Anatomy of an Implosion

Editor’s Note: The original byline for this article had to be changed, as have some details in this article. Please see this article for an explanation.

If you’ve been playing indie ARGs for more than a couple days you’ve probably experienced a game that started off with a bang but ended with a whimper and a quiet death rattle. Most of us take a few moments to grieve the loss of the imploded game but quickly get over it and start looking for the start of another game. As someone who is drawn to the idea of creating my own games, I dwell over the loss of a game a little longer and crave a eulogy that helps me understand why the game didn’t reach it’s full potential. One of the biggest challenges in analyzing a failed game is that the creators of failed games rarely come forward afterward to share the behind-the-scenes missteps so that the rest of us can learn from their mistakes. So, with that said, I’d like to share why I stopped playing a recently staged game Tyler Greek (also named PHH Interception) and invite the creators of the game (and anyone else in the community who’s interested) to join the discussion.

Tyler Greek was the story’s protagonist who led a group of paramilitary soldiers in an alternate timeline where the TR Corporation unleashed an army of “super soldiers” on the world and destroyed most of the major US cities. Tyler, along with his tech support guy Jacob, were trying to provide humanitarian supplies for survivors and planning a counter-offensive against the TR Corporation minions.

The story was introduced and played out primarily on Twitter, YouTube, and through instant messenger chat clients like Skype and MSN Messenger. There was an attempt to deliver story elements on a TR Corporation website and on Tyler’s MySpace page along with some leaked documents which filled in some of the backstory, but those delivery mechanisms went stale soon after they were discovered.

Personally, I was rooting for this game to be successful. The story line wasn’t all that original (Evil corporation tries to take over the world with the help of genetically altered mutants), but I liked some of the game mechanics and the opportunity it presented for players to contribute to the narrative. For example, I played as a member of a group of displaced journalists who were trying to set up an intelligence network for a burgeoning resistance. I even went so far as to provide intelligence reports to Tyler based on my travel to different parts of the country looking for survivors and tracking down rumors of “freedom fighters”.

My thoughts:

1. There has to be more than just role playing.

My first impression was that this was an interesting story that pushed the role playing aspect more than the “solve a puzzle – get a banana” methodology. There was a feeling among the players that the game was launched too early and didn’t have the requisite websites or other content ready, or that we had stumbled onto an online role playing community that didn’t have a clear beginning, middle, and end for the story. My guess is that is was a combination of the two – we discovered a role playing community that tried to introduce ARG elements and couldn’t keep up with player’s demand for content.

In my own ARG concept development this forced me to consider the fundamental differences between online role playing and Alternate Reality Gaming. Although similar genres of storytelling, I think the reason why I’m drawn to ARGs over role playing is the confidence in knowing that there will be a resolution to the conflicts presented in the plot. I may not like that resolution, but there should be some kind of planned endgame. In role playing, everything seems much too chaotic with the odds of a satisfying resolution to the narrative being extremely low. In fact, in many role playing communities the fundamental goal is to extend the narrative for as long as possible so that the role playing can continue indefinitely.

It was fun playing a role in the story world that was created, but after a while it seemed that the game designer wasn’t interested in guiding that player interaction into a clear story plot and a satisfying ending.

2. Give me a task–reward system.

After the main characters conveyed the backstory and current situation, information slowed considerably. Each chat session rehashed the information that was already provided, and when pressed for more details the characters would abruptly end their chat because of an “attack on the base”. They had presented the premise and gave us the boundaries of the story world, but didn’t carry that momentum into a well developed plot. Players were trying to think of creative ways to coax the game creators into telling them the objective of the game. Were we supposed to “Save the world”? Were we supposed to defeat the superhumans? If so, what were we supposed to do to accomplish these feats?

Setting up a reward system would have gone a long way to keep players engaged. ARG designers can learn from video games that start with a tutorial that unlocks levels with simple tasks then rewards the player with new content (cut scenes, new levels, more story, etc) as they master certain skills and complete those tasks. This game did have a few task/reward elements, but the players were constantly prodding the game to give them a “call to action” that came with a requisite reward upon completion.

Late in the game, the game designer did give the players a task that could have advanced the narrative, but at that point many of us had lost interest. In the story, the source of the superhuman’s mutant powers came from a formula created by the TR Corporation. A syringe containing some red goo was discovered at a live event location and presumably was a sample of this formula. A video was released by James Serbus (FreakonaPeach) asking the players to give him advice on what to do with the syringe. Soon after the video was released, most of the players (including myself) abandoned the game — read on to find out why.

3. Stop peeking at the audience from behind the curtain.

Most ARG players are very forgiving when it comes to ignoring the little things that break the illusion of the events in a game being real. We’ll ignore the fact that the protagonist’s twitter account was created in the last month, or that a company that has operated for years has only recently created a web domain (and registered it anonymously). I was even able to accept that Tyler Greek was communicating with me through Skype from an alternate timeline even though Tyler himself gave just a virtual shrug in response to players asking how that was possible.

