Feed Frenzy

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When Kevin Slavin lets go of one of TVs great lines, made famous by Tracy Morgan in 30 Rock, you can tell it's been a challenging project. "Live every week like it's Shark Week," the area/code co-founder and managing director sighs into the phone. It's been just over a week since "Sharkrunners" launched, and the uniquely addictive strategy game pairing armchair marine biologists and GPS-tracked sharks has required some heavy lifting. But, in this case, it's not a bad problem to have. The game is exceedingly immersive, and, for area/code, represents a huge turning point in its two year history. Clients are getting the picture, and with this project they've managed to reach a huge Internet audience. We caught up with Slavin along with his partner Frank Lantz, area/code's creative director, to talk about the project and the future of cross-platform gaming.

The game is running, people seem to be enjoying it, but it's tough to get over the scale—is this area/code's biggest project so far? How would you sum it up?

KS: I'd say that what works so great for the game—getting an SMS or an email a couple times a day to bring you into the world of these sharks—is also what works out great for Shark Week overall, great for Discovery. TV used to be something you only thought about when it was on. We've used the game to make Shark Week be about the whole week, rather than just the programs you tune into. It's online, it's across everybody's cell phone, there's shark data coming in. As far as integration goes it's not easy. It's not our biggest project, but it's up and running and people kind of love it. Part of what's fun about it is it works its way into your everyday life. It has certain qualities of a casual game, in the sense of you go in, you play for ten minutes, but it has the intensity of more involved games because it's a little bit on the shark's terms. You're getting a call in the middle of the day, or an email. It has the adrenalin of real time responsiveness and somehow it's as if you're always playing. In that is something very powerful. When they had Street Wars going on, it was a powerful experience, because you had all these places where you were safe - so if you were at work you were safe, if you were at home, in a restaurant/bar or at home you were safe. So there were these little points in the day where you were vulnerable. That could transform the entire day; it could change how you left the office. In part "Sharkrunners" is like that. I'll be in a meeting and suddenly get a message and now, all of a sudden, I'm thinking about it.

So how did this originate? Did Discovery come to you guys or did you go to them?

KS: One of the things that's interesting about is this is the first time we got an RFP from somebody that said 'We want a cross-media game.' We've had a few since then, but when we started area/code two years ago it wasn't clear whether we were crazy or not. The field didn't really exist. This is the first time somebody came to us and said 'we want this thing you do, we want a game that cuts across multiple media channels, is pervasive, and has something to do with Shark Week. Our response was a couple of things; one, yeah, that's what we do, and two, there's no way you want to do that without using real shark data. It's too good not to do, that there's this whole idea of the internet of things and how everything is going to be connected to everything else, and every banana will have its own IP address, and we were like How about sharks? Will sharks have their own IP address? Our answer is that they do. So we set out to get that data and the rest is really about making a great game.

FL: We paid a lot of attention to stuff that's happening in the world of GPS and location tracking, I think we were aware that one of the things marine biologists did was tag creatures with these GPS tags, that's something we knew that was out there, and the initial reaction at the very beginning was 'we should get our hands on some sharks that have these GPS tags' and use that data to drive the game, it seemed like a natural thing to do that would have obvious appeal.

Production wise, how easy was it to liaise with the people who have the shark data? It seems like that would be a difficult thing to wrangle.

KS: In fact, it's not easy. It turns out providing data for videogames is not high on the list of priorities for marine biologists.

FL: I think one of the things that helped us was when we talked to these people it was clear to them this was a game that is respectful of their profession, the fantasy for the player is that they are a marine biologist. It's a little bit of an Indiana Jones style version, but there are guys out there that actually do this. Among marine biologists there's a reputation of the person who does shark research as being a bit more reckless, a bit more on the edge of things. And
"It turns out providing data for videogames is not high on the list of priorities for marine biologists."
It turns out providing data for videogames is not high on the list of priorities for marine biologists.That's what the game's about, it's not about killing sharks or hunting sharks, it is about research and that's the focus. There's always that danger, because sharks are predators, but the game is not over dramatizing the dangerous aspects of sharks, it's really about research and science.

