Are ARGs Dead? A Closer Look at a Common Refrain

Editor’s Note: At this year’s StoryWorld conference in Los Angeles, Fourth Wall Studios’ Chief Creative Officer Elan Lee stated that alternate reality games are dead as part of the conference’s final panel on “The Way Forward” for the transmedia industry. As one of the driving forces at Microsoft behind The Beast, Lee’s statement questioning the role of alternate reality games warrants closer examination. Adrian Hon, one of The Beast‘s player-moderators, former Director of Play at Mind Candy, and CEO at Six to Start, penned the following opinion piece exploring the statement.

“ARGs are dead”. We’ve heard it said many times over the years, and now most recently by Elan Lee, Founder of Fourth Wall Studios, at the Storyworld conference in LA this past October. While I wasn’t at the conference I gather the statement was made sincerely, and to hear it from one of alternate reality gaming’s ‘founding fathers’ caused no small surprise.

Taken literally, it isn’t true. ARGs are still being created for properties as big as The Avengers, Team Fortress 2, and Google, and grassroots ARGs are still being made, such as the TVTropes Echo Chamber game. It’s possible that fewer advertising and marketing dollars are being spent on ARGs these days, and it’s certain that ARGs no longer command the same number of column inches that they used to – but I’m not sure that 2012 represents such a precipitous change from 2011 or 2010 in those respects.

From a commercial standpoint, things haven’t changed much either. We can’t say that “ARGs are dead” because they don’t make money, as they never really did in the first place. Almost all ARGs have either been promotional or non-profit, with the few exceptions such as Perplex City, eDoc Laundry, and Majestic not being successful enough to sustain themselves over the long term.

You could argue that promotional ARGs generate a return on investment (ROI) by, say, increasing movie ticket sales or selling more cars, but to be perfectly frank, I doubt they ever did in a truly meaningful way – and I doubt that things are any worse today, either. Certainly there isn’t much solid, independently verifiable evidence of ROI out there – instead we’ve had to rely on self-reported figures that are easily biased or falsified. One day I hope ARG designers will engage in a ‘Truth and Reconciliation’ process where we all reveal our true player engagement stats and our near-total lack of knowledge about whether that engagement represented a genuine, bottom-line financial return for the commissioners, but I suspect that will have to wait for at least another few years.

Creatively speaking, I can’t say that ARGs are any better or worse than they were five years ago, for the simple reason that like most people, I don’t play ARGs any more. I find them extremely opaque before joining in; I have no idea long a given ARG might run for, how difficult it will be, whether it’ll be any good, or what’s involved in playing it. While this was refreshingly original back in 2001 with The Beast, now that I’m no longer a student and don’t have massive amounts of free time, it’s a deal-breaker.

So perhaps that’s what “ARGs are dead” means: unlike other genres such as social gaming, mobile gaming, or MMOs, they haven’t successfully evolved over the past decade to attract millions of loyal players. They never had millions of loyals players in the first place. What’s more, there doesn’t seem to be much hope of change on the horizon.

The company I run, Six to Start, is not currently in the business of making ARGs, and neither is Fourth Wall Studios. Most companies in the business now disavow the term ‘ARG’, preferring the trendier but frequently reviled and frustratingly vague term ‘transmedia’. In that context, it’s not surprising that people are happy to say “ARGs are dead” because it helps distinguish themselves from the old-and-busted crowd.

But I don’t hold any special enmity towards ARGs. I still remember the thrill of excitement I had every Tuesday when The Beast‘s websites updated, and I’m thoroughly proud of the work we did at Mind Candy in producing Perplex City. I would like nothing better than for ARGs to succeed – commercially, creatively, and popularly.

