Developers go to Google's annual I/O festival to hear about Google’s latest technological developments. This year, there was also talk of a different development—a missing fish. “Firebass,” an alternate reality game (ARG) created by Google’s Firebase team in partnership with Instrument, captured the hearts of developers at the conference and beyond.
Firebase provides developers the tools they need to build successful apps. But at its most fundamental level, it simply wants to help developers. For the May 2016 launch at I/O, Firebase wanted to engage its audience around the major upgrades made to the platform. They had the launch plan covered, educating its audience about new features. Instrument partnered with Google’s Firebase team to build on that launch plan by creating an experience developers could have fun with.
During our discovery phase, developers told us that they often feel like they are under advertisement siege. They balk at product ads and are not persuaded by overt self-promotion. In fact, they are not receptive to being persuaded at all. So while initially we had delved into product updates, competitor analysis, SDKs, interoperability, and data-driven decision making, we eventually asked a completely new set of questions that led us to these findings about the audience:
- Interested in using their down time creatively
- Respect the unexpected and clever
- Responsive to self-referential or meta-humor
Taking our findings into consideration, we designed a multi-faceted interactive scavenger hunt that would appeal to developers’ sense of community and humor, interest in solving problems, and creative intelligence.
The idea of an alternate reality game based on a virtual time-traveling fish was realized to be particularly on strategy. It would attract an historically hard-to-reach audience.
Each of the three puzzles lives within a specific internet era. Puzzle one is set in modern day, puzzle two exists during Web 2.0 (2008), and puzzle three takes place in the 90s, where design on the web was largely obnoxious and garish. Each puzzle consists of a collection of clues scattered throughout the site source code and assets, eventually leading to a time portal communicating the location of the next puzzle.
The team drew inspiration for the initial concept from other ARG campaigns like ones run by Nine Inch Nails, Boards of Canada, and Bungie. Deeper game mechanics were influenced by a combination of puzzles from these and other ARGs. Much of the style was inspired by adventure games many of us played in our youth. Zork was an obvious influence in the end-game text adventure, and a lot of the light-hearted narrative flavor was born from love of classic point-and-click adventure games like The Secret of Monkey Island. Additionally, throughout the experience we injected our nostalgia for past pop culture in every nook and cranny we could manage.
In the audio clip, we unpack a bit more about our process and findings from this project.
Thousands of players joined the game. After puzzles one and two launched, player-created Reddit and Github pages appeared organically. When the last puzzle unlocked, we saw server traffic increase 30 times more than average. Finally, a lengthy Medium article was published by a player after the final puzzle was solved.
In our next installment, we’ll talk more about what happened when developers played the game.
Written by Cara Ungar (Senior Strategist) and Brian Hefter (Senior Developer)