Skip the Queue

How to build ‘digital things’ for GLAMs without a huge budget. With John Sear

Episode Summary

We’re speaking to John Sear, builder of magical collaborative experiences for public spaces! Multi-talented and highly creative, John designs game-like things - urban games where players are on a live stake-out in a public car park, or a 500 player laser game experience you can play at theatres or festivals.

Episode Notes

The hunger for immersive experiences is stronger than it’s ever been. For this episode of the podcast, we speak to one of the pioneers of this trend, John Sear.

John describes himself as a Game Designer & Software Developer, Runner of Workshops and Maker of game-like things for public spaces like Museums, Galleries & Festivals.

One of his most impressive projects includes a 500 player, feature-length, collaborative game played using laser pointers, which he won the Indiecade Developer’s Choice Award (referred to as the Sundance of the Games Industry).

In this episode, we discuss John’s DIY tutorials for museums so that you can build exciting ‘digital things’ without a huge budget.

If you’re interested in creating an immersive experience, then you’ll learn a lot from John’s story.

With everything that’s happening in the world right now, this is a brilliant podcast to listen to explore what you can do to engage your audience when your attraction, museum, venue is ready to open again.

A few things we talk about:

Heads up, this episode was recorded at the end of 2019, so some of the things we mention may be slightly out of context.

Show references:



Kelly Molson: Today, we're speaking to John Sear, builder of magical collaborative experiences for public spaces.

John Sear: We were trying to imagine what was coming in the future. What would collaborative play as a kind of visitor experience look like.

Kelly Molson: John describes himself as a games designer and software developer, runner of workshops and maker of game-like things for public spaces like museums, galleries and festivals.

John Sear: When you look at the kind of money people are willing to spend to go to the big experiences, the Punchdrunks and the Secret Cinemas, they're spending hundreds of pounds a night and when you start to mention those numbers, suddenly there are a few people in the museum where they go, okay, that sounds interesting. Different audiences and we could earn money from it, maybe.

Kelly Molson: He's multitalented and incredibly creative. Developing projects such as A Moment of Madness, which is an urban game where players are on a live stake out in a car park and Renga, the 500 player laser game.

Kelly Molson: In this episode, we discuss all of those things, plus John's DIY tutorials for museums, so that you can build exciting digital things without a huge budget.

John Sear: That's what's good about in the modern age is that the tools are out there that are free and open source and a lot of cases that allow you to build these things very quickly and cheaply and then once you get started, it's kind of like the limits are just your own imagination.

Kelly Molson: We'll take a look at John's approach for creating games that are fun, educational, and true to the venue and also learn the importance of storytelling. We really enjoyed speaking to John and we think that you're going to enjoy this too.

John Sear: Get people excited first and then worry about the kind of educational content afterwards.

Kelly Molson: Welcome to Skip the Queue, a podcast that celebrates professionals working in the visitor attraction sector. What do we mean by visitor attractions? Well, it's an umbrella term for a huge range of exciting organisations that are must sees. Think museums, theme parks, zoos, farms, heritage sites, tour providers, escape rooms, and much, much more. They're tourist hotspots or much love local establishments that educate, engage, and excite the general public.

Kelly Molson: Those who work in visitor attractions often pour their heart and soul into providing exceptional experiences for others. In our opinion, they don't get the recognition that they deserve for this. We want to change this. Each episode we'll share the journeys of inspiring leaders. We'll celebrate their achievements and dig deeper into what really makes their attraction successful, both offline and digitally. Listen and be inspired as industry leaders share their innovative ideas, services, and approaches.

Kelly Molson: There's plenty of valuable information you can take away and put into action to create better experiences for your own guests. Your host of this podcast, and myself, Kelly Molson, and Paul Wright. We're the co-founders of Rubber Cheese, an award winning digital agency that builds remarkable systems and websites for visitor attractions. Find out how we can create a better experience for you and your guests at Search Skip the Queue on iTunes and Spotify to subscribe.

Kelly Molson: You can find links to every episode and more over on our website, We hope that you enjoy these interviews and if there's anyone that you think that we should be talking to, please just send us a message.

Kelly Molson: John, welcome to our Skip the Queue Podcast. Thank you for coming on today.

John Sear: Thank you so much for inviting me on.

Kelly Molson: Now your bio describes you as a builder of magical collaborative experiences for public spaces and I think that is probably one of the coolest job titles I've ever read. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

John Sear: Thank you. I mean, yeah, I kind of flip and flop a lot really about what my job title should be because it's quite confusing as well as being cool. So at the moment I am a real world game designer. That's my kind of brief, but that kind of confuses people as well because it's making video games but via games that take place in the real world. And I know when I've explained it to people before, like half of my job is kind of tech, half of it is kind of design.

John Sear: So I was at a tech conference recently talking about what I do and at the end of it the guy was like, "That sounds like a really nice hobby you've got there." And I was like, "Yeah, that's actually my job."

Kelly Molson: Oh, gosh.

John Sear: There you go. I confuse most people I think. But yeah, basically all it means is that I take my game design skills and my software engineering skills and sort of the kind of modern making and kind of put that altogether to build experiences that take place in the real world. So that can be things like escape games, immersive theatre, things that take place in museums, galleries, libraries, festivals, car parks, theme parks, all sorts of crazy places. But yeah, most people think my job sounds amazing, so I should probably not ruin that illusion for them.

Kelly Molson: How did you get to where you are now? You've got a long history in game design, how did you go from that to what you do now?

John Sear: Sure. So I'll do the short version and then you can decide if you want me to dip into the longer version, because it's about 20 years. So, I left university and did what I thought was my dream job of working in the games industry, Proper, the AAA games industry. So when we think of video games on Xbox and PlayStation and PC, so I did that for about four years and while it was enjoyable and I worked with some amazing people, it wasn't where I wanted to be.

