How Not to Launch an ARG

Over this past weekend, I was witness to one of the most spectacular ARG launch fails I have seen in the 7 years I’ve been playing ARGs. It was truly beyond anything I had ever seen and I doubt if anything will come close to it in the future. It not only turned me off from playing the ARG once it actually did launch, but it also made me question the abilities of team behind the game. The saddest part is that most of the public perception problems with the launch could have been easily addressed with a little transparency from the Puppetmaster team. I hope that future Puppetmasters will learn from this incident and not repeat the same awful mistakes.

I first started following the launch of Pandemic 1.0 at around 9:15am EST (unless otherwise noted, all future times will be EST) on Saturday, January 22nd when I was told in the #unfiction IRC chatroom that the countdown on would be ending in 45 minutes. As I had nothing better to do on a bitterly cold and snowy day, I decided to wait the countdown out. I had read several articles on Pandemic and was interested to see what would happen.

In order to kill some time before the countdown hit zero, I decided to start following the Pandemic Twitter story that was starting to play out. There were 20 different Twitter characters to follow and they were all using the #pandemic11 hashtag in their tweets. This is when I discovered the first two problems with this launch.

  • All of the twitter accounts had (basically) the same generic avatar. There was some background color variation, but no avatar was unique. This made it much harder to follow the individual stories as you had to double check the name on each tweet instead of just relying on the visual avatar clues.
  • The characters use of the #pandemic11 hashtag quickly overwhelmed the actual buzz of the game. While it was great to be introduced to the characters through the hashtag, pretty soon that’s all you were able to see. Any outside mention of #pandemic11 quickly became buried when another 5-10 tweets came through from the characters.

The non-unique Twitter avatars really bothered me. It might not have been so bad if there were only three or four characters, but with twenty different people tweeting rather rapidly, it quickly became a mess in my mind. As a result, I started focusing on just one group of characters (who I nicknamed the Purple People because of their purple avatar background) and that helped a bit, but I know I missed out on a lot of what was happening within the entire group.

I had better luck with a workaround for the #pandemic11 spam. I was able to set up my desktop Twitter client so that I could have one stream of just the characters (using a Twitter list I had set up) and one stream for #pandemic11 that had a filter set up to remove the character’s tweets. Luckily all of the character names had the same suffix (_HiM) so the filter was possible because otherwise the #pandemic11 search would have been practically useless.

Unfortunately, both of those issues were minor cosmetic flaws compared to what happened when the countdown was scheduled to hit zero at 10:00am.

  • The countdown reset itself. Instead of being greeted with a new page and something to do, there was another countdown with 2 hours left on it.

Usually when I see countdowns in ARGs end, the biggest problem is that the site temporarily goes down with everyone pounding it with refreshes or because someone didn’t upload the next asset in time. Having the countdown reset was a new one but certainly not anything good.

But at this point, I was willing to wave it off as the game just needing a little more time to launch. Had I known at the time that the countdown was supposed to go off several hours before (12:00am MST, January 22nd), I’m not so sure I would been as willing to dismiss the countdown failure as something that just sometimes happens.

It was bad enough thinking that I would have to wait until 12:00pm to see the countdown end. At around 11:00am, I checked back, and the countdown had jumped up to 3 hours remaining and would now end at 2:00pm. This did not amuse me in the slightest.

With 3 hours now to waste, I decided to try to follow the Twitter story a little more closely, since that was the only thing that seemed to be working. Except the more I looked at it, the less it made sense. It was disconcerting enough to see that some characters appeared to be in school on a Saturday, but that was just the tip of the iceberg. The next problem I noticed was that it looked like the Twitter stream of two characters (Blake and Deshawn) had gotten crossed. Blake was talking about using a fake id for no discernible reason, while Deshawn had earlier made comments about going clubbing and having a friend being carded and kicked out.

But the worst issue with the Twitter story is that the timeline was severely compressed. While I never did any in-depth analysis of the timelines, I developed the impression that each hour that passed for me was one complete day for the 20 Tweeters. It was the only reason I could come up with (beyond someone behind-the-scenes completely screwing up) why characters would refer to events that they tweeted about 15 minutes earlier as occurring “yesterday”. The whole thing was so bizarre that I had no idea if it was by design or just a giant error. But since the Twitter story kept progressing and people kept tweeting about it, I had to accept the idea that this might just be the way it was planned (which of course brought up more issues as to why anyone would give a compressed timeline story through a medium such as Twitter.) By 12:15pm, the combination of the crossed character streams and the out-of-whack timeline meant that I could no longer follow what was happening. I abandoned the only part of the game that was active and just decided to wait out the countdown.

