…the Exhibit Floor, and Each Other

Now that E3 2005 has become history, we can step back and take a look at what a remarkable event it really was as far as Alternate Reality Games are concerned. While most of the world was mobbing the Xbox 360 and PSP exhibits, some were reporting that E3 was just more of the same from years gone by: First-Person Shooters, games aimed at young males, nothing new or original. Despite new and shiny things with amazing graphics and fluid rendering, one BBC reporter lamented that there was nothing really innovative this year.

But amid all of the spectacle, noise, swag and Booth Babes (not that there’s anything wrong with Booth Babes), those who were observant might have noticed something a little different going on. They might have noticed a trio of gamers surrupticiously following a smarmy-looking game designer, snapping candid photos and talking quickly into their phones. They may have been approched by a friendly Brit in a grey t-shirt, offering them a card with a puzzle on it. They may have noticed a sticker on a Playboy bunny’s tail, announcing a Lost Cube with a $200,000 reward. They probably were startled by a crowd circled around a road-weary hacker fighting with a couple of bodyguards. And oh, didn’t I see that game designer guy on VH-1 earlier in the day?

What many didn’t realize was that a quiet little revolution called Alternate Reality Gaming began at this year’s E3. ARG made its presence known in a tangible way for those lucky enough to witness it.

“Heist” Makes Waves

Thursday began with a character from “Art of the Heist” making various media appearances. SpikeTV’s E3 Insider FanCam guy caught up with Virgil Tatum, “Legendary Game Designer,” in an exclusive interview. Virgil was presented as an actual game designer, and it was never mentioned that he was actually a fictional character from Art of the Heist, adding to the realism (and confusion) for many. The same was true with an interview Virgil did with VH-1’s Top Twenty Countdown, which was reported to have aired this weekend.

Later in the day, this intrepid reporter donned his player hat and joined two other players, Kane and DS, to meet Ian (another Heist character) at the Emerald Grill just down the street from E3. Ian gave us a printout of Viril’s picture along with three Treo 650s to use to go do a little snooping inside the E3 exhibit hall. We were to find and follow Virgil, reporting in and sending Ian pictures of what we were seeing. He also gave us three Expo passes, saying we were with the London Art Gazette.

To make a long story short, our mission culminated with Ian and Virgil having a fight right in the middle of the E3 Expo floor, which is documented on stolena3.com. It was ARG street-theater at its finest, with attendees and security guards alike not really sure how to react or what to do. What they didn’t realize was that a game was invading their reality, and they were unwitting bit-players. I actually felt a little sorry for the poor guy on the floor who was trying to talk on the phone while Ian and Virgil started shoving each other right above him, because the whole thing was so very convincing and well done.

Afterward, I talked to the security guard at the door, who told me he had no info about what had happened. I then explained to him that what he’d just seen was part of an online game put on by Audi. “You mean that whole thing was staged?” he asked. When I told him it was, he was visibly relieved.

When Worlds Collide

What happened next was actually pretty amazing. As Ian staggered off into the sunset, Virgil went back into the exhibit hall, where he ended up visiting a booth at the UK Pavillion. While there, he chatted with some fellow game developers, who happened to be from Mind Candy, the folks who are behind Perplex City.

The Perplex City booth gave a tantalizing peek at some new things. New characters, more puzzle cards, and a look at a new website, Cognivia (which isn’t live yet). Attendees couldn’t get enough of the puzzle cards, returning to the booth to get more every time they solved one. The response to the puzzle cards was almost overwhelming, as the Perplex City team gave away almost every one they brought. The Hons even took the opportunity to playtest the cards with the restaurant staff at dinner that night, which was a huge success!

Meanwhile, Virgil was so impressed that he wrote about his encounter with these “creative visionaries” and this new genre called Alternate Reality Games “that relies on the powers of the mind, not the thumbs” in his (in-game) blog. Talk about blurring the lines! What a great way to do an end run around that fourth wall, sort of, while maintaining a logical integrity of the game, and promoting someone else’s game, to boot!

An ARGtist Community

This behavior is typical of the attitude I saw throughout my visit to E3 from the multiple teams of ARG developers (who are endearingly referred to as PuppetMasters) with whom I was privileged to meet. These people sought each other out, and were eager to talk together about what they do, and share war stories and ideas without anything remotely resembling a feeling of being in competiton with one another. Sure, each game is so very different from each other with such different audiences that it doesn’t matter to a certain extent, but it goes beyond that. Maybe what Virgil said rings true with them all, giving a common goal of creating something innovative and of high quality that indeed relies on the powers of the (hive) mind, not the thumbs.

So, as the concept of Alternate Reality Games moves forward towards the tipping point of mainstream awareness, history may indeed look back on E3 2005 as the breakout point. Either way, it’ll be really interesting to see what E3 2006 looks like in relation to Alternate Reality Games, and considering all the rumors I heard while at E3, all I can say is that these next 12 months will be a year you won’t soon forget!