2011 Year in Review: Around the World in the First 90 Days

April 2, 2011 · By Michael Andersen in Info, Reviews, Update 

It’s been a little over 90 days since I wrote a Year in Review article on the state of alternate reality games in 2010, and 2011 is already shaping up to be another busy year. Read on for a summary of some of the major news items to hit ARGNet’s radar.

Industry News
One of the most celebrated news items to date occurred when Fourth Wall Studios announced that it received $15 million in financing to expand into an alternate reality entertainment studio. Previous companies that secured multi-million dollar investments to enter the cross-platform market like Smith & Tinker and Mind Candy departed from their roots in alternate reality game development to focus on virtual worlds, creating Nanovor and Moshi Monsters, respectively. A recent job posting by Fourth Wall Studios indicates that the company will be retaining its roots in transmedia and alternate reality gaming development, describing the company’s games as “massively multiplayer online games and enhanced reality worlds on transmedia technology platforms” that will serve as “scalable alternate reality entertainment experiences.”

Area/Code Games experienced its own transformation in January when it was acquired by Zynga, the team behind Facebook games ranging from FarmVille to Mafia Wars. Area/Code is a familiar name to fans of alternate reality games for its work on Drop7, an insidiously addictive puzzle game that stole hours of my life away. The game was introduced as part of Chain Factor, an alternate reality game that launched during an episode of Numb3rs. After the ARG’s completion, the casual game at its heart was rebranded as Drop7. In addition to alternate reality games, Area/Code has developed a number of augmented reality games like Plundr that use geolocative data as a factor in gameplay, encouraging players to play in different locations. Area/Code is one of Zynga’s many acquisitions over the past few months, but may signify Zynga’s interest in bringing alternate reality games and augmented reality to the Facebook audience.

Finally, transmedia and alternate reality game developers may have a new source of financing for their projects now that the Tribeca Film Institute has established a New Media Fund to promote cross-platform storytelling as a means of promoting social change. In its first year, the fund will support non-fiction projects by providing four to eight grants of $50,000-$100,000.

The Big Screen
Alternate reality games are still being used to promote feature films: JJ Abrams’ film Super 8 continues to provide a steady stream of perplexing content, and 42 Entertainment reportedly launched an alternate reality game about a robot boxing league for the upcoming film, Real Steel. Interactive game mechanics are also increasingly making their way into the theatrical release itself. At Sundance, Lance Weiler’s short film Pandemic 1.0 tested out technologies ranging from near-field communications to data visualization tools to drive a larger narrative that played out over the course of the festival. Though aspects of the online launch experienced technical difficulties, the installation at Sundance was reportedly well received. While Pandemic relied on leaving behind tangible real world artifacts to extend the story, the German film The Witness took the opposite route for engagement by having viewers collect virtual evidence using augmented reality.

Slightly Smaller Screens
For the most part, serialized television programs have moved away from relying on alternate reality games to engage audiences, opting for more casual experiences like The Event‘s TruthSeeker blog, which continues to serve supplemental content to dedicated viewers. HBO is resisting that trend with The Maester’s Path, a transmedia experience that seeks to introduce players to George RR Martin’s Game of Thrones universe through a sensory exploration of the world of Westeros. The campaign kicked off in true Campfire fashion with boxes filled with exotic scents sent to targeted bloggers. Each weekly challenge focused on a different sense, culminating in a week of Game of Thrones-themed food trucks taking over New York City to hand out free food. Many of the puzzles required a strong familiarity with the mythos of Westeros to solve, rewarding dedicated Martin fans while introducing those new to the story to existing fan communities.

Viewers interested in taking a more hands-on approach to television had a number of options in 2011. With Focus Rally: America, the creators of The Amazing Race worked with Ford to produce a reality television show where audience participation played a direct role in the competition. Viewers could interact with the six teams over Twitter and Facebook while watching live streaming video of their favorite teams. By solving puzzles and completing challenges, viewers could even help teams earn points towards victory. For a more active role in crafting the actual narrative, viewers could also turn to Current TV’s interactive drama Bar Karma, where the audience collaborates together to develop future story ideas for the weekly show. The overarching premise allows for a wide range of stories, centered around a bar that works as a reverse TARDIS, drawing colorful characters from different times and places into the bar at key moments in their lives. The show’s first season is expected to wrap up on April 29th.

The Printed Word
Jane McGonigal’s new book Reality is Broken has sparked considerable debate, with critics (myself included) stepping forward vehemently for and against the concept of gamification. The book received a Colbert bump, and I am heartened to learn that the debate will continue at my alma mater this fall: the book was selected for the Penn Reading Project and is required reading for all incoming freshmen. Frank Rose also published a look at the world of alternate reality games in his book The Art of Immersion, which provides an insider’s look at attempts by Hollywood and Madison Avenue to adjust to emerging models of storytelling. The book is primarily a story behind the larger-than-life personalities that spearheaded projects ranging from The Lost Experience and Flynn Lives to the Mad Men fan-made twitter accounts and the Save Chuck campaign. Reflecting the fragmented nature of the new media space, the book is unrepentantly non-linear, and tends to raise more questions than it answers.