John Sear: So then I left the AAA world to go and work in academia. So I set up a degree course teaching people how to get jobs in the games industry. But with the caveat that I'd left the games industry because I didn't really enjoy it loads, and then while doing that, I had a few other companies on the side.

John Sear: So I had a company that made iPhone games and Xbox games during the kind of first, there was a kind of digital download rush when the iPhone was first released in 2008, 2010, that sort of era. And then eventually it got to this where I was doing all these things. There was a big rush in the iPhone world, which produced a lot of wealthy people in a short amount of time. But gradually that space got very saturated and the games you can make in that space were kind of less interesting and you needed more money to do it, and there'd been this big rise in independent games.

John Sear: So people that were experienced in making games, leaving bigger developers to go it alone. This was kind of the first time, that sort of period, like 2008 to 2010 where people could do that. They could actually make games for Xbox or PlayStation or iPhone without a big publisher behind them, and so it meant there were a lot of kind of indie developers then. And so I sort of tried to jump onto that bandwagon and I was kind of getting bored of making things for small devices like Xboxes or iPhones or Android tablets and wanted to make things that took place in the real world.

John Sear: So me and a friend of mine started a business and we made a game called Renga, which probably gets mentioned somewhere on my website, which was a 500 player game experience that took place originally for movie theatres, but it got shown outdoors as well at festivals. And so that was my kind of, that's my transition really from doing things for indoor spaces to the kind of... We use different times in different industries that we would call that the out-of-home experiences-

Kelly Molson: All right.

John Sear: ... Or visitor attraction experiences. So the jump from making things for small scale to making things for festivals, and obviously I sort of left behind all of my knowledge from AAA world of how to sell boxed products or sell digital download games to suddenly having to sell games where people bought tickets for it or it took place in a cinema or took place at a festival, and so it was quite different. And I'd say that back then there were a lot of people from theatre who are making things that were more game-like.

John Sear: So you might have come across people like Punchdrunk in the kind of immersive theatre world or Secret Cinema but there were very few people going the other way, taking their games knowledge and going into kind of theatrical things. And still, I think that's quite a niche thing. So from about 2010 to 2013 we built and toured this giant Renga game, and then since then, I've just been attracted by making experiences for public spaces, and that's really what's led me to work with museums and castles and art galleries because they have people and they have amazing spaces. So it kind of all makes sense.

John Sear: Sorry, that was supposed to be the short version. It wasn't really very short, was it? But that was the transition anyway.

Kelly Molson: That's perfect.

Paul Wright: So can you give us a bit of an idea of what a 500 person game for a festival or cinema looks like?

John Sear: Yeah, I should have done that really, but yeah, that's a good question. So Renga was built so that it still looks a bit like a video game, but it's really about how 500 people organise themselves. So we've shown this in lots of different spaces, but the classic is in an enormous auditorium in a movie theatre.

John Sear: So you have 500 people seated, we give out laser pointers to the audience, the laser pointers are used to control the action that happens on the screen. So it's a 90-minute experience. I mean, it's quite a deep strategic game and it looks a bit like a space retro game when you're playing, but it's really an exercise in how do 500 people somehow collaboratively control the experience.

John Sear: So it's quite unusual in the sense that people don't make these huge games, but from a technological point of view, it's a bit like turning the cinema screen into a giant touchscreen. So each of the laser points acts a bit like a finger that can kind of touch the screen and anything you want to do in the game you have to do as a group. So you have to somehow sort of self organise yourself just purely by laser dots of light on the screen into doing different things.

Kelly Molson: Oh, gosh.

John Sear: Yeah, it's quite unusual, and it's one of those things that people go, "I don't think I really want to play that." Until they actually start playing it and they go, "Oh wow, this is quite different to what I was expecting." It doesn't matter how many times I explain it. I never do a very good job, I'm afraid. But it's just a really interesting thing of like how you can get different experiences happening in theatres.

John Sear: So we showed it at loads of film festivals because they would be showing traditional films, and then alongside that they'd go, okay, people are making games for cinema now. So let's have a look at one of those. And then what they would do is they would invite actually quite a lot of the top directors actually got to see this because we showed it at places like the New York film festival and the Toronto film festival and some of the bigger ones, and they would invite directors into the auditorium to go look what's happening, right? Because there's obviously there's a limit to sorts of feelings and experiences you can create with film and it's a different experience when people are playing a game.

John Sear: So suddenly you've got people within the audience that love and hate each other and are high fiving and hugging and running around. It's very much like a midnight madness experience as people try and control it. Ultimately everyone's got an individual laser pointer. Everyone can do anything they want. No one's in control of them. But some people get the game a bit more than others and so they're shouting out a vice or standing up in front of the screen even to try and organise teams into doing things. Did that make any sense?

Paul Wright: It sounds amazing. What other examples of games like that have you created?

John Sear: I mean that's the biggest game I think I've created in terms of there's 500 simultaneous players over a 90-minute experience. Often I talk about the work I do as been a bit like escape rooms. So I started doing this stuff in about 2010 and we were trying to imagine what was coming in the future, what would collaborative play out of the home as a kind of visitor experience look like, and we dismissed experiences like escape games really back then because we thought that even though they didn't really exist on mass, there'd been a few experiments into them and it felt like people wouldn't be willing to pay the 20 or £30 a person for a one-hour experience that they absolutely are willing to pay, it turns out.

John Sear: So we kind of misread the future direction but one of the advantage of escape games existing, I mean, I can just say, "Well the things I make are a bit like escape games." And with that, I do go to escape games. So I build large scale escape games as well. I think they're the closest things that I do to Renga in terms of 500 players. So for a number of museum conferences or site centre conferences, both in Europe and over in Asia, I built sort of 100 player escape game experiences.

