[Dreamation] Event Descriptions Misleading?

I wanted to start a quick discussion about a couple of issues that came up at Dreamation. I was one of the event coordinators there for the Indie Games Explosion, and we have a bunch of loyal fans who are attending the con specifically to play some of these indie games but who are not as plugged in to the online indie game community. At the con, a couple of these fans pulled me aside to complain about some of the events. The problem was that the games as listed did not adequately describe what they were, and these players were surprised and disappointed. It's really the surprise that's the problem.

I had three different players tell me that they were expecting Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple to be a role-playing game, something in the style of Avatar: The Last Airbender, rather than the collaborative sentence-building game that it is. They were all very disappointed, and I think if they had known what to expect this wouldn't have been a problem.

The second complaint I received was about a Jeepform event. Again, the players were expecting a more traditional LARP, rather than something they compared to an improv exercise. I've played only a few LARPs, and never Jeepform, so I'm not sure what the differences are, but clearly there was an expectation-setting problem.

I am not entirely sure it is possible to completely eliminate these types of misunderstandings, but a clearer description of the events might help in the future. I just wanted to pass this along here to the indie community in the hopes of raising awareness of the issue. I'd like everyone to really enjoy these events, and I'd hate for players to start to feel distrustful of indie events at Dreamation based on a couple of crossed wires.

Discussion of this topic is welcome, but let's not bag on the players for unfamiliarity with the games. These are not people who are following this stuff online, most of their exposure to indie events comes at the convention.

Comments

  • Something constructive that could happen here would be finding positive ways to differentiate these activities in a sentence or two, language not laden with values that could be borrowed for event description writers.

    In a sentence, how would you describe Jeepform in a way that clearly differentiates it from American LARP?

    In a sentence, how would you describe light games with roleplaying elements from games that fall comfortably into a more traditional definition of an RPG?
  • Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple is a collaborative story writing game where the tale is built by the players, one sentence at at time.

    Does that adequately describe Do? From my experience with it, that seems accurate.
  • Posted By: Brennan TaylorI had three different players tell me that they were expecting Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple to be a role-playing game, something in the style of Avatar: The Last Airbender, rather than the collaborative sentence-building game that it is.
    Doesn't surprise me. I never learned otherwise until like yesterday, despite having had one eye on the game's marketing and such since who knows how far back. Somehow the public elements I've as a bystander have painted an image of some sort of DiV-like drama game, except with kungfu on floating fantasy islands. This is quite an accomplishment, considering that I managed to skim some preview layout pages, the Kickstarter site and whatnot :D

    And yes, it is useful to use clear and transparent explanations in describing your game. I don't know how useful precanned magic terminology is, though, compared to just explaining directly what it is that you do around the table in the game. For example, I explain D&D as "team-based problem-solving in a fantasy milieu", and people seem to mostly understand what the core activity is like.

    That being said, if I had to explain jeepform vs. larping, I'd say that "jeepform" is a funny name for freeform tabletop gaming where the GM sometimes asks you to stand up and act the scene. Larping, on the other hand, usually doesn't involve tabletop techniques such as scene framing and artificial pacing, and the players represent their own characters continuously with their own bodies.
  • Posted By: Eero TuovinenI'd say that "jeepform" is a funny name for freeform tabletop gaming where the GM sometimes asks you to stand up and act the scene.
    Perjorative and wrong, but thanks for trying.
  • It's not pejorative if it's my honest impression.

    No, actually that's wrong - it can still be a pejorative lie I've been told. In either case, my apologies; I had no intent to offend. How would you characterize jeepform in comparison to tabletop gaming and traditional larping? The stuff I've seen has sat squarely in between, combining character acting with the pacing, framing and other GMing tools of tabletop gaming. Sometimes you play scenes in the abstract by talking, and then you get up to act the crucial highlight scenes.

    Obviously enough you should use descriptions that feel like positive depictions of your game when trying to attract happy people into your convention session.
  • Jeepform: "A structured freeform game foregrounding character improvisation within a formalized plot structure" or variants thereon: "A structured freeform game" "Character-focused, scene-driven parlor larp." Or the old standby: "a larp-tabletop hybrid where the field of play is the mind of the player."
  • edited March 2012
    We're also having these issues at nerdNYC.

