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INTERVIEW: NYU and Zynga’s Frank Lantz on games in the real world

Frank Lantz is an academic and game designer who was one of the early pioneers of location-based or ‘real world’ games—games that incorporate the physical location of the player and their surroundings into the gameplay. Some location-based games, such as Lantz’s PacManhattan (2004) use mobile phones and GPS trackers to communicate the players’ positions to one another to play PacMan on the streets of New York; others like Big Urban Game (2003) use the entire city as a giant game board.

In 2005 Lantz co-founded Area/Code, one of the first game development studios devoted primary to these types of games. In 2011, Area/Code was acquired by Zynga and became Zynga New York, making Lantz its Creative Director. He is currently the director of New York University’s Game Centre.

In this interview—conducted in March this year by Dale Leorke at Lantz’s office at NYU—Lantz discusses how he became interested in the genre of real world games and where he sees them going in the future. 

DL: Can you talk about your background in game design and what lead you to co-found your own company, Area/Code, which was specifically devoted to producing location-based games that blended videogames with the real, physical environment?

FL: I studied studio art and painting and moved to New York to be a painter—then I realised I wasn’t going to be a painter. I got into computer graphics and was a creative director at a place called R/GA. We made games there, but we also did other things and eventually I decided I just wanted to devote myself 100 per cent to games. So I struck out on my own and was a freelance game designer in New York City. I was also just interested in doing weird experimental game design stuff on my own and began exploring the possibilities of ‘big’, real-world games—games for settings where you had hundreds of people milling about.

Then I got a commission along with Katie Salen and Nick Fortugno to make a game for Minneapolis in St. Paul that turned into the Big Urban Game (BUG) that transformed St. Paul into the world’s biggest board game. It had these enormous 25-foot high chess pieces drifting through the city – it was like a surrealist art stunt, except it was a real game. It was really important to us that this be not just an art stunt, but it was influenced by [Javashev] Christo and other urban, contemporary site-specific works and interventions into the urban landscape. So we wanted to kind of operate on that level and also be a real game that the whole city could play.

Then Clay Shirky took me aside and said, ‘Hey, you should make your game design class about these types of games that you’ve been making.’ So I created a class called Big Games and in the very first semester I taught it, for the final project all the students got together and made PacManhattan. That was with a bunch of people, including Dennis Crowley who then went on to create FourSquare. Meanwhile, I heard from this guy, Kevin Slavin, who was interested in my work and together we created a project called ConQwest for Qwest, an American phone company that doesn’t exist anymore. It was a large-scale urban game for 500 high school students and we ended up doing it in 10 different cities. It involved this big territory capture game that played out over the course of a single afternoon on a very large scale and that had an element of spectacle to it.

After that, [Slavin] said let’s start a company that makes these games. So that was the origin of Area/Code. To begin with we were very much focussed on real-world, location-based games, then as we evolved we kind of broadened our scope to just be what we called ‘cross media’—games that combined different kinds of media. We were interested in making games that didn’t fit comfortably onto a single platform or in a single channel, but instead that were ‘events’ or surprising and interesting uses of new and emerging technology, that took place in the spaces between familiar channels and media. They created new kinds of play out of the fact that we are carrying around these networked computers with us wherever we go, the fact that there’s so much intelligence embedded in the world around us. So the name embodies that idea of the two realms and making games between them: ‘Area’ is the physical presence of the actual world, the fact that we have bodies and ‘Code’ is the cloud, the information world. We make games that bridge or ‘leap’ the gap between those two things.

DL: How were games like PacManhattan influenced by other projects at the time, in particular pioneering Alternate Reality Games (ARGs) like The Beast? And what were your projects doing differently?

FL: It’s interesting because we always thought of ourselves as fellow travellers of the ARG community, but we were interested in a different thing. I think ARGs tend to be made by people who are really passionate about storytelling and want to explore new ways of collaborative storytelling. I like stories OK, but it’s not one of my main interests as game designer. I was always interested in just designing new kinds of play experiences that broke out of the rectangle of the video screen. So I was not really influenced by what was happening in the ARG world, not really a fan of puzzles as gameplay, not really super-interested in storytelling or narrative. I think it was really just an interest in games that goes beyond videogames. I see videogames as one corner of the universe of games that can be made and I’m just interested and passionate about that whole broad spectrum of possible games.

So I’m interested in crazy, experimental games that you haven’t seen before because I feel that there’s still a ton of undiscovered territory. That was what motivated me—thought experiments, games that feel like, ‘what if?’ What if you made a game for 500 people at a conference where you put all their names in an alphabetical list and they had to find the person above them and below them in that list and make a link with them? That’s like an experiment in social dynamics. So I made that game for this Flash development conference, which I called Link and sure enough we discovered that other people are the missing ingredient in digital games.

For a long time I think games have been primarily a stylised form of social interaction—it’s like dance, it’s an art form that’s about moving your body in this ritualised way with another person. All of that tension is part of what dancing is about, and games are the same way, it’s like our minds are kind of dancing around and interacting with each other. Single-player games are different and they have a different flavour and they’re awesome in their own way. But [we wanted to] take the energy and ambition of digital games and applying that to physical games that took place in spaces with human bodies.

