lessons from the mystery bus trip

Events, Game Design / Thursday, April 2nd, 2015

The Mystery Bus Trip was a combination of efforts in many ways.  When Julian and I planned the GSA events for the semester in January, I had the idea of having a laser tag event.  Julian had the (crazier) idea of putting everyone on a bus and not telling them where they were going.  As inspiration struck us that evening, we decided to combine both ideas into what we started referring to as the Mystery Bus Trip, or MBT for short.  We wanted this to be the biggest event of the semester, so we made every effort to hype it up and make it a great one.

To my surprise, planning the MBT taught me a lot more about design than production.  Here are some takeaways from what turned out to be quite a successful event.

  1. Never assume what your target demographic will like based on what you like.
    • The idea of boarding a bus to a mystery location sounded really cool to Julian and me, and we knew we would definitely sign up for such an event.  It turns out, our classmates are a lot more wary about the unknown, and having the event on April Fool’s Day (which we thought was pretty clever) only exacerbated their fear.  More people were worried that it was a trick and we would either not show up with a bus or drive them around the parking lot a few times, than excited to do something new and interesting.  This provided several challenges for us.  As we had planned the MBT to be a big event, we had booked two buses for a total of 96 seats.  We used the estimate of the most popular event last semester, going to see the movie Big Hero 6, for which we gave away 100 free tickets and still had demand for more.  We could not cancel the buses, and given that enthusiasm for the event was low (only 30 people signed up out of close to 200 students), we needed to find other strategies to make more people excited and willing to sign up.  Our first mistake was choosing a premise that made our classmates nervous or uncertain, even though we were sure they would like the laser tag part of the evening, something we would need to make up for without giving away the mystery location, which would be our next challenge.
    • Moral of the story: When designing anything, you are designing for your target audience and not for yourself.


  2. Guerilla advertising, frequently and well.
    • Several people gave us advice on how to advertise the event.  With the mystery in place, it was hard to be evocative with what the event was going to be.  Dave Culyba talked about carrots and sticks, giving the people who signed up rewards like food and punishing those who hadn’t by posting a “chickened out” sign with their names to publicly shame them.  We decided that since the majority of people had not signed up, this would not be as effective as the list would be too long, and trying to peer pressure a majority into attending an event would be difficult.  Jesse Schell said we should spread false rumours of what the location could be, but we felt we didn’t have enough interest in the mystery event or ideas of places that could be plausible for a 6-10pm on Wednesday night.  Chuck Hoover suggested that we make a list of items the attendees would have to bring, to increase speculation, but we didn’t want to burden those who had signed up and didn’t want this to ruin possible future bus trips once they found the items were useless.  These were all great suggestions but after some pondering, Julian and I decided to allay everyone’s primary fear of the bus trip being a trick.  We approached Janice Metz, the ETC Facility/Events Coordinator who is much respected by the students.  She had helped us order the buses and book the place, so we did a short hostage video of her where Julian appears to threaten her into saying that the MBT is not a trick and everyone will be safe and have a good time.  We inadvertently put in a clue, the laser gun Julian points at Janice.  Once on Facebook, the video garnered dozens of likes that resulted in almost as many sign-ups, and we had achieved the other goal of heightening suspense and speculation by saying there was a clue to the location in the video as well.  That was our one big advertising step, but we had to continuously remind everyone by posting on Facebook, sending emails and even going room-to-room to canvas for the event.
    • Moral of the story: People need to be pushed to do things through in-your-face advertising (sad but true).


  3. Give players a sense of ownership over their fate, even when they don’t have one.
    • We eventually coerced, bribed, cajoled and persuaded a total of 83 people to sign up for MBT, though that night, there were only about 60 attendees.  Everyone gets so wrapped up in their work, and the big con to a free event is that people bail easily on it when they see no loss for themselves.  There would be 6 games and we needed to assign games to attendees since the maximum number per game was 40.  So we came up with a wrist band system, where each person would have numbers of the games they were in written on their wristband.  We wanted these to be randomised so that the same people weren’t always together, so we filled a container with slips of paper with numbers 1-6 on them, and as each person came downstairs to check in, we got them to draw 3 unique numbers and wrote these on a wristband that we got them to wear.  This sense of ritual was hugely important to making the night exciting, and people who had just come downstairs were curious about the lineup to our table and what they had to do once they saw others participating.  Jesse Schell talks about this in his game design class, that people would rather roll their own dice than have someone else do so, even though there is no impact on the outcome, and that people roll dice gently when they hope to get a smaller number and vice versa.  We could have easily just randomised the game numbers, but getting people to draw them for themselves worked a lot better and allowed them to feel involved in the process although they really had no control over the outcome.
    • Moral of the story: Give players a sense of ritual and ownership as this heightens excitement and involvement in the event.


  4. Make it a spectacle.
    • To increase curiosity in the mystery, we announced that attendees had to come downstairs early to “check in and pick up your equipment”, and then presented each person with a pair of latex gloves to bring with them (which were indeed red herrings).  Then, we issued the wristbands, and even for the bus they would be riding on, we split them up into odd numbers and even numbers based on the index number of their wristband.  Every part of the night’s design was planned to heighten the mystery, except for the part where the bus drivers got lost in a wooded area off the side of the highway after about 20 minutes of driving.  They stopped the buses, and I began joking that the event was that we would get off there and have to find our own way back to the ETC in 4 hours.  I started to get off the bus and texted Julian to do the same on his bus.  All of these events led to the sense of mystery and increased anticipation, and thinking on the spot when things went seemingly wrong and spinning it to something that helped fulfill the vision of the event went very well.
    • Moral of the story: Plan to have every element feed into the spectacle and improvise when things go awry so that feeds into the spectacle as well.


  5. Use the hype for future events.
    • Once we got to the laser tag place, it was all smiles, fun and games.  It turned out our judgment on the location had been spot on, and our classmates got really into playing laser tag.  It was a huge success and people were quick to express how much fun they had to us and to their classmates.  We had planned this first Mystery Bus Trip as a trial run, but making this an annual event means that the people who went this year can help hype it up to new students for the next MBT, and those who didn’t go and heard about it afterwards now know it’s not a trick and was actually something really cool.  We can go into planning the next one with more confidence about attendance.  The challenge is, how are we going to top this next time?
    • Moral of the story: Always think about the future and how your next event can be promoted even through your current event.

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