A Call to Action for Alternate Reality Game Developers: Play ARGs

In recent weeks, a number of alternate reality game developers have called for some changes. Brooke Thompson, the chair of the International Game Developer’s Association ARG special interest group, asked developers to make postmortems of completed games publicly available to foster an environment for constructive criticism. No Mimes Media co-founder and ARG Netcast host Steve Peters asked developers to concentrate on creating compelling player experiences as opposed to relying on free giveaways to generate buzz. And now, I’m throwing my hat into the ring.

Play alternate reality games.

Whether you’re an aspiring developers or one with a number of successful campaigns under your belt, you should be playing ARGs as often as you can. Take the time to go through the experience of discovery, and remind yourself what excited you about transmedia and alternate reality games by experiencing the communities that develop firsthand. People enmeshed in the television industry will still go home and watch television: after all, Joss Whedon is a self-professed GLEEk, and George Broussard and Scott Miller (formerly of 3D Realms) love World of Warcraft. What makes alternate reality games so different?

The answer I hear most frequently when I pose that question is “time.” There’s a perception that playing alternate reality games demands extensive time commitments that developers don’t have. And since ARGs have indefinite lengths, it can be even harder to commit to a game. However, if you find yourself unable to drop in and interact with an ongoing game, I would argue that’s a design flaw that you should internalize. Assuming that all ARG players have large blocks of time to dedicate to your game is a dangerous assumption that limits your audience to players dedicated to your game to the exclusion of almost everything else.  And making that assumption feeds the stereotype that gamers are people with shallow pockets and lots of time on their hands. Based on anecdotal evidence, that is far from the truth. However, if game designers continue to operate on that assumption by creating games that are largely inaccessible without absolute dedication to a single game, it may become an unfortunate reality.

Every ARG should have actionable and entertaining elements that can be enjoyed with relatively little knowledge of the game’s intricacies. And the best ARGs tend to provide these opportunities at regular intervals. In Must Love Robots, players were given the opportunity to save (or destroy) robot-kind by mixing up a suicide soda at Subway by pressing 8335 (or 5338) and posting the video on YouTube. In Chain Factor, players could uncover error message puzzles and control the fate of the world by playing the highly addictive flash game, Drop7. And in Repo Men, players were provided a steady stream of photographs and videos to parse for clues that might lead to capturing the four runners. All of these opportunities involved negligible time commitments on the part of players, with the potential for substantial rewards with regards to advancing the plot.

This isn’t the first time I’ve called for game mechanics that embrace the casual player. But perhaps if ARG developers take the time to play for themselves, it will be the last time I make the request. So I repeat my call to arms.

To all the aspiring transmedia producers, puppetmasters, and puzzlemakers: play a game. Use the skills you’ve honed on the development side to tackle a difficult puzzle, create compelling user-generated content, or build a player resource. Interact with the communities that form around ARGs to know your audience better, and to reignite your creative spark. And apply the lessons you learned as a player to your next project, so that other developers can enjoy your project as well.


  1. Amber Lee

    I appreciate especially your comments on time. I’ve had to drop out of an ARG recently because I couldn’t keep up with the game AND my life. Now I am in a much slower paced one that I can enjoy.

  2. Jane Doh

    It does boggle my mind when I see the posts at Unfiction from would-be PMs that honestly ask, “I have a great story. Should I play a game first?”

    If ARGs are about storytelling experiences, how can you -not- play at least one game? As an ARG creator, your focus should be on what players experience. If you’ve never been a player, how can you even understand what that’s like? Play some ARGs, if for no other reason than, it will impart some empathy.

    Often I feel that the overly high expectations PMs have of players (to commit time, money, and travel, for instance) are burdensome to even the hardcore among us, and the rewards usually too insignificant to satisfy them.

    I’m going to stop my ranting here before I get too carried away….

  3. modelmotion

    Great post!!!!!!!!

  4. Dr. Mike Reddy

    What you are asking seems perfectly reasonable, and what I tell my game programming students all the time: if you want to make games you must play games. However, the question of time constraints leads to a call for what I would call CARGs (casual ARGs to coin a phrase). Tied to the banning of cheap thrills an “prizes”, this might not be quite so resisted as would otherwise be the case. Playing CARGs (and maybe ARGs) should be intrinsically not extrinsically rewarded.

  5. Michael Andersen

    While I am eager to see an emergence (or resurgence) of casual ARGs, I don’t think that’s necessarily all of the answer. Rather, I think more thought should be put into making tiered participation levels in ARGs more compelling.

    Feedback from active players comes in a steady stream during most ARGs. However, it’s all too easy to assume that the passive stream of traffic to in-game sites/telephone numbers means the more casual audience remains engaged. By experiencing that side of play firsthand, a side of the experience that doesn’t come out through metrics or direct player feedback can emerge.

