All Games will be Alternate Reality Games

This is the extended abstract of a talk I wanted to give at the next GDC but didn’t end up happening. Them’s the breaks, I suppose – and I’m going to the Montreal Game Summit next month, so all’s well.

Despite the success of The Beast and I Love Bees (winner of the 2005 GDC Innovation Award), many in the industry still view alternate reality gaming as a niche genre, mainly due to the failure of EA’s subscription-based Majestic and the continuing absence of a way to generate income from an ARG rather than them merely being promotional vehicles.

This ignores a number of facts. Firstly, ARGs have been a demonstrated success in terms of attracting a new and diverse audience, with an even split of genders. Secondly, they have been a creative success in telling new stories in new, more involving ways. Thirdly, there are many potential income-generation models, as shown by Perplex City’s puzzle-card game. Fourthly, and most importantly for this session, all types of entertainment have been unconsciously converging on an ARG-like destination.

ARGs are characterised by their development of a rich, involving universe and story spread across varied media. ARGs also take place in real time and are played collectively by thousands or millions – they are made to scale. Similarly, writers and designers are seeing the benefit in creating rich and involving universes for their stories, whether they be for books (Harry Potter), movies (The Matrix), TV (24 and Lost) or games (Final Fantasy) – partly because they engage the audience, but also because they provide the necessary depth that allows the story to be told in other media.

On a basic level, the extent of the ‘Harry Potter universe’ allows for the creation of entertaining movies and games based on the books. The Matrix universe goes one step further, in that its spinoffs (multiple games, comics, DVDs) do not merely rehash the existing storyline but in fact enrich it by filling in backstory and looking at other characters. Any self-respecting TV show or movie is now compelled to add ‘in-story’ websites and minigames to provide more depth to their viewers (Lost, Doctor Who, The Island).

This trend of ‘story universes’ spreading across different media is not simply a case of inconsequential bolt-ons to the ‘main story’. Instead, it is accelerating, perhaps due to the demands of audiences who are used to multitasking across different media. Alternate Reality Games demonstrate the culmination of that trend, where the internet serves as the glue that holds the different media together in real time, but in the near future, the term ARG will not even be used any more – it will merely be assumed to be the case for every type of entertainment or game.

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