AREA MAN LIVES takes on Boston 

Hey all! Ryan from Cyan Ventures here, and I’m excited to be back from Boston with incredible things to talk about. Since we have returned, the Numinous Team has been actively working on multiple aspects of AREA MAN LIVES. In this post I’ll introduce you to the team and discuss some of the highlights of our trip. Let’s get rolling…

This was my second time in Boston. You might remember a group of us from Cyan travelled to  PAX last year to show Firmament in the Kickstarter Forest and help the Eagre team with ZED. As a person who generally stays on the west coast, let me say, I love Boston. 

This year, the Numinous team was invited to show AREA MAN LIVES at PAX EAST in the Indie MEGABOOTH. I went to represent Cyan Ventures and help with logistics of booth setup and showing the game.  Numinous brought three individuals. Amy Green – Writer & Narrative Designer, Ryan Green – Director, and Josh Larson – Art Director. While we’ve been “friends” with each other in the industry for a few years now, it was nice to be able to hang with them face to face and take the time to get to know each other better. I’ve asked them to meet today and answer some questions about AML and PAX.

Amy, this was your first time to Boston and PAX East, what was the best thing about Pax East for you? 

Amy Green: I loved being able to connect with so many people who are enthusiastic about video games. My conversations with players over those four days were really special to me. As we keep working on the game, it helps to have a few faces in the back of my mind, people who will one day laugh at the jokes, find the clues, and talk to the characters in the game.

Now Ryan, you showed That Dragon, Cancer as part of Indie MegaBooth in the past.  How does Indie MEGABOOTH help independent developers? 

Ryan Green: The first thing you learn in Indie Game Marketing 101 is that NOBODY knows about your game.  Indie MEGABOOTH was created by indies to amplify small independent voices so that fans and industry press can discover what we’re creating.  On a stage like PAX, the collection of Indie MEGABOOTH games on the show floor are a magnet for fans interested in innovative work. We were able to meet hundreds of new potential fans and play-test Area Man Lives for hundreds more.  PAX is a fantastic opportunity to validate what is working in our game, and learn what our audience values most in VR narrative experiences.

Josh, in Boston we talked to a lot of developers. What do you think was a consistent issue that developers are facing within the industry?

Josh Larson: In a word: curation. There is a widespread problem that has come about as a result of so many games being released: it’s hard to establish a community and to avoid getting lost in the noise. I look at this from the perspective of curation. How do you find the games you like? How do developers find players that will like their games? The tools we have for that, for both players and developers, are simply bad. We need much better curation and taste-making tools. Once those get better, developers don’t need to spend as much effort finding their audience, and players can find the games they’ll love much faster.

Years ago, there was an excellent Wired article about the Netflix prize. A guy in his basement was competing with research teams from large corporations. He said the challenge of the 20th century was solving the problem of supply. The challenge of the 21st century will be solving the problem of demand. We have plenty of games now, so how can we connect them with fans?

Some gamers who visited the booth asked what it’s like to work with Cyan and Rand Miller.  Ryan Green, how would you describe this relationship? 

RG : It can be scary as an Independent creator to partner with a publisher.  What if they take away our creative freedom?! But from the very beginning, we knew that wasn’t the case with CYAN Ventures. What surprised me most in meeting Rand was that he was just like us (albeit far more accomplished.)  He’s an indie. Which means he’s there to dispense wisdom, to guide us, and to offer ideas when asked, but ultimately his goal is to help us fulfill the vision that sparked Area Man Lives. Our goal in partnering with Rand, Ryan W, and CYAN Ventures is to learn as much as possible from our older and wiser uncle and through that relationship, improve our craft, and ultimately make Area Man Lives the kind of experience CYAN Fans and Numinous Fans will love.

Amy, it’s no secret that  AREA MAN LIVES is a re-envisioning of what Untethered was starting to be on the Google Daydream.  How has the experience been since the cancellation of Untethered, and what does it mean for you to be able to bring AML back to life in this new form?

AG: Untethered was one of those stories that stuck with us. While Numinous moved on and we  worked on other games, we always hoped that we would have a chance to revive Untethered and give it  the ending the fans deserved. We are having so much fun re-envisioning Untethered as Area Man Lives. I’ve written hilarious new scripts. The game itself is more of a puzzle than it ever was before. The characters are coming to life in the ARG, and we are building an engaged fan base. This is a dream project and I’m thrilled to release it to a wider audience.