  6. Brooke

    A couple of thoughts…

    When a designer is asked about the last game they played, they question isn’t as simple as “what was the last game you played?” It comes with assumptions and follow-up questions that they may want to avoid. At least that’s true for me. And, so, my answer to the question varies by who is doing the asking. If you or someone from unfiction were to ask, I’d say Last Call Poker. It was the last game where I was what some people would call a “level 3” player – deeply engaged, checking in regularly, participating on the forums, etc etc. But that does not mean that I haven’t checked in on games since. I watch videos, I poke around on sites, I’ve gone to events, etc. And so, if someone else asked me the last game I played, I’d probably say Must Love Robots. Sure, there have been others since, but I liked Must Love Robots… a lot. If I’m going to have to talk to someone about a playing experience, I’m going to go with a game that I liked and a game that I’ve got some great things to say about.

    And time is definitely an issue. It just is. Even with the casual elements. Consider a designer’s job – they are spending as much time on one side of the curtain as the most heavily engaged players are on the other side. At the same time, they’re often dealing with securing future business, wrapping up older projects. And then when they’re out there talking to people about their projects and get hit with the question… the last game I played? Well, let’s see, for the last 9 months I’ve spent 10+ hours a day working on this game that I’m here to talk about…. so it was something before then… jeez, what was it… “oh, heck, I dunno. I just don’t have time…”

    Even if they did spend an hour or two playing Chain Factor, they probably weren’t thinking about the ARG. They were playing the casual game element. And what, really, does that tell them about the overall arc of the game? They may or may not get the idea that their playing of this casual game could help save the world – most of the folks, that I talked to, that played the flash game didn’t have a clue about the bigger picture without talking to somebody about the overall picture. And, so, that’s what designers do. They poke around here or there and then they talk to people. They want to get a sense of how things fit together and how they played out over time.

    So, should designers play more games? Yes! Of course. But to what degree? And is spending an hour or two playing an addictive flash game a more valuable use of their time than talking to someone about the mechanics of how it came together (for the players) and what was going on with it? In some cases it probably is. In others, not so much.

  7. Jane Doh

    On tiered participation, I’d like to see more games have actual schedules for major updates and time constraints on the characters that make sense in game. (Maybe the character is a college student with a busy course and sports schedule and can only chat on Tuesdays.) This might seem like common sense, but I don’t encounter it often enough, esp. in the grassroots games, which implode more often than complete partially because the (often solo, newbie) PM is inundated with dealing with players.

    Planned updates, publicly known, serve the dual function of keeping the hardcore hive at bay until the next expected update and of giving the more casual time to catch up. Though seriously, PMs, could you try to figure out a subtle in-game way to offer a “story so far”? It can’t be that hard.

  8. Steve Peters

    There have been scheduled updates and a Story So Far in some form in pretty much every one of my games (not that the players necessarily noticed the schedule for a while). While it definitely helps, it comes down to the bigger issue of barrier to entry as a whole. When done right, a multi-tiered flow is best (Casual, Committed and Hardcore experience flows) It’s really a requirement to build an audience and keep their attention. Some people have tried just making the entire ARG a Level 1 series of games, but that route has a short tail (a lot of hits, but nobody sticks around after they stop by), and may not even really an ARG, in my opinion.

    Nevertheless, the goal remains elusive. How do you take all the cool things we love about ARGs and make them accessible to a mainstream audience? I think we’re getting closer all the time, and honestly think we may be waiting on something technology-related to become a de facto standard before this can truly happen.

  9. David Flor

    I’ve applied for and been interviewed for working at a few video game development shops in my life, and one of the first question they inevitably ask is “do you play video games?” I’m sure that if I answered “no”, that would pretty much be the end of the interview.

    If you’re a writer, you have to read. If you’re a programmer, you have to look at other people’s code. If you’re an artist, you have to admire other people’s art. Game design, specifically ARG development, is no different.

    I admit I don’t “play” games as much as some of the more die hard players do (I simply don’t have the time), but I am familiar enough with most active games to understand how they work and what they have in mind.

    Plus, to be honest, it helps to be part of those game threads in terms of social networking. I’m not a complete stranger anymore, and sometimes find myself being more like a mentor to newcomers than a player or designer.

  10. labfly

    thanks for posting the call to action, Michael. its funny because i have an almost opposite reaction to much of the work i see that is being labeled ARG. i see so many projects that are trying only to be “casual” (or as Steve says above “level 1”) in content but expect a high level of ARG gaming skills & time to find your way > it is frustrating and after i do find my way, the “lite” stories/games never hook me.

    Steve makes a great point about the multi-tiered flow. creating something for every level of player/audience is an excellent goal.

    beyond waiting for tech solves > there are ways/mechanics available now. we can write it into the story. creating an entry point character can work v well. we can also design the entry in a way that guides the new player into the storyworld that is less confusing. i am seeing ARG projects release story & game onto multi-platforms w/o any path that clearly connects the fragmented pieces.
    the designers seem to have a list of ARG elements but they really don’t get how to roll them out.
    and i agree with you, Michael, playing ARGs (good and bad) and studying games that were successful equals the best way to understand how best to create these much needed entries and paths.