SXSW 2007 – ARG! The Attack of the Alternate Reality Games Transcript
ARG! The Attack of the Alternate Reality Games
Saturday, March 10th 2007
11:30 am – 12:30 pm
Part game, story and treasure hunt, alternate reality games introduce people to a world of creative play, skywriting, online games, phone calls, radio broadcasts, secret websites, blogs, texts, coded adverts, emails, hidden audio files and helicopter chases. What you need to know about what’s been happening and what’s happening next from industry leaders.
Moderator: Alice Taylor VP Digital Content, BBC
Panel Organiser: Dan Hon COO, Mind Candy
Dan Hon COO, Mind Candy
Brian Clark Founder/CEO, GMD Studios/IndieWire
Evan Jones Creative Dir/Producer, Stitch Media
Brooke Thompson Giant Mice
Alice Taylor VP Digital Content, BBC
Alice Taylor: OK, so quick intro. I work for the BBC. I’m V.P. of Digital Content. I’m based in Hollywood, but I also work for the BBC in London so I’m half public service, half commercial. We do a couple of games and I blog about games at wonderlandblog.com and Kotaku. So, I’m going to be kind of hosting this.
What I’m going to do is introduce these guys to you, and then they will have a couple of minutes to talk about what they do maybe ask you guys some questions. Then I’ve got a couple of questions to kind of set the framework and then we’re going to open it up to you for at least half of the session.
Please use the microphone, come forward, and ask questions — whatever you want to ask. It doesn’t matter if you don’t know what on earth an ARG is or whether you’ve played five of them, come forward because we want this to be completely interactive.
So, in order, Brian Clark, founder of GMD Studios known for probably, I think, “Art of the Heist” would you say?
Brian Clark: For Audi.
Alice: For Audi. That was a large ARG that came out a year –
Brian: Two years ago?
Alice: Two years ago?
Alice: Brian also founded “IndieWire,” which I’ll let him explain more about, but he has a film background.
To Brian’s left is Evan, Evan Jones. Evan is award winning and probably best known for a show in Canada called “ReGenesis” – it had a large ARG attached to it. He’s now founded a company called Stitch.
To his left, Brooke, who is a consultant and a game designer. Brooke is very involved in the community of ARGs. And obviously, ARGs are really all about community so she’s very involved with the player end of things.
And to her left is Dan. Dan Hon, Chief Creative Officer – Evangelist.
Dan Hon: Yeah.
Alice: [laughs] For Mind Candy, who produced and made “Perplex City” which I’m sure you’ve all heard of.
So, I’ll let these guys just have a little bit of a chat with you for a couple of minutes, and then I’ll kick off with some questions. So go ahead, I know you had a question, Brian.
Brian: Well yeah. I just wanted to get a feel for who all is here in the audience. So, like, how many of you would consider yourselves storytellers or writers?
Alice: Yes, let’s have a show of hands.
Brian: How many of you consider yourselves bloggers or journalists?
Alice: One on the edge!
Brian: Can someone shout out, if you didn’t raise your hand, what you are?
Man: Entertainment company.
Brian: Entertainment company? Any else? OK.
Alice: Who here has played an ARG?
Brian: Cool. Who here is hoping someone will define that phrase before we get too far – ah, there we go!
Brian: Good, so we’ve got a mix of everything. So, GMD Studios, my partners and I are all from the entertainment industry. We started in ’94. We’re an experimental media firm; so we’re always looking for how new media let’s us do the things from traditional media in new ways.
So, sometimes that looks like a publisher in that we publish “IndieWire,” that been an online, self-sustaining, no venture capital content venture for 11 years. And then we do things where we take that knowledge and leverage it for advertisers.
So a lot of the alternate reality gaming that we’ve done has been with ad agencies for big sponsors like “More to See” for Sharp and “Art of the Heist” for Audi and “Who Is Benjamin Stove?” for GM.
So, we’re treating this as an opportunity online. Those of you who blog or publish online know that you’ve got a very different relationship with your audience. You know, it’s not a theoretical relationship between the writer and the author. There’s a very real relationship that gives you lots of feedback.
So for us, ARGing is an interesting opportunity to use that feedback and change the story and the product in real time based upon what the audience is telling you they like or don’t like. When I talk about it, you’ll hear me talk a lot about story structure but also how you could measure it for a marketer and show some real brand value and, thus, fund your art through sponsorship.
Evan Jones: Well, I’m going to be taking sort of a different angle, basing it on some of my previous experience working as Creative Director at Xenophile Media. That’s where I’ve been for the past three years where I’ve been working with television production companies to enhance their original creative into interactivity in the form of alternate reality games. And how that works in a cross media way dealing with something that is, perhaps, already produced like a television series and how the fluid nature of the interactive can change to adjust to match that initial creative.
Brooke Thompson: As she said, I come to this with a strong community background. I actually got into alternate reality games from a sociology undergrad where I was looking at online communities and how they can sort of transform the world — you know that idealistic thing that we all thought in 1995 and to a degree, even still do.
So, for the past five years I’ve been working with the community sites Unfiction and ARGN, or ARGNet. And now I’m taking it into a more serious games segment where serious games – I mean, it sounds really boring, but it’s basically a way games for change… or games that do something other than just purely entertain.