DL: One of the main challenges for these kinds of games is participation: how do you get people motivated and interested enough to get up off the couch and physically go out into the real world to interact with other people? How have you dealt with that?

FL: Yeah, it’s the hardest thing in the world. You design a game for public space and you think, ‘I’m putting so much passion and energy and effort into creating something that’s beautiful for people, that I then want to give away.’ It’s like I’m making this dessert … so you do that, you work so hard and have so much love for the imagined people of this audience that you’re just going to bring a ray of sunshine into their lives. Then you get out there and you realise the last thing they want is your dessert. Like, they just don’t want it; they have a place to go, they’re out in the world because they’re going from their son’s Bar Mitzvah to the dentist or whatever. You know, their lives are so important and busy that the last thing they want is to stop and learn a rule and pretend to want a goal. Because that’s what you have to do to play a game, you have to learn the rules and then you have to pretend to want the goal. That’s the suspension of disbelief that everyone knows that’s how a game works, but it’s an effort, you have to get people over that hump.

So if you want to make games like this you have to work hard to recruit an audience for them, you can’t just make up something awesome and then hope that people fall into it. There’s a fantasy that that will happen. When students design real-world games I see that happening all the time. They’re like, ‘I’m going to design this awesome system and it’s going to be so cool and we’re just going to put it out into the world and it’s just going to draw these players into it.’ [Instead], most of your design work is figuring out how to get people to play this awesome thing that you made. It’s hard to get people to trust a stranger and step onto a subway car or go to a location … it’s so difficult.

Once you get them over that hump, you can give them an experience that is unlike anything they’ve ever had and that’s really rewarding. But it’s challenging. And then the real world is complicated and noisy and that’s one of the hardest things. Even just getting people to understand the simple rules of a simple board game where you have their full attention, you can correct them when they did it wrong … you can’t do any of that if your game is taking place out in the real world. The real world is so much more noisy and distracting. So it just magnifies and multiplies all of the inherent difficulties of game design in a way that’s wonderfully stimulating if you life problems, if you like to wrestle with design problems. And that’s my approach as a game designer, I like wrestling with problems and I don’t mind these really challenging situations and having to try to design my way out of very challenging problems. But you should not be undaunted by the challenges of designing for the real world.

DL: How have commercial platforms like the iPhone, iPad and Android impacted on what real-world, location-based games can do? As they reach wider audiences through these platforms, they also have to deal with new commercial factors to compete in the mobile gaming market. How have you responded to that with your games? 

FL: I think as our ambitions scaled up and we wanted to do bigger and bigger games and we wanted to make games that were played by a larger community of people, rather than the 500 people you could recruit. That was a challenge for us and we kind of started moving away from location because we felt consistently, that in order to have a really good location-based game, they were these event-based things. They were things where you had to design this event and recruit the people to come play and then manage it. To make it really work you couldn’t just design a great little location-based game and have it exist on its own.

So we started exploring different ideas of public space. It became less about people necessarily beating their feet on the pavement as a key ingredient for every game, and more about the idea that it’s just going to use technology in an interesting way. So we started to do early stuff on Facebook and for us it felt like this was an interesting place to do this kind of experimental work. Then [the shift towards] things that are pervasive, persistent, asynchronous and social [became] the hallmark of a standard Facebook game, which doesn’t seem experimental now. It seems like the most conventional mainstream type of game, but at the time that was very interesting to us. Facebook just seemed like another type of public space to make a game for.

But in terms of the more recent commercial versions of location-based stuff, I’m just not that familiar with them. We talked [earlier, before this interview] about Shadow Cities a little bit, which just didn’t grab me, but not because it was commercial. I have no problem if they have ads in it or they have microtransactions in that game, but that wasn’t [the issue]. I know there are other games out there—I played one that was a Scrabble-style location-based game where you’re running around spelling words by collecting tiles. It’s quite small, that’s one where you trigger a game and it takes place in a little quarter mile-by-quarter mile domain and it lasts for about 10 minutes. It’s very physical, very active, which I thought was terrific. I think maybe that’s my favourite location-based game I ever played. But it’s not the kind of thing you can ever do more than once in a blue moon where you’re in a physical space, like a park, with eight other people who all want to do that. It’s like getting together a touch football game or something, it’s not light and casual. But I still like to think at some point maybe someone’s going to come along and do a really successful, very accessible commercial location-based thing. It’s a tough nut to crack though.

DL: What about you—do you have any location-based projects in mind at the moment?

FL: No, definitely not. Right now I’m just focussed on making a great game for social networks, like a great social game—I think that’s another unsolved problem in a way or another big, interesting design problem. There’s not much location information in this game that I’m working on now but there is a lot of real world vibe to it, so it feels like an Area/Code game weirdly enough. It’s a Zynga game, because we were acquired by Zynga a year ago, but it has a lot of the same spirit as the stuff we were doing and I hope that people will like it.

Dale Leorke is a PhD student at the University of Melbourne, writing about location-based games and play in public space. Find him on twitter at @dleorke

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