ELEMENTS Interview: The Challenges Of Developing Alternate Reality Games In Japan

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    As “traditional” game development studios across the globe struggle to keep their doors open while the industry is in flux with the proliferation of social games and media and smartphones, many studios and publishers are reallocating energy and funds into these new areas of development and research as they try to ride out an unavoidable stage of growing pains for the console market. With console games somewhat meandering in search of their place in the future of gaming society, the current ecosystem is ripe for experimentation.

     

    However, such opportunity is often passed over in favor of “safe bets”. Japanese developers and publishers of various size and scale, while some are finding success in these new markets and platforms, tend to exemplify this trend more often than not.

     

    ELEMENTS, a small Japanese developer based in Fukuoka, the nation’s burgeoning city of game development, has made the move to withdrawal from the rat race and put their skills to use in an entirely different realm of game creation: ARGs, or “alternate reality games“. While the concept for ARGs has existed in various fragmented forms for decades, The Beast, Microsoft’s promotional tie-in to the 2001 Steven Spielberg film, A.I., is largely considered to have brought the concept into the public eye, displaying the potential of social, multi-media integrated game design to the masses, as well as the wider game development community. Earlier this year, Valve’s ARG tied to the early release of Portal 2, which was incorporated into their Potato Sack indie game bundle also managed to garner a great deal of attention (and participation) throughout the gaming community.

     

    At a time when many Japanese developers are scaling back on large-scale game development and redirecting energy toward mobile phones and increasingly niche core audiences on mobile platforms (Japan’s PSP audience, in particular), ELEMENTS has decided to venture off on their own — a bold, yet exciting move in Japan, where the number of development studios and academic institutes investing in such projects and related research are few and far between in comparison with the degree of activity throughout North America and Europe.

     

    Junichi Ishikawa, president of ELEMENTS, originally began work in the games industry developing  simulation and strategy PC games for System Soft in 1987, staying with the company until 1998 when he left in order to form Cyc in 1999, the adult game development label under B-Eye Communications, together with another former System Soft colleague. The company also released several strategy titles for the PC and PS2 in cooperation with Koei until selling off the company brand in-full to the parent company, B-Eye Communications in 2004 and officially reforming as ELEMENTS in 2005.

     

    The company’s formal inclusion as part of Game Factory’s Friendship (GFF)* in 2004, following consultation and discussions with Level 5 president, Akihiro Hino, is said to have served as a major impetus for the change in direction and reformation of the studio. ELEMENTS has gone on to collaborate with Level 5 on Jeanne D’Arc for the PSP, as well as the Inazuma Eleven trilogy for the DS, while also having a hand in a number of PC-based strategy games and collaborating on serious game project planning and development along the way. It was then in 2010 that ELEMENTS made a major strategic shift into the ARG arena, shaping the company’s direction which is reflected in its projects today, forming new avenues for business and research collaboration in the realm of games and game design.

     

    *(Editor’s note: GFF, or Game Factory’s Friendship, is an organization comprised of companies involved in game development and the related industry throughout Fukuoka headed up by major studios Level 5, CyberConnect2, and Ganbarion.)

     

    Struck by the company’s bold direction during what are trying times for many Japanese developers, their desire to experiment in new arenas of game design, and unique position in the prolific Fukuoka game development community, Active Gaming Media correspondent, Justin Potts, sat down with company president Junichi Ishikawa to get a peek into the small, but inspiring company’s new ARG-focused direction and outlook on the industry.

     

    Could you begin by filling us in on exactly what it is that ELEMENTS is involved in, both on the game development and creation side, as well as in other fields tied into the games industry, such as education and research?

     

    ELEMENTS president, Junichi Ishikawa: We’re primarily involved in the planning and design of simulation and strategy games. That being said, we’ve recently begun working on the production and overseeing of serious games tied into industry and academia-related projects at Kyushu University, so I guess it’s fair to say that we’re somewhat active in the field of education as well.

     

    ARG’s have recently become a major focus for ELEMENTS. Was there something in particular, say a specific project, that originally sparked your interest in ARGs? What is it about such design that’s so appealing?

     

    I’ve always enjoyed games which utilize current media in order to interweave fiction into a new experience. For example, mystery novels like Murder Off Miami, which come with pieces of evidence appended as part of the novel, or something like Mystery Night, where physical, live participants take on the role of having to solve a mystery tied to a fictitious incident within an actual hotel.

     

    I personally had the idea in the back of my mind for a while that there ought to be interesting ways to incorporate various types of media in order to further develop this sort of concept. I was unaware that overseas these sorts of projects already existed, and it wasn’t until just last fall (2010) that I found out they were referred to as “ARGs”. (laughs)

     

    What was it that set ELEMENTS off in this new direction exploring these new types of projects?

