Chaos Theory: Grand plans for The Secret World's Black Watchmen ARG

Chaos Theory: Interview uncovers big plans for the new TSW-themed Black Watchmen ARG
Last week we revealed that a new persistent alternate reality game is in the works from Human Equation, the studio that brought us the pre-launch and End of Days ARGs for The Secret World. But that little introduction is just a drop in the bucket compared to what the company has planned for the community. Human Equation has bought the license to operate the Black Watchmen IP from Funcom, and that means TSW players, fans, and puzzle-enthusiasts have much more in store for them than they realize.

Although a major premise behind an ARG is figuring out clues and discovering information over time, I sat down and chatted with Andrea Doyon, the chief innovation officer (aka puppet master) for the ARG to bring you the scoop on those very plans. Check out all the details in this exclusive interview, including future job possibilities, and get a peek at two never-before-seen pieces of concept art.

For anyone not familiar with an ARG, here's the deal: It is basically a structured narrative set in the real world, often involving puzzles where players figure out clues to advance the story. Additionally, players' actions can actually alter the story. Multiple forms of media are utilized throughout this process, from email to Twitter and even to phone calls, and players congregate in chat rooms to collaborate. This is one reason ARGs fit so seamlessly with TSW, a game that's rooted in the real world.

During the interview, Doyon was quick to point out that although this new ARG has ties to the horror game -- and may even have some effect on it (which we'll delve into more below) -- the project is not a part of The Secret World. It's an autonomous spin-off that will develop independent of Funcom's game. So why spend the money to buy an IP related to the game instead of coming up with a new premise or going with something less niche? It basically came down to one thing: the community. "We were struck by the level of experience of this community in terms of ARGs," Doyon said. "You can have a great IP, but if you don't have the community who understands and knows how ARGs work, [your project] will quickly fail." He added that the community was much more important than the IP itself; it was a way to do something with the community they were impressed by and have already bonded with after spending so much time together.

So if not TSW per se, what is this upcoming persistent ARG about? It's the story of one facet of the horror game that has yet to be explored, the Black Watchmen. Doyon noted that because of this connection, one of the biggest challenges has been how to set the ARG into the timeline already established by TSW. The decision was made to go back to the beginnings of the Black Watchmen, and since New York City and Tokyo are integral to the development of this story, it made sense to head to a time before those cities were devastated by the Filth. Hence, the ARG's name: Black Watchmen Inception.

Now for the way that Black Watchmen Inception might be felt in TSW. While there are no guarantees, there is the distinct possibility that players' actions in the ARG may ripple into the timeline of the game. One example is through players perhaps finding relics left behind after some great battle from the ARG. Or maybe something buried in the real world will be dug up in TSW. The possibilities are many.

Human Equation, which founded a studio for this project called Human Equation Entertainment, plans on expanding the ARG experience in different ways. Although there will most likely never be an avatar in a pixeled world as in traditional MMOs, Black Watchmen Inception plans to introduce more mechanics that will enhance the experience of all types of players, whether they be the code-breakers, the leaders who organize, or the lurkers who support.

For instance, BWI will include mini-games that are triggered by different variables. These pre-scripted mini-ARGs will be tailored for individuals and individual roles as well as for groups. Doyon illustrated the concept by saying a player may be targeted by a sniper and need to help of friends to discover who is trying to eliminate him from game and then take the threat out. These mini-ARGS give players something to do between releases of the global storyline and will ultimately have an impact on it.

Additionally, there will be guilds (called chapters) and larger groups called divisions, a character sheet that details how a person is leveling up, a companion app, raids (group events), and a matchmaking system to connect people together for dealing with situations and solving puzzles. On top of that, the studio wants to exceed hosting 4,000 players in chat simultaneously, the record reached in the main hub during the End of Days campaign.

The ARG is not the only thing Human Equation has in the works, either. Doyon revealed that the company has plans for a variety of other projects and products involving the Black Watchmen IP. He noted that the company bought the license to operate that IP: "We can do whatever we want, we can do web series, comic books," and so on -- how do you feel about your ARG actions becoming comic book fodder?