    We run Recess, a 150+ person gaming day 3-4 times a year. We're a non-profit and are required to have our board of directors meet 4 times a year so we schedule the meetings right after Recess. Each meeting, we pick 1 area of Recess to improve, collect feedback, test ideas, and roll out changes. Last meeting we identified the biggest area that needs improvement is event descriptions.

    We reached out to quite a few attendees and interviewed them asking what works for them, what's confusing, what they want changed, and what they want the same. We've generated a few hypotheses to test next Recess. It's too early to say what will work but I can share what we intend to test.

    But before I do, I think it would be fruitful for this discussions to look at some of the actual Event descriptions from Dreamation:
    Jeepform; "Doubt". A serious story of love. About how one glance can stop time. About daring to love and daring to move on. Doubt is two stories about each other. A life and a play. Tom and Julia love each other. Both on stage and off stage. Doubt is about temptation, the importance to love and be loved. About constant choosing. About living with one person, and at the same time dreaming about others. In Doubt, the players are responsible for the story. Decide the fate of Tom and Julia. Play the play to its final act. Two players play Tom and two play Julia. And extras. And lovers. This game is part of the Nordic jeepform tradition and lies somewhere between a tabletop and a larp - come experience the Scandinavian side of gaming! Beginners Welcome; Very Serious, 18 & Over ONLY. See Also: L034.
    Jeepform; "Previous Occupants". This game is part of the Nordic jeepform tradition, which exists somewhere between tabletop and larp and provides a good introduction to that style of gaming. Previous Occupants is a story of coping with people changing, cast as a ghost story. The players will play the events of two different timelines in parallel, one story of young trustful love and sexual exploration set against a bitter distrustful marriage that ends in violence and disaster. As the ghosts of the past invade the present, the end is completely in the hands of the players. Who will get away alive? Beginners Welcome; Very Serious, 18 & Over ONLY.
    Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple.In a universe of endless skies, tiny planets are full if big trouble. Which you probably caused. Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple is a comedic storytelling game inspired by Avatar: The Last Airbender, Keno's Journey, and Mario Galaxy. Beginners Welcome; Fun, 18 & Over ONLY.
    I also ran a very experimental game and I tried to make it clear that you won't just be a traditional player:
    Elmer Sapp. Elmer Sapp did something awful to each of you. In 1890 he disappeared out west and you're all going on a one-way journey to end him. What Sapp did to you can't be made right, but at least you can wipe that smirk off his face. That's your plan. You've got a bad feeling it's a lousy plan. Note: This is an improv heavy, player driven, collaborative storytelling game. At the end of every chapter, 1 player character will die and become a co-GM till only 1 is left. And even they might not survive! Beginners Welcome; Serious, 18 & Over ONLY.
  • edited March 2012
    Posted By: Brennan TaylorI had three different players tell me that they were expecting Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple to be a role-playing game, something in the style of Avatar: The Last Airbender, rather than the collaborative sentence-building game that it is. They were all very disappointed, and I think if they had known what to expect this wouldn't have been a problem.
    It probably doesn't help that the description flat-out invokes Avatar's name. I actually avoided the game because I don't know anything about The Last Airbender, but now it sounds like that's not how it goes at all.

    For those who are curious, this is how it was advertised:

    Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple. In a universe of endless skies, tiny planets are full if big trouble... Which you probably caused. Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple is a comedic storytelling game inspired by Avatar: The Last Airbender, Keno's Journey, and Mario Galaxy.

    [ETA: Looks like somebody posted the description already. Didn't spot that before. Anyway, I think the issue of what went awry in that specific case is pretty clear.]
  • edited March 2012
    Here is a quick summary of our research.

    Note: what's true for our community may not be true for yours. This isn't universal, nor are we research experts.

    Finding: Most people don't read descriptions carefully. They quickly scan them. They want shorter descriptions and important info bolded and repeated (even repeated up to 3 times).

    Finding: Number 1 factor people cared about is age. "How old are the other players?" "Are children allowed?" Saying "Children Friendly" isn't clear enough. There is a big difference between 8 and 12 year olds.

    Finding: Some people want to know the game's theme but when pressed what they specifically wanted to know: Is the game Dark or Silly? Cooperative or Competitive? If the game is both Competitive and Cooperative, most consider it Competitive.

