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Through the Rabbithole: ARG Lecture

November 21st, 2005 · No Comments

The proper title of this talk was ‘Through the Rabbithole: The history and potential of Alternate Reality Games’. It was presented at the 2005 Montreal International Games Summit and is an introduction to the alternate reality gaming genre.

Below is an essay based on notes that I prepared for the talk. It is not a transcript of the talk, and it differs slightly in many areas. I have undoubtedly missed stuff out and added other stuff in, but it is largely the same.

Before I launch into a definition of alternate reality games, I think a good way of learning what they’re like is telling you something that happened in a game that I’m working on, called Perplex City.

A couple of months ago in Perplex City, we had a live action text adventure event, which consisted of two developers pretending to be a computer for several hours. At the end of this event, we left a clue for our players. The clue was four words: ‘Manchester City Centre Sky’, and we thought it was pretty clear what it meant – go to the city centre of Manchester (in the UK) and look up at the sky. See, we were planning for a plane to fly over Manchester for an hour with banner with another clue.

Unfortunately, the players weren’t sure what the words ‘Manchester City Centre Sky’ meant – did it mean they were supposed to go to Manchester City Centre and look up at the sky (yes), or go to the Manchester City Sky Centre? (definitely not). On reflection, we should have probably checked for the existence of such a building, and so for a while we were worried that the players might go off to this Sky Centre and miss the aerial banner. Eventually, though, one of the players came up with unconventional solution. She said that she’d look into police records about the usage of the building. ‘Isn’t that illegal?’ asked one of the players? ‘Yeah, but it’s fun!’ she replied.

And to me, that shows what alternate reality games are about – they involve the creation of an immersive story universe where players work together to solve problems, often in unconventional ways.

There’s a whole bunch of stories like this, where players who crazy things. In ‘I Love Bees’, the promotional ARG for Halo 2, there’s the famous story of someone walking into Hurricane Ivan to answer a payphone as part of the game. The lengths that people playing alternate reality games go to is truly incredible.

Now, alternate reality games have a rather grand title, but not everything that they do is completely new. However, they deserve their own genre due to two unique characteristics.

1) Immersive, cross media, make-believe drama.

ARGs attract players because of their compelling story and universe that pushes as far into other media as it can go. Alternate reality games these days might start with a phone number that leads you to an email address that leads you to a website that leads you to a live event. And while most activity in ARGs takes place online, the use of other media renders the game much more believable and real; it also heightens the drama.

2) Highly social, collective action.

This has been a feature of many recent ARGs, where puzzles have required up to hundreds or thousands of players working together. These puzzles might be ‘distributed puzzles’, such as those in ‘I Love Bees’ which required players to answer payphones all over the US, or merely very hard puzzles, which require a very large player base in order to have someone with the requisite specialist knowledge to solve it. Interestingly, a recent ARG produced by the BBC called ‘Jamie Kane’ is single player and does not feature this social or collective action, and I’ll be coming back to it later on.

First, a brief history of alternate reality games. The first ARG was a promotion for the movie A.I. in 2001, produced by Microsoft and Dreamworks SKG. This game was called ‘The Beast’ and the entry points to the game – the rabbitholes – were as diverse as a fake name on the movie poster, or a code hidden in the movie trailer. As people explored these rabbitholes, they discovered a network of websites that all pretended that they were based over 100 years in the future and centred around the story of a man called Evan Chan, who had been murdered. The interesting thing about ‘The Beast’ is that at the time, no-one knew who was responsible – neither Microsoft nor Dreamworks owned up to being behind it.

The Beast was a great success and attracted an awful lot of publicity; unfortunately the movie itself didn’t do so well. Very shortly after The Beast, Electronic Arts released a game called Majestic. Majestic was produced in parallel to The Beast and was a very technically accomplished game, but it never really took off. There are a few reasons for this. Firstly, it suffered in comparison to The Beast; while The Beast was free to play, you had to buy a monthly subscription to Majestic. Partly as a result, Majestic didn’t involve the same sort of highly social, collective action that The Beast featured, although this was also down to the way the game was designed. A few months after its release, Majestic was wound up.

The failure of Majestic to attract a big, paying audience put a dampener on the genre for a while, and during this time it was kept alive by the thriving grassroots scene. Despite the fact that ARGs have a lot of fancy stuff like coded adverts in newspapers, live events, telephone calls and aerial banners, the only thing that you really need is web hosting – and of course, insane amounts of free time. Due to this low barrier of entry, some of the grassroots games were very good, such as Lockjaw and Metacortechs.

There were a few other ARGs during this time – generally promotional ARGs for companies like Sharp – but nothing that produced the same impact as The Beast. And then in 2004, a new ARG called ‘I Love Bees’ came out, as a promotion for Halo 2. I Love Bees was produced by the same guys who did The Beast, but at a new company called 42 Entertainment; like The Beast, it attracted a lot of players and involved the payphone mechanic I mentioned earlier. It also won the 2005 GDC Award for Innovation, which made a lot of people take notice of the genre. 42 began another ARG called Last Call Poker a couple of months ago, which is tied into Activision’s new ‘Gun’ game.