John Sear: So whereas in a normal escape game there might be six of you or 10 of you locked in a room, and it sounds like you guys have played a few of these.

Kelly Molson: We have.

John Sear: So I've built a number of pop-up experiences where you might have, I've made 10 tables in a room and each table has got a mini escape game on it, and then those mini escape games kind of interact with each other. So you might put I don't know 10 people around each table, and then as the game progresses, it turns out in order to complete the game, the tables have to kind of collaborate together. So I think the largest ones I've done of those are about a hundred people.

Paul Wright: So older games and there are digital games on each table?

John Sear: No, I mean, not always. I mean, because my background is digital, I use a combination of digital and physical or analog. Yeah, so most of the games I make have a digital element. So for example, most of my escape games would have probably at least a device such as a phone or something that is a phone, but is masquerading as some other piece of equipment, which might unlock parts of the story, or you might use it to scan things.

John Sear: So I'm a big fan of technologies like iBeacons and Near-field communication. So you might use the phone to scan physical objects and that might play a video or play some audio on the phone as you're using it, but sometimes that phone is in a case. So it's some kind of piece of equipment that the players have found. It's a useful scanning device. It might be masquerading as a hospital scanner or something. So you scan a patient and then you get some readout, but essentially it's a mobile phone in a fancy case.

Kelly Molson: John, one of the questions I had for you is, I know that you work with galleries, libraries, archives, museums, which are classified GLAMs. When you're talking to these venues, what do you think is the biggest benefit of them using you? What's the biggest benefit to them to having a game or some kind of interactive element in those venues?

John Sear: I guess the biggest reason to what it means is because I'm kind of quite a nice person really. That's a good reason.

Kelly Molson: You are John. You are, it's good enough for us.

John Sear: I mean it depends what they're looking for, right? I build different things for museums. So sometimes I build what we'd call I guess an interactive, so it kind of stands alone experience that might be like a touchscreen or something that you interact with, with a camera, like a Kinect Sensor. And I did do quite a lot of collaborative touch table experiences for museums, particularly around Birmingham actually. There's still quite a few of those installed. That's a piece of technology I actually really like because I'm interested in bringing people together in these spaces.

John Sear: So the idea that you can have an experience in a museum that you can't have at home I think is quite important, and things like large scale touchscreens allow that. So yeah, I build those kinds of things, one off interactive things. But I think probably what I'm more passionate about is building experiences that are a bit more kind of museum or gallery wide.

John Sear: So one way you could think of it is a bit like a kind of a more high tech version of a trail. We are on a way that we take people, take visitors around the museum but in a different way to what they're normally doing and maybe get them to look at different things.

John Sear: So while I'd like to use a lot of technology in what I make, generally I like to kind of keep the technology hidden away, which is why I often talk about it as being magical but mostly about not trying to detract from what's already there, like museums and galleries and castles and all of these places, they're already amazing scenarios, right? They're already incredible spaces.

John Sear: So what I try and do is not to detract from that, but to enhance it with technology. So often I use a lot of audio in what I do. So perhaps the device, the technology stays in your pocket while you're still kind of walking around the space, that works quite nicely. I've been doing some stuff with the National Trust property, which is closer to immersive theatre. So a bit like an escape game, but you play it around the entire venue. And if you think of some of the escape games that are out there and probably some that you've played often what they're trying to do is they're trying to replicate these spaces that already exist in the cultural space.

John Sear: So they might be trying to make the office where Sherlock Holmes is based or they might be trying to replicate a castle. Well in the cultural attraction world or the GLAM world, we've already got those spaces and they're already completely authentic because they all exist. So what I like to try and do is kind of layer a game experience on top of what's already there.

John Sear: So one that hopefully will go in a National Trust property sometime next year is actually one where players are essentially spies. They're working for a secret organisation and they are operating within this National Trust property. But one of the advantages of being a spy is that the whole point is you're not supposed to get caught, right? So, you're supposed to be acting as if you are a normal visitor, and this is one of the problems, right? When you set a game in a space like a museum or a castle or a historic building, people behave differently and we don't always want them to behave differently when there's all these kind of priceless artefacts everywhere.

John Sear: So using these themes whereby the whole point is you're not supposed to get caught and you're supposed to be like a visitor, but secretly you're a spy doing interesting things. That mechanism works quite well I think, and that we reuse it again and again.

Paul Wright: I'd love to get a bit of an understanding of what happens with these venues, what do they decide? Do they decide they would need some immersive game in their venue and then they put a brief out there, and then you come up with ideas for that brief or is it, how does it work?

John Sear: Yeah.

Kelly Molson: How do they know they need you?

Paul Wright: Yeah.

John Sear: How do they know? They don't really. Often, I mean, I think probably some people see me talk at conferences and things or they might have used, I've got a series of kind of free tutorials online, which are designed to kind of help museums build their own things.

John Sear: So I think most people talk to me first and then I try and convince them that they need me rather than they know that they need me and come looking for me, if that makes sense?

Kelly Molson: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Paul Wright: Yeah.

John Sear: Normally they say, "Okay, we're looking to build an interactive in a museum that does this." Or "We're looking to build an app that visitors use." And then that is normally the start of a conversation of, well, why do you need an app? Or why do you think you need an app? And what are you trying to do with that? And these are all the problems with that, and these are the costs of it and these are the other things you could do with the same amount of money and then people would normally look pretty terrified.

John Sear: So yeah, I mean, occasionally some museums are aware of things like immersive theatre and they're interested enough to go, okay, how could we use these new types of experiences within our spaces. But I mean I think most places are kind of feeling that out at the moment. They don't really know they need it, they're not really sure they want it. There's a few places that are like, they can see the benefits, we can attract a different audience demographic or we can open at different times.