    Finding: People want to know what the game emphasizes or rewards. The most common categories cited: Tactics, Roleplaying (talking in character, acting like your character), Story, Puzzles. Story is the most problematic category, almost anything can be labeled a story. What many people really mean is, if we're playing a game based on a comic book, will the experience feel like a comic book?

    Finding: Roughly 60-70% don't care about the game system. But those that do care about it very much and want to know what version of the system and if any hacks are being used.

    Finding: In the case of RPGs, people want to know if the game is played rules as written or if the rules can be ignored as needed. We don't have numbers but it seemed like a lot of people preferred the "don't sweat the rules" games. Not because they don't like rules but because they didn't want the game to bog down.

    Finding: Number of players was a much bigger factor than we realized. Many people refuse to play an RPG if it has more than 5 or 6 players.

    Finding: A lot of people are not comfortable with RPGs where you "make up the story" have "meta powers" or can "co-GM". Many people just want to play their characters and that's it. For several players, this was absolutely the number 1 factor that determined what games they did or didn't signup for. Very few people know what a "Storytelling Game" actually means. Generally people preferred descriptions like "shared storytelling", "GM-powers", "GM-less", "Improv heavy". In general we found that this was a point that needs repeating. State that it is a shared storytelling game in more than 1 way.

    Finding: Most people ignore background and world information. They don't care about your game's world history. They want to know what Movie / TV Show / Book / Comic the game is like. They want to know "Who do I play", "What's my goal", "Why", "Where", "When", "What's stopping me" in 3 sentences or less.

    Finding: If the game is described as being like an existing Movie / TV Show / Book / Comic, people want to know if knowledge of these sources is needed to play. Saying "no experience needed" often wasn't enough and people didn't trust it. It needed to be made even clearer that anyone can play and will have a good time.

    Finding: A lot of people want to avoid GMs that railroad. But there are a lot of players that enjoy very linear, fixed plot games. There are players who want to experience the GM's story and there are many players who want to run away from this as fast as possible. This is probably our biggest challenge. How do we get GMs to self-identify? They won't label their games as a railroad, so what can we use instead that is clear? Fixed Plot? Linear? GM drives the story? To many new players, "fixed plot" or even "railroad" are meaningless terms.

    Finding: A small number of people want to know how much time is spent in combat.

    At Recess, none of our games require experience. We're a very new player friendly event. All rules are taught, all materials are provided. But if your event does include events that require different levels of experience, I would imagine that would need to be communicated very clearly.
  • Lots of great info, John! Did you ask people to fill out a survey? Neat.

    Thanks for bringing this up, Brennan. It's good to be as clear as possible, but it's hard to get through, I think. I think the fact that they were listed under larps might go a long way to forming expectations that aren't accurate, but the games fit even less well under tabletop.

    The quoted descriptions of Jeeps _seem_ clear to me. Here's how I described Under my Skin:
    A theatre-style live action game, played in the Jeepform (jeepen.org) tradition.
    I'll have to think on how to describe that better. Though the players reported being very happy with how it played out. It may be helpful to be more direct, though. Like so...

    Jenskot wrote:
    Very few people know what a "Storytelling Game" actually means. Generally people preferred descriptions like "shared storytelling", "GM-powers", "GM-less", "Improv heavy". In general we found that this was a point that needs repeating. State that it is a shared storytelling game in more than 1 way.
    I like Bill's descriptions. Do they seem plain-spoken enough?
  • Personally, I also make certain I explain what the game is about and the roles the players take straight up. Most of the folks that have played my games know that I'm like "this game is going to be like this so now's the time to bail."

    I do so less as more and more of my games are with friends. At my two play-test tables I only had two players I never played with before.

    The point being that even with good descriptions traditional gamers going into one of our sessions could be warned a bit before heading into the unknown. For Dreamation this is particularly true because we share the space with the RPGA and Pathfinder Society. I've had a few folks wander in from those games and they just don't have a great idea what to expect.

    - Don
  • John, that's pure gold, thanks for sharing it.

    I think Bill's descriptions are accurate but too braniac bookworm. Structured freeform? Parlor larp?

