Over the years, more than a few alternate reality games, transmedia storytelling projects, and advertising campaigns have warned that December 2012 would mark the end of the world. That shouldn’t come as much of a surprise: you can’t get much higher stakes than saving the world, and fighting against an ancient prophecy with its own pre-existing mythos (however misinformed) can add mystique to a narrative.
In 2009, the alternate reality game The Institute for Human Continuity reportedly sparked hundreds of letters to NASA’s Astrobiology Institute from people earnestly worried about the coming Apocalypse. Closer to the date in question, Funcom’s The Secret World offered a series of six missions intended to forestall the End of Days both inside and outside the game. Even Old Spice got in on the harbinger of doom act, using points from six increasingly ridiculous flash games to power a laser cutter that slowly etched additional time onto the Mayan calendar for their absurdist campaign, Old Spice Saves the World.
Proclamations of impending disaster weren’t limited to global catastrophe this year, with Fourth Wall Studios’ Elan Lee adding his voice to the chorus claiming that ARGs are dead at the StoryWorld Conference in Los Angeles. And yet, 2012 was in many ways a renaissance for alternate reality games and transmedia storytelling, as new sources of funding arise for a thriving community of developers. What follows is a closer look at some of the major events in alternate reality gaming for the year.
In 2011, I tried an experiment: rather than write a single article attempting to sum up the year in alternate reality games, I’d split the daunting task up into four parts and pen my thoughts as the year progressed. This is the final installment in that series, covering the final quarter of the year: if you’d rather begin at the beginning, feel free to do so.
Looking back at the year as a whole, 2011 was defined by the experimentation that took place in the realm of alternate reality games. While the puzzle-ridden romps through conspiracy theories that Ian Bogost so cleverly lambasted in his Cow ClickARG are still a staple of the industry, game developers are experimenting with new models of storytelling, gameplay, and revenue generation to create sustainable projects and business models alike.
Greater Definition in the Industry
Until recently, meetups for people involved in alternate reality games and transmedia storytelling centered around conferences, with gatherings at events like ARGFest, Power to the Pixel, DIY Days, Futures of Entertainment, and SXSW. This year, StoryWorld joined the list with a strong first conference that included its own alternate reality game, Zoetrap, that used a custom-built app for the conference to guide conference attendees through an occult mystery as seen through the cellphone of a missing person. While these events continue to bring fans and creators together, an alternate method of discussion has grown in prominence in recent months. Local meetup groups are increasingly springing up around the world to provide more frequent opportunities to discuss the state of the industry.
The New York and Los Angeles meetups in particular have transformed from informal get-togethers to entities in their own right, boasting hundreds of members: the New York meetup has incorporated as StoryCode, while the LA group launched a website aiming to provide resources and news for the community. However, groups have formed in cities including Toronto, Austin, Vancouver, Paris, and São Paulo.
In the past three months, players have demonstrated their willingness to pay for alternate reality games.
Taken in isolation, players reaching into their pocketbooks to pay money for alternate reality games is not news. Ever since the genre’s inception, opportunities to pay money for ARGs have emerged. Majestic, Electronic Arts’ venture into the world of alternate reality games, reportedly convinced about 15,000 players to pay $9.95 a month (or $40 for the CD) for access to its content. Studio Cypher adopted a similar model for its month-long multiplayer novels, which offered custom content to “Wakeful Agents” willing to pay $9.99 for a more immersive experience. Games like Perplex City tied gameplay to collectible puzzle cards that collectively unlocked additional content for approximately $5 per pack, while local interactive experiences like those produced by Accomplice, 5-Wits, and Ravenchase Adventures charge admission to their real-world adventures and hunts.
Having said that, the past few months have seen a resurgence of campaigns seeking players willing to pay for their alternate reality games, with more options of game experiences to buy into than ever before. The past quarter has been a busy one for alternate reality games with experiments in new storytelling platforms and additional institutional assistance for developers. This article will offer a taste of some of the campaigns that have caught my attention since my last broad look at the industry in April.
It’s been three months since ARGNet’s first look back at this year in alternate reality gaming, putting over half of 2011 behind us. Alternate reality games have continued to insinuate themselves into pop culture, spanning movies, television, music, video games, and books. The genre has stretched out beyond the entertainment industry to support social causes, provide more enriching museum-going experiences, and even sell packs of chewing gum. During the past three months a number of major campaigns have come to a conclusion, to be replaced by a number of tantalizing prospects. Read on for a few highlights from the quarter.
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.
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.
At the end of every year, I like to set aside some time to take stock of the alternate reality gaming space. Last year, I satisfied this rather unwholesome urge by making a list of some of the most talked-about alternate reality games of 2009: I even checked it twice. This year, I’ll be focusing on some emerging trends facing the industry, along with a few highlights from successful campaigns that you might have missed.
The State of the Industry
Alternate reality games aren’t dead, but they have certainly evolved over the past year, as terms like “transmedia storytelling” and “gamification” have insinuated their way further into the developmental lexicon. In April, the Producer’s Guild of America added the “transmedia producer” credit to their Code of Credits, swiftly followed by the formation of the rival Transmedia Artists Guild in July, which aims to provide a support structure for creators. Prominent figures in the entertainment industry including Anthony Zuiker, Tim Kring, and Guillermo del Toro have all publicly committed themselves to transmedia production. Meanwhile, Jane McGonigal’s TED Talk on gamification as a means of leveraging our penchant for play for social good has reignited interest in serious games.
Jay Bushman does an exemplary job of articulating the industry’s formative state in his article about his time as a Cloudmaker, a name affectionately adopted to describe players of the genre-defining alternate reality game for the film A.I.. Bushman notes that the state of the industry can be analogized to the film industry circa 1926, before the release of The Jazz Singer manifested the argument for talkies. As Bushman explains, The Jazz Singer “was not the first film with sound, but it was the first one to make its benefits obvious and to show that sound was the way forward.”