Also in 2005, the company that I belong to – Mind Candy – released Perplex City. Perplex City is different to many other ARGs, with the possible exception of Majestic, in not being a promotion for a game or a car or movie or anything like that. Instead, Perplex City is a standalone game that ties into a puzzle-based collectible card game. I’ll talk more about Perplex City in a little while.

So that’s the brief history of alternate reality games, but where are we now? What’s the significance of ARGs relative to the rest of games and entertainment? Well, ARGs are realisation of actual immersive, cross-media gaming, which no-one has really done before. Instead of just using the web and newspapers and radio and TV just for adverts, ARGs make them part of the story. Making an advert that is part of story of an ARG is difficult, but it can be very successful – people always prefer being part of story, part of adventure, than just being sold something – it’s better to treat people intelligently.

Related to this is the issue to interactivity and free will, which obviously features heavily in alternate reality games, with their dynamic, real time stories. ARG designers obviously plan the game and story in advance, but they don’t do it in high detail. If they do, events and players tend to have a habit of doing the opposite of what you want. So while designers might know the endpoint of their story, and checkpoints along the way, they won’t necessarily know exactly how they’re going to get there. That’s what the players do – by interacting with the characters in the story and solving problems and puzzles, they help create the story themselves.

Other media is creeping in this direction. Take Lost, for example. How many people here watch Lost? A lot. You probably know about the mysterious numbers then. The creators of Lost hadn’t intended for the numbers to play such a big part in the story, but after they saw the reaction of their viewers to them on all the internet discussion forums, they decided to increase their importance. They’ve also created a bunch of mini-websites online that pretend that the Lost universe is real, so there’s an Oceanic Airlines website, for example. It’s not the same as an ARG, but it’s a step in that direction. The most popular drama in the UK this year was Doctor Who, and they also created websites that were part of the story.

But this is a games conference, not a TV conference, so let me give you an example from there. For their game ‘Far Cry’, Ubisoft produced a travel booklet called ‘The Rough Guide to the Jacutan Archipelago’. Obviously no-one actually believes that the Jacutan Archipelago is real, but it’s a nice example of a videogame crossing over into another form of media in a way that isn’t merely normal advertising.

Alternate reality games are not first time people have created a believable fictional reality, though. Going back almost 4000 years ago, the most popular ancient Egyptian story ever, as measured in extant copies, is the Tale of Sinuhe. This story basically pretends that it’s a recounting of real events, and it’s told in the way of traditional official letters or records of that period. It’s possible that its popularity was because of this mimicking or subversion of ‘traditional media’.

Coming forward a few thousand years, the epistolatory fiction in 19th century continued on this theme, where authors would claim to have found a most extraordinary bundle of letters in their attic or cellar or whatever, and proceed to recount the letters in their book. Of course, they made the whole thing up, including the letters, but due to the nature of the story’s presentation as something that could be real, the stories becomes a lot more visceral and involving to readers.

Last century, radio provided a new outlet that had vivid, evocative real time access to comparatively naive mass audiences. The example that everyone’s heard about is Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds in 1938, but even 12 years before that, the BBC did something very similar. A normal talk show was interrupted with breaking news about Big Ben being destroyed by trench mortars and a government minister lynched in a revolution. Like War of the Worlds, a great number of people were seriously alarmed by the ’show’ and there was a huge uproar in the press in the following days. Both shows worked primarily because they mimicked every detail of the normally trustworthy news broadcasts – not just the voices, but also the way that people stutter and interrupt each other, and the way that news reports are often confused and disjointed at first.

It would be tempting to think that War of the Worlds was a one off, but when it was adapted in 1944 for broadcast in Santiago, Chile, the governor of one province was convinced enough to briefly mobilise army units to repel the invading Martians.

In a way, radio is even more evocative than TV, because it’s so much more personal and leaves so much more to the imagination. That may be one reason why we haven’t seen dramas that are as dramatically believable or alarming on TV, although another reason might be that TV studios are just more nervous these days. The sort of ‘believeable fictions’ that have appeared on the TV tend to be straightforward hoaxes. Having said that, the Blair Witch movie did rather well out of pretending to be a true story and as you’ll recall, it used the web to push that idea even further.

And now we’re back up to the present again. So now the question is, why have alternate reality games only just appeared now? It’s not as if someone couldn’t have made an alternate reality game that used different media in the past, right? Or maybe it’s not that simple. While it would be possible to tell a story using TV, radio, newspapers and telephone in the past, the cost would have been prohibitively high for anyone bothered enough to try – how would you notify people about what part of the story was being told where? You’d need a dedicated source of information that could be updated instantly and cheaply, and that just wasn’t available. Not until the Internet.

The internet serves as glue and hub for all the different types of media involved in ARGs. It solves the problem of telling people what happens when, and it allows you to put up as much information as you want. Furthermore, it’s very easy to build in deep interaction on the Internet. Running things like live events in ARGs would be extremely difficult without the internet.

Let me show you an example of a live event we ran last week for Perplex City. (run VT).

