November 3, 2011 12:07 AM   Subscribe

Treasure and scavenger hunts! LARPs! ARGs! Murder mysteries! Interactive experiences galore! Where do I start learning about producing & designing them?

I've loved treasure hunts since I was a kid; I even designed and put on one at school for a school club and it went on well. My favourite art pieces are the ones that are interactive, and part of why I got into events and performance studies/work is because I wanted to learn how to create experiences - something out of the ordinary that will be memorable and fun.

I've been doing some performance art for a little while now, and I've long wanted to grow into larger-scale production - putting on events, happenings, interactive elements to get people involved. I have done some variations on that, and I've learnt a lot from the successes and failures, but there's so much more that seems interesting and yet so arcane.

I'd like to get into making things closer to ARGs, LARPs, or themed scavenger hunts - characters interacting with the public, a story with a set structure that is still open to possibility and flexibility, options for players/fans to create work inspired by it. One oddball idea I had cooking for a while was a LARP-type game set in a burlesque/sideshow, where the core action was played as a monthly performance with both the theatre/acting and guest performers just doing their thing - though I wasn't sure how to get the interactivity or the gameplay going.

I studied creative industries management (which looked more at events & festivals plus some theatre directing which I didn't appreciate till later) and have a background in writing, performance art/physical theatre, improv, and new media. One of my lecturers once said "The Artistic Director goes "THIS YEAR I WANT BLUE DIAMONDS ON TRAMPOLINES!" and the Production Manager has to work out how to make that happen" - and I knew that the Artistic Director job was for me. But in the absence of a Production Manager (yet) I still need to learn how to make it actually happen outside my head.

What do you recommend as far as starting research goes? My alma mater does have a degree in game design, but I'd rather go experientially at my own pace and not worry about academic writing. there was a recent workshop on ARG design but serious life issues got in the way, bah bad timing! Where else can you learn, experiment, do?*

the side concern of this is that my city has this problem of people wanting things to happen but not really chipping in to do anything about it; it's a problem that plagues quite a few of us across fields. so while "recruit people" is likely a necessity, it may also be a major difficulty.
posted by divabat to Media & Arts (9 answers total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
For LARPs in particular, here's a brief guide, and you seem to be in Brisbane, the home of Auscon, which you might be able to get involved in. But I'd mainly suggest reading a bunch of them. The Shifting Forest Parlor Larps are all available for free download and would be good practice at a small scale (~4-8 players).
posted by Monsieur Caution at 12:38 AM on November 3, 2011

You sound more ambitious than anything I've ever done, but one (obvious in retrospect) thing I've had to learn about scavenger hunts and the like is that you now simply must assume that someone in each group will have a smart phone and access to all the power of the internet.

It has really changed how we designed things like clues, when just grabbing keywords out of them and googling can get you to the right place without needing to actually solve the riddle.
posted by Wretch729 at 6:34 AM on November 3, 2011

for the "treasure hunt" portion of your question, head over to Be sure to visit their page of hunts that were open to the public for a nice retrospective on the whole treasure hunt genre. If you haven't already, be sure to pick up a copy of Kit William's "Masquerade" . This book is basically the granddaddy of modern treasure hunts. Not only is the puzzle design ingenious, but the saga of how the winners socially engineered the puzzle rather than solving it will be instructive for you if you want to do a similar project.
posted by cosmicbandito at 7:07 AM on November 3, 2011

Someone at MeFi turned me on to this very inspiring community: Ludocity, which specializes in "pervasive games."
posted by Miko at 7:14 AM on November 3, 2011

This is a really boring answer, but: just make more of them. Get along a friend with a good camera to take lots of photos (stage them if you have to) so that you can start using those to get interest or funding for future games. Be really diligent about following up with people who say "hey this was great, let me know if I can help if it happens again" (if there's not much game stuff happening where you are, and the games are fun, there's a really good chance that people will say this).

It sounds like you're interested in more narrative-driven stuff, so my experience - which is more in the pervasive games area - doesn't map exactly. However, I know dozens of people who run live games, scattered along the spectrum from "this is their job" to "this is an occasional hobby", and every single one of them began with small, slightly chaotic events that got better over time.