    "a larp-tabletop hybrid where the field of play is the mind of the player" is closer but I'm personally dubious about mentioning tabletop as a description. And it reads like advertising copy. Maybe that's a good thing!
  • edited March 2012
    Let's go through your Findings, John, to find a game description that one would describe as "ideal."

    * It's 3 sentences, with information bolded and repeated up to three times.
    * It states the appropriate ages for the game.
    * It states whether or not it's Dark or Silly and Cooperative or Competitive
    * It says the game emphasizes Tactics, Roleplaying, Puzzles or Story
    * It doesn't really state the game system, but if it does it has to own that.
    * It makes it clear whether or not the game will bog down in rules.
    * It must be an RPG with fewer than 5 players.
    * It must state that a game is more "story games"-esque several times, or else players can be relied upon to "just play their characters" in the GM's playground.
    * It must compare itself to some pop cultural shorthand to describe what/where/when it's about
    * It must make clear that, despite the pop cultural references, you DON'T have to get these references in order to have a good time
    * It must be semi-railroady without being totally railroady.
    * It should contain some reference to time spent in combat.

    As what I admit to be a totally cynical exercise, let's adapt Under My Skin to these hypothetical conditions:

    "Under My Skin is an emotionally intense, structured freeform role-playing game in the style of Queer as Folk and other Showtime relationship melodramas. This emotionally intense game prioritizes story over character, and explores dark themes with a rules-light, cooperative system that can be learned (and played) by any mature adult (18+). There will be little to no combat, but several of the emotionally intense scenes might be forced upon the characters with the express consent of their players."

    Now compare with Emily's description on her website:

    "Under my Skin is an intense role playing game about faith, love and commitment. ... A group of friends get together and secret loves and passions erupt. Partners and lovers have to face up to their fears and jealousies as they find that time has taken its toll on their relationships. Passions rage and lovers see whether their relationships will last or crumble under the pressures of temptation over a potential new love."

    Ultimately, I'm going to side with the GMs and the creators with how to frame their games, not with perceived player demands, because it muddles the gut-level message otherwise.

    For example, I had to actually play FreeMarket in order to figure out that I didn't like it. People will self-select, but GMs cannot and should not have to convey the whole kitten kaboodle to fill the table. Negotiation between one's target market (the most sympathetic players) and the undifferentiated mass will have to happen on an interpersonal level, not just with the event description.
  • Posted By: Evan TornerPeople will self-select, but GMs cannot and should not have to convey the whole kitten kaboodle to fill the table. Negotiation between one's target market (the most sympathetic players) and the undifferentiated mass will have to happen on an interpersonal level, not just with the event description.
    The thing here isn't so much "clever catch-copy to put butts in seats", but rather "clearly explaining the event so that someone doesn't show up expecting one thing and getting something entirely different; something that they're clearly not interested in."

    I've been pretty successful thus far, but if I were to run something edgy I'd definitely want to make it clear for potential participants so that they get pulled into something totally unexpected.

    And yeah, I can totally see the Do/Pilgrims thing: It's been so high profile in RPG circles that it's totally natural to assume that it's just another role-playing game, perhaps a "light/kid-friendly" one (earlier drafts of Do were in fact a tabletop RPG, before Happy Birthday Robot). Requiring familiarity beforehand is folly, but at least clueing people in before they sit down (especially if the event is in the "RPG section" and not "LARP" or "Board Game" section).

    -Andy
  • Posted By: Andy"clearly explaining the event so that someone doesn't show up expecting one thing and getting something entirely different; something that they're clearly not interested in."
    Right - this is the goal, and this an artform be.

    "Clarity" can come in so many different forms.
  • For the purposes of identifying games, I've thought of using these GM "badges" at Big Bad Con. http://strangemagic.robertsongames.com/2011/08/gm-merit-badges.html

    The convenience is that they are iconic and easy to process and compare with each other. The problem is they are still ambiguous (i.e. what does "My games will tell an interesting Story" actually mean) and you would have to use so many of them, that the lexicon of gaming badge would be hard to master ("what does that symbol with the mirror mean again?")

    If these badges became a standard used a many cons, or at the same con over and over, the familiarity problem would lessen but the ambiguity wouldn't. That said I still like the idea of easy to identify game characteristics like the ones John was mentioning. (Age, Mood, Cooperative vs. Competitive, etc)

    -Sean
  • Posted By: Emily CareLots of great info, John! Did you ask people to fill out a survey? Neat.
    Thanks Em!