Josh, a lot of people stopped at the booth specifically because of the logo. Why a raccoon and what decisions went into the look of the Area Man Logo?

JL: Raccoons play a special role in the game as perpetrators of mischief. While in real life they’ve killed my family’s chickens and drowned my neighbor’s dog, in the game it is clear that these raccoons are particularly clever and comical. So clever, in fact, you begin to wonder if these raccoons are a little more than your everyday mischief-makers…

Regarding the logo, that was mostly a collaboration between Ryan and Jordan Ray, the lead artist for Untethered and now AREA MAN LIVES. Raccoons do a great job of communicating the concept of shenanigans. This is a VR title so having the raccoon wear a VR headset made sense, and then in old radio stations, news updates would be printed off, on paper. The art direction behind AML is a kind of alternate timeline where old technology is still around, so we alluded to that with the title printed on dot matrix printer paper. Jordan specializes in character art, so naturally his illustration looks fantastic.

As we started planning the press release and Indie MEGAbooth, we all came to a decision to start an ARG around the world of AREA MAN LIVES.  Amy, you’ve really gotten into the world-building of the ARG, how will following the ARG help a player when the game is released? Will it? Do you plan on continuing to grow it?

AG: We’re still at the beginning stages of building out the ARG. Area Man Lives has so many rich details and hilarious asides. The ARG gives us a chance to expand on those details and let some of the peripheral characters come to life. You don’t have to invest in the ARG to play AREA MAN LIVES, but players who have invested in the ARG will understand the Universe from the beginning. They’ll have more context for solving the puzzles in the game, and they’ll catch more of the inside jokes and seemingly “throw-away lines” that other players are going to miss. We have so many fun and ridiculous plans for the ARG. How far we take it will depend a lot on how much engagement we get from the community and how many people want to play along with us.

Josh, even the marketing materials had an in-world feel. Do you see more of that as we continue toward launch and other conventions?

JL: God willing, if there could be in-person conventions sometime in the next couple years, we would love to continue to find creative ways to promote AML with in-world merch. It’s just too much fun not to! Between all the interesting equipment one can find in a radio station, the idea that stations may receive promotional materials for local businesses, and featuring a mysterious multinational conglomerate all as parts of the game world, we have a LOT of inspiring material to draw from. Amy’s imagination ensures that the latter will be plenty entertaining, haha.

Ryan Green, we had a very successful ARG experience at PAX east. How has it been watching the community (though small right now) latch onto this? What has been the best thing so far? 

RG: One night after the PAX show floor closed, I was filming “Rick” a radio DJ from KQVR (our in-game radio station) in preparation for a dead drop with the ARG.  As I was filming “Rick” an ARG player walked into the frame to meet up with “Rick” and the player was carrying the package! I didn’t even see them coming! As the scene played out before me and “Rick” bought the player an ice cream cone, I realized this is going to work; fans were going to have fun with us!  “Playing along” is one of the best compliments players can give us as game designers. I’m looking forward to discovering new ways we as game designers can build the world of AREA MAN LIVES together with players both in reality and virtual reality.

Now let’s talk about AREA MAN LIVES on the show floor. Josh we had a series of challenges at the booth.  What do you think we learned about showing AREA MAN LIVES to the public?

JL: Overall people loved it. The general sentiment I heard was that they liked the way in which it was weird, which I found very encouraging because I like weird art, too!

While That Dragon, Cancer was challenging emotionally in a show floor environment, AML is challenging technically. We worked hard to sanitize VR headsets, which included silicone covers so they’d be easy to wipe down with wipes, which thankfully were readily available at the time. The tricky part, though, came from using speech recognition.

When we started Untethered, we evaluated about 12 different solutions for speech recognition, and Google was way, way ahead of everyone else. The downside with using Google is that the speech recognition built into Android uses a beep to notify you you’re recording audio. It’s very immersion breaking, and it turns out their cloud service called Google Cloud Speech does not have that. Once you get permission from the player, you can record audio seamlessly and it works amazingly well. However, being a cloud service, it requires an internet connection.