     

    As I mentioned previously, I’d always had an active interest in working on such a project, so should the opportunity present itself it was definitely something that I wanted to be involved in. The problem was that, on the business side of things, work in ARGs was still a bit of a mystery, not having really been established in that sense.

     

    Basically we started small, with a project I called the “Hakata Bus Game,” which was really kind of a trial-run of sorts, something I put together over a period of about 5 days. The game itself was incredibly simple, but having done it turned out to pay off, in that afterwards I had a good number of people contacting me expressing interest in ARGs, so it gradually grew from there.

     

    Based on your personal experiences or work that you’ve done as part of ELEMENTS, how do you envision ARGs serving to benefit new fields or industries? Has there been anything that you’ve discovered working on ARGs which maybe you didn’t perceive or weren’t aware of when first getting involved?

     

    The really unique thing about ARGs is that you have a grand story packed with puzzle-solving elements which is broken down into various forms of media, forcing the “player” to proceed through the “story” while simultaneously interacting with these different elements in parallel.

     

    As opposed to movies or TV dramas which are have very one-dimensional narratives, scenario composition for ARGs is quite similar to that of games, where you have bits and pieces of the story being presented to the player in response to a player’s various actions. In that sense, I think that’s something that ELEMENTS can leverage when working on these sorts of projects, having a background in game creation.

     

    While not so much unanticipated, it definitely takes some getting used to, having to respond to real, living, breathing human beings’ actions in real time. We can code games in different ways in order to constrain player actions. In real life, I’m afraid we don’t have that ability. (laughs)

     

    What do you find to be the element of ARGs which really brings out the inherent nature of “games”? Is there something about them that you think video games or social games in their current form aren’t able, or are possibly unable, to tap into?

     

    It has to be the fact that you yourself, the player, are using your body to embark on an adventure, so to speak, within the physical space within which you live. With Tenjin Twit Hunting, and ARG that we worked on previously, there was a part at the end where all of the participants got together to hunt down and corner a criminal, however it was somewhat lacking as far as puzzle-solving goes.

     

    That being said, based on surveys we got back from the participants, everyone seemed to really love that particular part [of the ARG]. There was something exciting, uplifting which was born out of physically “chasing down [the criminal] in a city that’s familiar to you”.

     

    Currently, in many cases ARGs seem to still be very much in a sort of experimental stage, where it’s maybe not a “complete” ARG, but some sort of research-related, promotional, or marketing project which happens to include “ARG-like elements”. Do you see any potential to take ARGs and turn them into something that’s easy for general consumers to grasp, something with a relatively concrete form such as video games or board games, where amongst a consumer’s mental list of “things to do” or “purchase”, ARGs could be included? If so, what might that look like?

     

    I don’t know that I necessarily see that happening, but the closest thing I could think of would be something like the performance-based events such as Mystery Night or a Real Escape Game, which have already attracted a great number of fans who pay to take part in these experiences. As far as ARGs go, I feel like there’s a great deal of potential in this public performance sort of format.

     

    In Japan there doesn’t yet exist a form of physical product that an individual can purchase in order to enjoy an ARG-like experience, however if the subject matter and promotions surrounding it are solid, and the game elements are well integrated, I don’t see why it wouldn’t be possible for something like that to exist.

     

    Following up on the previous question, and tying into what you said earlier about the difficulty of making ARGs a business, outside of marketing and promotions, where a number of cases already exist, what’s the business model for such projects? Where can profits come from which people maybe haven’t thought of or successfully executed, yet? Provided enough creativity and resources, I feel that there has to be room to expand in that area…

     

    Personally, I feel like ARGs functioning solely as a promotional tool which operate on a business-to-business model as a means of turning profit in Japan feels like a tough proposition.

     

    We have to come up with a way of also integrating that B-to-C model, whether it be through product development or the public performance style of implementation, where the consumer is making a purchase. Maybe that’s through something like applications [for smartphones, etc.], where the consumer buys something and we’re then able to integrate that into the experience.

     

    Recently we’ve been seeing a shift in the games industry, both in Japan and abroad, away from large-scale game development, and over to small to mid-size projects, as well as apps and social games. Are ARGs being overlooked as a potential area to branch out into? Or is it that ARG-like experiences are actually working their way into these different types of games and experiences?

     

    I think we just haven’t yet found a viable way to monetize an ARG-like experience through integration into games and applications. One barrier I think is figuring out how to really bridge that gap between the ARG elements in the real world and the game world constrained within a monitor in a video game.

     

    I guess in a sense, I’d say that applications in the Geo Game genre* (as referred to in Japan) incorporate a number of ARG-like elements, and moving forward we’ll likely see that side of ARG’s appearing in more games in the near future.

