Game Maker Profile: area/code

With games like Sharkrunners that cross media and create an artful mix of real and virtual worlds, area/code delights in challenging gamers' expectations
In Sharkrunners, an online game for the Discovery Channel, players control ships and crews and collect data on real sharks that have been tagged with GPS units and are tracked in real time. area/code

The explosion in the popularity of nontraditional gaming, typified by the success of Nintendo's (NTDOY) Wii console and games such as Guitar Hero, has turned conventional-games wisdom on its head. Focused for so long on features—technical specs, rendering speeds, and sophisticated, polygonal graphics—gaming has suddenly become about socializing, real-world interaction, and, well, fun for everybody. This seismic shift is a source of delight for Frank Lantz and Kevin Slavin, co-founders of New York gaming and marketing company area/code.

With backgrounds in game design (Lantz) and digital marketing (Slavin), the pair initially started their company in 2005 to produce "big games": large-scale, multiplayer efforts that take place in the real world. Since then, they've pulled off some impressive feats of organization and synchronicity.

The pair's first collaboration was a big game promoting Qwest Wireless' mobile-phone offerings. For ConQwest, they designed an urban treasure hunt, transforming the streets of Minneapolis into a big grid around which teams of high school students dragged large, inflatable chess pieces, attempting to capture codes with special camera phones. That was just the beginning: Increasingly sophisticated—and ubiquitous—technology is allowing area/code to bring its life-size experiments to a global audience.

Calling All Sharkrunners

"We continue to think about location, but we also think about real-world data and social networks and about how to cross between different types of media," says Lantz. As such, their games these days are rarely connected to either one designated location or one form of media. "Our starting point is always what the game will be," says Lantz. "Then we ask ourselves what platform we'll use. Mobile phones? SMS? Carrier pigeons?"

He's only half-joking about the pigeons. Last year, area/code worked on Sharkrunners, an online game developed for the Discovery Channel's popular Shark Week series. Players control ships and crews and collect data on sharks—real sharks, that is, that have been tagged with GPS units and are tracked in real time. The virtual boats also move as they would in real time, with players alerted via text messages whenever their craft is within range of a shark. The player then has three hours to log into the game and respond to the virtual challenge.

What this means, of course, is that there could be hours or even days when a player has absolutely no reason to play the game. Then, suddenly, it's game on, and a scramble to log on. It's an intriguing way to toy with gamers' expectations, and in this context was a neat way to bring home the realities of the natural world to the average television viewer. The game was a hit: Shark Week was officially broadcast last July. Nearly eight months later, the game is still being played online, and, while unwilling to disclose details, Slavin and Lantz hint at more to come.

Raising the Bar for Gamers' Expectations

The longevity of such games can be both a blessing and a problem, especially if the original intention was that a game should act merely as a marketing add-on to its paying parent property (a TV show, say). After all, many brand managers couldn't countenance the responsibility of entertaining an audience for the rest of time. Lantz jokes about e-mail feedback they receive: "I've been playing this game for six months and it sucks!" There's a serious point here: Gamers' expectations have risen beyond those held for a traditional console titles, which generally have a defined goal and end point. "With these, people play devotedly for a couple of months, and then they send us an outraged note," remarks Lantz.

Such expectations are an important consideration of gaming's new landscape. "If you're going to make something that embeds itself into the everyday lives of people, it won't stop just because you say so," says Slavin. As such, area/code's next steps include developing its own properties that it will support and update. The problem, acknowledges Slavin, is that brands bring instant audiences, and games are most fun when everyone's playing. "The most innovative games may be the ones that are hardest to pull off outside of a services infrastructure," he says. "But we believe in what we're doing. Now, three years in, it's very clear that the area we've been staking out is ready to be occupied."

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