KS: To Frank's point, they were wildly excited about the idea. Actually getting our hands on the data turned out to be tricky. But the excitement among marine biologists was quite palpable. And that's where a lot of the enthusiasm is coming from now that it's launched.

Have you guys heard feedback from any scientists? Do you have any that are players?

KS: There are two that have sent us notes.

FL: There's a guy that wants to use this in his class, and there are some people in the forums who have done this kind of work. Some of the stuff that's coming on the forums is 'Hey, how do I do this in real life?'

KS: It's often being covered as 'what a great educational game,' which we never thought. It's always just to make a really fun game that's built around real-world data, to tap into that core idea and make it as good as possible. As a result it is kind of education, but not intentionally so. Part of it is the kind of romance and the magic of knowing that the decisions you make in the game intersect with the real decisions sharks make, it makes the staid practice of scientific research sexy; i's integrating the shark mind. It has inadvertently not just raised consciousness of sharks, but the whole idea of studying sharks, which is a wild, unanticipated side effect.

area/code from left: Dennis Crowley, Kevin Cancienne, Frank Lantz, Kevin Slavin, Kati London
area/code from left: Dennis Crowley, Kevin Cancienne, Frank Lantz, Kevin Slavin, Kati London
What sort of user data are you getting back?

KS: One thing that's really interesting is that a third of the players are playing with rivals, which was really cool and unexpected.

FL: We spent a lot of time thinking about the social aspect, which is at the heart of everything we do, it's pretty much a single player experience, but we didn't want it to be thousands of other boats floating around, but we wanted to tap into this social aspect, so we came up with this idea of rivals. We think it's kind of a good way of doing multiplayer games online, you pick one other person and that person becomes your rival. Through the course of the game you're constantly comparing progress. It's a little bit inspired by the The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou; that's exactly what we were picturing in our heads, this romantic image of renegade scientists, mercenary style freelance researchers out on the open seas, constantly trying to outdo each other. So you have a high score board, a leader board, but more importantly, there's always thousands and thousands of people playing, but this way it dramatizes that competition, it puts it into a more personal and more interesting context. KS: One of the things that often happens with games that are used with this context, there's an emphasis on the prizing. The number one player will be shot into space or something. We're not against that, necessarily, but what we've learned is what really drives people in a good game is the sense of doing better or worse than somebody else. It's a very primal, basic feeling that motivates people, possibly far more than cash prizes.

FL: If you look at the most popular games in the history of the world, videogames as well, ones that are incredibly addictive, they create their own senses of desire and accomplishment and success that's much more powerful. Prizes can often be good for getting people in the game, but we always try to think this is a game that has to drive its own passion.

Now the entire team was involved - how do the skill sets break down? I'd assume a lot of them are ITP people that have a tech background. How does that shake out when you're creating a narrative or dealing with large amounts of data?

"Great, because I'm going to need something to do when I lose my job for playing this game. I'm addicted." -- "Sharkrunners" forum member sbewens after finding out the game will continue beyond Shark Week
FL: It's a mix, we have a reasonably small team on this, it's a mix between people who were focused on game design, designing the user experience, designing the overall system, people that were focused on technology, and that included both the backend, you have a database and all of the shark data and everything else that's happening on the backend, all the game logic, and then you have the Flash allocation, the front end, the interface, the thing that the players are interfacing with. So those are the important pieces of technology. We had programmers working on those, and we also had people doing research on sharks and marine biology and writing the text, the communications you get from your research institutions, and then we had visual design. There's a lot of overlap between these things, but those are the main disciplines. Technology, game design, visual design and content creation.

