Sean Stewart, at 40, is the author of eight novels and the winner of the 2000 World Fantasy Award, a prestigious prize for speculative fiction. He also helped build "The Beast," the groundbreaking online game that Microsoft created in 2001 to promote the Steven Spielberg movie A.I. Asked today whether he prefers writing novels or so-called "alternate reality games"-massive, multiplatform narratives that sprawl across the web and spill over into real space-Stewart doesn't hesitate. "Right now, this art form is more exciting than novels," he says. "If I had to choose, I'd do this, and I don't say that because of the paycheck. I honestly believe that the gods, in their infinite mercy, looked down and gave me a chance to be at Kitty Hawk, to be in motion pictures in 1905, to be at a place and a moment in time where something extraordinarily exciting was just getting off the ground."
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.
According to Lee Newman, group account director at McKinney + Silver, a half-million players regularly followed last year's Audi ARG, "The Art of the Heist," and those who had a positive view of Audi-before and after the game-went from 23 to 39 percent. The time spent with the online content was also substantially higher-from four to 10 minutes on some pages-than with a traditional online campaign. "One of the things that is great about the kind of TV that we all aspire to do is that it doesn't just push a message on somebody, but it engages people emotionally," adds McKinney group creative director Jonathan Cude. "I think that's one of the strengths of this kind of marketing effort as well." And, unlike television commercials, they attract enthusiastic fans who aren't bothered by the sponsorships. As Peters says, "We were being provided with this really rich entertainment experience for free, and part of the charm of it was that they didn't hit you over the head with the product that they were promoting." Or, as Stewart puts it, "There's no such thing as viral marketing. All there is is fun."
"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.
"For something like an Audi, you need a lot of money behind it," says Mike Monello, a partner in Haxan and Campfire, the recently formed partnership between members of Haxan and Chelsea Pictures partner Steve Wax. "Production-wise, it's much like a feature film, but I love the fact that it's two-way communication, and there's something incredibly exciting about throwing a story out there and getting instantaneous reaction from the audience. It's unique to the medium. You don't get that in film. You don't get that in literature. You don't get that in any other form of storytelling."
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!"