Not only can a show floor be a very noisy environment for a microphone, but a steady internet connection can be very difficult to maintain as well. We knew this going into PAX East, so we had multiple fallbacks, and we had to use them all. We have some noise-cancelling headphones that work really well for audio-focused experiences, and I brought some noise-cancelling microphones to go with them.

We struggled to get speech working early on and thought maybe the mics were not working. But over the next day we realized the biggest issue was the internet. Paying for private internet through the convention organizer is ridiculously expensive, so we used my phone as a wireless hotspot. That worked for a while, but we realized the hotspot feature would just stop working and would need to be reset, like “turn it off and back on again” silly IT meme style! To make running the booth simpler, I ran out to buy a dedicated hotspot, convinced that would be more stable. As it turns out, it didn’t really work at all. Eventually, we were able to get the phone hotspot working most of the time by judiciously restarting it throughout the day.

Ryan, what was something people said consistently about the demo? 

RG: It wasn’t so much what they said, but how they acted while in headset.  The smiles, the laughter, and the moments where it was clear they were fully immersed in the role they were given as radio DJ. 

My favorite session was when one player kept yelling at the producer to let them do their job, and then they shouted at a caller that they needed to call the police!  Since our game uses voice detection, we can now go back to our source code, and add responses in the game to reward those kinds of verbal outbursts by players. The ability to respond to players by expanding our responses over time feels really special to us. I look forward to creating more of those moments of magic with the players as we observe how they play.

Amy, as the writer and narrative designer, did you feel the demo of AML was a good representation of the full game experience?. Did you find individuals talking to you about it afterward? 

AG: Our Pax demo was a good peek into Area Man Lives. It gave early players a chance to familiarize themselves with the in-game radio station and hinted at what the rest of the game will be like. It was super fun to talk to players after they finished the demo. So many of them told me it was hilarious and that they’ve never played anything like it.

Now let’s just go around and say our takeaways from the PAX experience. 

AG: Everyone we described the concept to loved it. Their eyes lit up, and I could see a big “aha” moment happen for them. So, my big takeaway is that this concept works, and if we can rise to the challenge of taking some fun storytelling risks without getting in the way of the concept, this game has the potential to really win people over.

JL: I will forever treasure PAX East. My two favorite parts about the experience was people reacting to the game and just spending time together, in person, before a time of global isolation. People would hear our elevator pitch or would take the headset off and would be excited that it was weird and interesting. Many people found it quite interactive, which was encouraging because we’re trying to balance both interaction and storytelling. Several people said this game makes them want to get a VR headset. And it was a lot of fun to be participating in a big gaming event and to simply spend time sharing meals and joking around together.

RG: That players are looking for substantial, and meaningful narrative experiences in VR, and that’s what we’re aiming to provide.

I mentioned earlier that we all got to hang out with each other. I loved getting to know each of you better over breakfast, Target runs, and developer parties.  Numinous Games’ vision statement is “Seeking the heart of interaction” As individuals, I’ve learned that relationships matter to you.

What is something you hope that your games and company can do to help build these two concepts? 

RG: Though we’re asking players to play along with the role they’ve been given in the game, something we learned very early with That Dragon, Cancer is that people bring themselves into the game, and we are mindful of that fact.  There are some things in AREA MAN LIVES that could stretch a player’s comfort zone, (like say speaking out loud to a video game) but our hope is that players feel they are playing a game among friends, and that most of all we want them to have fun.

AG: We love witnessing how games bring people together. Connection matters to us in our daily life, so seeding moments of connection for players is really rewarding for me. With the ARG I can watch those moments happen in real time and respond, and that’s the ultimate joy for me as a game designer.

Thanks for taking the time to talk to our community about AREA MAN LIVES and PAX. 

I would also like to thank Indie Megabooth for the experience.  First and foremost the sponsors ID@Xbox, PlayStation, Unreal Engine/Epic Games, Oculus and Tencent Games

Secondly I’d like to thank Kelly Wallick, the IMB staff and all the volunteers for both Indie Megabooth and Pax East.  Without all of you we wouldn’t have been able to have a successful PAX.  

Thanks to all the fans who showed up. We can’t wait to show you more of AREA MAN LIVES in the next few months as we get closer to launch! Don’t forget to wishlist AREA MAN LIVES on STEAM!