So, what killed the illusion? After one canceled live event a second was scheduled, and even though a few people expressed an interest, apparently no one attended. In an attempt to get information that was supposed to be revealed at the event to the players the game creator released a video of himself claiming to be the only player to attend the live event. Upon discovering the video, the established players invited the new “player” to join the community discussion at Unfiction only to get the single word email response of “TINAG” making it clear that the new player was an in-game character.

Here’s what ruined it for me. The game creator decided to use his own YouTube account to release in-game video instead of bothering to create a new account. So when players searched through the archived video blog entries of this new character to find clues or other material relating to the story they only found the ranting of a teenage video blogger. To make matters worse, after three game related videos were released the game designer went back to his “regularly scheduled video blogging” and started the next video with an apology to his “regular viewers”:

“Hello You Tube, again. Well, actually this time it’s for real, cus uh well yeah my last video I posted the uh Hail to the Master one thats… my regular viewers can either ignore that or watch it. Its just a uh… little project I’m doing, don’t need to worry about it I’m not going to die”

It also didn’t help that he grouped the three game related videos into one playlist and labeled it “PHH ARG”. The game designer also communicated with the players overtly through the unfiction forums using the profile Liesoften, and apparently has done this in a past ARG (Bookerville).

I don’t want to sound to harsh, but this is just laziness on the part of the game creators and just ruins the experience for the players. I support the idea of game creators taking ownership of their games, but there should be a clearly defined line between what is in-game and what is in the realm of meta discussion. If the game designers want to communicate with the players on a meta level they can do what David Flor has done and set up a meta-blog. That way players have the choice to either peek behind the curtain during a game or stay oblivious to what is going on behind the scenes.

Steve Diddle is a photographer and aspiring ARG creator, and was inspired by Cross-media entertainment researcher Christy Dena to write this article.


  1. Warner Onstine

    Wow, sounds like a bad way to run an ARG all around. Hoping that when I get to running mine I don’t make mistakes like those. (Well now I know :P).

  2. Randomeis

    It is one of those things you think will never happen to you until it does.

    Sometimes a game is dead even before it starts.

    When I lost funding and resources right before I started I should have listened to the advice of those wiser to me and realized that no amount of devotion on my part could really save it.

    (Not to be too morbid)
    It was like getting into a car accident on the way to the prom and dragging your dead girlfriend there… because you know she’s already dressed up, and you did buy the tickets.

  3. natas

    I’m not the PM of this game, nor am I behind-the-scenes in anyway, but I happen to know that the game isn’t technically over, but the PM just didn’t know the proper way to nudge the players to find a particular website. I tried to help him/her but refused to post on UF to do so.

    Also, to write a post about implosions, then cite DLI Media as a source for guidance is well… just ridiculous, as they have a pattern for imploding games – the most recent of which seems to be Deceptech.

    I’m not sure that it’s imploded or on an indefinite hiatus, but it’s annoying nonetheless.

  4. Sam Miller

    I find your post very important and most useful. ARGs are almost completely non-reusable and they rely on the hype to create as big a player-base as possible. If the ARG markets something (almost always), the commercial impact is what’s count at the end. Implosion is regarded as unavoidable.
    My game imploded as well, but not for the reasons listed here (you can read about it on my blog). It is very interesting to get critique such as the above from peers and learn from this shared experience.
    My post:

  5. anastasia lee

    Thanks so much for posting this article. I’ve thought about designing and running an ARG and I learned so much!

  6. Steve Diddle

    @Warner I focused on several of the things that caused me to stop playing this game, but the game developers did do several things well. The early videos from the PHH Interception part of the game were exceptional. I’d encourage you to study this game and others to look for the things that worked as well as the things to avoid.

  7. Steve Diddle

    @Randomeis What an awesome analogy!

  8. Steve Diddle

    @Natas Just because a game designer continues to try and push the story forward doesn’t mean that it hasn’t imploded. Because an ARG is a cooperative dance between the players and the designers if one party decides to leave then the other is just left swaying to the music. Putting all that aside, the article was really about the reasons why I personally left the game and why it “imploded” for me.

    As for the DLImedia comment – one of the reasons why David has gotten a reputation for putting on games that implode is because he takes ownership of his games. I’m sure there are other game creators out there that have launched tons of imploded games but hide in anonymity. I don’t know David other than following his blog and his twitter updates, but it seems like he is willing to forgo anonymity for the benefit of the community and the growth of the ARG genre overall. He is one of the few people who publicly does self critiques of his “failed” games and invites others to contribute to the discussion. For that, I think he is a great “source of guidance” for aspiring game designers.

