Tuesday, 26 November 2019

Making The Timekeeper's Return: Testing


One year ago this autumn, I reached the culmination of an overwhelming three months of creative work and collaboration when I designed, wrote and directed The Timekeeper’s Return, a story-based immersive treasure hunt set in Canterbury’s Cathedral Quarter.

In this series of blog posts, I want to delve into the detail of how The Timekeeper’s Return was made, including an overview of how the event turned out on the day and the project’s legacy – for the participants, the Cathedral Quarter, and my own future as I continue to work in the area of location-based treasure-hunting games for my practice-based PhD.



The lead-up to the event was hectic and exciting.

In the month beforehand, I’d officially started the first year of my PhD at Royal Holloway, and had moved up to Egham where the main university campus is. So alongside finishing off the writing for the QR codes and promoting the event, I had to juggle induction events, first PhD supervisions, and settling into the place I’d be living for the rest of the academic year.

Inevitably, this meant that the writing took longer than it should’ve done, which reduced the time I had available to test the game itself.

Indeed, as it happened, I didn’t travel down from Royal Holloway to run a public testing session until Saturday 13th October – one week before the day of the actual event!

It obviously wasn’t my plan to leave testing so late. If there’s one thing I’ve learnt from talking and working with game designers of any kind, it’s that it’s never too early to start testing, and the more testing you do, the more potential problems you’ll be able to find and address before your game launches for real.

But in this case, not only did the whole event have to be devised from scratch and iterated on in a short space of time (less than 3 months), but my other commitments pushed my deadlines back further than I would have ideally liked.  

Thankfully, my testers gave some very helpful feedback that pinpointed aspects of my writing and design that I could fine-tune in time for the big day.

One outcome of the testing that I didn’t anticipate was how much it would boost my confidence in what I’d made. It was the first time the story I’d written had ever been aired publicly, and I was worried that the testers would find some fundamental flaws in the plot.

As it happened, the testers said that they found my writing style engaging, and when I asked the testers to summarise the story in their own words, their responses showed good comprehension of what I’d written. They freely mentioned parts that they particularly liked, and were often keen to share interesting details about Canterbury’s history that they’d learnt during the course of the test.

Another unexpected discovery from the testing was learning how difficult certain QR code stickers would have been to find.

In one example, my testers particularly struggled with a QR code I’d stuck low down on a bollard by one of the points of interest featured in the story. I was originally worried that its position might be too obvious – after all, the landmark in question was well-known to me. But what I failed to take into account was that the details testers had to notice were located far from eye level, and also faced the opposite way to the direction they approached the site from.

Of course, there was a balance to be struck too, because the event was a treasure hunt. If every sticker was easy to find, it would defeat the object of encouraging players to pay close attention to their surroundings.

So in the small number of cases where changes were required, in the end these only needed to be slight movements in where the stickers were placed. For the bollard example, this simply meant raising the height of the QR code so that when people spotted the relevant details in their surroundings, they almost immediately then found the sticker.

Aside from these positioning concerns, the testers observed that some of the QR code texts were quite lengthy and could do with being more concise; that there were a few typos; and that the wording in some of these texts needed to be a little more precise to prevent disorientation, particularly when referring to buildings or objects from the past that are no longer visible today.

Thankfully, these were all things I could remedy satisfactorily before the actual event on the 20th.                                      

One persistent issue, however, was the appalling network coverage in the city centre – something Canterbury residents and businesses are acutely aware of and frustrated by on a daily basis. Of course, this definitely wasn’t something I could change in the space of a week before the actual event.

So instead, I worked my hardest to secure next best thing, which was to make free WiFi as available as possible.

I designed some basic posters using the event logo that offered free WiFi to ‘Mia Augustina’s research assistants’, and visited all of the businesses in the Cathedral Quarter that had accessible WiFi to tell them what would be happening (if they didn’t already know). I explained that it was in aid of the Cathedral Quarter, and how they could play a big part in ensuring the smooth running of The Timekeeper’s Return.

Free WiFi poster for Cathedral Quarter businesses

Thankfully, nearly all of the businesses I entered kindly agreed to display the posters, and to allow participants to access WiFi and WiFi passwords on the event day, free of charge.

It was another example of how the Cathedral Quarter community came together during my time working with them, and helped to address one of my biggest concerns in the lead-up to the event.

From this point, all that remained for us to do was to get the word out about The Timekeeper’s Return to as many members of the public as possible.

The next post in the Making the Timekeeper’s Return series examines our marketing of the event, and the coverage it received.

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