The .hack (read Dot Hack) games have always been something of a guilty pleasure of mine. It’s not that I think they are bad games, but its just nothing it does is particularly done well. Still, I love the anime-cliche story and honestly, the attempt to bring a serious story that revolves around gaming and gaming culture is something I wish would happen more often. One of the most interesting aspects of the game though is how it delves past the fourth wall a bit and tries to incorporate some fake offline stuff to go along with its fake online stuff. This included checking emails from the “friends” you made while playing “The World”, reading message boards for updates about what is currently happening in “The World”, and even checking out the news of the “real world” to see how your interactions in the game were affecting the real world. And you know what? It was pretty cool.
The only problem was that the immersion of the event was broken because everything had to be operated on the PS2, which at the time wasn’t exactly well known for its internet connectivity. Still, they tried to create elements in their game that are often associated with another type of game called an alternate reality game.
Alternate reality games, or ARGs, are these huge events that often have large groups of players all working their way through a once in a lifetime experience. Some rather well known ones are the “I Love Bees” Halo ARG and the Dark Knight ARG but there are some less marketing focus ones like the fan-run “Ben Drowned” Marjoa’s Mask ARG. If you don’t know too much about them, looking some of them up.
The great thing about an ARG is that it requires little more than a phone and an internet connection to play at a basic level. So the question is, how could game designers incorporate ARG elements in a game series like .hack? Would it be seen as an accessible mechanic or would the concept be to counter-intuitive for people to get behind. The obvious first step would be to have the game email the players on their actual email accounts. This doesn’t seem like it would be too hard since almost every gaming platform is connected to the internet and has an email attached to a profile. Ideally, the game wouldn’t have to ask and could just start sending your emails, but to fit into the idea of creating a new character in a fake MMO the entry point could very be registering for the game. In the .hack games, the characters would often email the player to create the facade that they were real people also playing an online game with you. There would be some plot driven stuff, but it also served as quest starter, letting the player know which area to meet them in if they wanted to join in a quest. Emailing the player would eliminate the kind of tedious fake logging out while also allowing players to get new quests and information while not playing the game.
A more complicated problem would how would message boards be done. Indeed one problem with trying to make a game use elements from an ARG is repeatability. An ARG can really only be performed once, with updates to websites being one way players will know that they are progressing through the game. The .hack games had a much more controlled concept, but it had to be done within the game itself. I’m not really a web designer or anything like that, so I don’t know how possible this could be but one solution might to make a website where players have to log in with the info created in the game. From that point on, the website and the game communicate with each other, exchanging information about how much progress the player has made and giving them updates in a controlled manner.
Of course, there are some rather radical ideas that many gamers and traditional game designers might frown upon, but I think they are concepts worth exploring. One such idea is an event when the “game’s servers” going down, most likely caused by something the player did, and actually preventing the player from playing the game for a day. I know that to many of you reading this, the idea is crazy and stupid, but so was the airplane and look how that turned out.
Actually, the best part is that even when the game kicks you off, you still are playing. When the player reaches that point in the game, the message boards, news boards, and emails could explode with new content, forcing the player into a kind of minigame that exists to further the plot but also keep the player immersed in the atmosphere of the game. It will transform the game from just something someone does to kill time into an event that infiltrates every moment of their life. Something that takes real world elements and actually uses the real world as a gaming platform into something engaging and repeatable.
The downside to this kind of idea is that ARG’s don’t appeal to everyone. Also, people without internet connections will not be ones to buy the game, but I say who cares? If developers were concerned about people not having an internet connect or a computer, then real MMO’s like World of Warcraft or The Old Republic wouldn’t exist. I think that in this age, everyone has someway to connect to the internet portably and if not, then maybe this will have to be that game that asks a player to take an extra mile to be engage them in this experience.
I think the real world is a untapped platform for video games. The idea sides kind of paradoxical, but the 3DS shows that some developers are understanding how it can be used and how playing a game no longer has to mean sitting down and shutting yourself off from the world, but having that game and the real world be one and the same.