Dateline November 7, 2002: Interview with Dave Szulborski of Change Agents and speedhuntingclub.com fame

April 27th, 2009

Dave Szulborski, PM for Change Agents: Out of Control, webmaster for speedhuntingclub.com, and all around nice guy, was gracious enough to take some time out his busy schedule to answer a few questions.

We hope to publish a follow up in a couple of days for fans of CAOOC to fill you in on the unsolved puzzles and some additional background on the storyline.

Q. How long have you been involved in playing these types of games?
A. My first experience with this type of game was Majestic for which I was a Beta tester. I had heard of the Beast vaguely around the same time but didn’t really understand what it was until it had almost concluded. I’m truly sorry I missed it in it’s original “run”.

Q. What do you find most compelling about Alternate Reality Gaming.
A. My favorite thing about AR (or immersive) games as a player is the way they blur the lines of reality and fantasy. A good game should have you feeling as if you’re living out an exciting and compelling story, like being in a movie or novel. Done right, these games can truly be called “virtual reality.” As a creator of this type of game, what fascinates me most is finding new and unique ways to tell and advance the storyline. That’s exactly how I approach an ARG project, as if it is a novel or screenplay I am writing. I have a lot of story ideas and concepts in my head but they are all useless without a way of conveying what I am envisioning to an audience. Let’s face it, it doesn’t take a lot of imagination and much creativity to make a few phony websites or to encrypt some clues and hide them in the source code etc. What makes a successful game is making the content you create a meaningful and coherent part of a larger, compelling story.

Q. Besides your obviously creative nature, what inspired you to create Change Agents: Out of Control?
A. CAOOC was actually the third ChangeAgents game in the last few years. The first one was created and played out during the Majestic Beta testing phase and was an attempt to amuse myself and the fellow Beta testers while we waited for the actual game to launch. I had coincidentally just gotten some new digital recording equipment which allowed me to record some new music like a “band” but playing all the instruments myself and was seeking an identity to put the music out under. Majestic had hinted around at possibly involving mind control themes so I came up with the idea of a rogue group of “agents” who used their music to combat secret mind control efforts. As it turned out, the early Majestic storyline was all about mind control and it had a lot of people wondering if the ChangeAgents were really part of the game. This first game lasted about a month and a half and involved about six websites, all pretty much conceived and designed on the fly. After Majestic launched and EA started their “Bios” program encouraging players to make their own mini-games using peripheral Majestic characters, I did a second ChangeAgents’ adventure that coincided with the last few months of the actual game. This game involved a lot more planning and forethought and was a month in development before running for about two months and incorporating a little over a dozen sites. This second game was also well-received by both the EA PM team and the Majestic community.

After Majestic I took a few months off, not really aware of any similar games or projects underway, until I stumbled upon Lockjaw, again unfortunately near the tail end of the game. The quality and success of Lockjaw and the community sites popping up at the time inspired me to do another ChangeAgents’ game and CAOOC was born. The storyline of CAOOC was inspired by my continued fascination with conspiracy theories, mind control technologies, universal mythology, and the struggle between technology/science and magic/mysticism.

Q. What did you find to be the biggest obstacle to creating Change Agents?
A. There were different obstacles associated with the different steps or phases in producing the game. In designing and creating the games, the major obstacle was my lack of formal training in web programming and development. Before beginning the ChangeAgents’ storylines, my own experience with web design was some basic HTML, and even that was extremely limited. In order to find effective and exciting ways to tell the stories I had in mind, I had to constantly learn new internet programming and design skills. I spent hours surfing the net and taking note of designs and technologies I liked and then did whatever I had to do to learn how to do it myself. This included buying multitudes of books on Flash, Photoshop, JavaScript, Perl, and on and on, as well as bastardizing whatever cool source codes I could get my hands on to make them fit what I was doing. Whatever I couldn’t find I designed myself. I still spend a few hours at least every week devouring whatever I can get my hands on that explains web design or programming.

As far as the execution of the actual CAOOC game, the biggest obstacle was the limited number of people playing the game. Since I was doing the whole thing myself and wanted to use personal interaction throughout the game, I never really wanted 100s of players but had planned on around 50 or 60 people. In fact, a few of the plot devices and real world events I had planned for later in the game would require about that many people to work. Unfortunately a few circumstances near the game launch prevented CAOOC from getting the players I thought it would attract. First, CAOOC launched right after Lockjaw ended and I had mistakenly assumed people would be anxious to find a new game. As it turns out, many were simply “burned out” from Lockjaw and not interested in doing anything new for a while. Additionally, there were rumors of Beast II starting up soon and many people seemed hesitant to commit to something else if that were coming soon. Right around the same time a few other less-than-stellar independent games self-destructed (anybody remember Codename Constellation?) making the environment even less encouraging for a new game from a relatively unknown source. These factors plus my unwillingness to “pimp” the game by spamming potential players and/or message boards probably limited the number of players throughout the game. The smaller numbers definitely kept me from carrying out some of the things I had planned for later in the game but, in the long run, probably allowed me to devote more personal time to each player interaction, making it a much more unique experience for those who were playing.