Figure out what there is that's a bit like stuff you want to do, and search for players' writeups. Maybe start by looking for writeups of:
• Journey to the End of the Night - big cross-city chase game, has been run loads of times in lots of different places, and was originally designed by SF0, a group that strongly encourages players to record their experiences.
• 2.8 Hours Later: zombie chase game loosely in the Journey family, run by Slingshot (based in Bristol) on several different occasions
A Small Town Anywhere, a gorgeous game-inspired interactive theatre piece by Coney that is, I think, one of the most successful things made in this field, and which at least a few players have written up nicely
• Anything made by A Door in a Wall, who do big live cross-city murder mystery games
• Also writeups of people's experience at any of the ongoing pervasive games festivals - the ones that have been going longest are Come Out and Play, the Hide&Seek Weekender (WARNING: personal bias alert as I curate this one, also our old schedules are all offline at the moment so you can't currently see a list of games we've run - there are still a load of player reports scattered around the internet, though) and Igfest.
The Go Game, which is a bit more at the teambuilding end of things, but is interesting
• There's all the ARG forums as well, where you can follow along with people playing and see what they found interesting and what they were annoyed by, if you have the patience

Anyway, here is a proposed list of actions:
• Do some reading around these and whatever other links people post
• Do a bit more reading in general game design as well, but not too much - I thought Jesse Schell's "The Art of Game Design: A Book of Lenses" was really good if you want to read loads, but there's also stuff like Mark Rosewater's writeup of the game design class he taught some ten-year-olds (Part 1 is linked and interesting, Part 2 is not yet online but is presumably also going to be interesting, skip all the stuff about Magic: the Gathering).
• Think of a plot for a game you'd like to run, for 20-30 people, lasting 45-90 minutes. Ideally something you can do outside, so you don't need to worry about venues.
• Pick a date for it at least six weeks in the future. Invite people.
• Find yourself stuck with running it - then the particular difficulties that come up when you think about how to do it will make it possible to do more focused research, rather than getting lost in the vastness of "GAMES! How do I make them?"
posted by severalbees at 7:58 AM on November 3, 2011 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: pervasive games! that's the term, I knew there was a term for it but I had forgotten.

I do like stuff with significant narrative - Night Circus is really interesting me at the moment - and because I've done improv & performance I'm more familiar with those, but I'd like to add interactivity. I guess my stumbling block is that I feel like I don't know how to make one...or how to turn my idea into a *game* rather tan just a long-form improv session.
posted by divabat at 8:56 AM on November 3, 2011

Not sure if this is helpful, but my friends and I ran the murder mystery "The Curse of Whatley Manor" last year, and it was SO MUCH fun. You can find the materials here:
posted by hishtafel at 1:15 PM on November 3, 2011

Turning it into a game rather than a long-form improv session: hmm. Well, the standard answer would be something like "make sure people have a clear aim, and that there's something getting in their way", but I suppose there are improv sessions like that.

Part of my job is "listen to people talk about their pervasive game ideas", and the things that most often need work are:

• It's too complicated - aim for something you can explain in a minute or two, and you can ramp the complexity up in future versions if you need to. Obviously you can feed in further information as the game goes on, but if you do make sure that it's fairly distributed (everyone gets access to big game-rule stuff) and that it won't make anyone go "oh I would have played differently if I'd only known".

• Players don't have any way to understand what they're supposed to do - there's things that you as a game designer want them to do, but the rules don't encourage the behaviour you're after, and players don't feel empowered to control their success or failure. Try asking "how could someone be really good at this game?". If the answer is something like "bluffing", or "deduction", or "trading cannily", or "climbing over stuff and hiding in the dark", then maybe you've got a game. If it's something like "acting" or "being lucky", then maybe you don't.

Also, remember that people will run out onto roads if you give them the slightest excuse. It wouldn't be stupid to stick to parks or big indoor spaces on a single level, for a game or two, until you've got a grip on just how frantic and silly players can get in the face of (for example) being chased slightly.

(I'm currently working on a list of genres of pervasive games - if you think it'd be useful to have a look, send me a message in a week or so to remind me and I will send it to you.)
posted by severalbees at 4:21 PM on November 3, 2011

I've done a couple of things sort of along these lines, I suppose.

severalbees has a lot of sage advice.

One thing that worked well for me was asking:
What is a cool experience your game can give them? The feeling of mastery, the sensation of being in a movie, that aha! moment, things like that.

And keeping it simple. At first, especially.

The other thing that helps is having highly motivated players; in my case, I was riding along as part of a larger group competition (one of serious intensity for the groups involved), so that was part of the kick in the ass. But there was always a couple of motivations; winning my game got major points in the overall competition (especially since it was a winner-take-all thing, where every other event you could get partial points for), but also making sure there was always a puzzle to solve, a new angle to approach, or just a cool thing to do. That sort of internal motivation is absolutely key to keeping players involved in whatever it is you were doing, and also key to keeping them coming back.
posted by Homeboy Trouble at 7:04 PM on November 3, 2011

« Older Help me SEE-I these lyrics   |   Everything But the Cliche Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.