So, what would that take? Here are a few suggestions, taken from what I’ve learned from making ARG-like projects for eight years, and also having recently bootstrapped a smartphone fitness game that’s sold well over 200,000 copies and grossed close to $2 million:

1) Increase accessibility. People remain genuinely intrigued by ARGs, but they’re put off by the comparatively massive level of time commitment required to get involved. Yes, people will happily spend dozens of hours watching TV or playing video games, but those require less attention and crucially, they have a much quicker payoff. A good game or TV show will have me hooked in the first five seconds, and I know that I’ll have fun even if I just stay for 30 minutes. ARGs need to be more transparent and more accessible. If that means the end of ‘TINAG’, so be it.

2) Make money. No-one is going to take ARGs seriously as a creative or commercial venture if they can’t get players to cough up cash. There’s absolutely a place for ad-funded or sponsored content, but good quality movies and TV shows still find millions of happy viewers willing to buy tickets and DVDs. Why not ARGs? Focus on the platforms where people have demonstrated a willingness to pay, like on iOS, Android, and Facebook, and learn from the successes of other apps. There isn’t much separating The Room – an incredible blockbuster iPad puzzle game – from being a full-blown ARG (the same applies for Zombies, Run!).

3) Take the best and discard the rest. How can you replicate the immersive sensation of a good ARG at a low cost? Do you really need to have video, or can you just use audio? Do most people really enjoy decrypting hexadecimal strings, or are there more compelling challenges you can provide? Can you fake the experience of calling up real phone numbers or writing to real email addresses?

4) Think about scale. Almost all ARGs are live and cannot be easily replayed after the fact. That makes it difficult to make money, especially if you don’t have a big following. Imagine if Angry Birds or Farmville were only playable from April to June 2010; that’s what ARGs are like, and it’s mad. If you are going to run a live ARG, be sure to keep your costs down and charge players an appropriate amount for the privilege of getting personal interaction – no-one bats an eyelid at paying $25 or $50 for a theatre ticket, and the same should be true for a live ARG.

5) Ignore the pundits. I am constantly amazed by the lack of critical analysis surrounding ARGs and transmedia. Just because an ARG is for a major movie doesn’t mean that it’s good; just because someone says an ARG had a million players doesn’t mean it did; and even if it did, perhaps a better-designed game would have attracted double the number. You could literally put a photo of a piece of crap on an Avengers website and it would get a million views. Even worse are award-winning ARGs, which lull developers into the sense that they’re making something that’s genuinely good or popular. Whenever I want a reality check, I’ll ask someone on the street if they’ve heard of, let alone played, an award-winning game we’ve made.

Not every ARG needs to be a commercial and critical smash hit, with hundreds of thousands of engaged and paying players. But it sure would be nice if people tried to get there.


  1. Jan Libby

    Great piece, Adrian! I couldn’t agree more.

  2. B. Bigard

    I see what you mean, but maybe you will have advice for me then. I am a youth activist and I am a brainstormer for new ideas on how to get youth back into being interested in heavier subjects. I had suggested a few years back that we make a part of the learning experiance a game of sorts, weither it be an ARG or an app that several schools collaberate on. Now that they take youth activists more seriously now, someone asked me how would I put this into the curriculum and how would I keep the audience’s attention and participation. I have been looking up how a person would start making an ARG to see how it would be tweaked for use in a school.

    Hearing that ARG is a dead isn’t surprising but it does make me wonder how to go at this without making a useless app that students probably won’t even sample if it was for free.

    Thank you for hearing me out.

  3. Michael Andersen

    B. Bigard: I can’t speak for Adrian, but I’d suggest taking a closer look at existing methods of youth outreach in the area you’re focusing on, and identifying what their strengths and limitations are, and the actual challenge you’re facing. Will incorporating a game (or game-like activities) address that challenge? ARGs and apps are by no means the solution to every problem.

    Keep in mind: designing serious games is quite challenging. If you’re interested in seeing what ARGs can do well in the serious games space, check out recent or ongoing projects that touched on social issues like World Without Oil, Urgent Evoke, Conspiracy for Good, Vanished, and Ed Zed Omega.

  4. Marie Lamb

    @B.Bigard: you should also look into groups like the Harry Potter Alliance, which has a growing social activism mission tied into a fan base. There are other ways to go with this. 🙂