For new multimedia spy game, it's pay to play

Start-up aims to convince consumers that "The Prague Files" and other mobile games are worth paying for.

A new company thinks it knows just how to get consumers to pay for multimedia cell phone games.

New York-based Live Games Network, which launched Wednesday, is banking on being able to convince players to pay $6.95 a pop to play games reminiscent of an increasingly popular genre known as alternate-reality games--and find this form of multimedia entertainment to be more compelling and a better bargain than going to the movies.

"What we're trying to (do) is make people feel like they're in a movie for two weeks, with characters and a three-act story arc," said Troy Benton, founder of the company. "The Live Games Network is meant to be a social hub before, during and after the game."

The company is planning to roll out its first game, "The Prague Files," in December. The game pits players in the United States and beyond against each other in a two-week bid to solve clues and battle for prizes including a trip to Europe and Xbox 360 and PlayStation Portable game packs.

"The Prague Files," and a series of other games that should follow in succeeding months, are reminiscent of alternate-reality games, or ARGs, like 2004's "I Love Bees." That multimedia game ran for several months and tasked players with solving clues both online and offline, answering pay phones that could ring nearly anywhere in the world and working together in teams. "I Love Bees" was a promotional effort for Microsoft's "Halo 2."

"The Prague Files" and the Live Games Network are the brainchild of Benton, an Australian who previously ran a similar game, "DeltaZero," which was played by 20,000 people Down Under who tried to "save" a fictional member of a clandestine group gone rogue. Benton and his team of around 15 people are hoping to convince players that paying to play "The Prague Files" and other games will be well worth their while.

Benton scripts the games to run over the course of two weeks. They follow a specific story line that requires players to check e-mail, cell phone text messages and the Web for clues. Community engagement is also an important aspect.

"I think any time you ask a large audience to pay money for content, you're going to lose some of that audience."
--Jonathan Waite, senior editor, ARGNet

"Prague Files" players, for example, will be immersed in a spy-themed story line and asked to spend a minimum of five to ten minutes a day solving clues--such as fiddling with a set of Web console dials that rotate two fingerprints until they overlap. Each new challenge rewards the fastest players with more points; the idea is to reach the end of the game with the most points.

Benton said top-ranked players will then compete in a showdown in which all scores are reset and only puzzles from that weekend will count toward the final score. Players below a certain point threshold will not qualify to play on the final weekend.

He also said players can get into the game with five or 10 minutes of play per day, but there is enough "Prague Files" content written to sustain several daily hours of play. And he suggested that while only players who dive in full bore will have a chance to win the game and the prize of a trip for two to Prague, even casual players will be given an entertaining experience.

"The experience becomes a lot richer the more you delve into the game," Benton said. "Obviously you're not going to win (if you only play a few minutes a day), but it's still something you can be involved in...You can feel like you're a spy for two weeks. So it really scales to a player's involvement."

To Jane McGonigal, a senior designer at 42 Entertainment, which created "I Love Bees" and many other well-known ARGs, "The Prague Files" seems like an interesting attempt to encapsulate the ARG genre into a short time frame and an easy-to-understand format.

"This is definitely an ARG for a casual, mainstream audience," said McGonigal. "Which is really interesting. (Those of us) who support the genre are always really excited to see the format adopted and adapted...in different ways, because the more people you can get playing, the bigger the audience gets."

One major difference between games like "I Love Bees" and "The Prague Files" is that the former was a free game that asked its players to go out into the real world, work together and solve complex clues.

By comparison, "The Prague Files" costs $6.95 to play, and doesn't require players to do much beyond use their cell phones and computers to figure out the puzzle. To be sure, a lively forum is expected to arise on the Live Games Network's Web site, but players should be able to solve clues on their own.

For her part, McGonigal wonders how many casual players will choose to pony up $6.95 to play.

"If you've never played this kind of game before, I don't know how likely you are to pay to play," McGonigal said. "So they'll definitely need some evangelists."

She also said that while some elements of "The Prague Files" are similar to full-scale ARGs, the game may more closely resemble smaller-scale games like "SF0" or "The Go Game."

Meanwhile, Jonathan Waite, senior editor at ARGNet, an online community site about ARGs, said he thinks "The Prague Files" has something novel to offer.

"The interaction with the cell phone is a neat idea," Waite said. "Getting e-mails and the telephone calls and text messages is very ARG-ish."

Waite said the pay-to-play model has not worked well in the past, but it hasn't been tried that many times either.

Still, he said, "I think any time you ask a large audience to pay money for content, you're going to lose some of that audience...Part of your audience can't afford it or can't do it. It's a Catch 22."

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