Four years after A.I., ARGs, as they're known, may not be mainstream but they're gaining ground with marketers. Since "The Beast," clients as varied as Coke, Microsoft, Mini, Sega, Activision, Sharp, and Audi have embraced the concept. In 2003, Jeff Goodby, writing in Advertising Age, heralded a new age of "voluntary advertising," in which marketers would have to make ads that people chose to see. But while television ads remain largely involuntary, ARGs and online narratives have grown up entirely on the voluntary model. "The notion of programming being 'sponsored by' an advertiser or being 'brought to you' by an advertiser is a notion that the younger generation is completely unaware of," says Kirt Gunn of Kirt Gunn & Associates, which has created web-based storylines for Mercury and Ford. "Programs are no longer 'brought to you' by an advertiser; they're interrupted by an advertiser. Anytime you can introduce the notion of reciprocity to this generation, it's the first time that they will have seen it."
After creating "The Beast," Stewart, his creative partner Elan Lee, and campaign ringleader Jordan Weisman formed 42 Entertainment, a Bay Area company that has since launched popular ARGs like "I Love Bees" (in support of Xbox title Halo 2) and "Last Call Poker" (a promotion for the Activision game Gun). Meanwhile, on the East Coast, the folks behind The Blair Witch Project, collectively known as the Haxans, were putting their expertise in marketing and storytelling into projects like Sega's "Beta 7" campaign, Sharp's puzzler "Urns," and—most recently—the Audi adventure "The Art of the Heist."
While these campaigns—and similar efforts, like Crispin Porter + Bogusky's "Men of Metal" hoax for Mini and a campaign on behalf of ABC's hit show Lost—have differences, they have a few things in common: Consumers choose to participate in them and they participate in them collectively. With each new game, message boards crop up and players communally puzzle over the story and share the information that is dispensed to them via every available medium: websites, e-mail, faxes, films, phone messages. Some players travel to collect clues or attend live events tied to the games, and they form friendships that continue until the next ARG rolls around. For the launch of the Xbox, 42 created a game centered around a fictional mad professor and a magical device called Hex168; when the game kicked off, an unexplained symbol (for Hex168) appeared in everything from crop circles to marching band formations at college football games. The "Last Call Poker" ARG focused on an online poker site where participants played hands with long dead characters from a story set in the Wild West. Many of those participants would also play live hands with each other at events in cemeteries around the country.
Steve Peters, a 44-year-old music producer who lives in Las Vegas, got started playing ARGs with "The Beast." The following year he launched the Alternate Reality Gaming Network (argn.com), a news site for ARG players. Most recently, he crossed over and helped design "Last Call Poker" with 42 Entertainment. He estimates that the number of active players still around from "The Beast" days number in the hundreds and says the "vast majority" of players are in their 20s or early 30s and that the audience is evenly split by gender.
"What we're trying to do is create a very strong and positive community that will be engaged in a well-told story with interesting characters—it becomes something they're passionate about," says 42 Entertainment president Joe DiNunzio, who adds that he'd like to see immersive entertainment applied to a wider range of products. "A lot of the techniques and approaches we have for creating that kind of entertainment can be applied to products that aren't necessarily in and of themselves entertaining." To prove that point, the company is currently working toward a deal with a major packaged goods company to develop a game for what one can only assume is a highly un-entertaining product. 42 has also worked with Microsoft on a game in support of its search engine.
While there have been some successful independent ARGs—Mind Candy, the group that operates popular London-based indie "Perplex City" recently landed a round of venture capital financing—the form has been largely built on promotional sponsorships. Game company EA experimented with a pay-to-play ARG, "Majestic," in 2001, but pulled the plug in less than a year. ARGs aren't cheap, especially large games, which might include hundreds of websites, dozens of short films and elaborate live events that take place over the course of several weeks. And with the wide-open palette the platform provides, the stakes are only going up.
So where can alternate reality storytelling go from here? It has already gone so far into "real" reality that curious gamers could see a broken window at an Audi dealership where the A3 at the center of "The Art of the Heist" was supposedly stolen. So far that one character from "Heist" was interviewed—in character—on VH1, a collision of "programming and content and marketing" that McKinney's Cude calls "one of the highlights" of his career.