Q. Having created one of the most successful games to date, what advice can you offer for other potential PuppetMasters?
A. That really depends on how you define success for this type of game and what the actual goals of the PMs are. Any successful game though requires a lot of preliminary planning and development work. The surest way to kill your game and yourself is to just come up with a couple of websites, a puzzle or two, a general story idea and then go live, thinking you will do the rest as you go. You need to have everything in place before launching the game, including the complete storyline, and almost all the sites for the game. Not that a good PM doesn’t react to the players actions and decisions and adjust the story accordingly, but having a well-planned out foundation in place allows you the freedom to improvise in ways that make sense and fit the story. I actually write out complete character bios and histories for all the people and groups to be in my games in an effort to give them depth and believability and to establish guidelines in helping me determine their future actions and reactions. You can never have too much detail in the planning of the game. Write out all your ideas and storylines and read them over and over again to make sure they make sense. There’s nothing worse than putting something out there on the web and having someone point out an obvious mistake or inconsistency a short time later. Proofread, proofread, proofread! This is one of the major weak points to producing a game by yourself. It’s much easier for others to see your mistakes. The same goes for puzzles. If you are going to encode something, make sure you do it properly. There’s nothing more frustrating for a player than to spend hours and hours on a puzzle only to find out that he couldn’t really solve it anyway due to an error in it’s design. Also, puzzles should be well-integrated into the storyline. A puzzle just for the sake of having a puzzle that doesn’t make sense to what is happening in the game ruins the reality and immersiveness of the experience. There has to be some reasonable explanation for why that 12 year old character has Morse code giving away nuclear secrets hidden on his Dragonball-Z website, after all! Finally, don’t get discouraged by individuals criticism or negative comments. Don’t ignore them because there could be something valid in them that could really help your game but be true to your ideas, the ones that motivated you to undertake a huge project like this in the first place. You’ll need that passion to carry you through the long process of running a game (because it literally consumes your life!) Remember, very few people have actually designed and successfully completed one of these games and most of the critics and self-appointed experts out there have done little more than play a game or two or help compile a guide or trail. That doesn’t mean they know how to actually create something like this.

Q. If you had to do CAOOC again, what would you change?
A. The main change would be in the timing and manner of the launch. In my excitement I rushed into CAOOC without thinking it through completely. I underestimated the value of some well-orchestrated promo activity to build up a “buzz” for the game. Also, I would have liked to have had an opportunity to try some of the crazier real world events I had in mind if there had been enough players, numerically and geographically. One other thing I would change would be the appearance of readily-available Flash decompilers during the CAOOC game.

Q. How much time did it take to develop and run CAOOC?
A. CAOOC was in the planning and development stage for about 6 weeks before I launched it and I worked on it probably 4 to 6 hours a day, four or five days a week. Some days I worked well over eight hours on it, even after the game launched. I would estimate that pre-launch I put at least 200 hours into the game, divided up between research, writing, domain name searching and registration, basic site development and puzzle planning. The game itself was pre-scripted to contain two dozen websites and run for a three to four month period, depending on how fast things were solved etc. Because of circumstances that developed during the game, though, CAOOC ended up lasting three months and using a few short of twenty different websites. I spent a lot of time after the game launched re-doing puzzles and sites that relied to heavily on Flash. It was extremely frustrating to spend hours developing intricate puzzles and cool interactive Flash devices only to have someone rip the file apart and get the answers in minutes, with no regard for the correct method or relevance to the story. So during the game I re-wrote entire sections to take the answers out of Flash based programs. To some extent, this actually hurt the overall game because the players didn’t get to see some of the cooler Flash things I had developed.

Q. I know you played along with Push, Nevada and created the speedhuntingclub.com website. Were you surprised by how many people thought the site was part of the game?
A. Yes, actually I was a little surprised. Even though I deliberately designed the site to be “mysterious”, I was sure that people would realize it wasn’t connected due to the Whois info. One thing I’ve learned from doing these games though is that most players are desperate to find the next clue or website and tend to overlook obvious evidence or information.

Q. Now that Push, Nevada is over, what are your plans for shc.com?
A. shc.com will be used for the next ten weeks or so to promote the upcoming game. After that I might use it to speculate about who is going to win the money because they probably still won’t have announced it by then.

