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.
Last week, I posted a brief blurb about a package I received in the mail from “J,” a man with an unwholesome fixation with barn swallows. In that relatively innocuous package, J sent over a Sony IC Reader pre-loaded with 18 seconds of birds chirping. While I did not know it at the time, the package was the entryway into a secretive, five-part application process for Her Majesty’s Secret Service, MI6. The campaign, developed on behalf of Sony by Wieden+Kennedy, revels in secrecy through every step of the design process. As such, unlike many alternate reality games, much of the thrill in this experience can be derived from tackling the challenges on your own.
If you’re up for the challenge, start out with this YouTube video: it should have all the information you need to get to the next step. Otherwise, read on to learn more.
Disclaimer: While I was interviewed for my thoughts about transmedia storytelling for A Creator’s Guide to Transmedia Storytelling, I received no compensation save for a review copy of the book.
Andrea Phillips stumbled across alternate reality games 11 years ago when a friend pointed her towards a website for the Anti-Robot Militia. The website, part of the proto-alternate reality game for Spielberg’s film Artificial Intelligence, opened Phillips to the possibility of taking a single unified story, splintering it across multiple media, and crafting a rich tapestry combing narrative, experience, and game. Transitioning from player to creator, Phillips went on to work on many critically acclaimed forays in the emerging field including Perplex City, Routes, The Maester’s Path, and Floating City.
While Phillips was working on these projects, quite a few trees were killed discussing the potential of these experiences. Jane McGonigal’s Reality is Broken and Frank Rose’s The Art of Immersion each provided an overview of successful projects of the past and the elements that made them work, while novels like Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother and Walter Jon Williams’ This Is Not a Game gave glimpses of a future where these immersive experiences find their way into mainstream forms of entertainment. These books serve as powerful sources of inspiration for compelling new ways of storytelling, but were not designed to guide creators from idea to execution. This is the niche that Phillips’ new book, A Creator’s Guide to Transmedia Storytelling, hopes to fill, opening up a practical discussion of best practices for the industry. A Creator’s Guide to Transmedia Storytelling is guaranteed to stand out on your bookshelf; and not just because the book’s extra-wide pages will dwarf your standard paperback and hardcover books.
Image of the MIT Mystery Hunt Closing Ceremonies with permission from photographer Chris Ball
“A dim witted love god.”
I was gazing at the dense, tall pine trees around us, a refreshing change from the dry brown and yellow landscape we had already driven past. My wife and I, both Boston natives, were driving south from San Francisco for a wedding, and entertaining ourselves with one of our regular puzzle games. The first person provides a simple description, and the other must answer in the form of a rhyming adjective and noun pairing.
“Stupid Cupid,” I stated rather than asking, confident in my answer. It’s not a tough game, especially when you’ve played it together before as much as we have. That was in September of last year, and that drive inspired us to evolve our casual game into a much more challenging form: a puzzle for the 2012 MIT Mystery Hunt.
Last year our team Codex won the 2011 Hunt, which is held in January over Martin Luther King, Jr. Day weekend. It’s a team-based puzzle solving competition that draws over a thousand diverse fans every year. The victors’ prizes are well-earned respect, and the responsibility of writing and organizing the following year’s Hunt. Each Hunt has a theme, ostensibly to provide a reason for solving all the puzzles. 2011’s Hunt led by the team Metaphysical Plant, had a theme centered around video games. For 2012, Codex chose to focus on musical theater, specifically The Producers.
For the past eight years I competed in the Hunt and even wrote a handful of puzzles for friends, but none had the level of complexity and polish usually found during the Hunt. Every long-time Hunter has a list of puzzle ideas they would like to write someday if they given the opportunity. Translating those ideas into over a hundred working, solvable puzzles takes many thousands of man hours. As our team quickly recognized, years of solving puzzles doesn’t immediately translate to creating puzzles and organizing a live event for hundreds of people. Thankfully, Codex’s team of leaders and editors provided a framework for both novice and experienced writers to participate in the process.
This Is Not A Game. This seemingly simple mantra, coined by a collective of Microsoft Game Studios employees, has served as a rallying cry for alternate reality gaming fans and developers alike. And yet, it is also one of the most misunderstood aspects of the genre. As alternate reality games have evolved, so too has its nomenclature: puppetmasters have gradually given way to game developers and transmedia producers, and “this is not a game” itself has fallen into disuse. Perhaps it’s time to make the term’s retirement official.
Everything Starts with The Beast
The Beast was not the first alternate reality game: the term was coined months after the game’s conclusion, with the launch of Lockjaw. Similarly, promotional campaigns for The Last Broadcast and The Blair Witch Project introduced many of the storytelling elements that would later be embraced by the genre. What sets The Beast apart were its players, who referred to themselves as Cloudmakers.
Jay Bushman, a former Cloudmaker who now works at Fourth Wall Studios, compares The Beast to the Sex Pistols’ concert at Manchester’s Lesser Free Trade Hall on June 4, 1976. There were only around forty people in attendance that night, but something magical happened, and those few attendees went on to form Joy Division, The Smiths, The Fall, and The Buzzcocks, creating a renaissance for the genre. The Beast has sent similar ripples through the community as Cloudmakers and developers alike have gone on to found many of the companies and resources dedicated to the genre. And one of those ripples was the phrase “this is not a game.”
Image courtesy of the BBC
On September 10, 2011, Pete Ryland cracked The Code and took home the coveted prize, a unique bronze and silver mathematical sculpture by Bathsheba Grossman. The lead-up to the tense finale was a collaborative transmedia treasure hunt centred around the three-part BBC2 show The Code, presented by Marcus du Sautoy. The game was designed by Six to Start, working with the BBC from the beginning to integrate clues and puzzles seamlessly within the broadcasts.
Before the first airing of The Code on July 27, about 700 postcards were sent out with an image and a code. Collaborating on Facebook, participants in this first stage soon discovered that each postcard image was a thin horizontal slice of a three-dimensional Platonic solid. Several of these “perfect” shapes then had to be combined and arranged into three concentric spherical shells – revealing the complicated nested sculpture that would be the grand prize.
Now the hunt could begin in earnest. The main stage of the game was intricately connected with the three episodes of the show: Numbers, Shapes, and Prediction. For each episode, participants discovered three clues: one by watching the program, one clue by playing related Flash games on the website, and one clue by solving a puzzle described on the blog. They also had to complete the Prime Number Challenge as a group, which involved uploading photos of all 305 prime numbers from 2 to 2011 to collectively receive the sixth clue for each episode. The six clues were then entered into a codebreaker to reveal three passwords, which granted access to the next stage of the game: The Ultimate Challenge.