The 2:00pm countdown came and went and this time 6 hours were added on so that it would end at 8:00pm. I am flabbergasted. I’m also livid that absolutely nothing happened other than more time being added. I have no idea if these delays are because something is severely wrong or if they are by design. Either way, the words “gross incompetence” keep running through my head. Especially when the only tweet (at this point) on @HopeIsMissing is “All systems are stable and online #pandemic11″.

Six hours to kill. I keep seeing tweets about how the Twitter story is going on. I wonder if anyone actually looked at it for more than 5 seconds since it’s otherwise incomprehensible. It gets worse at around 5:00pm when the characters start repeating the tweets that they sent out earlier in the day. At least one character (@Blake_HiM) deleted his previous tweets, but others (@Carmen_HiM) have both sets still visible in their timeline. No idea what to think anymore as it is still completely silent from the Powers-That-Be.

The 8:00pm countdown comes and goes and leaves another 60 minutes for us to wait. At this point, the only people using the #pandemic11 hashtag are myself and three other countdown watchers. We are not being particularly kind. I hear a theory that maybe the reason for the silence is because there is an issue with the internet access in Park City, but that’s a hard theory to believe since a: the countdown was being reset differently each time and b: someone was able to post photos of Day 1 onto the Facebook page at 8:08pm.

The 9:00pm countdown end was the worst of all. Either someone broke the server or they added in a new script, because everytime the page was refreshed, a different time would show on the countdown clock. My opinion now becomes one of that we’re just being trolled. The whole thing has gotten completely out of hand but no one seems to care other than those of us who are watching the server meltdown. I once again mention how much I would love to see someone official say “Sorry, we’re experiencing problems. Please excuse us.” Imagine my surprise when I got my wish.

With that one little tweet, the entire mood surrounding the #pandemic11 Twitter stream turned around. Although not the type of official confirmation of problems I was looking for, a message from Chuck Wendig was the next best thing since I knew he had worked on Pandemic 1.0 and thus probably had insider information. I then got word that one of my countdown buddies was talking to someone behind the scenes and that “It’s all coming together.” So just like that, the main drama of the past 11 hours was over despite the fact that the game still hadn’t launched.

The game did eventually launch a relatively short time later with very little fanfare. I could write another whole post about making the trailhead site easily accessible and understandable for audiences (especially for those people who probably have never played an ARG before) but that will have to wait for another day. But I will say that if the countdowns hadn’t turned me off of the game, the control panel definitely would have. Maybe the only redeeming feature of the game is that the Twitter story has finally stabilized and you can actual interact with the various characters, but unfortunately it came way too late for me to want to get involved.

So what do I want Puppetmasters to learn from all of this? Simply this one word idea:


There is nothing more maddening for a player than to see a game that they’ve been involved in (for however long or short a period) suddenly veer off the tracks and stop communicating. Imagine watching a play where suddenly all the actors stop in their tracks and do absolutely nothing. Is something wrong? Is it part of the play? At what point do you begin to feel uncomfortable that nothing is happening up on the stage? Unless you’re watching Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark (and thus have been warned that the show may have issues), I would imagine that it wouldn’t be very long before you started getting upset that no one is explaining what is happening (or not happening) up on stage.

And that is exactly what happens to players when Puppetmasters decide to remain silent when they start having severe issues behind the scenes. First they are confused. Then they become upset. And given enough time, they can start to act out against the very people they are supposed to be supporting.

Now I’m not saying that players need to be given every last detail about what has gone wrong in the game. In most cases a simple “I’m sorry. Please excuse the mess/wait/problems.” would suffice to keep players calm until the issues have been dealt with. If you really want to make them happy, bribe them to wait around. Just don’t let them sit around in the dark forever because not only is it disrespectful to your players, you may not have any players around when you do come back.

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One Response to “How Not to Launch an ARG”

  1. Well said.

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