  9. Steve Diddle

    @Sam Thanks for sharing the link talking about your experiences with an imploded game. One of my biggest motivations for writing this article was to reach out to other aspiring game designers to have an extended discussion about what causes games to fail. If we can dissect a game and identify all of the things that made it successful and remove the things that made it fail then we’ll have a better chance of creating something even more amazing when it is our turn to try.

  10. labfly

    great article, martin 🙂

    imploding games is not only horrible for the players but it really takes its toll on the genre. i understand that stuff happens, but i have an enormous problem w/pms who chronically half create args only to have them implode. and wanna-be pms, an “idea” for an arg should never be a green light to launch an arg. the idea is one tiny bit of the process. before you launch a game you should be prepared to finish the game. have a beginning middle and several endings. have content. have a lot of content. have a design to your story/game. although i’m a huge fan of the curtain, it is one reason i would like to see some sort of pm i.d.-ing w/mods. i.d.-ing ourselves may end SOME of the implosions. no curtain to hide behind.
    (the other reason being safety – but that’s another conversation)

    and cheers to a great topic, martin.

  11. Steve Diddle

    @labfly Thanks for the encouragement Jan, I appreciate you taking the time to contribute to the discussion. I think you’ve hit on the leading cause of ARG implosions – launching a game with the story idea still inside your head. Just because a game designer spends a lot of time thinking about the story doesn’t mean they are ready to launch a game. Getting the idea is the easy and fun part of the process – actually creating the requisite content and fully developing the story as well as the detailed backstory is the demanding part.

    As for the accountability and safety issue – that’s probably going to be the subject of my next feature…

  12. James Serbus

    Hey guys,
    I would like to say that, besides the things you stated which were the result of a my idiocy, there were several larger problems that got in the way of this ARG.
    Part of it was the fact that, the day after launch, my partner in crime quit on me, forcing me to work on this whole thing basically by myself. and then to make things worse and complicate the process, My laptop’s hard-drive, camera’s memory stick, and several other things crapped out. leaving me like a fish out of water. Not wanting to abbandon this… love child of mine… I tried my best to keep it going, which probably wasn’t the best idea.
    this is when I planned the live event–i just happened to chose a very bad day (I should have researched the fact that there was a huge job fair type thing in manchester that day.) and when it was rescheduled i think it basically lost everyone’s attention.
    And then on top of that i was an idiot and didn’t spend five minutes out of my time to create a new youtube account for the myself (or even use one of the several other little known accounts i have).
    I do plan on resurrecting this once i get better… machinery, budget, and other such items, however that will not be for a while. sorry for the inconvenience and for giving ARG’s a bad name.

    Forever Forsaken,
    James A. Serbus

  13. James Serbus

    Also: forgot to say, great article man…

  14. natas

    “As for the DLImedia comment – one of the reasons why David has gotten a reputation for putting on games that implode is because he takes ownership of his games. He is one of the few people who publicly does self critiques of his “failed” games and invites others to contribute to the discussion. For that, I think he is a great “source of guidance” for aspiring game designers.”

    I disagree. If you implode a game, then come from behind the curtain and say “Oops! I did it again… and here’s my lame excuse.” That doesn’t give you a pass in my book and a LOT of others agree with me. I don’t think imploding games can in any positive way farther the genre.

    I hope DLI decides to change course.

  15. Steve Diddle

    First, thanks for the compliment on the article – I appreciate it.

    I know there were a lot of negative things about your efforts that I highlighted in the article (and I’m really glad you came forward in the comments to give us some more insight), but I really did enjoy the game while I played it. I especially liked some of the early videos from the PHH Interception thread that got things going in an interesting direction. You also did a lot of one on one interaction in chat – something that is nearly impossible to do in a larger scale game. You had a story premise that had a ton of promise and grabbed my attention enough to want to play along.

    As far as your comment about your game being an “inconvenience” and giving ARGs a “bad name”; don’t be so hard on yourself. I’m living proof that we all make mistakes in game development and execution – I think the most important thing is that we share those mistakes with others and help each other learn not to repeat those mistakes.

    I would love to hear more about what you think went wrong from your side of the game, and how you think it could be improved. I wish you luck and hope that someday this story of yours gets out in the world so that we can all enjoy it.

  16. SSJTapkar

    This ARG was fun, but every time Skype pops open, I just wonder when I can actually USE it again.

  17. James Serbus

    Well once i get everything up and running again (like my internet, i have to steal it from the neighbors in order to post this message) i’ll write up a full-scale fail-blog on what happened. but basically 80% of the problems where technically things that i couldn’t fix even if i tried. like 2 weeks into the game my laptops hard-drive crashing, (which is when i improvised and planned to do the live drop thing while the laptop was being worked on).
    and if you guys have anything specific you’d like to ask, I’m here to answer your questions.