Nick Lockey immerses himself in the interactive storytelling of 'Six to Start' and discovers games that are designed to be played on one platform: the whole world.
When the great and the good of digital media assembled to learn who had won Best of Show at the 2009 South by Southwest Interactive Web Awards, the winners were nowhere to be seen. Were the recipients of the award, Six to Start - a team of two brothers renowned for their reality-bending mix of storytelling and gaming - inviting the audience to participate in one of their fiendishly difficult multi-platform treasure hunts, we wondered? "Actually we were in the bar," confesses CEO Dan Hon. "We hadn't even realised we'd been nominated." This modesty is typical of the London games company, which prefers to let the quality of its work do the talking. But it's not as if the company hasn't got anything to shout about.
Brothers Dan and Adrian Hon established Six to Start in 2007, and since then have notched up an impressive client list, which includes the likes of Channel 4, Disney, the BBC and Penguin, and have trumped web giants such as Flickr, StumbleUpon and Delicious to gain acknowledgement as one of the most innovative interactive companies on the web. Not bad for a Cambridge-educated lawyer and a former neuroscientist.
Today, Dan and Adrian are best known as creators of Alternate Reality Games (ARGs) - cross-platform interactive experiences that lead players through complex narratives spanning real-world and online spaces. Earning their stripes at British games company Mind Candy, they played key roles in the development of Perplex City, a groundbreaking ARG that had thousands of players hunting for 'The Receda Cube' - a mysterious buried object with a £100,000 bounty. The brief for Perplex City involved creating complex puzzles and challenges that would give players an unprecedented level of interactivity, ranging from deciphering cryptic CDs of techno music and cracking military-grade ciphers, to chasing spies in sinister black helicopters.
But while the environment was creative, it certainly wasn't laid back. "Perplex City was basically an 18-month live event," recalls Adrian. "I slept in the office for the first year, surrounded by our reference materials. I constantly reacted to messages from our players. It was impossible to switch off."
"You'd watch what the players were doing; you'd see what worked and what didn't, and you were adapting to the events as they unfolded. It was true user-centred design," agrees Dan.
In 2007 Dan and Adrian left Mind Candy to set up Six to Start, a company specialising in new kinds of entertainment, combining traditional storytelling with the potential offered by the interactivity of the internet. "Instead of taking existing media and using the web as a publishing platform, we take its strengths as a medium and make it part of the entertainment," explains Adrian.
"Our inspiration comes from a variety of sources, from board games and World of Warcraft to the work of Douglas Adams," reveals Dan. "We're also huge fans of Pixar. Not only are they fantastic storytellers, but everything the company does just radiates quality." Dan also praises Steve Jobs, citing Apple's streamlined user interfaces as a key influence. "Keeping things as stripped-down as possible is the key to simplicity, elegance and fun. If your games aren't fun, what's the point?"
The company's biggest success to date has been We Tell Stories; a collaboration with Penguin that splices the old-media world of fiction publishing with the cutting-edge interactivity of the web. The project came about when they were approached by Penguin's head of digital publishing Jeremy Ettinghausen, who had been impressed by Perplex City and was keen to experiment with new kinds of online storytelling.
"We came up with the idea of creating six brand-new short stories written by six leading Penguin authors, to be released over a six-week period, each based on a Penguin classic," explains Adrian. "The twist was that each story had to be told in a way that was native to the web, allowing for a high degree of interactivity for the reader." This ties in perfectly with what Dan describes as the company's 'platform-agnostic' philosophy of selecting technologies to suit their narratives, rather than shoehorning a project to fit a platform. "We don't want you to think about the medium you're using to consume the content; we just want you to be immersed in the experience."
The result was a collection of unique stories that played out over online spaces such as Google Maps, blogs and Twitter, utilising devices such as live storytelling and infographics, and drawing on game dynamics from text adventures, 'choose your own adventure' books, and traditional ARGs. It was an experiment that paid off brilliantly, attracting over 200,000 players and generating more than 1,800 blog posts and radio interviews.
"The key to our success was having direct contact with the Penguin authors very early on in the process," says Adrian. "We came up with the basic ideas for how the stories would work interactively before we approached the authors, and then we collaborated with them to tweak the approach where necessary."
"On the whole, very little changed from our original vision during these processes," says Dan. "But sometimes the input from the authors actually streamlined and simplified the idea, as with Your Place and Mine, a story designed to be written live."