Stewart points out that the young medium is changing rapidly, likening it to jumping from the narrative techniques of Daniel Defoe to those of Jane Austen in just four years. "We're solving the problems of 1815," he says. "We're in an early stage of development."
"I think the difference between something like novels or movies is that this actually has the ability to incorporate everything that's come before," says Monello. "In other words, we could write a novel or create a TV show and include it as part of an ARG. We've only scratched the surface of what is possible in the form." Mind Candy founder Michael Smith looks to ARGs as a viable form of standalone entertainment in the future. "This form of storytelling is still at a very early stage but I believe will experience huge growth over the coming years. Tolkein was a master of creating incredibly detailed and immersive worlds. He created vast maps of Middle Earth, deep historical information going back centuries, and even designed unique languages. If was alive I'm sure he'd be using ARGs to tell his stories!"
42's 5 Principles of ARG
Jordan Weisman, creative director/co-founder of 42 Entertainment says that the company grew out of the concepts and experiments that he started at Microsoft, where he acted as CD for the entire entertainment group, which included PC and then Xbox games. Here, he sums up the five ARG tenets he sought to explore, tenets that inform 42's work.
- The concept of a hive mind. The generation we're speaking to now is so communications-obsessed and -enabled, we thought that if given a common emotionally charged history or mission, they would seek each other out and form into a cooperative to investigate and expose the story. We thought if we could get a couple hundred thousand people engaged in a project, various groups—with only one or two degrees of separation—would involve every skill base, every knowledge base on the planet. In reality, when that group formed (on the first ARG) and we had millions of participants instead of hundreds of thousands, not only did they represent every skill base and knowledge base, they didn't even need to go to degrees of separation—it was zero degrees of separation and they had every skill base. In retrospect, what we didn't realize was they had unlimited resources to devote to the subject—in terms of technology, canvassing, whatever was needed. It was very inspiring and daunting.
- The experiment was to develop a narrative structure that was organic to the web. In looking at the web, I realized that it had been and still is used primarily for distribution of narrative formats that existed prior to the web—audio, video written word etc. There wasn't a narrative structure that embraced the chaotic and frustrating nature of the web. Stepping back and looking at it, I realized a lot of the daily experience of the web is looking through stuff we don't care about to find one thing we do care about. I likened it to archeologists who go through a lot of sand looking for a piece of pottery. After they find that shard they have an idea of how to find more, and if there are enough shards they can reconstruct the society that made the pottery. Similarly, in each of our campaigns we write very elaborate character-driven emotional stories, which is, in any entertainment format the key to everything. Then we create all the evidence that would have existed had that story taken place. Then we throw the story out and bury all the evidence in puzzles that are organic in the story. As the hive mind discovers those pieces and starts to crack the puzzle, they start to gather those bits of evidence. They start with a wide range of theories about what's going on and as they get more info they come to more consensus. Eventually, they've reconstructed our story, but now it's become their story because it's moved through the filter of these millions of minds—it's now a personal piece.
- The 18-35 demo has grown up in a marketing-saturated environment and has developed a sophisticated set of tools for avoiding the vast majority of marketing messages. As a rule of thumb, the bigger the neon sign the faster they'll run the other way. So the premise here was, instead of shouting, go the opposite way and whisper—hide it. Finding it becomes an act of discovery—something they can feel proud of and are willing to talk about with their friends. It shifts entertainment presentation from exhibitionist to voyeuristic.
- The idea of hiding in plain sight. The premise here is that after building this groundswell of revealed info, we could then embed in subtle ways bits of info into the company's normal overt marketing campaign materials without disrupting the messaging they're doing in their normal campaigns. In doing so we turned those other media elements from "must be avoided" into "must be dissected." For a very small amount of additional media dollars, it turns your large investment into something people will seek out.
- Surround the audience in what we call the electronic sphere in which they live. All demographics at this point live in sphere of communications tech that travels with them all day long—we didn't want these campaigns to live exclusively on their computer screen, we wanted to reach out through every communications mechanism to surround them and allow them to immerse themselves as much as 24 hours a day if they chose to. Whether that was reaching out to the campaign or having the campaign reach out to them, it meant that the campaign took place on the web, obviously, but also on cell phones fax machines, SMS messaging, voicemail, clues in newspaper personal ads, billboards, flyers at live events and at clubs around the world—every medium we could touch.