The Rise of ARGs
May 9, 2005
In the last four years, alternate reality games (ARGs) have emerged as one of the most promising new gaming genres, fueled by a number of high profile games including "The Beast" (a promotion for the movie A.I.), Majestic, "Push Nevada" and most recently, "I Love Bees". These ARGs have immersed millions of players in complex and involving "alternate reality" storylines that takes place not only on the Internet, but through every conceivable media including phone calls, newspapers, radio, television, movies, and real life actors.
With the notable exception of EA's Majestic, all major ARGs to date have been promotions for other products. While they have demonstrated their use as a cost-effective and entertaining way to promote a product many times, ARGs deserve serious consideration - especially from independent developers - as a way to grow and distribute unique intellectual property. In the increasingly crowded gaming market, anything that makes a game stand out is essential, and alternate reality games can fulfill that goal in myriad ways.
This article will provide a short introduction to alternate reality games, looking at their short history and how in 2004, an ARG was used to promote Halo 2. It will also explore the potential for ARGs to be not just promotional vehicles that end with a game's release, but also a way to build and become part of a rich and involving story for a game.
However, the best place to begin a discussion about ARGs is with the very first online rabbithole of them all - "The Beast".
The First ARG
If you were paying close attention to the marketing material for the movie A.I.
in early 2001, you'd have noticed a credit for a "Sentient Machine
Therapist" called Jeanine Salla alongside the usual range of actors and
directors. Since technology hadn't suddenly jumped several decades
overnight, it was obvious that there was something amiss with this
person, and so if you googled "Jeanine Salla" out of curiousity, you
would have found that she worked at a university. Bangalore World
University. In 2142. This university's comprehensive website provided
players with her phone number which in turn led to a whole series of
other websites, all set in 2142, all totally consistent and all
As hundreds of thousands of players fell down this rabbithole and others in TV and movie trailers, they discovered an intricate real time story through online sources about a murdered man called Evan Chan that they were actively involved in. In order to gain more information about the story, they solved increasingly difficult puzzles together, "hacked" into numerous websites (including a coroner's office and an environmental corporation), and emailed many of the game's characters. The game responded by reacting to the collective action of the players and sometimes creating open-ended puzzles that required them to come up with their own solutions, which the game would then accommodate and grow around. These puzzles were mostly online but also involved some enormously fun stunts such as phoning up a fictional security guard to convince him to save someone being tortured, and attending anti-robot rallies held simultaneously in New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago.
By the time the game ended in July, it had attracted an audience of over a million and gained international media attention from CNN, ABC, BBC, the New York Times, USA Today and any number of websites. "The Beast", as the game had come to be known, had been a resounding success in promoting A.I. and is acknowledged to be the first ever alternate reality game; it had created a consistent reality, expressed through the Internet and other media, that told a rich and interactive story to a million people around the world.
"The Beast" came about largely through the efforts of Jordan Weisman and Elan Lee, respectively producer and developer, who convinced Microsoft and Dreamworks SKG that it would be a good idea to see whether they could use the Internet to create a new type of game that would also serve as one of the most innovative marketing campaigns in history. It is rather difficult to find out exactly how much "The Beast" cost, since it used in-house Microsoft staff and resources and the creators aren't particularly forthcoming with hard figures, but this didn't stop a number of other companies from trying their hands at ARGs.
The infamous and fictious Evan Chan
A Majestic Failure and a Noble Renaissance
Though many think that Electronic Arts came up with the idea for Majestic from "The Beast", they were hard at work on the subscription-based ARG long before the first mention of Jeanine Salla. Launched in the summer of 2001, Majestic was intended as EA's flagship online product and reportedly cost $10 million in development. EA believed it needed 110,000 subscribers, paying $10 a month for eight months to break even. In the end, it didn't attract anywhere near the subscripers required and was wrapped up before its planned finish. The failure of Majestic to attract a six figure audience created a chilling effect on the concept of commercial ARGs that funded themselves, and also scared off many other companies considering using promotional ARGs.
The fledgling ARG community ignored much of this and proceeded to create a panoply of amateur ARGs. All of these were non-profit, created with the spare time and money of their creators, usually to the tune of a mere few hundred or thousand dollars. Even with such limited resources, ARGs such as "Lockjaw" and "Metacortechs" succeeded in attracting relatively large numbers of players, from the tens to hundreds of thousands.