    We've been using surveys to collect a lot of info but for this I opted for 1 on 1 interviews. Trying as best I can to focus on people who don't run or design games (which is difficult). It's time consuming unfortunately but I don't trust small sample size surveys for this kind of data collection, especially since this is a situation where I would prefer to note people's reactions rather than just their specific words.

    Although I may use surveys as a tool to followup on our observations. Things like asking people, "What does shared storytelling mean?"

    This is all very new to us and we haven't had a chance to properly experiment. I suspect we will end up cutting out half the content, change a few assumptions, and further focus in on what changes will make the biggest impact, rather than trying to do everything possible and have game descriptions that end up being small essays!
  • As a GM, I'm careful to be clear about any challenging themes. If a game deals with historical sexism, I will work vigorously to get buy in. I don't want to blindside players unless they give me permission to surprise them.

    But I've encountered many more people who are much more sensitive to "shared storytelling", "narrative control", "being put on the spot where they have to act out everything in first person" than topics like racism and sexism. Which for me is personally weird. But this isn't about me.
  • Posted By: Sean NittnerFor the purposes of identifying games, I've thought of using these GM "badges" at Big Bad Con.http://strangemagic.robertsongames.com/2011/08/gm-merit-badges.html

    The convenience is that they are iconic and easy to process and compare with each other. The problem is they are still ambiguous (i.e. what does "My games will tell an interesting Story" actually mean) and you would have to use so many of them, that the lexicon of gaming badge would be hard to master ("what does that symbol with the mirror mean again?")

    If these badges became a standard used a many cons, or at the same con over and over, the familiarity problem would lessen but the ambiguity wouldn't. That said I still like the idea of easy to identify game characteristics like the ones John was mentioning. (Age, Mood, Cooperative vs. Competitive, etc)
    We've been considering this as well. Their ambiguity has been a roadblock unfortunately. But they are great for quick comparison (I want to find all the games with the cooperative icon) and cross reference. I do agree that we can train people although our cons have a huge influx of first time attendees who would lack this training.

    My hope is to come up with a bunch of characteristics and test them against a wide sample of people. Children, adults, experienced gamers, people who have never played before, and see what happens.

    Although I think these terms are the beginning but not the end. It's like the term, GMless. What does that mean? It's clear if you play RPGs; there is no GM in this game. But GMless games can mean, everyone is the GM! Or we take turns GMing. Or we each are responsible for different GM responsibilities. And much more. I think GMless is not a bad start but in a description I would add a little bit more context. Keywords are great but don't have to fight the battle alone. If I say a game is Competitive, it helps to follow up with competition between who. Not only does this clarify but it also reinforces what the game is about and makes it more likely that most people who scan descriptions will catch on.
  • Great stuff. One thing Nerd did for the last few Recesses, that I'm curious now if we will continue, is to have GMs list 3-5 "tags" (like the GM badge icons) along with their paragraph-long game descriptions. As a GM I liked that because it forced me to really think about what are the most prominent aspects of the game I wanted to run.

    A few other thoughts:
    -Sadly, "story" has become absolutely meaningless as a term in discussing RPGs
    -No one wants a game that will get bogged down in rules, but OTOH following the rules to the letter is important for some small % of players (aka, me), so trying to find a good way to communicate that would be nice*
    -Same issue with railroading, as pointed out upthread; no GM wants to admit their game is railroaded, and I think there would even be a stigma to players admitting that they want to play in a railroad... but a railroad is what many people, GMs and players alike, genuinely want
    -It seems like the big sticking point is format, more than content; Do:PotFT really doesn't feel much like a traditional RPG, but it's not like the description of its fictional basis was inaccurate.

