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Nov. 30, 2010, 10 a.m.

Making social gaming scale: Lessons from the Democrat and Chronicle’s adoption of alternate reality

Just over a year ago, Rochester’s Democrat and Chronicle launched an ambitious Alternate Reality Game (ARG) called Picture the Impossible. The seven-week game was a collaboration with the Lab for Social Computing at the Rochester Institute of Technology, and it built web, print, and real-life challenges over a fictional storyline designed to connect players with with Rochester’s history. Participants were divided into three teams that competed against each other to earn money for three local charities. The players completed a scavenger hunt in a local cemetery, created recipes for a cooking contest focused on local ingredients, and earned points each week for both web-based games like jigsaw puzzles and print newspaper challenges like assembling a mystery photo. The game concluded with a Halloween costume party for the top players.

Over 2,500 people signed up for the game in all, and it attracted a highly engaged core of about 600 people, including members of the young professional demographic that the Democrat and Chronicle had been most hoping to attract. But running an ARG was also very resource-intensive. I talked with Traci Bauer, the Democrat and Chronicle’s managing editor for content and digital platforms, about what the paper learned from Picture the Impossible, and how they are building social gaming into the paper’s day-to-day operations.

Picture the Impossible emerged through a collaboration between Bauer and RIT professor Elizabeth Lane Lawley. It was funded through sweat equity from both organizations and a donation from a local charity and Microsoft Bing. (Kodak, which is based in Rochester, provided cameras and printers as weekly prizes.)

The game attracted players of all ages, including families, students brought in through RIT, and plenty of Baby Boomers. (“They’re easy,” Bauer said. “Boomers do everything.”) Two-thirds of the players were women. The most important strengths of the game were the collaborative team structure and the focus on earning money for charity. Team spirit was high on the message boards for the three different “factions,” and players strategized ways to maximize their weekly point totals. The scavenger hunts and real-life games (some powered by the text-messaging/smartphone app SCVNGR) were popular, as was the cooking competition, which brought in 104 entrants. When I spoke with Bauer and Lawley last year, they had also been very excited about the way the game used the print paper as a physical element of play.

Bauer said the newspaper had learned enough from the collaboration that the experiment would have been worthwhile even if the game flopped. It didn’t.

“The beauty of it wasn’t in the volume of players, but in the amount of time that they spent in the game,” Bauer said. “In the end we had 62 minutes on-site per unique, and that’s compared to 30-35 minutes on our core sites.”

Bauer came out of the project believing that the news industry needs to harness gaming strategies. “There’s something in there, for sure,” she said.

Her goal is for the Democrat and Chronicle to always have some kind of social gaming presence. When Picture the Impossible closed last Halloween, “I wanted to quickly get another initiative out there,” Bauer said. “I hate when you build something and it’s a success and you put it up on a shelf and don’t pay attention to it for years.”

The problem was that Picture the Impossible had taken a huge amount of time and resources. The newspaper’s collaboration with RIT had ended, and the pressures of making social gaming a normal part of newspaper operations meant figuring out a more pared-down, sustainable model.

For the Democrat and Chronicle, that has meant abandoning the Alternate Reality Game model, with its fictional storyline that united the different elements of the game and propelled it forward. As a news organization, Bauer said, creating fictional scenarios didn’t really fit with their mission. It also meant fewer real-life challenges, even though they were very popular with players. RIT had been “instrumental” in making those in-person activities work. “It’s not what we’re really good at, organizing baking contests and things like that,” Bauer said. “It wasn’t what we’re about.”

This time around, the Democrat and Chronicle’s new social gaming project, score!, is focused around one of the newspaper’s core activities: political coverage. Launched in June, score! focuses on the November elections, and consists mainly of politically-themed web games and quizzes. One new game, Headline Hopper, has players propel little politicians through a landscape of quotes, Mario Brothers-style.

As in Picture the Impossible, players accumulate points and earn money for charity, and the profiles of score! players note whether they participated in Picture the Impossible, to build continuity between the two games.

This time, Bauer said, they thought the team loyalty that had powered Picture the Impossible would be formed around political parties, the Democrats competing with the Republicans. But that team structure flopped when only four Republicans signed up. As a result, Bauer said, they’ve mostly abandoned the team focus. The in-person component of score! has also been scaled back; players can get “stalker” points for snapping photographs of politicians at local events, but Bauer said the challenge hasn’t really taken off. Part of the problem is that candidates are unpredictable, so it’s hard to get information about possible stalker events until the very last minute.

The election focus has been one of the strengths of score!, in part because it gives the game a natural theme that’s easy to build content around, and in part because the games build on the status that comes along with being well-informed about politics — and with having other people know that you are.

“In the forums they talk about how much they’ve learned about the election, and how they feel like smarter voters because of it,” Bauer said.

Players now need to log in to the game through Facebook, which has generated about a dozen complaints from people who can’t play — not enough to be a real concern. And the benefit of the Facebook platform is that it allows players to compare their scores with friends.

Like Picture the Impossible, Bauer said that the 2,300 score! players fall into three tiers: a smaller group of 250 hardcore players, a middle tier of casual players, and then the remainder — who scored a few points and then didn’t come back.

“That’s really our target, is the causal player,” Bauer said.

One of the biggest challenges of running games when you’re not a full-time gaming company is negotiating the relationship with the hardcore players versus the larger group of more casual ones. The most devoted players are also the ones who post the most complaints on forums and Facebook. “We have to keep reminding each other as a team [that] this is an initiative that is going to be constant on our site, and we can’t wear ourselves out catering to five people,” Bauer said.

At the same time, those small number of hardcore players are responsible for a lot of the games’ energy. “That’s where the conundrum is,” Bauer said. “We owe all of our success to those kinds of people.”

When score! ends, Bauer will evaluate the game’s analytics to see which parts of it generated enough engagement to make the time invested in it worthwhile, and continue to think about how to automate parts of the game to make it more sustainable. The next game will debut sometime early in the winter, Bauer said, and it may involve competition between players in Rochester and other cities.

So far, the Democrat and Chronicle is the only Gannett paper to implement a major gaming initiative, Bauer said. She said this was disappointing, but not surprising, since the success of Picture the Impossible didn’t translate into a bump in revenue. (Unlike Picture the Impossible, score! has advertising on its site.) As much as she believes in making social gaming part of a newspaper’s toolbox, Bauer said, “it certainly doesn’t produce a lot of revenue, and until it does, it’s not going to get a lot of attention.”

POSTED     Nov. 30, 2010, 10 a.m.
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