Sharkrunners Ride the Reef

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Frank Lantz, Kevin Slavin and the rest of the creative team at New York firm area/code have followed up last year's strategic, successful "Sharkrunners" game with a sequel coinciding with Discovery Channel's Shark Week.

Lantz and Slavin (pictured l-r) spearheaded a more social version of their virtual, GPS-enhanced, shark-tracking competition. This time, along with a change in location (the coast of Australia as opposed to California), area/code implemented not only a community section called Sharkrunners HQ, which features user profiles, group creation, forums, RSS feeds and actual shark news, but an game-within-a-game called the Ocean Reclamation Initiative.

With the goal being to incite more engagement and interaction and mix in a sprinkle of philanthropy, area/code's new and improved "Sharkrunners" has already garnered a sizeable number of players. While their concept remains intact, Lantz and Slavin (read their profile in last year's Creativity 50 ) described how the new Sharkrunners features have changed the game, and why their product has veered from a simple promotional tool to a valuable piece of content.

How does "Sharkrunners 2" primarily differ from the original?

FL: When we originally made "Sharkrunners," it was designed to promote Shark Week and be a cool experiment of creating game-play using this real-world data. We were a little unprepared for the amount of passion and energy that our player community poured into the game. We were blown away by the degree to which players connected to this idea that you were a marine biologist and tracking these sharks. The game is not heavily fictionalized, though; it's a bit light.

The thing that we wanted to do for season two involved primarily a lot of social [interaction], expanding the world of the game and allowing players to see each other. We wanted to open it up and allow them to interact with each other, which brings up the social aspect of it. But first of all, we have a new set of sharks and a new location. This is based around one of the programs [airing] during "Shark Week" called Expedition Shark. It takes place in the Great Barrier Reef so we now have Tiger sharks and Grey Reef sharks [to track].

Can you explain the new site features, including Sharkrunners HQ?

FL: HQ is a social networking site for players. It allows players to proudly display their progress in the game. They can challenge each other to Sharkrunner duels, which is a little inspired by that Wes Anderson movie [The Life Aquatic with] Steve Zissou, like how [Bill Murray's character] has this ongoing rivalry with Jeff Goldblum. We wanted to have that spirit of fun, non-violent, head-to-head competition between players. With you and I as shark researchers, I can challenge you to a duel and then we have a separate, time-limited version of the game where we're racing around tracking sharks.

Players can also create groups and invite other players, and groups can compete against each other on the high scoreboard. With each of the three fictional research institutions that you belong to, which is roughly similar to the alliances in "World of Warcraft," we fleshed those out a little bit and allowed players to achieve higher ranks within their research institutions.

You've also taken the philanthropic route, at least in the virtual sense, with the Ocean Reclamation Initiative portion of the game.

FL: You can call this a meta-game. It's based a little bit on our working with actual researchers where we're getting data and working closely with people that are actually real-life shark researchers. One of the important things that they're doing as part of their research is looking at the way there are restricted zones and how that can help preserve a natural habitat for the sharks.

They'll take a section of the ocean and say this is off-limits for fishing. Then, they'll study how that affects the sharks' reproductive capabilities and migration patterns, etc. There are strategies for that. Anyways, we thought this was really interesting and we wanted an aspect of the game that reflected this. We took our entire map and divided it up into a grid. We then allowed players to take the research funding that they're earning as the play the game and donate that to preserve sections of the map.

What happens is it becomes "competitive philanthropy." It's funny, it's light-hearted and it's meant to reflect the real-world stuff that goes on, but it's a competitive game about doing good. If you're the highest bidder for a section of the map and donate the most money, you and your research institution are the highest donors for that section. Every time you have a shark encounter on that area of the map, you're earning extra research funds. [ORI] is a genuinely massive multi-player game that sits on top of the single-player game and affects that experience.

You've said you're also tying the game into "Shark Week" TV programming. What does that entail specifically?

FL: We are going to have these little bugs that pop-up on the bottom-third of the TV screen and give highlights about what's happening in the game.

KS: It calls out things as they're happening on TV that are also a part of the game.

FL: The same sharks you see on Expedition Shark are the same sharks that you can interact with in the game, so we're visualizing that for the players.

KS: The goal here is to take the sharks themselves and [make them dimensional] in as many ways as possible. It's not to bring just the idea of sharks, but bring them as close as we can to the desktop and provide a form of engagement with the sharks that hasn't really been possible before. To be able to lift that engagement back to television is really powerful. Suddenly, it's about seeing your shark and it changes the way that you watched the same thing that you were watching.

Will "Sharkrunners 2" also be an ongoing experience?

FL: It's an ongoing thing. It's going to hopefully be launching to great fanfare when "Shark Week" happens and then it's just going to continue. We hope to continue building the community, but we have people that have been playing it from day one basically from a year ago.

KS: It's part of an overall transition that's really interesting. What ends up happening, and it's not specific to us but it happens frequently, is that when we're called in to produce something, it's intended to promote some other property. But the thing about games, in particular the types of games we do, is that they don't stop when the thing that they're promoting stops. So, every week is "Shark Week" for the things that we're doing. What that means is that they become content. The games are no longer just pushing something else, although they do that very effectively, they're actually pulling people into Shark Week the whole year. It was originally a by-product of the kinds of things that we were doing, but now it's become it's become part of the intention.
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