I was initially pleased to see that the Guardian Online had an article about Alternate Reality Games today, and then disappointed to see an inaccurate and overly simplistic piece of journalism. Soon after reading it, I wrote an email to the author, Andrew Losowsky, which I’ve included below:
I have a few comments on your article about ARGs in the Guardian today. While I think it’s great that you wrote about ARGs, there were a few things that were wrong in the article.
You mentioned that the AI game had roughly 10,000 players. At its peak, the Cloudmakers player group for the game had 7000 registered members; there were many, many more people playing the game who hadn’t registered. In a lecture given by the game’s designer, Elan Lee, to the Game Developer’s Conference in 2002, he claimed there were over 100,000 people playing. This seriously underrepresents the popularity of the AI game.
Furthermore, the ‘Matrix’ game could not be considered to be ‘the most successful ARG ever’ by any measure whatsoever – such as popularity, press coverage, quality or profit. In fact, if it wasn’t for the fact that it had a tenuous link to the Matrix, you could quite easily call it one of the worst ARGs ever, in terms of an opaque plot and lack of compelling story.
And of course that’s what the genre is about – ARGs aren’t about puzzles or ‘this is not a game’. They’re just a new way of telling stories – an immersive, interactive way, but it’s still just storytelling. It shouldn’t then be surprising that the most successful ARGs have been the ones with the best stories; if the AI game hadn’t been written by Sean Stewart (now a bestselling, award-winning fantasy author) then no amount of puzzles or strange clues would have made it popular.
Consequently, the fact that Warner Brothers is not bothered about fan fiction has absolutely no bearing on the future of ARGs. While people may make more fan fiction ARGs such as the ‘Matrix’ game, the real potential for ARGs lies in the telling of new stories that are not tied to an existing, copyrighted property – stories that can soar free of the restrictions of linear entertainment and take full advantage of their creators’ imaginations.