At this event, we had about sixty players turning up in south London at short notice. This part of the story was fairly simple – the players were supposed to solve a treasure hunt/scavenger hunt in order to to find out where some secret agents were meeting. As you can see, there was a pretty remarkable mix of ages and genders.

This worked out more or less fine, and just as they were about to get to the meeting place, they realised it was a heliport, which was very exciting. Once there, players working in parallel online discovered that one of people among the players was the spy in question, working undercover! After his cover was blown, he ran off into a helicopter and flew off into the sunset. A rather rainy sunset – this was London, after all.

The reaction to the live event was great – I’ve heard the final sequence with the helicopter described as being one of the most realistic, most interactive game cut sequences in history. The players also loved the way that the spy had been watching and talking to them all day.

The current state of alternate reality games today is rather varied. You have the promotional ARGs for companies like Audi, Nokia, TV shows, videogames and movies. Then there’s Perplex City, which is a standalone ARG integrated into a puzzle-based collectible card game. Finally, there’s the grassroots sector, which is a great engine for innovation due to the low barrier to entry. What I’ll be talking about now are the challenges and potential for ARGs in the next few years.

There are a lot of challenges. The audience for ARGs is much smaller than that for videogames. A really popular ARG would be lucky to get an active player base numbering in the low six figures, as opposed the millions of sales that other videogames attract. There are a few reasons for this; the genre is new, and it’s hard to understand what an ARG even is at first. As a result, it’s not particularly easy to market, as EA discovered with Majestic.

Another problem is that the classic strength of ARGs being incredibly involving and immersive is also a serious weakness – many potential players are scared off by the large time investment that is apparently required. The pitfalls of a rich and fully realised, cross-media story universe is that it takes time to get into, let alone join halfway through. Of course, this isn’t a problem limited to ARGs – shows like Lost and 24 have very complex and intricate storylines that are practically impossible to get into after a few episodes. Yet TV does have some interesting solutions to offer ARGs for this problem, such as episodic storytelling.

Until very recently, ARGs had no replay factor. However, this is changing now; the Jamie Kane ARG produced by the BBC is completely replayable, but it’s also single player, so it loses out on the social aspects. A more traditional multiplayer ARG that was tied into the Canadian SF show Regenesis and produced by Xenophile Media – based in Toronto – is being rerun, and it’ll be interesting to see how that goes.

Some more problems: there are currently no reliable metrics to work out the success of an ARG. Do you count the number of hits? The number of registrations? At least with Perplex City, we have an ultimate measurement in terms of the number of puzzle cards we sell, but what about promotional ARGs? How do you measure whether a promotional ARG really does benefit the product it’s associated with?

Yet despite this – despite the small audiences, despite the challenges of getting people playing, the challenges of measuring success, people in the UK and around the world – many of whom are interestingly media outlets and TV studios – are very excited about the potential of ARGs. At a time when people are turning their TV off, or at least not paying much attention to it, ARGs offer a new type of richer, more interactive, more visceral entertainment that also joins people together.

Instead of ARGs merely being bolt-ons to products like TV shows and movies, it’s likely that the next generation will be built in from the start. This would allow players to actually influence TV show in a meaningful way other than voting by text message. We could see players become part of an epic story that would becoming affect and involve them more than ever before. We managed that with 60 people last week – the question is whether you can do it with 60 million people?

For games, the potential is even greater. At the simplest level, ARGs allow you to build and continue storylines in between games in a series. We’ve all been hearing how important original IP these days – ARGs are an engine for creating high quality stories and IP at the same time as marketing and extending your game to a wider, non-traditional audience. Making people care about your story and universe and characters is incredibly important, because that’s what makes it different from other games – it’s not just a coat of paint that you slap on a car as an afterthought. Story is the reason why Harry Potter and Star Wars continue to make billions even though there are plenty of novels about magic kids and movies about spaceships out there.

There’s the potential to use elements of ARGs in normal games, like Far Cry has already demonstrated. This is particularly relevant to MMOGs. The Matrix Online is almost perfect in its suitability; it’s a story where the real world is a computer simulation – what better ARG could there be? They’ve taken one or two steps towards that end by creating some fake corporate websites, but what about fake newspaper ads or TV ads. Imagine what it would be like to have Agent Smith knock on your door while you’re playing the game.

We’re only scratching the surface of what’s possible here, after four years after the first ARG. We already have a lot of different types of games, but there are so many more stories and possibilities to be played out, like romance games, crime games, humorous games. You could have games that are truly cross media, that involvine every method of getting information to the public as possible. And that has the potential of attracting not only a new type of audience, or a new type of story, but a new way of playing games – hundreds of thousands players collaborating together across the world, players being part of the story, shaping the story and becoming immersed in the story. It would generate a level of attachment and loyalty to a game universe that hasn’t been seen before. To me, that’s what’s exciting about ARGs.

Here are some useful links if you’re interested in ARGs:

The Alternate Reality Gaming Network

Unfiction

Last Call Poker

Perplex City

Cloudmakers

Tags: arg · conference · lecture

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