Just because you’re creating something commercial doesn’t mean it can’t have some real artistic and dramatic value.

    But unlike the old soaps, ours would use a wide range of different media simultaneously. Not just Home but the wider web, print publications, real-world live events - and about an hour of video segments...

    Updating every weekday for three months...

    In 5 different languages: English, French, Italian, German and Spanish.

    [Just to be clear, we were catering for Europe and North America only. There are different versions of Home for Japan and the rest of Asia, and we weren’t in those.]
  • Trust me, I’m a writer... but ‘Gameplay over story’. First and foremost, fun.

    Also, the soap opera parallel holds true here. The structure was multi-character, multi-strand, sometimes dramatic, sometimes quite domestic, uses weekly cliff-hangers, different plot-lines coming to prominence at different times -

    In this case, there was one core storyline involving our fictional heroine, Jess. I’ll summarise: She was one of the original developers of Home who suddenly went AWOL, leaving her colleagues to find out why and where she’d gone. It probably had something to do with the secret side-project she’d been working on, codenamed ‘Xi’. Now she was on the run around the world. That’s it in a nutshell.

    One of the magazines published a timeline of events once the game had finished. Fans of the three-act structure may wish to look away now....
  • As you can tell, it’s not a simple three-act story. Much more ‘soapy’ in its structure, and much more varied in pace.

    This might look rather all-over-the-place, but that’s one of the beauties of cross-platform game like this - you can surprise people, using different media and unexpected twists to take players into new and interesting territory. You really can expand the experience in almost any direction - and I’ll run through a few examples in a minute.
  • Just to step back a moment...

    From the start, we knew that Xi was a game. nDreams is a games company and Patrick, our founder, has worked in the games industry all his life. My role was to champion the storytelling side in the studio.

    In every ARG, there’s a different balance of gameplay and story, and in this case, the game side definitely took precedence because it was for gamers, about gamers. If there was a fun enough reason - and that’s a big ‘if’ - the story could be stretched to accommodate great gameplay.

    So this was a game for gamers. But it was probably the first ARG they’d ever seen - so needed to be accessible, not all zig-zaggy and disorientating...
  • So we created two types of challenges with two parallel scoring systems: fragments and butterflies.

    Fragments: collected for completing online (mainly Home-based) games; accessible; single-player; relatively easy; closely tied to the plot; necessary for completing the game. 24 of these (2/week for 12 weeks).

    Butterflies: much more ambitious, difficult and interesting! Challenges. Optional; often offline; often collaborative; even multilingual. 20 of these.

    So that’s 44 puzzles and games, many of which had different mini-puzzles and levels within them.
  • Rather than go through all 44... here are three examples.
  • A specially-commissioned song by Paul Ballard with a puzzle in the lyrics. This video was playing on a loop in Jess’s apartment in Home. The song, which has a Romeo & Juliet theme, talks about ‘looking out over the balcony’. If the players went to the balcony of the apartment, they’d see a yacht that sailed past every ten minutes or so named ‘Capulet’. That was the solution. An easy one.
  • Another example: we created four different mazes within Home with dynamic walls that rose up immediately around you and would then drop down again as you walked away, so it was harder to get a picture of the whole maze. There were obstacles and hazards too, some of which required a bit of teamwork with your fellow players.

    This was a really neat example of using the features of Home - which was really designed as a social networking space - to create a game.

    We built a dozen new Home spaces for Xi, and we were really pushing the limits of the technology. Home is still in beta, developing and improving all the time, but it made it a real challenge to develop for when, essentially, the technological goalposts were always moving. But that goes for any new platform you work with.
  • A personal favourite, this one. We posted a video of Jess delivering a message in a fairly recognisable location - actually just round the corner from here by the IMAX. Behind her was a billboard with two letters on it. And at the end of the video we flashed up a series of very quick clues to other geographic locations.

    The players realised there would be other billboards in these locations in Birmingham, Rome, Milan, Madrid, Barcelona, Berlin and Frankfurt, and together, they formed a giant anagram.

    There was a frenzy in the forums online, across countries and languages, as people went out to find the billboard nearest them and report back. They solved it within 8 hours.

