2006 In Review: Alternate Reality Gaming
By Jessica Price and Jonathan Waite
As another year has come and gone, looking back at 2006 shows that it was a good year to be involved in alternate reality gaming. All in all, the year saw the genre receiving ever greater mainstream recognition, evolving in ways both anticipated and surprising, and adapting enthusiastically to an ever-increasing variety of platforms, media and participants. It also saw major changes here at ARGNet, as we rebranded ourselves, added some new staff members, and initiated the ARG Netcast. We were also proud to bring our readers coverage from SXSW and were ecstatic to be a network partner for PICNIC ’06. The ARG community continued to grow, as Unfiction hit 10,000 members and Immersion Unlimited went over the 1300 member mark. In addition to longer-running corporate games like Perplex City, Studio Cypher, and Edoc Laundry, there were a number of well-executed and enthusiastically-received large scale indie games. It seems like the year has gone quite quickly, but not without some major stories and exciting developments. So, without further ado, here are the highlights, events, games, and trends that caught our attention.
A quieter, but eventful, year for The Usual Corporate ARG Suspects: Mind Candy‘s Perplex City continued to chug along, becoming such a constant presence in the ARG world that the rather abrupt announcement that the ARG component was over seemed like an upheaval of sorts. Perplex City helped bring the genre greater mainstream attention with a review in The Onion and a shared review (with Edoc Laundry) in USA Today that dubbed ARGs “the latest gaming craze.” To the best of our knowledge, this is the first time an ARG has received multiple traditional reviews in mainstream publications, as if it were a video game or movie. After unveiling one massively-scaled blockbuster game per year in 2004 and 2005, 42 Entertainment and its principals used 2006 as a year for experimentation with different platforms, namely through the interactive novel, Cathy’s Book. Dawne Weisman, meanwhile, wove ARGs into the fabric of fashion with the rock n’ roll inspired Edoc Laundry. GMD Studios produced a mythological, tin-foil hatted ARG throwdown with Who Is Benjamin Stove?, a promotion for GM’s ethanol campaign. Corporate training gurus Virtuquest also tossed their hat into 2006′s ARG Ring, announcing a new “open ARG” which is expected to launch shortly.
The rise of the self-supported ARG: Throughout 2006, alternate reality gaming continued to move towards a financial model in which the ARG supports itself, rather than being supported by a backing advertiser. Mind Candy continued to successfully sell Perplex City cards (with a vote of confidence from the business community in the form of $7 million in venture capital) and also released a Perplex City board game. Studio Cypher launched three pay-to-play “chapters” in their multiplayer novel series, and are going strong into 2007. Edoc Laundry found its way into clothing boutiques across the country, allowing players to wear their favorite puzzles from the game. After hitting the NYT Bestseller list, Cathy’s Book blazed game trailers onto movie screens across the US. In an interview with Gamasutra, Elan Lee promised there would be more exploration of self-supporting models to come: “Next year you’ll see a few more experiments leading toward that eventual goal of creating a new genre of entertainment that doesn’t have to support another genre.”
ARGs go cross-media: Movies, television, and music had an unprecedented number of tie-in ARGs this year. For television, the leader in the trend was ABC, which produced The Lost Experience, Ocular Effect (for the show Fallen), and a game for Kyle XY. Regenesis had a successful second season, both for the show and the ARG, and in a reversal of the ARG-promoting-TV-show model, CSI:NY built an entire episode around Edoc Laundry. Even TV shows that don’t offer full scale ARGs seem to be taking a few pages from the ARG playbook by creating MySpace blogs for their characters (Nip/Tuck, Jericho) and official places where people can collaborate and discuss mythologies of the show (Jericho, Lost). From the music world, there was an ARG of sorts for the release of AFI’s new album, Decemberunderground. And, as far as movies go, the studios producing The DaVinci Code and Mission Impossible: III launched ARGish puzzle trail contests to promote the films, while the upcoming Transformers movie has a viral site which may (or may not) turn into an ARG in the very near future.