For participating in the persistent ARG, players can choose how deep a rabbit hole they are willing to jump into. One goal of the company is to bring the ARG to life for players, literally. Doyon explained that while many just work through the lowest level of involvement, there are levels that increase a player's immersion into the game, the highest of which includes real-life encounters. "If you ask for clearance level yellow and above, you asked for it," he told me. "You give us the green light to crawl into your life, to crawl into your phone, your Skype, your email." Players who opt in to this level (and sign a waiver) may wake up to find a black van parked across from their house, just sitting there. To further illustrate, Doyon offered the example from the End of Days ARG -- one that apparently freaked out a good number of participants. Imagine getting a phone call at 2:00 a.m. and all you hear on the line is the lilting voice of a four-year-old girl reciting apocalyptic scripture!

Of course, for this type of experience you have to supply the company with a good deal of personal information, including name, address, phone numbers, and email. And that leads the question of security when it comes to players' private data. So how will Human Equation protect them? Doyon acknowledged that many participants in the ARG are professional hackers, and therefore the only way to secure the data is to have that data not exist. He explained that this is accomplished by immediately pulling the information from the server when a player signs up and isolating it on a closed in-house system with no connections. He emphasized that personal data will not ever be on the server. However, when it comes to such things as calling for help using the companion app, players are responsible for protecting their information as they deem necessary.

You might be surprised to hear that the current ARG that is underway is not the persistent one. In fact, it is just a bonus! As players advance through this story, they will learn bits and pieces about the next chapter, which is the big project. Doyon explained that the persistent ARG will get rolling after a Kickstarter campaign that is set to begin when this current ARG wraps up. The point in doing this game now was to give something to the community first before asking for any money. Doyon emphasized that the idea was to build trust in the company and its product first. Then, if folks like the taste of the sample, they will be inclined to support the main dish.

Work on the ARG is already happening, and the current game is leading into it. In fact, what people are learning and uncovering now is affecting and defining the development of the persistent version. One part of the persistent ARG that players have uncovered is the Cybermages. These are powerful entities whose gene mutation has caused them to evolve and be a little out of phase with the rest of the world. A very interesting aspect of this is that a number of random participants will be assigned this mutation, which will give a player a unique experience in the ARG. These particular players will be a part of the main story arc, and missions will actually be about them.

Let's revisit the idea of crowdfunding the persistent ARG. Doyon explained that the level of funding would not determine whether there was an ARG but rather how intense the guiding story arc will be. Specifically, the amount of funding generated will determine whether the game gets weekly updates or quarterly ones, etc. The more collected, the more frequent the updates.

As a bonus to The Secret World community, everyone who bought lifetime memberships will have full free membership in the ARG. When fundraising starts, Doyon also revealed that TSW players will get a major rebate in the pledge system and something special.

Perhaps one of the most important things to note about this project is the fact that Human Equation Entertainment believes strongly in providing a framework for the story, not the complete story itself. This ARG will not be completely pre-scripted just to be consumed; player actions will have definite consequences, as they can and will affect the outcome, possibly even steering the course of the story in a totally unexpected way. "Generally 50% of our content is created during the ARG," said Doyon. "So you if don't save the cheerleader, she really dies!" For that reason, the studio will be hiring in a variety of capacities to keep the story going no matter where the players turn. So you can get in on the act!

Job openings will be announced during the crowdfunding process and will include artists, writers, community managers, and more. Those who may be interested in such an opportunity should definitely keep an eye out for more information come April. We'd like to thank Andrea Doyon for his time speaking with us!

Conspiracies, paranoia, secrets, and chaos -- the breakfast of champions! Feast on a bowlful with MJ on Thursdays as she infiltrates The Secret World to bring you the latest word on the streets of Gaia in Chaos Theory. Heard some juicy whispers or have a few leads you want followed? Send them to mj@massively.com and she'll jump on the case!

This article was originally published on Massively.