On the transmedia book publishing front, Patrick Carman released a new novel that blends the written word and video interdependently. Unlike his previous projects, however, 3:15 Stories is being released as a serialized mobile app before its release as a traditional short story collection. And while sales of JC Hutchins and Jordan Weisman’s transmedia novel Personal Effects: Dark Art were less than anticipated, Deadline reports that the property has been revived after attracting the attention of Starz. Pirates of the Caribbean director Gore Verbinski will produce the drama. Scholastic’s breakaway hit 39 Clues will return on April 5th for an additional six-book run.

Wired Magazine also managed to keep things lively by hiding a series of hidden symbols in its recent Underworld issue. Locating and decoding each hidden message landed dedicated puzzlers an invitation to the San Francisco speakeasy Bourbon & Branch to celebrate Wired.com senior editor Kevin Pousen’s new book alongside professional hackers and FBI agents. The night culminated in a final round of puzzles and the induction of seven sleuths into the Ring of Dishonor.

Games for Good
Alternate reality games continue to be leveraged for social causes. In Ready for the Big Chill, that cause was dealing with climate crises, an unexpectedly timely issue. In America 2049, set to launch on April 4th, the game intends to draw upon a number of causes as the story progresses. The New York Public Library is also getting involved in honor of its Centennial celebration, creating an overnight, interactive storytelling experience for 500 lucky patrons on May 20th that brings players in contact with significant historical artifacts housed at the library. Applications are open until April 21st, although the experience will be replayable for larger audiences after the launch event.

The big games festival Come Out and Play has teamed up with Games for Change, and is currently accepting submissions for outdoor games that generate a positive impact to the area where the game is played. Submissions are due by April 15th.

Foreign Games
It’s often easy to neglect alternate reality games targeted towards foreign audiences: and unfortunately, this quarter ARGNet let a lot of stellar campaigns go unreported. In the Netherlands, De Leguanen introduced players to the cultural heritage of Breda, the Dutch city where the story took place. In Japan, players were asked to solve a series of puzzles both online and in the real world to recover a stolen teddy bear in Beautiful GGG, for the Toyota Vitz. In France, Sortane introduced the headache-inducing premise of a web series about people playing an alternate reality game. Viewers, of course, can play the alternate reality game along with them. In Northern Ireland, The Black Helix used its alternate reality gaming framework to allow players to shape a story that will be published as an ebook later this year.

Independent Games
Over three years ago, The Jejune Institute opened its doors in San Francisco’s business district. And on April 10th, those doors will close as Games of Nonchalance concludes with its final act. The game has led thousands of visitors on a journey through a pervasive cultish mystery that has seeped into the very texture of the city since its launch, periodically adding new Acts that get increasingly immersive with each new installment.

There are a host of other alternate reality games that have been popping up recently, including a new chapter in the ongoing Yellow Curtain saga, a chance at becoming a super-villain, a story about killer snowmen, an artistic foray into Eldritch nightmares, and even an attempt at a pay-to-play adventure.

Trends in the State of ARGs: Finding Facebook
Alternate reality games have been utilizing Facebook for years, with game developers creating fake profiles to populate their story universes and even provide updates when new content is released. However, absent a few notable exceptions such as nDreams’ Spirit of Adventure app, it hasn’t been integrated as a platform for gameplay. The past few months have started to change that trend. The Battle: Los Angeles viral campaign created a Facebook app that served as a hub for its W.A.T.C.H. Ops experience. Similarly, the Smithsonian’s Pheon alternate reality game has turned to Facebook to serve as its online destination. Meanwhile, games like The Maester’s Path are using Facebook’s third-party login service as an alternative registration option: The Maester’s Path has also set aside a tab on the Game of Thrones Facebook page to drive people to the game. In the coming months, expect to see more companies exploring opportunities with the social giant that move beyond the “Like” button.

Anything you think I missed? Have a fond recollection from a game or a favorite puzzle? Feel free to share your thoughts (or vent your frustrations) in the comments.

A number of disclaimers are necessary for this post. I received review copies for Reality is Broken and The Art of Immersion, and administered a t-shirt giveaway on ARGNet for 3:15 Stories. ARGNet is syndicated on Wired.com’s Decode blog, which played a major role in the Underworld contest. Frank Rose is a former contributing editor at Wired. ARGNet contributors Marie Lamb and Michelle Senderhauf worked on Focus Rally: America through their company Dog Tale Media, and I received promotional mailings for Snow Town and Odd Jobs.

Continue on to Part II of the Year in Review, covering the second quarter of the year

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