John Sear: So with National Trust properties, typically they have a lot of business with a certain demographic during the day, but then those properties are closed in the evening. Well actually, at least a couple of nights a week, we could actually set a large scale immersive theatre piece in there, which would bring people in and you could also sell to them food and drinks. When you look at the kind of money people are willing to spend to go to the big experiences, the Punchdrunks and the Secret Cinemas, they're spending hundreds of pounds a night. And when you start to mention those numbers, suddenly there are a few people in the museum where they go, okay, that sounds interesting. Different audiences and we could earn money from it, maybe.

John Sear: But there aren't many kind of big examples of that to look to. So it's definitely still early days in that sense.

Kelly Molson: So I guess it comes back to something that keeps coming up over and over again in terms of using tech, it's about using tech to enhance the venue and engage with a different audience at different times. So essentially it is about driving more footfall from different people.

John Sear: Yeah, I mean, that's obviously the appeal I think, and I think people realise they need something that's a bit more unique, that's a bit more attractive, and it's not just, okay, everyone has got an app now, we need to make sure we've got an app. Well, there's quite a lot of evidence out there that they're showing that's not really working, and generally it's a bit of a block, isn't it?

John Sear: I mean, you've probably had experience with this, but like a museum produces an app because they feel like they need an app, and then of course, the problem they've got is how do they convince their visitors to install the app? And they probably haven't done it before they've arrived at the venue. So then they've got to get on the wifi and they've got to download it and then they have to use the most precious thing in the world, which is their battery life on their phone, right? Nobody wants to give up their battery life on their phone.

John Sear: So, who knows? There's lots of issues with that an app is the solution to everything, and that's not to say that I don't use apps for some of the venues that I work with, but most of the time I will try and persuade them to also supply the phones with it. I mean that's always a difficult sell because the reason that museums love things like apps is because it means that I have to manage the technology-

Kelly Molson: Yeah, exactly.

John Sear: ... Which is a huge headache. But if you want people to actually use it in really big numbers, it's much easier just to hand them a device as they walk in the building than it is to go, okay, we need to get you on the wifi and then you need to download this thing and then you need to set up an account and then you need to go, all of that. Each one of those things is a barrier. So it slows it down and you lose people.

John Sear: So obviously we're seeing more people move towards just websites that allow people to hook straight into it and use things in conjunction with the space rather than the kind of full download of an app.

Paul Wright: Or progressive web apps as well.

John Sear: Exactly, yeah.

Kelly Molson: John, you talked a little bit earlier about the game where you could pretend to be a spy, so it was kind of keeping people acting in a certain way. You also talk a lot about the importance of storytelling, which I mean that's important to us as well. It's one of the key things that we talk about in terms of your website. How do you work with the museums and the galleries to find those stories? Do you help them create them collaboratively? Do you suggest what would work best for their space?

John Sear: Yeah, I guess it's a combination really. I mean that's one of the best things about working with cultural spaces, right? Is they have so much history and so much storytelling. I mean, it's what they do, why they collect stories from throughout the ages and they've got thousands to draw on. So really, I mean, the problem is, choosing from all of those when you've got so much, and so what are the stories that they've already got that fit in best with what we're trying to do?

John Sear: I mean, there's no right answer to all of that. I mean, often the kind of shortcut I guess is that people are interested in people, right? So, normally if you can find a story that's got a good character, a good protagonist, a real person at the heart of it. That's normally where we start from I think. But yeah, the problem is choosing from the many varied stories rather than kind of building something from scratch.

Paul Wright: If we go back to the game making, I'm really interested about this, about how you come up with ideas for games. Would you have any tips how to create interactive games?

John Sear: That's a big question. I used to run a four year degree course on this very subject.

Paul Wright: Oh, well.

John Sear: So, if I can summarise that in 10 seconds. I think probably one of the problems I have, and I mean, my company is called Museum Games, which is a kind of like, it does what it says on the tin type name, but I actually find making games for museums is one of the hardest things because normally what we're thinking about, we're thinking about an interactive.

John Sear: So a single place within the museum or cultural space where you go to and interact with a device of some kind. That might be a touch screen, it might be something with big buttons on it, it might be a camera based thing, so all of those, and for me the things that I'm most interested in about games is the kind of deepness to them.

John Sear: They're quite deep experiences, they're really engaging, you can learn from them, but we're trying to do that in a public space, in museums, it makes it much harder. How do you get people properly engaged in the experience when potentially there's an audience around them watching what they do, that makes it quite hard. And also the museums themselves, as great as they are to work with, obviously one of their primary reasons is to educate the public, and so it's really hard to drop the educational part.

John Sear: I mean, this would be, the biggest tip really for me, is to make games that are firstly fun experiences and less focus on the educational part. If you're busy playing a game for 10 minutes, you can have a really fun experience. You can have a great time, you might get some good photos out of it for social media but ultimately we want you to be excited and then keen to learn more about whatever the topic is we've chosen, and they, the tutor period or something, but I'm not going to build a game that's going to mean that you're going to learn all the kings of England, for instance.

John Sear: And I think that's one of the problems and one of the barriers to working with museums is there's a kind of like, "Okay, there way this game needs to be all of those things that all these other games are, but it also needs to be educational." And you're like, "Well, if I sat down a player with the list of Tudor kings or something for the next 10 minutes and made them revise it, by the end of it, they probably wouldn't remember these things anyway."

John Sear: So for me it's much more about let's make a thing that is fun and enjoyable and makes people want to spend time in the museum and makes people want to learn more about these things going forward. So if you used a particular character from history in the game and as long as afterwards there's some sort of direction that says, "Okay, you can learn more about this particular king or there are some interesting stories about this queen." Or whatever it is. As long as there's a kind of hand holding to the next thing, I mean that's the thing that I'm most happy about really.