    What I love about this is the community spirit it created. And the sense of achievement the players felt afterwards was... well, hugely satisfying for all involved.
  • So, how did we do?

    There are many ways to measure the success of a project like this, so I’ll run through some numbers to give you an idea.

    There a few provisos to consider too.

    First of all, we had no above-the-line advertising at all. We didn’t have the budget. We handled almost all the PR ourselves too - and considering the whole game was made and run by a core team of six people, there was only so much promotion we could do. And there were no prizes - no big cash jackpot to grab the headlines or lure people in. So the fact that it got picked up by so many magazines and websites is an indication of the online word-of-mouth the game itself produced.

    Also, there was a naturally high barrier to entry. Yes, the game was free to play - but only if you had a PS3, and they cost a few quid, so our potential audience was automatically limited.

    So, our main aim was to increase traffic to Home. Over the three months, our central Home space - known as The Hub - had 4.5 million visits. That’s just one of the dozen spaces we built.

    Once the game ended, we made a slightly revised version of the Hub as a space for the community to continue hanging out. Even though it’s just a static space now, it’s had another half a million visits since the game ended, meaning The Hub had around 5 million visits in six months - which is about the same number as the Great Wall of China had over the same period. Factoid of the day.

    Anecdotally, some players said they went from visiting Home maybe once a month to spending over 40 hours a week in there. That’s only the most dedicated players of course, but that’s a full working week, for 12 weeks, fully immersed. Advertisers pay a fortune to get people’s attention for a 30-second TV spot. We grabbed people for hundreds of hours.

    Around half a million unique PS3s signed on and played Xi. That’s half a million machines. And more than one person played on each machine, so at a conservative estimate of 1.2 players per machine, that gave us around 620,000 unique players over those three months.

    But the community was out on the wider web too. Sony provided us with moderated forums in Europe and North America. These dedicated Xi forums had around 18 million views over three months, and tens of thousands of posts.

    Then there are the hundreds of videos posted on YouTube by players without us even prompting them, and the dozens of new fansites and blogs that sprung up around Xi and now continue to cover all things to do with Home.

    There really is a Home community now.

    And Sony were happy with us too.
  • I said I’d have some conclusions, so here they are. If you’re planning a cross-media project like this...

    ‘Find your balance’ - by which I mean the balance of story and gameplay. Figure out what your audience wants, and make that their reward: is it fun or is it narrative progress; an adrenaline-filled experience or some rich backstory on your characters? And bear in mind that a complex plot could baffle and lose a large proportion of your casual audience, as it gets harder to follow. Which leads me to my second point...

    Offer ‘A range of levels’ - fragments and butterflies - challenges for casual and more dedicated players, so they can pick and choose what they enjoy and how deeply they want to explore. This actually goes against the conventional wisdom of game design which says you should increase the difficulty as you go along. That’s fine if you’ve already sold someone the game in a box or you’re trying to whittle down the number of players. But if you want a lot of people to experience your adventure from beginning to end, don’t torture them.

    And the way to keep them hooked all the way to end is... ‘the element of surprise’. On the story side and the game side. Plot twists. Cliff-hangers. Games they’ve never seen before. Keep trying new things. When you’re not tied to a single medium, you can do crazy stuff like putting up billboards in Frankfurt or planting clues in a Malaysian lifestyle magazine.

    The point is, adventures like this give you the freedom for infinite variety. That’s their beauty. You can create something to attract almost everyone.

    So by expanding your audience’s experience, you’ll expand your audience.

  • Contact details.
  • Xi - A Digital Adventure

    2. 2. The next ten minutes Who am I? A brief history of Xi (including an intro to Home) Some conclusions
    3. 3. About me Writer turned producer From old-fashioned media Worked on Perplex City Never do the same thing twice
    5. 5. The challenge Sony’s new virtual world: PlayStation Home Increase repeat visits Create a community
    6. 6. The solution A 21st century soap opera Home, web, print, real world, video Updated every weekday for 3 months 5 languages
    7. 7. A word about story
    9. 9. This is a game
    11. 11. A few examples
    16. 16. Those conclusions Find your balance A range of levels The element of surprise
    17. 17. davidv@ndreams.com davidvarela.com Tw: @writingstudio