Yesterday I came across a kickstarter for witness protection program. The notion is that two teams of players try to accomplish their goals, either to protect the witness to a crime or to murder them. Killing is accomplished by finding the witness and leading them to the murderer, while saving them is accomplished by finding the witness and leading enough people on your side to them. Of course, while everyone knows who the witness is, nobody knows any of the other roles. It sounds like a hybrid of hide and seek and mafia. Two of my favourite things in life are refusing to grow up and constructing elaborate and unnecessary deceptions so this really appeals.
On a general game design level it made me start thinking about the construction of live games. When I say 'live games' I'm thinking about games that require you to leave the table and play in an open space. These games can be a lot of fun, but have their own unique design challenges, today I'm going to talk about one in particular but I'm sure it's a topic I'll come back to sometime (possibly after Empire).
The question is: how do you design a live game to cope with public interactions? A lot of these games are played in public spaces like parks and city streets, which inevitably have members of the public wondering around. This means that the playing environment will contain people who don't know that you're playing a game and what that game is - this becomes important really quickly if someone calls the police because they see you hiding in a bush and don't know the knife is a prop.
My first encounter with this sort of game was killer. I later discovered this was a specific edition of a more general 'assassins' game that has been played the world over and is very popular in universities - if that's not an intelligence agency recruitment scheme, I don't know what is. Players complete to assassinate their targets with a variety of weapons and the policy towards the public is "don't get them involved". The game mechanics reinforce this by adding bonuses for eliminating targets with no witnesses, meaning letting a target spot a weapon before you use it very dangerous and killing a "civilian" (someone not playing the game) is a disqualifiable offence. It works well enough; I played for a few years without any run-ins with the law. I can't help but feel it's possible to do better though.
Enter the excellent slingshot. They decided that their approach to the public feels more like "put on a good show", aiming to offer something positive to anyone who comes into contact with their work. They run a number of events, but 2.8 hours later is the only one I've attended so far. In this event players are trying to cross a city through a gauntlet of zombies who've overtaken a lot of key areas. Slingshot rent out buildings and car parks and get permission to shut down side streets and fill them with zombies that players must escape without being eaten. Having crewed as a zombie at one of their events, my instructions for the public boiled down to: "Look awesome and put on a good show. If anyone looks genuinely worried or upset, stop immediately. If there are any questions, there's a dedicated guy nearby to talk them through what's going, so point them in his direction". I had a great time as a zombie and it was really rewarding to see everyone, players and public, enjoy the game. One guy even ran back to his office to get a camera and take a picture of us, because we'd all forgotten to bring our own and didn't want to miss out.
It was fantastic, I like the design philosophy that says "we're going to make as many people’s lives as possible more fun". I can't help but feel that it's possible to do better though. I wanted to design a game that people might wind up taking part in by accident, but would be happy that they did. Due to inclement weather and timetable problems I never did get enough players together to give it a run, but let’s talk about the idea behind it anyway. That game was "Murder (with love)".
The idea here was to lift the core mechanic of killer - hunting a target without knowing who they were and using a weapon to eliminate them - but re-contextualising it in a way that accidentally attacking passersby would be a good thing. To this end, the weapons were all replaced with positive things; the character above tried to kill people by wishing them a good day and would be killed if anyone wished them good luck, complimented their clothes or sang a song in their honour. The idea was that people would wonder around the park performing random acts of kindness for strangers. If the stranger wasn’t a player, you would be rewarded by having made someone’s day better. If they were playing, then you would be rewarded by watching them act out an elaborate death sequence in response to a compliment. Plus you could take their things, as alternative weapons.
It seems a natural progression to me, to go from hiding from the public, to putting on a show, to positively involving people. I still wonder if it would have worked had it not been so cold outside that day, perhaps I'll try it again in the summer.