New horizons in platforms: What appeared to be an anomaly last year when World of Warcraft players began hosting virtual Tombstone Hold ‘Em games for 42 Entertainment’s Last Call Poker might actually have been the start of a trend. The evolution of online worlds such as Second Life and World of Warcraft has sparked interest in how they might be used for ARGs — there was even an ARG-themed podcast broadcast through the Second Life interface. Video upload sites like YouTube and Google Video have made it easier for independent game creators to incorporate video into their projects, as was evident with Lonelygirl15/Cassie Is Watching/OpAphid, The Human Pet and Deus City. More and more games hosted their own in-game forums as well, both for character interaction (Who Is Benjamin Stove?, Edoc Laundry) and for discussion (Cathy’s Book, Ocular Effect). ABC even went so far as to have a behind-the-scenes character blog for The Lost Experience.
The double-edged sword of independent ARGs: While 2006 was a great year for well-crafted indie games, providing a good selection of large-scale efforts such as IDEAS Festival 1906, Sammeeeees, Orbital Colony, Ny Takma and Deus City (which will be relaunching in 2007, we hear), there were many indie ARGs that either ended prematurely, imploded or faded into nothingness. As easy as it was for players to enjoy themselves while playing independent ARGs, the numerous failed attempts caused much concern in the ARG community as the underlying feeling of “will this game go bust” was often present in the back of the players’ minds. While it was disappointing to see so many badly planned games, the jewels of the indie scene were glittering with creativity and player enthusiasm – even more reason to celebrate the people responsible for the truly outstanding indie ARGs we see each year.
Increased academic and industry interest in ARGs – and awards!: One of the bigger new stories of 2006 was the release of the ARG IGDA SIG’s Whitepaper and the discussion that has resulted. Academics and game designers were responsible for creating and publishing the paper, and while it was not an unqualified success, we feel that it was a step towards a more focused and determined IGDA SIG in 2007. Awards found their way into the hands of ARG designers in 2006, as the makers of the ReGenesis Extended Reality won a Gemini Award (the Canadian equivalent of the U.S. Emmy Award), and the GMD Studios/Campfire Media creation The Art of the Heist won the Creativity Award at the 2006 Battle of the Brands event in New York City. Perplex City was up for the 2006 Diana Jones Award for Excellence in Gaming and won a Vanguard Award at the 32nd Annual Origins Awards.
The vanishing curtain: Puppetmasters were in the news a lot in 2006, often being quoted and doing interviews while their games were still running. Brian Clark was interviewed by ARGNet during Who Is Benjamin Stove? and Elan Lee appeared on G4TV to discuss Edoc Laundry, as well as doing numerous print and radio interviews about the game. The controversy regarding product placement in Cathy’s Book prompted a number of articles about it that quoted its authors, Sean Stewart and Jordan Weisman. Some grassroots PMs have followed suit, openly acknowledging their role during the run of their games, while others have chosen to maintain the traditional “iron curtain” until their game reaches a conclusion, such as the Sammeeeees and Ny Takma PMs. It’s sad to lose some of the mystery and intrigue that firm curtain maintenance can bring to ARGs, but it’s also probably a good sign for the genre that well-known ARG companies such as GMD and 42 have gained enough recognition that their names are a selling point for their games.
The dark side of ARG: It was not a good year to be an ARG character — many of the year’s best characters ended up dead through the course of their game. Add to that the dark nature of games such as The Human Pet and Altus Veritas, and 2006 seems to be the year where the stories backing some ARGs became more influenced by the horror genre. Not that it was a bad thing — a larger choice of game topics can only mean a larger ARG audience.
Social events and real world events: As we mentioned in the 2006 Year In Review netcast, ARGFest-O-Con 2006 in Chicago was another successful get-together for the ARG community, and by all accounts was a fun time for everyone involved. We’re already looking forward to ARGFest-O-Con 2007 which will be taking place in San Francisco in March. Real world interactions found their way into many ARGs this year, as many games included elements which got players out of their houses and out into the great wide world in which they live — in Who Is Benjamin Stove? players searched libraries to find notes from Ben himself, while in Sammeeeees, the real world actions of players were instrumental in acquiring the five pieces of the Spoocheeeees disk. Perplex City had three separate live events in 2006 — two Perplex City Academy Games (London, New York) and a massive live event in San Francisco in August.
In all the furious ARG action of the year, we’re bound to have missed something here, so feel free to add your comments here for the next few weeks. In the meantime, there are no fewer than three ARGs emerging this month, and those are only the ones we know about! Thanks for reading, and for your continued support of ARGNet!