Gradually in 2003 and 2004, the advertising and marketing industries began to reconsider ARGs and in the past twelve months we've seen a flurry of big budget games, from Microsoft's flamboyant "I Love Bees" game promoting Halo 2 (and winning the 2005 Innovation Award at GDC) to Audi's "Art of the Heist" game featuring a stolen Audi A3, as well as ARGs such as Sharp's "Sacred Urns", the BBC's "Jamie Kane", and finally "Perplex City", produced by Mind Candy (the company I work at) in collaboration with the Perplex City Academy.
"I Love Bees": Mass Market Promotion without the Sting
The alternate reality game with the most interest for game developers will undoubtedly be "I Love Bees". Created by 4orty2two Entertainment for Microsoft, I Love Bees lured players outside to answer thousands of payphones across the U.S. to hear snippets of a radio drama set in the Halo 2 universe and complete puzzles. That the fanatical players went to such extreme measures to answer the phones, often driving hundreds of miles and even braving a hurricane, is a testament to the strong writing in the game by Sean Stewart, an award-winning fantasy novelist and notably the writer of "The Beast".
Again, it is not known exactly how much "I Love Bees" cost, but it was certainly far less than "The Beast" (principally because it required fewer personnel), and arguably had a more focused impact on its target market - gamers. In terms of bang for buck, "I Love Bees" was exceptionally cost effective in gaining international media attention for Halo 2, and demonstrated perfectly how the viral nature of ARGs allows them to attract large audiences with comparatively small outlay, and just as importantly, create a rich and compelling "alternate reality" storyline. The fact that ARGs are entertainment themselves also gives them a way to appeal to communities that are otherwise very sensitive or neglected by traditional marketing campaigns. When EA spends over $100 million per quarter on marketing and even then finds it hard to penetrate some communities, using innovative techniques such as ARGs to appeal to large audiences can save potentially save millions.
That ARGs can aid in the creation of rich storylines is especially salient for independent games developers, because while the Halo
universe was already well established, it's clear that a well-written
promotional ARG for any game will make players actively search for more
details about its story and characters, instead of studios having to
foist it upon them through press releases and costly advertisements.
It's at this point that your audience starts to do your marketing for
Bringing Stories back into the Limelight
After having spent the time and effort to create a good promotional ARG, it seems ridiculous to simply abandon it once the game is released. Instead, ARGs should be seen as part of games themselves in creating the setting in which the game takes place. In this way, ARGs aren't "just" promotional tools - in fact, they are an excellent way to spread the cost of creating rich and unique intellectual property for developers.
With such fierce competition in the gaming industry across all genres, one of the best and only ways for games to stand out is through their stories. Traditionally, the importance of good stories have been given short shrift because they are only experienced by players who have already bought the game, or because they tend to merit perhaps a paltry one or two paragraphs from reviewers. By using ARGs to spread stories and intellectual property outside of a game, they become much more powerful in attracting gamers. They also offer a handy way for developers to maintain their arduously created characters and universes between games and further advance the property, simultaneously retaining fans and attracting new ones.
Imagine that "I Love Bees" wasn't simply a promotion for an established brand but for an entirely new game. It still would have attracted tens or hundreds of thousands of players to its story for a fraction of cost of a traditional marketing campaign. The story could then have pointed to a related game where it was naturally continued or elaborated upon. During the release of the game, the ARG could continue in order to further enrichen the story universe and to span the gap between it and any possible sequels. In this way, an ARG can serve as the backdrop and glue that holds a brand and story together, over multiple games and genres.
The Potential of ARGs
Alternate reality games shouldn't be seen as a panacea for developers. Like any other story or game, it's easy to create a bad ARG but difficult to create a great one. By treating ARGs simply as promotional bolt-ons to a game, to be developed by an entirely separate team, is a surefire route to disappointment.
Though it may seem risky to invest such trust in something that seemingly has little to do with your main product other than perhaps being a special kind of advert, ARGs have the potential to become a fundamental part of a game's experience, growing the story and universe, and attracting and engaging players long before - and after - the game's release. This potential will only be realized if game developers take the leap of integrating ARGs fully into the development process and the game itself, and most importantly, use their imagination.