ARGNet Writers pose at ARGFest 2008

This article is the first in a series, providing summaries of the panel presentations at ARGFest-o-Con 2008 in Boston.

The first panel discussion featured Evan Jones of Stitch Media as the moderator, Yomi Ayeni (Expanding Universe), Elan Lee (Fourth Wall Studios), Lance Weiler (Seize the Media), and Blair Erickson (Millions of Us). The panel explored the challenges and advantages that arise from cross-media productions.

Blair Erickson started the discussion with a description of an early project, an alternate reality game promoting World Wrestling Entertainment. Recognizing that a major draw of wrestling is the love of a fight, Erickson moved the rivalry between two wrestlers onto virtual worlds, with a game that played out over more than 100,000 threads, with players contributing in support of their favored athlete. The game culminated in Summer Slam, a pay-per-view match between the wrestlers. More recently, Millions of Us developed an ARG for the Sarah Connor Chronicles, which delved deep into the franchise’s mythology.

Yomi Ayeni discussed his work with Violette’s Dream, an ARG running as part of the upcoming video game, Velvet Assassin. The video game is based on the true story of a female soldier in World War II. The alternate reality portion of the game operates under the assumption that the game’s protagonist repurposed Nazi gold to help undercover agents in need. The aim was to make the game as real to life as possible: the first gold bar was found by former ARGNet writer Dee Cook in Fredericksburg, Texas, a town with deep historical ties to Germany. Ayeni described the project as a “fingerprintless” project that runs parallel to the video game.

Lance Weiler followed by talking about how his revolutionary changes within the film industry. For his film Head Trauma, Weiler charged $5,000 to bring the event to theaters, and split profits on the tickets. In return, audience members interacted with the film at unprecedented levels, exchanging phone calls and text messages with characters, seeing characters emerge from the theater, and following them home for a continued experience long after the film concluded. He is investigating using Bluetooth technology to heighten the audience participation in the film even further, and launched the alternate reality game Hope is Missing to promote the film’s DVD release by Warner Brothers.

Elan Lee reiterated the importance of compelling intellectual property and a strong distribution mechanism, noting that when Bungie Entertainment approached 42 Entertainment to develop I Love Bees, they had a strong, compelling story to be told, but no distribution mechanism to support it.

A series of questions from the mustachioed Grand Inquisitor, Elan Lee, directed the conversation to the attraction of alternate reality games to marketers. In the face of increasingly jaded consumers, advertising methods such as television commercials and banner advertisements are blocked by complex technological and mental interventions. ARGs have the potential to offer a shockingly high return on investment, and can even become freestanding intellectual property in and of itself, as evidenced by Weiler’s success with Hope is Missing.

Because of these advantages, business partners are often eager to jump on seemingly crazy proposals because they see the potential of the genre. Ayeni noted that his pitch for Violette’s Dream boiled down to asking if he could start giving gold away. Despite these advantages, alternate reality games often provide logistic nightmares. Elan Lee recalled his experiences with a live event for Vanishing Point at the Bellagio Hotel, while Ayeni discussed geographic problems working with a production studio spread out on different parts of the globe.

Acknowledging that alternate reality games may very well turn out to be the “flavor of the week,” the panelists voiced their confidence that the genre would continue to thrive since it meshes perfectly with the internet’s search/aggregate/remix culture. At any rate, we still have reality television.

Check back over the next few weeks for the video of this panel when it is released.