"In the case of The 21 Steps - a narrative that unfolds while the reader navigates a Google Map to follow the characters' movements in the story - I'd been kicking the idea around for a while, but never got round to trying it," adds Dan. "This was the perfect excuse to give it a go."
By Adrian's own admission, We Tell Stories is no more complicated than a CD-ROM game. So what made it so compelling? "What we do isn't defined by the level of interactivity; it's defined by the experience. Sometimes a good experience relies on a lot of interactivity, and sometimes if you want to tell a powerful narrative you have to keep things simple."
Not all of Six to Start's projects have allowed them such creative freedom, and practical limitations have often influenced their approach to a brief. This was the case when they were approached by the BBC and TV production company Kudos to provide an online experience for spy drama Spooks: Code 9.
"It was difficult because we were brought in pretty late in the process, when the scripts were already finalised and filming was about to begin," recalls Adrian. "With a project such as this it's better to be involved early on, so you can immerse yourself in the narrative and figure out how to weave in your own story. Ideally, we'd like to have done something really dystopian and gamey to fit the apocalyptic theme, responding to player actions and letting them influence the story. But we just didn't have the time or resources, which was frustrating for the fans who clearly wanted to play along. It was a real missed opportunity."
In the end the practical constraints served to fuel the creative processes, ultimately resulting in Liberty News, a concept that proved to be a real winner for the clients. Liberty News was a fake news website set in the 2013 period of the television show. In the show a nuclear bomb had obliterated London. Liberty News had everything from credible news reports and eye-witness accounts, to references to a post-nuclear Glastonbury Festival and an EastEnders spin-off set in a refugee camp. Six to Start succeeded in creating a consistent and richly detailed vision of British life after the bomb.
"We kept interactivity at the core of the experience by updating the site live to tie in with events in the show," explains Adrian. "We engaged viewers through Twitter, facilitated live chats with the fake editorial team, and encouraged fans to submit their own 'experiences' of the bombing."
In fact, their approach was so successful that the positive reviews they garnered for Liberty News largely eclipsed the lukewarm reaction to the television show itself. For Dan, this is why working with broadcasters is interesting. "It demonstrates that commissionable ideas can work on different platforms, and don't have to rely on 45 minutes of linear video."
Six to Start is keen to explore other avenues of monetisation to supplement its successful marketing campaigns. "Our ambition is to get people to pay directly for our content in the same way that they consume music or film," says Dan. "We have a lot of respect for what Blizzard did with World of Warcraft, attracting 11 million subscribers, each paying $15 a month."
One of the main hurdles comes in cracking the 'replayability problem'. As Adrian learned with Perplex City, the issue with running extended live events is that it's nearly impossible for people to come in halfway through. "These days people consume big TV series through box-sets, downloads, or on-demand TV whenever they feel like it. If you could only watch The Wire at 8pm on a Saturday night with no means to record it, people would give up pretty quickly. Why should we be any different with our interactive reality games?"
"In World of Warcraft you interact in real-time with other players, and things are constantly happening within the game world. But, if I start playing today it's not like I need to catch up on five years of backstory. I can start at level one until I figure things out, and then join other players later on. It's a really nice model."
Replayability is an issue the brothers have been keen to address in Smokescreen, a project currently in development for Channel 4 Education that promises to be Six to Start's biggest and most technically ambitious production to date. Smokescreen is a dark, dystopian thriller aimed at teenagers. It will use social networking and ARG elements to explore notions of online privacy, security and identity. Crucially, while Smokescreen will be released in weekly episodes, it will also be infinitely replayable, ensuring that whether players join at the start of the game or a year down the line, they'll still be able to have a compelling experience.
Slated for a September release, Smokescreen represents the culmination of everything Six to Start has learnt since its formation two years ago. Although the company is working for another major broadcaster, this time the project is a standalone entity in its own right, which means more freedom, more opportunities, and more challenges. The company also has the time and resources to truly evolve the kind of games it created for We Tell Stories, taking them to a whole new level.
"We've been developing Smokescreen for two years now, and it's really benefitted from a lot of the lessons we've learned on our other projects," enthuses Adrian. "It's going to be amazing." With widespread critical acclaim, an enviable client list and legions of passionate fans already behind them, we wouldn't expect anything less.