KS: For better or worse we set out to do things that nobody's done before, and that means skill sets are not easily defined, so there is a great deal of overlap. We're very fortunate to have real athletes, people who can really do a couple of different things when it comes down to it. But really it does fall into those four broad divisions. There are so many pieces of it that are super specialized, it may be a very small piece but it's a very important one. So, for example, how do you handle having to send out a couple million SMSes asynchronously, using one database that's constant and one database that's always changing? The sharks are always doing what the sharks are doing, but every player's doing something different, so you have to calculate against every possible interaction and send out an SMS that's appropriate to each person. That's a pretty specific, narrow skill set and you bring in the person who's really right to do that. So there are parts that incorporate broad skills, like, for example, I don't think there was anything truly unique about the visual design challenges, they're fairly traditional. But there were a couple of pieces on the back end that had to do with this game and required very specific knowledge. We're lucky, in part through ITP and in part having been doing this for two years, to know the most extreme talents in these fields.

"Now, here we make it really frustrating": Lantz, left, and Slavin work out the details.
FL: Two years ago area/code was just the two of us. Everything we did we had to do by bringing people in, working with partners and freelancers. This is not something we could have done back then. This is an example of the kind of game we now have the ability to do in house. It's a great feeling. It feels like we're a real game developer now. We're still super small, in terms of the overall spectrum, but this is now something we have in house, as we've worked with these people. The greatest ones, the best ones, we've brought them inside and now we're building up this incredible core of talent and skill that is specialized, that is related to all these ideas about real world data and location and cross media, all these things we're interested in. Our ambition is always one step ahead of what we can execute, but they're both growing.

Kevin, you said earlier you got an RFP for this, and you've gotten a few more. Are people getting it, what you're all about and how they want to get into this world?

KS: I would say that since the Sopranos game that we did, not just what area/code offers has become quite clear, but also in general there's a growing awareness that one of the most interesting things you can do with computers is to use them to change the way you interact with the real world. There's a general sensibility, and with genuine modesty we knew two years ago and we think everyone is becoming aware of it now, that there are these complex and very magical relationships between the physical world and the digital world and there are folks who know how bring it to real life. We're partly lucky and it's partly through a lot of hard work we're able to reap the rewards. I always use the example of Webkinz, where everybody is buying a stuffed animal to gain access to an online world. It is no longer that difficult for us to explain what we do to people. The time has come. Really, the majority of calls we get these days are, like Discovery, from media channels, from TV. We still get a lot of calls from ad agencies, but in fact it's the people who know the most about entertainment as it exists who are looking to find ways to extend it into this magic area. And the phone is off the hook, which is great.

It's interesting, it almost seems like there are experiences that you need to have with the Internet in order to fully understand relationships on it, like when you're a kid you have your first kiss, but then when you're on the internet you have your first crazy argument or the first meeting with someone you really know but have never met face to face.

FL: And it turns out what computers are really good for is actually bringing us into contact with other things in the world, or other people, or sharks.

Now, you make this game, it's going to live with Discovery. In the future do you think you're going to take ownership of these item?

KS: The answer is twofold. One, in addition to the work that we're doing that's client related we are slowly and surely building our own products and platforms, so there's a thing now called Plunder, that's our own game, and it's unlike any other game that's ever existed, it's proper game development, and we're talking with game publishers about how to bring that to life. It draws from everything we've been doing for all these clients and it also informs everything we've been doing for clients. To have a publishing practice the same time we have a developing practice. It's not up to full speed yet, but it's definitely on its way. And then, in addition to that, we've learned over time to think about 'what are the elements that are consistent across games' so we can platform those pieces. As it stands everything we've done for clients is always bespoke development, from scratch, and that may not be in everyone's long-term interests. For the clients, what's best for them, is to use the same client registration system that we've used with [other clients]. So we've started to modularize what we're doing to make it easier for us to develop and easier for clients to implement themselves.

It seems like there are dozens and dozens of proprietary parts that you guys have come up with to make these games work; modified they could be deployed as 'Johnny's RFID Hide and Seek' or something like that.

FL: The blessing and the curse of being area/code right now is that there are so many possible directions to go. Because this space is just becoming mature and we're right in the middle of it. We have some really amazing projects that we're just starting to kick off for two TV networks that we're really excited about, but at the same time some of the things we're most excited is the area/code proprietary stuff we're developing at the same time.

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