John Sear: Get people excited first and then worry about the kind of educational content afterwards. Sorry, I turned that question and there wasn't really a kind of tip on how to make interactive games. That was really my gripe I guess.

Kelly Molson: No, it's great. I mean it really comes through how passionate you are about it. I guess it's again coming back to kind of making sure that whatever you're creating from a gaming or technology basis ties in with their culture and the heritage and the education side of the venue that you're in as well. So it's about in you're own too.

John Sear: Yeah, you've said much better than I did actually. I think it's just very hard to make a game that... And games, the best part of them is how deep they are and how immersed you can get in them when actually people are walking through a space, and have only got a few minutes to play this game and actually from the museum point of view, we don't want them standing there playing a game for two hours because that uses up the device, the interactive.

John Sear: So to make a game that's deep and also quick is quite hard. So, I mean, a lot of the games that you see in museums are really much more toy-like. They're these kind of little things you can have a little play with for a few minutes but really we need to get you on and moving around the space to see the next thing.

Kelly Molson: So tell us a little bit more about DIY Museum Tutorials because you actually give away a lot of kind of free content and a lot of things to help museums do this themselves as well, don't you?

John Sear: Yeah, I do. It's nice of me, right?

Kelly Molson: It's very nice.

John Sear: Well, I mean obviously there's other good reasons, right? To be sharing stuff and ultimately the stuff that I do on a day-to-day basis, I'm always learning and there's loads of people online that share their knowledge that helped me get to the place I am. So it's just sort of my way of contributing something to the kind of shared knowledge sphere, should we say?

John Sear: So this set of tutorials was really designed for museums that can't afford to or don't have a lot of technological skills in house. I mean, most museums don't have a lot of money at the best of times. They might get money when they have a round of funding coming for a particular project, but the rest of the time they're kind of scraping things together.

John Sear: So it was really about taking some of the projects that I've worked on where I've actually been paid to do them, and then trying to show people how you could build a kind of a simpler version yourself. Not quite to the same level, but without spending much money, and spending a bit of time.

John Sear: So either you've got people in your museum who have got a little bit of an interest in tech or you've got volunteers in your museum that are happy to kind of have a bit of a play. And so these tutorials, there's about seven or eight now, they're very much geared towards smaller museums who have got no money but might have some volunteers, and that volunteer is happy to kind of get their hands a little bit dirty.

John Sear: So I mean it doesn't go very technical, it's always designed. So the hardest thing is kind of using an app on a mobile phone. It's not even things like setting up a Raspberry Pi or setting up an Arduino, which I know is a big barrier.

John Sear: I mean it's lovely for me that these get used so widely. I get fantastic messages from all over the world where people have set up one of these things in New Zealand or Africa or America, which is really lovely to hear about. I mean the most popular ones are the Babbling Beasts tutorial, and that is using a technology called NFC, Near-field communication to trigger media, and it started off as a project to kind of make cuddly toys talk.

John Sear: So you basically take a cuddly toy and you put a mobile phone inside the cuddly toy and you record some audio, a bit like a kind of build the bear type thing, you record it straight onto the mobile phone, you put some NFC tags around your space, and if you've not seen NFC technology before, you've probably used it at some point because it's the same technology every time you go to Tesco's and buy something with your contactless credit card. It's that same wireless connectivity.

John Sear: So all of the media, all of the audio stays on the device. So that means you don't need to have any kind of wifi access, which is great if you're a National Trust building or a castle where you've got big thick walls. And then it's just a case of literally you take the cuddly toy over to your tag, your marker and when you scan it the cuddly toy talks to you. And so you can do a serious version of that. It doesn't need to be in a cuddly toy. Your mobile phone can be in anything you like, you can put it in a little wooden box or you can make a little case.

John Sear: We've had people, they've had knitting groups, knit cases for them, which has been lovely for some museums but essentially a way of just triggering audio or video but without even needing to touch the device. You just literally hold the device up to some kind of tag, and again, the tag can look like anything you want because the tag can stay behind something. So you can put it behind wood if you want to or behind a sign or you can put an array of tags out there. So any way you touched your phone against the whole display would trigger the audio.

John Sear: So it's very much a thing of like let's get people in and using technology really quickly, and then once you've got the hang of it, you can see how far you want to go with it. So you can push it further and further. So there's some ideas there by, you can do multi-language versions of this toy if you want, where you can do a French version and a German version, an Italian version, as well as your English version, and so before the tour starts or at any point in the tour, you can scan a flag and then as you go round you get the tour in that particular language-

Kelly Molson: Oh, that's brilliant, isn't it?

John Sear: ... Or we've done versions with kids and adult tours, so that the tags are the same throughout, but one is told in a kind of more serious way, and another one might be told through a character, like a small dog or a cat or something.

Kelly Molson: So I guess that's a really good way of trialing something, seeing what the uptake is. It's an MVP, isn't it?

John Sear: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Kelly Molson: Minimum viable product. Try this out, see what happens, you can do this all yourself and then if it's brilliant and it gets the results you want, get us in and we'll do your bigger version of it.

John Sear: Yeah, I mean, ultimately that would be nice. But at the same time I'm totally happy for people not to call me in to do it. If they've made something brilliant, great. And the idea being is once they've started doing it, they get a bit more confidence. They might want to make that more game-like or so it could be a Choose Your Own Adventure style thing, it could be quiz based. But yeah, you're right.

John Sear: Some people do then call me and afterwards build a kind of a more advanced one. So I've just finished doing a National Trust version with a company called Outside Studios and that's running up at the Workhouse near Nottingham and that's using phones as kind of media players, and so as you walk around the space, which doesn't have a lot of interpretation in the space, a lot of it comes through the phone or the tablet. You can just scan things as you go, and so we've made a nicer version. It's a bit more flashy, it does a few more things. It's got better housing, different updates.