     

    (Editor’s note: “Geo Games” refer to games/applications wherein which the user’s portable device provides him/her with information about special deals available at local shops, restaurants, etc. based on the user’s location, and only publicized through that “Geo Game” service.)

     

    ELEMENTS fairly recently designed and carried out Salt x ARG to coincide with the release of the Hollywood film in Fukuoka. Could you explain that project a bit?

     

    The Salt X ARG project was the first actual commercial ARG that ELEMENTS took part in. A company which was contacted regarding promotion for the film (Salt) in Fukuoka happened to be a company that we have a relationship with, which is how we ended up working on the project.

     

    [The conversation] kicked off just prior to the start of Tenjin Twit Hunting, and so the advertising agency handling promotions came to observe what it was we were doing, which is how we ended up being selected to work on the project.

     

    There were two things that we were particularly careful of when working on this [ARG].

     

    1. The fact that [the ARG] was a promotion for Salt had to remain of first and foremost importance. Merely serving as an interesting game was not enough, which is why we took great care to make sure that the nature of the film was integrated into the design, hence leaving an impression of the film [on the participant]. For example in the film, the main character is suspected of being a spy, constantly on the run, so we wanted to establish a setting where we have the participants take on the role of pursuing this spy who has escaped into the Tenjin/Daimyou district.*

     

    2. Because this wasn’t an event where we solicited participants prior to it taking place, we wanted this to be an activity that, a) participants could join and take part in at any time, b) would have a moderately low level of difficulty, and c.) could be completed relatively easily (within about 1 hour). When developing an ARG, there’s this tendency to want to create something really deep and complex, but in order to create something that was appropriate with relation to the goals and focus of the ARG, we had to hold back [in that area] in the best interests of the project.

     

    *(Editor’s note: a major commercial district within the city of Fukuoka on the island of Kyushu).

     

    With regards to the Japan’s game industry in particular, right now there’s a very noticeable positive momentum in Fukuoka, garnering a great deal of attention and quickly becoming a very core region of the nation’s industry. With groups like GFF, Fukuoka also portrays a strong image of offering a supportive, collaborative environment [for developers and studios]. I imagine some pretty fantastic things could be done in relation to ARGs in such an environment.

     

    In the future is collaborating with other studios on an ARG-type project something that you’re considering? Do you see Fukuoka as a place that might allow you to do some interesting things given the nature of the city and/or the nature of the industry as it exists in the city?

     

    Seeing as how ELEMENTS is currently the only company [in the area] actively working on such projects, there’s really not anything formal in the works with regards to collaboration at the moment, however I don’t see why it wouldn’t be possible. We are however getting both advice and participants [from local partners] on projects.

     

    Are you working on any ARG-related projects tied to educational or academic research programs or anything of that sort? Do you see that as a possibility, or is there something in particular that you’d like to get involved in or try a hand at?

     

    While there’s still nothing too concrete, there are some [local] universities and related institutions which are starting to get involved in related research, so I’d definitely love to get involved with one of those [institutes] in order to collaborate on something.

     

    Is there something in particular about ARG’s that you feel has yet to really be explored or developed? What needs to be done in order to make that happen?

     

    I think that the term “ARG” itself is rather meaningless as long as we continue to be unable to convey exactly what it is that makes them fun and compelling. [These days] you’re starting to get people organizing a stamp rally and slapping the letters “ARG” on the project… I don’t think we’re going to see any real healthy growth and development if we don’t find a way to really express what it is that makes ARG’s enjoyable to a broader [audience].

     

    For you personally, what is it that you would like to see happen in relation to ARGs?

     

    I’d just really like to see a lot more companies, a lot more individuals taking part in the experience. On a small scale, even a single individual can get something going.

     

    What are your goals as you look to take ELEMENTS further into the realm of ARGs down the road? What would you like to be involved in?

     

    Right now we’re working with the city of Fukuoka, as well as Kyushu University on developing  a serious games project scheduled to kick off in the spring of 2012 which is emphasizing collaboration between industry, academia, and government, focusing on tourism in the region. There’s a part [of the project] which has some ARG-like elements integrated [into the design]. We’re also aiming to have a hand in a few more conventional ARG projects next year as well.

     

    Lastly, is there anything in particular that you’d like to share with the readers?

     

    In Japan, ARGs still don’t really have a general presence, although that’s gradually starting to change as the number of [ARG] events being held slowly increases.

     

    Whether an ELEMENTS produced ARG or not, I’d just really like to encourage more people to take the opportunity to give [ARGs] a try in order to really get a sense for what makes them so enjoyable.

     

    Thanks so much for your time, and best of luck to you!

     

    ELEMENTS Home Page (Japanese): https://elements-soft.com/
    ELEMENTS ARG Page (Japanese): https://elements-soft.com/arg/

     

    Images courtesy ELEMENTS.

    Justin Potts - AGM Correspondent

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