    Matt

    *I'm not so much of a jerk as to quibble over obscure +1 bonuses or whatever, but I have had some really bad convention experiences with GMs who didn't even know the basics of conflict resolution in games I frequently GM myself... maybe "no experience required" also means that if you *do* have experience with the game system, you shouldn't sign up for it!
  • edited March 2012
    Posted By: jenskotMost people don't read descriptions carefully.
    The amount of convention problems this causes is mind-boggling. I mean absolutely psychotically amazing. I have been to dozens of conventions and I've never been in one where at least once someone at a table with me didn't say "so what game is this? I just saw an open slot and signed up". This is horrible bullshit and it happens 100 percent of the time (within some very small margin of error).
  • I have found that stating the negative, as in "if you're looking for a game that has a lot of X in it, you will likely be badly disappointed" as much as stating the positive ("this is a game about Y") seems to work well. I think that this may be due to how people scan descriptions - including the terms they're scanning for, but then clearly stating that it's not going to be part of the game, may help the readers to get a good idea of what the game is about, and avoid getting involved with something they won't enjoy.
  • Aw man, sorry to hear about people disappointed about Do. It's definitely an odd duck somewhere between RPG and board game. It's hard to know what to highlight in a convention description. For what it's worth, I like this description.
    Posted By: Rolling20sDo: Pilgrims of the Flying Templeis a collaborative story writing game where the tale is built by the players, one sentence at at time.
    For a game whose procedures are so wildly different than a traditional RPG, it's probably more important to note those differences than to call out the setting. That's unfortunate, because most folks probably won't read a lengthier description that explains a bit about the mood of the game rather than its mechanics.
  • Posted By: jenskot
    Finding: A lot of people want to avoid GMs that railroad. But there are a lot of players that enjoy very linear, fixed plot games. There are players who want to experience the GM's story and there are many players who want to run away from this as fast as possible. This is probably our biggest challenge. How do we get GMs to self-identify? They won't label their games as a railroad, so what can we use instead that is clear? Fixed Plot? Linear? GM drives the story? To many new players, "fixed plot" or even "railroad" are meaningless terms.
    I've heard the term "Tunnel of Fun" used frequently in the Wellington gaming community (I'm not sure how widespread it is beyond NZ). That seems a good non-pejorative term that GMs seem quite happy to own and players seem happy to play.

    Speaking of misleading descriptions, I actually wish this thread wasn't tagged [Dreamation] as this is important stuff for people who run events at conventions everywhere.
  • Thinking about how most people chose games when looking at a list of entries on a website or in a program, I have a suggestion that I hope will help with clear communication, and make things easier for players to read.

    Most folks try to filter possible games into categories first, to quickly exclude stuff they aren't interested in, and then take a closer look at what remains. I think we should facilitate that process.

    Using the descriptions of games on the Dreamation website as the model:

    "L031: Under My Skin; "Tangled Lives" by Black and Green Games; presented by Emily Care Boss. Passion strikes when least expected. A circle of friends and acquaintances get together for an evening's fun - but instead sparks fly! Love breaks out between new friends and old, and relationships are tested. What will they do for love? A theatre-style live action game, played in the Jeepform (jeepen.org) tradition. Very collaborative, the players create the intertwining loves and lives of their characters then help each other see how this crucible of love, passion and caring plays out. Saturday, 8:00PM - 12:00AM; One Round; All Materials Provided. Beginners Welcome; Serious, 18 & Over ONLY."

    I don't know about you guys, but I find that a really difficult format to parse. Most of the information that player want to see first is listed at the end of the entry, in a way that is relatively tedious to scan.

    I would find the entry much more usable if it looked something more like this, and I think players would be less likely to skip over the bits that tend to cause disappointment:

    Title: "Under My Skin"
    Author/Publisher: Black and Green Games
    GM: Emily Care Boss
    System: Jeepform
    Ages: 18 & over ONLY
    Mood: Serious
    Emphasis: Roleplay - High; Story - High; Combat - Very Low; Puzzles - Very Low
    Rules complexity: Low
    Rules familiarity: Beginners Welcome
    Players: Minimum 3 - Maximum 6
    Notes: An emotionally intense, theater-style live action game with dark themes, played in the Jeepform (jeepen.org) tradition.
    Pitch: Under my Skin is an intense role playing game about faith, love and commitment. ... A group of friends get together and secret loves and passions erupt. Partners and lovers have to face up to their fears and jealousies as they find that time has taken its toll on their relationships. Passions rage and lovers see whether their relationships will last or crumble under the pressures of temptation over a potential new love.
    Inspirations: Queer as Folk and other Showtime relationship melodramas
    Fictional Familiarity: Slightly helpful
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