John Sear: So, yeah, there's lots of ways that I can sort of do better versions for people, but you absolutely don't need to call me in for this. The idea is, yeah, build your own and if you're happy with that then great.

Kelly Molson: I love that. Do you get people kind of sending you, look what we've done?

John Sear: Yes.

Kelly Molson: We've used your tutorial and look what we've created?

John Sear: It's lovely, yeah. I love getting emails from people from all over the world telling me what they've done with it, and then yeah, like photos on Twitter, you just see kids with cuddly toys in museums and you're like, oh, it's brilliant. It's really nice. So it's-

Kelly Molson: That's really cool.

John Sear: ... Nice to be able to share and put something back. And so yeah. So the Babbling Beast one is popular. There's a touch screen one that's very popular as well. Like how to build really simple touchscreens, using PowerPoint. Most people kind of cringe a little bit when I say PowerPoint, but the good thing is, is that everyone can use PowerPoint or have been forced to use PowerPoint at some point in their life to create a horrible slideshow, but you can build interactives with it, and the latest version is really impressive actually.

John Sear: I ran a workshop a couple of weeks ago, which was using PowerPoint to build projection mapped experiences in museums and the latest version of PowerPoint supports 3D models. So you can have animated 3D models and it also has quite a lot of motion graphics in there as well. So you can do some quite fancy looking interactives using PowerPoint and no one would ever guess that you were using it. But again, it's this idea of, let's say a minimum viable product, but just giving people enough confidence they can build a little thing with it, and once they've got over that first hurdle, they go, okay, what can it do next? Okay, how do we add video to this? How do we add audio? How do we add a 3D model? And it's just nice that you can build out really quickly and then build on that knowledge.

Kelly Molson: That's brilliant.

Paul Wright: I've noticed in your bio you're interested in interactive fiction.

John Sear: Oh, yeah.

Paul Wright: Can you tell us a little bit more about that?

John Sear: I mean, so interactive fiction covers a wide range of experiences. I mean originally it kind of meant the Choose Your Own Adventure books, if you've come across those?

Kelly Molson: Oh yeah. Yep.

John Sear: So I grew up with these and there's a number of different versions of them but I grew up with a kind of original Choose Your Own Adventure. I think more recently they're called Goosebumps, people know them as. But there was a lot of different versions of this and we've even seen it I think last Christmas through Black Mirror, the Bandersnatch.

Kelly Molson: Bandersnatch, yeah.

John Sear: On a side note, I actually, for that workshop I did recently showing people what you could do with PowerPoint. I built a mini version of Bandersnatch, as in, taking the video clips from it and I built that in PowerPoint to show you could do it.

Paul Wright: Wow.

John Sear: Sorry, that's a completely aside really.

Kelly Molson: I love that.

John Sear: But I don't work for Microsoft and I don't earn anything if you use it, but it's actually a really good bit of equipment, a really good tool these days, and it's got like [crosstalk 00:37:08]-

Kelly Molson: Of the presentation software is available.

John Sear: ... I'm sure it is. But just use that, definitely, it's too fine now, it's 30 years old. So it should be reasonable. So interactive fiction obviously started with people like Edward Packard, who's the kind of one of the fathers of these Choose Your Own Adventure books back in the kind of late 70s, early 80s, I want to say somewhere around then. And so they had the classic thing of, you'd read through a page or two of the book, and at the end of it you would get to make choices, do you want to go into the cave or do you want to leave and jump on a horse and ride out into the wilderness.

John Sear: You'd make those choices and ultimately you'd have like a hundred pages and maybe 20 different endings you'd go through. And so, I quite enjoyed playing those, but they're quite a simple touch point that most people understand in terms of building things that are interactive. The simple choices you get to make as you go through is quite a commonly understood thing. So in the Babbling Beasts example, we could actually very easily make those trails, Choose Your Own Adventure style trails. But actually in more recent terms, I mean interactive fiction is a kind of it means a wider thing.

John Sear: It means like any type of fiction or text based experience where you can have some kind of choice in it, and in the last five or 10 years, there's been some fantastic tools that have made this much easier. So in the old days you might have experienced like text adventures on kind of BBCs and spectrums and PCs, back in the kind of 80s and 90s. I don't know if you're quite as old as me, but these were the-

Kelly Molson: We are John, we are.

John Sear: ... Okay. so you might've experienced these things. But then more recently there's been some fantastic web-based tools like Twine. And again actually, I've got a tutorial based on this because I quite enjoy teaching people how to build their own interactive fiction stories, and Twine is an incredibly simple piece of technology to use. And again you start simple building Choose Your Own Adventure style choices, then as you get more into it, you can use more programming language variables and things to make it a bit more richer. But yeah, I've seen people do all sorts of interesting stuff in tools like Twine.

John Sear: I mean that's what's good about in the modern age is that the tools are out there that are free and open source and a lot of cases that allow you to build these things very quickly and cheaply. And then once you get started, it's kind of like, the limits are just your own imagination. So, there's been a whole movement really with Twine where people that aren't really anything to do with games have come from different spaces and have been able to build really quite complicated and interesting games telling very personal stories, which has been really interesting, and every year there's interactive fiction competitions.

John Sear: So you can look at the kind of things that people are making in this space. And then I did some work, we're trying to put these in museums. So if you go back through my kind of website history, you'll see me discussing this a few years ago, there were some fantastic experiences where you were in the museum while having a similarly related experience. So for example, there was an experience where you had a book that was written, it was a film script, and you could sit in the museum and read the script, and actually what they'd done is they built the set around you out of things that were in the museum.

John Sear: So as you read about, I don't know like someone playing a piano off in another room. Actually there is a piano just off in another room and it turns out someone might be playing that at the same time or there might be a bookcase alongside you, and some of the books that are being referenced in the story you're reading are actually on that bookcase.

