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July 3, 2023

Web3 and the Game of Creation

Alternate reality games can teach us how to build community in the age of NFTs argues Caitlin Burns
Credit: Harley Quinn’s Freakin’ Awesome Boxes of Mayhem, 2022. Courtesy of Palm NFT Studio
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Web3 and the Game of Creation

On March 8, 2001, a new experiment in online role playing launched as part of Warner Bros’ promotion for A.I. Artificial Intelligence ahead of the film’s release later that summer. Titled, The Beast, the game invited players to work together in forums to solve a murder mystery, with developers placing breadcrumbs in both digital and physical worlds as clues for audience participants. When it promptly received one of the inaugural Peabody Awards, the game’s lead designer, Elan Lee, described the audience as “so much smarter than we thought they were. The very first day, they solved all six months worth of content in about two hours.” 

The game ended up running for over six months, even beyond the launch of Spielberg’s film, and became a watershed moment in online storytelling. 

Often regarded as the first alternate reality game (ARG), a number of those involved in The Beast would go on to manage 42 Entertainment, the company responsible for a string of viral marketing experiences: from Why So Serious? for The Dark Knight (2008) to I Love Bees for Halo 2 (2004) to Year Zero, which elaborated Nine Inch Nails’ concept album of the same name by conjuring a dystopian vision of the year 2022.

The Halo franchise (2001-ongoing) has experimented with numerous game types including alternate reality games (ARGs)

Because they involve real-world participation, ARGs can be distinguished from other types of game that provide a closed interactive game space. Instead they require players to collaborate among themselves to complete challenges, solve puzzles, and move storylines along. Clues are often distributed throughout public spaces, including on websites or social media channels as well as billboards and print advertisements, with players using their own social accounts to coordinate, solve, and share insights and accomplishments. 

I myself have collaborated on a few, multi-year ARGs for big storyworlds, including Auradon Buzz for Descendants (2015), The Daily Bugle for The Amazing Spiderman (2012), and Flynn Lives for Tron: Legacy (2010). At the time, I was developing multi-year transmedia strategies to connect with fans before and between major film and game releases. This involved inviting people to experience the storyworlds behind the projects they loved, while giving them the opportunity to play together and share in that affection. I never had the chance to play The Beast, but I’d grown up playing table-top games with my father. My favorite was 221B Baker Street (1975), a Sherlock Holmes mystery that required reading newspapers and case files, interviewing other players, and reviewing old cases in order to uncover additional clues. While the stories might be fake, the personal relationships at the heart of these communities are very real. 

Those individuals who were once drawn to table-top puzzle games have since found each other again online. As the Internet has changed, so have the games we play together. 
Flynn Lives was an alternate reality game (ARG) spanning multiple years leading up to the release of Tron: Legacy (2010)

One of the benefits of working on global IP franchises is watching the hundreds of different game types currently in production. Every new game is a technological experiment, even those that extend well-worn genres. Games like Minecraft, Roblox, and RollerCoaster Tycoon allow you to create, while projects like Overwatch, League of Legends and Valorant teach users how to work collaboratively (if you’re open to it, trolls). Others allow you to explore entire worlds — The Trail is liable to suck you in for hours.

Playing these games allows us to build personal skills that benefit us in the real world. And because new games often follow the emergence of new computing technologies, they represent fertile space in which to explore those technologies without the risk of real peril. 

Text-based adventures existed long before customer support went online, while trust was essential to gaming before anyone filed their taxes online. Play and experimentation are two sides of the same coin, but in Web3, the implications of the technology are less to do with higher resolution than co-creation and the distribution of community participation.

Batman: The Legacy Cowl #1 (2022-ongoing) was the first original DC Comic on the blockchain

The game of creation

The Beast captures a central truth of the creative arts — that you have no idea what someone will do with your work until they break it. After all, Frisbees were once pie pans. You might think you know what an audience wants, but until you’re working with them in the wild, you’re probably wrong. Today’s console developers and MMO (massively multiplayer online) game developers are constantly iterating in response to their players after a game goes live. Game testing is an ongoing process that informs not only software development, but the work of filmmakers, novelists, and creators across a wide range of industries. 

Web3 recognizes that the users of new tools must necessarily participate in their creation. 