Q. There are a couple of trends in Alternate Reality Gaming. One is the number of games offering prizes. The other is the pay to play revenue model. You’ve stated pretty strongly that you advocate free, quality games. What issues do you think these trends create?
A. Actually, I would put both of those together under the same trend as they kind of symbiotically necessitate each other. What I mean is, as more people and companies try and develop this kind of game, most of them are approaching it from a revenue generating mindset. If they can’t at least cover their costs, they’re not interested in doing it. That’s understandable but obviously not necessarily the best thing for the player. The internet as a whole and this genre in particular have a history (albeit brief) of being free and will meet resistance transitioning to a “pay-per-view” mentality. Also, due to the mysterious nature of most of the games, it’s hard for a player to know exactly what he will be getting for his money, adding to the hesitation to make a commitment to pay for playing. Offering prizes is one way PMs are trying to get the player past the “Is this going to be worth it?” phase. But competing for prizes raises all kinds of problems as well. No matter how it is handled, there is bound to be resentment over who gets the prizes and how they were awarded (witness the Push fiasco and to a lesser extent some player’s reactions to the search4e prizes earlier). Instead of fostering cooperation and teamwork, it leads to suspicion, accusations and resentments between players. And to most players, the cooperative community experience is supposed to be one of the most attractive things about these games. Another reason I prefer offering totally free campaigns is that it’s just more believable; somehow it doesn’t make sense to get an e-mail or phone call from a character seeking help to start a game only to have to pay $10 or something before you can help them. (Ahh excuse me, shouldn’t you be paying me for helping find Ed?!?) Which brings us back to the prize concept. If you are going to use real world prizes and artifacts, they need to also make sense with the storyline. It doesn’t make much sense for secret groups to be giving away or selling or auctioning off clues to their secret plans, now does it?

Q. Do you think your situation is unique in that you have essentially committed extraordinary amounts of time and expertise to your projects?
A. Yes, there’s no doubt that I’ve committed more resources to doing this than most people would be willing to do, in terms of time, expertise, and finances. CAOOC literally took over my life for over three months while I was at the same time working over forty hours a week for my “real” job. I didn’t keep track of the exact expenses but I easily spent hundreds of dollars producing the game as well. But to me, it was all very, very much worth it. The enjoyment I got from writing, producing, and running CAOOC is hard to put into words. I guess it all has to do with doing something and telling a story you truly believe in and finding a way to make the time to do something you genuinely love to do. Despite only sleeping three or four hours a night sometimes during the course of the game, I felt more alive and inspired during that time than I have since it ended. The simple act of creating something passionately and devotedly is one of the true pleasures and meaningful endeavors in our otherwise short and tragic lives.

Q. For companies or individuals considering their own project, what one thing would you want to tell them to help them be successful?
A. One of the first and most important things would be to not underestimate the potential players. When players get together working on a tough puzzle they can do amazing things. If you’ve planned on it taking them seven days to solve a puzzle and they do it in two hours and you don’t have a back-up plan, you’re screwed. You really have to try and anticipate all the different potential things a player can do, which is not easy. Also, find a way early in the game to “personalize” the important characters, either through interaction, pictures, voice mail, anything that puts a face, voice or personality to your characters. If the players don’t care about them, they won’t invest the time to play the game. Give players new stuff to look at and do as often as possible. I don’t subscribe to the “once-a-week” update club. The real world isn’t like that and the game shouldn’t be either. CAOOC had almost daily updates via e-mail, videos, new sites etc for the entire three month run. Yes, it’s very hard to do but if I can do it by myself then a team should be able to do it as well.

Q. You have another project in the works. What can you tell me about it?
A. I can’t tell you too much yet that the letter that’s been posted elsewhere hasn’t already mentioned but I’ll run through a few quick facts for you.

  • It is not a ChangeAgents’ story. It is not about mind control or secret government agencies (at least not in any way you might dream of).
  • It is not a solo effort. Some team resources are already in place, others are being recruited for specific needs.
  • It is in development now and already has over two dozen websites conceived and integrated into a multi-layered storyline. Anyone who has experienced the ChangeAgents’ games understands what “multi-layered” means but this game will take that concept to a whole new level.
  • It will involve challenging puzzles and tasks that will require research and activity on the web but in the real world as well. Real world objects will be key elements of the game.
  • It will be free.
  • It is tentatively scheduled to begin near the end of the year.
  • It will make generous use of video, audio, e-mail, phone calls, chats and IMs. Again, CAOOC was a good indication of what to expect but again, the new game is going to take these things far beyond what’s been done before.
  • The puzzle at shc.com will give you a clue as to where to find out more about the new game. There will also be regular “releases” of info and teasers etc starting soon and increasing as the game gets closer.

Comment - Thanks to Mottjr’s and Sapagoo’s work solving the puzzle at speedhuntingclub.com, we have a hint about an upcoming game, Chasing The Wish.’, ‘The solution, posted at unfiction.com, points to the website chasingthewish.com.

The premise is a bit whimsical, yet intriguing. Click through to learn more and you’ll see the following teaser:

“Chasing the Wish is an immersive internet game unlike anything you’ve ever experienced before. There is a whole new world waiting to be discovered inside your head and in your computer.”"It starts soon. Are you ready?”

“For more information about the game and pre-registration e-mail us.”

“More information available November 12, 2002″

One Response to “Dateline November 7, 2002: Interview with Dave Szulborski of Change Agents and speedhuntingclub.com fame”

  1. Dave Szulborski (1958-2009) | Fais Moi Jouer ! Says:

    […] vous invitons à lire une interview de Dave datant de fin 2002 (en anglais), réalisée par Rowan, un membre actif de la communauté, […]

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