John Sear: So it's something powerful about experiencing the story while you're sitting in the space. So I was actually trying to get museums to build interactive fiction games or stories while being in the space, using technology like Twine. So you might have, I don't know, a castle and actually you don't interact directly with the space at all, but you just stand or sit in the space while the story happens.

John Sear: You can intertwine the real experience of you being in the real physical space with the virtual, which in this case, the interactive fiction games could be played on a touchscreen or you could play them on a website. So you could play them on your mobile phone, but it might be that in the interaction fiction game in order to progress, you might need to know the name of the painter in the painting in the far room.

John Sear: So actually while playing the game, you have to physically walk into the fire room, look at the painting, and engage with it, perhaps look for something in the scene or look at who the painter was and then use that in the virtual game that you're playing as well.

Kelly Molson: That's cool.

John Sear: So we're kind of tying these two things together, but technically it was incredibly simple and if you want to do this again there's a tutorial available which teaches you how to and really simple and I just wanted to see more museums kind of play with the idea. Building games that are set in the space they're already in but without getting too worried about the technology.

Kelly Molson: We will be for our listeners be linking to all of the things that John's been talking about today. So they'll be in the show notes and we will also be having this podcast transcribed as well.

Kelly Molson: John, I want to ask you about a challenge that we keep hearing over and over and over again from kind of museum world and visitor attraction world and some of the challenges they have are obviously engaging with new different audiences, which we've talked about, but one of the biggest challenges that comes up is repeat visitors and how they can engage with the same people and get them to come back over and over again. What kind of advice can you offer in terms of how to bring people back to a space and then how often do you have to be looking at refreshing the game or the interactive activity that you've got to kind of reengage with the same people? That's probably a really long question.

John Sear: It's a very good question. Yeah, because the repeat visitor thing is quite a hard one and there's lots of different reasons that people go back to museums or cultural things again and again. I mean a lot of this comes down to a problem that all of us face with building visitor attraction type experiences. It's just that people are generally quite time poor. They don't have a lot of time. Once they get through all the kind of day-to-day grind and work and family and commitments, often they're out seeking things that are kind of new and unique.

John Sear: That is difficult obviously with the repeat visitor thing. I mean, the classic way that most of the larger institutes deal with this is obviously through their temporary exhibition spaces that you would refresh every three to six months or whatever to give people a new thing they come and see. And then obviously there's problems with that, which is often those are paid experiences and they're quite premium products unless perhaps you're on an annual pass of some kind.

John Sear: I know a lot of the smaller museums, they make the basic stuff work really well, right? Like the cafes and things. The things that you're going to use again and again. So this is very technical obviously. So for us in Birmingham, we use two of Birmingham museum trust places a lot. We use the BMAG, Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery and we use Thinktank, which is the kind of science museum because of they've got fantastic cafe spaces and they're quite family friendly. So often we'll go in there knowing that it ticks those boxes and then we'll go and see other stuff. I mean, I'm going in there for the cultural reasons. The rest of my family, not so.

John Sear: So normally we start off there with people having a coffee and things and then I'll drag them off to go see different things every time. But I mean that's more from a kind of personal point of view. From kind of the game wise thing, I mean it depends on the types of games you're making and who you're targeting it at. I mean obviously kids generally will play the same game again and again, whereas adults generally don't. We're constantly looking for the new thing. We're looking for the new show, the new film, we're not watching the same series again and again generally. We're waiting for the next series to come.

John Sear: So we're expecting to see something new every time, whereas kids actually like the familiarity of doing the same thing again, which makes it quite difficult I guess to make something that's engaging for both parents and families. With games, there are different types of games, right? There are games which are much more a single play through, which might be a story based thing where it's about unlocking all of the story. But on subsequent play throughs you could have more things you can unlock, right?

John Sear: So, I mean you can have side quests that you might not do the first time round, but the second time you might do, or we have things like score based games whereby you play the game again and again in order to get a better score. Yeah, I'm not sure whether those are enough reasons that people would come back again, and again. I'm generally happy if people come once and play the experience and often that means that some of the things I run will run at set times. So they might run as part of a festival.

John Sear: That is the model that people like the funders such as arts council seem to be following now, which is we know that the visitors will come out for new interesting things, right? So again, talking about Birmingham and specifically, we're quite lucky that during the summer months particularly, we have different festivals happening just about every weekend and so then every time you come to somewhere like a museum, one of the big museums, there'll be a different offering because it's taking part in a different festival.

John Sear: So there'll be a few of the front of house things are changing, but often that means is that some of the games that I build or I help people build are built very quickly with the idea they might only run for that one weekend or it might be used for a number of kind of temporary things, but that also means we can use live people to add to the game experience as well, which is quite nice.

Kelly Molson: That sounds really fun, and I guess you've got quite a lot of flexibility in what you're doing because you're having to be a bit more agile about the time that it's on, the time of year that it's on, the venue space that it's going to be on and how many people are going to be coming in, and playing those games.

John Sear: Yeah, I mean, with solely digital games. So some of the games I make are kind of entirely digital and they're not supervised. So you might pick up a tablet or something or a device that you play on, but then there's no involvement from anyone else. Well that means that game has to kind of work flawlessly all the way through and it takes a lot more work to do.

John Sear: It needs to deal with all the cases where people get lost and aren't sure where they're going. The game needs to handhold them through it. Well, obviously if you're building something for a festival, for a short experience, the game doesn't have to be quite like a hundred percent proof because we know there's going to be people around to augment the game, but also to kind of help the players along.

John Sear: So it means you can cut corners a bit. You go, well we think people would get lost on this floor at this point in the game, but we don't really mind because there's going to be loads of other people playing the game anyway and there's going to be some volunteers around the space who will kind of direct them in the right direction.