A common thread of today’s emerging technologies is the creative agency they afford their users. The global popularity of generative AI platforms attests to this, allowing unskilled creators the power to unlock worlds of great complexity and emergent possibility. Likewise, visual programming gives users the chance to play with game engines without needing to spend years learning programming languages themselves. The novelty of NFT-based projects is that they don’t simply allow users to play and collect, but also to participate in the creation of a project over time. In Web3, the work of play is a recursive process, reimagining the player as an essential component of a creative feedback loop.

DC Harley Quinn Collection #2, 2022. Courtesy of Palm NFT Studio

A good example of co-creation, as well as NFT storytelling — DC’s Batman: The Legacy Cowl invites holders of the Bat Cowl Collection (2022) to vote in real time as DC artists, authors, and editors create issues of the original comic book. Readers of Batman have been able to vote on specific narrative outcomes since as far back as 1988’s “A Death in the Family.” 

However, NFTs offer fans the chance to participate at every point in the genesis of a comic book: from the choice of the title itself to how Batman fights, to the location of the villain’s lair. 

As the first DC Collectible Comic ever released, Batman: The Legacy Cowl #1 is an exercise in collaborative authorship by the entire community of Batman superfans. 

DC Bat Cowl Collection #2, 2022. Courtesy of Palm NFT Studio

The token gating of exclusive content is a fantastic mechanic for games that invite players to role play, especially ARGs. Because digital collectibles are connected to a player’s wallet and are largely platform agnostic, access to behind-the-scenes content and exclusive in-person events may be granted across the entire geography of the blockchain. Perhaps even more exciting, however, is the newfound ability to deliver content based on the contents of an individual player’s collection. 

One example is a time-limited game that pits The Gotham City District Knightwatch (GCDK) — Bat Cowl Collection holders — against the Harley Quinn Crew. Starting off the story in token-gated social media channels with Harley Quinn taunting the citizens of Gotham, this multi-month narrative culminated in a text-based adventure game. Members of the Harley Quinn Crew led the GCDK on a chase throughout the city as the latter sought to foil Quinn’s heist. 

Feedback and direction are also vital to understanding what is and isn’t working in any game or new media experience. 

What Web3 experiences share with historical ARGs is that they build in mechanisms allowing players to share insights, ideas, and feedback. 

Yet games of this kind also require constant testing and reiteration. Experiences are often bite-sized and their performance monitored: did people like this? What did they say about it online? The fact that the content is often relatively quick to produce and therefore quick to iterate also means that feedback can be integrated into the project’s design from the early days of development. This is in stark contrast to mobile or console games, or indeed films for which feedback giving is a glacial process.

Vector Meldrew, Broadside Episode #1 - n00b - NFT First Edition, 2022. Courtesy of Charlie Stratford-Rex and Vector Meldrew

Expanded authorship is perhaps the most exciting and unique attribute of Web3, allowing audience members not simply to give feedback about their own ongoing experience but also to receive recognition for their own original contributions to the storyworld. Projects like Broadside grant holders of its characters’ collectibles the discretion to create work within the storyworld via CC0 licenses. While many such projects lack the necessary tracking, crediting, and royalty systems to automate the legal and accounting sides of those licenses, the ability to share in intellectual property in a way that has clear permissions, and a built-in audience, will be a defining feature of NFT projects in the future. 

For as platforms like Kindle Worlds and Wattpad testify, even in Web2, authors have shown themselves ready for a new age of co-creation. 

Evidence from legacy publishing includes the “Ring of Fire” novels, “World of Riverside,” and the works of Scott Walker, all of which prove that it is possible to share credit and royalties within a storyworld with the right intent and business management. NFTs, together with their smart contracts, offer the tools to grant such permissions, while ARGs represent the ideal space in which to expand authorship by requiring player involvement. 

Web3 is still in its infancy, and NFT collections are only beginning to define what will and won’t appeal to users outside of speculative collection. To move beyond it demands collaboration and connection with an audience given a stake in the game of creation. 

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Caitlin Burns is the Senior Director of Story for Candy Digital, where she leads teams of creators in building new experiences for original and major franchise IP using NFT platforms and mechanics. A pioneer of transmedia storytelling, she has spent more than a decade creating multiplatform content strategies for well-known IP including Avatar, Halo, Pirates of the Caribbean, Tron, and more. She has worked for companies including Sony, Hasbro, UNICEF, and Wieden+Kennedy. Burns is recognized as a global specialist in emerging media production and entertainment franchise development.