John Sear: So yeah. So I find it easier and cheaper and quicker to make games that are kind of temporary than it is to make a game that's a hundred percent foolproof and works in every possible case.

Kelly Molson: John, earlier in the podcast you mentioned immersive theatre. Is there an experience that you have at the moment that we could go and be part of?

John Sear: Good question, you could actually. So there's a game I've been working on it for a few years now with a company called The Other Way Works and they are a theatre company who build interactive theatre and I'm a games company that builds theatrical games should we say, and together we've worked on a experience called A Moment of Madness, which is currently touring actually.

John Sear: It's about to go to Lincoln as part of the Frequency Festival. It's been in Birmingham and London and up North to Stockton and hopefully next year it'll tour again as well. So this is kind of approach to immersive theatre and it's a hybrid immersive theatre escape game and it takes place in a car park. So, an urban stake out.

John Sear: To give you the kind of rough overview, it's about a politician. He's called Michael Makerson. We think he's a good guy, but as with most politicians, he's got a bit of a-

Kelly Molson: Who knows?

John Sear: ... Shady past or a shady present, and what we know about today is that he is going to give some kind of press conference about a deal that he's struck with an electric car company, which is, it's good in this kind of post Brexit world to have connections with electric car companies.

John Sear: So he's going to do an announcement about that in about 90 minutes time in the kind of run up to that. We know that he's going to have a meeting in a car park, which perhaps has got some kind of dodgy connotation to it. So that's the kind of starting point. The game is played by 24 players at any one time. They're split up into six teams of four and each of those teams is eventually assigned a car, so they're going to be staking out a car park. The car is stationary by the way. They're not going to be driving around after him.

John Sear: People always ask me that, "How do you get insurance for people to drive cars?" I'm like, "They don't. They're on a stake out. They're supposed to be hiding." You buy a ticket and you turn up for the experience under the pretence that you're coming to a business seminar. So we are hosting a kind of fake business seminar in a conference centre and obviously then once they come in, they get their lanyard and things which actually assigns them to a colour coded team.

John Sear: They come into the space and when the business seminar starts, the doors close, and actually we reveal the real reason, which as everybody in the room knows, we are working for MI5 and we're investigating this politician, Michael Makerson and what he's up to. So we're tasked with this mission of going into the car park, sitting in the car and kind of watching what he gets up to.

Kelly Molson: This sounds great. I should get a ticket.

John Sear: It is actually. I'm not trying to do a really good job of selling it, but it is a really good experience.

Kelly Molson: I'm sold.

John Sear: Okay. Come and do it. Come to Lincoln and do it. So yeah. So you spend the kind of middle section of the game, which is 45 minutes, watching what he gets up to in the car park, who does he meet and while you're kind of trying to see what he's up to, you've got a list of suspects essentially of who you might be meeting and who they are and you can investigate them.

John Sear: So a lot of the story happens through a mobile phone as you can see the connection. I like using mobile phones. You find a mobile phone, a burner phone in the car along with the collection of items that the MI5 has left for you, and what it turns out is that working for us is his personal secretary who's called Andrea.

John Sear: So she suspects he's up to something and she's working for MI5 as well. So what she's going to do is she's going to text us throughout the hour or so we're in the car and tell us what he's up to.

Kelly Molson: I feel like you shouldn't tell us any more, John, because I want to-

John Sear: Well, I'm going to stop before I get to the...

Kelly Molson: ... You need to stop.

John Sear: Yeah, because obviously there's a lot that happens and there's a lot that I'm going to give a talk on this actually later in the week where I do all the spoilers. But ultimately in this game you're having this conversation with Andrea, she's given you things to do, things to watch out for, keeps you posted as to what Michael is up to. But there are escape room style puzzles that happen.

John Sear: So you're trying to collect information about him and because it's an immersive experience each car has kind of leeway to go down the investigation direction they want to go. So one particular car might investigate his relationship with his wife or another car might investigate, what's happening with him and his business partner, and so then ultimately you're going to come back together, and then the players, the MI5 agents, get to kind of present all the information they've got and then make a decision about whether or not to kind of, what should we do with this information? Should we try and stop his career or do we support him on his way to becoming prime minister? And so, yeah, we've been running that around the country, and actually one of the things the politician has is this kind of a blonde wig, which makes him very visible, and it wasn't the intention when we started out, but it ended up looking quite a lot like a certain prime minister we have now.

Kelly Molson: Wow, wow. So current.

John Sear: So he gets, yeah, it's surprising. All of that stuff that we wrote about four years ago is all coming true. So I think we take a lot of the blame for all of the mess of the political spectrum at the moment.

Kelly Molson: John, thank you so much for sharing that.

John Sear: But I should say because it's supported by the arts, this show, it's incredibly cheap to come to because we don't want to make the cost of attending a barrier. So whereas like an escape room of 90 minutes is often 50, £60 a person. This is normally £40 a car and in some spaces it's been entirely free actually, which is quite nice.

Kelly Molson: Oh, wow.

John Sear: So there's no barrier to playing normally.

Kelly Molson: Brilliant. John, thank you. We have absolutely loved speaking to you today. It's been so much fun. As I said, we'll put all of the links to all of John's information and the DIY Tutorials and where you can go and buy those tickets in the show notes. But John, thank you for coming on Skip the Queue. It's been awesome.

John Sear: No problem at all. Thank you so much. It's been lovely to talk to you both and now I can get back to talking about Tottenham, right?

Kelly Molson: Maybe not. We'll save that for another podcast, John.

John Sear: Thank you so much.

Kelly Molson: You can find links and notes from this episode and more over on our website, or search Skip the Queue on iTunes and Spotify to subscribe. Please remember to leave a rating. It helps other people find us.

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