You can harness the community aspect of alternate reality games to do some really neat things, and that’s where I’ll probably spend some of my time talking about.
Dan Hon: So, hi! I’m Dan. I work for a company called Mind Candy. We’re VC-backed; we’ve been around for about two and a half years so we’re relative newcomers on the scene. Our main product is something called “Perplex City”.
What Mind Candy is really about – or at least it was in our first season – was about treasures, treasure puzzles and story. On the treasure side, what we did was we kicked off a worldwide treasure hunt. We buried an object called the Receda Cube somewhere in the world and we gave a 100,000 prize to the winner — $200,000. And that was claimed about three weeks ago.
We’re really in to puzzles. That’s how we interact with our audience a lot of the time, so we do everything from heat sensitive ink on cards to getting people to decipher microdots, getting people to learn about hieroglyphics and decipher lots of interesting codes. We get our players to engage in social engineering and try to get their way past things like security guards that we play.
On the more extreme side, our players end up doing things like writing distributed RC5 decryption clients. So that’s the kind of puzzle stuff that we do.
And we’re really big on story; we’re really big on narrative. So what we’ve been doing for the last two and half years, more or less, is plotting a story that spans lots of different media. It’s got back-stabbings; it’s pretty much a traditional soap opera. You’ve got murders, babies, betrayal, affairs – there’s a really great audience out there for that kind of thing.
And the interesting thing that we found there is that there’s a great audience split around 50/50, male/female.
So what I do at Mind Candy is… my official title is Chief Operating Officer. We’re very much in start-up mode so I do a bit of everything. I help out with legal, payroll and all kind of stuff like that.
My personal background, I first came into ARGs in 2001 with “The Beast,” which was a production by Microsoft. I got very involved with the community there and I subsequently worked with Microsoft for one of their internal sequel projects for that. Then I came into Mind Candy. So I spend a lot of time now evangelizing ARGs to the outside community.
Alice: Great. OK, that should, I hope, give you a little bit of a framework. ARGs are probably, what, five years old? Five-ish?
Alice: So they haven’t been around forever. They did pretty much come out, I think, of the gaming community, probably from a bit of a marketing and promotions angle.
Brian: I think it’s kind of interesting because I think it got invented almost by a few different communities all at once.
Alice: At the same time, which is always… emergent.
Brian: You talk about film people and you can kind of see them do the same thing with narrative.
Alice: We’ve mentioned cross media and, of course, I think the defining thing about ARGs is that they do usually take pieces of whatever it is that they’re doing from film, television, radio, magazines, print, the Internet and weave them together into a story that players play through.
And they can last for – I mean in “Perplex City” season one ran for-
Dan: Season one ran for about two years.
Alice: Two years? All those others ran for a mere three months, right, so there’s no standard length.
Dan: A year, or three months.
Alice: Anyway, I want to start off–so hopefully now you have a clear idea of what an ARG is, although we’ll go into some examples–but I want to ask you guys. Because it did really, I think, start out of marketing as well as the game industry but, as you said, popped up all at once. What are ARGs really for? Are they promotional? What are they?
Dan: I think that’s a really interesting question, because I think for most of us sitting up here, the genre is so new that it’s kind of like asking what are books for or what are websites for or what’s a newspaper for? I think what we’re experimenting with is using lots of different kinds of media and then using them together to create a new platform to tell stories.
So, working out a way to use text messages, phone calls, faxes, live events, blogs, all that kind of stuff–instant messaging, online video–and weaving that together to create a more coherent experience than you’d experience with just one of those media.
Alice: Why do you think marketing folks–for instance, after [The Art of] The Heist was outed and The LOST Experience is another well-known one that is designed entirely to promote “LOST,” the TV show. Why do you think marketers picked up on this? Because you would think that creating another story is quite a lot of work to do, to do an ARG; obviously much more work than just sticking an advert up. What are the reasons?
Man 2: But conversely, I think you’ve got a couple of factors involved. One is that–in the U.S. especially–you’ve got a big shift of budget away from broadcast, away from print and traditional media, into things that are viewed as more interactive.
But that raises new questions, because advertisers have typically been interested in reach: how many millions of people will see this. Now they’re starting to realize that the quality of the engagement and the quality of that interaction with the brand have a lot more impact than just the sheer number of people you reach.
So where a television advert might, in the best-case scenario, give you 30 seconds of attention, an ARG will produce session lengths that are 30 minutes or longer and heavy repeat visitation, for all the same reasons that people tune into an episodic television series.
Brian: But it’s still measurable, right? That’s the beautiful thing about the web. If you trying to do this as, say, live theater, you’d be really stuck up against the fact that you don’t have any framework for measuring whatsoever. Where here, you can measure both the way you would web, and the way you would measure PR. Because a lot of this happens on sites that you don’t even control.
For example, a lot of game playing and discussion happens in community sites like unfiction. So there you have a community that isn’t really under your control, isn’t in your weblogs, but is definitely engaged in the work that you’re doing and feeding that to other people.
So that aspect of it makes it more immediately provable as an ROI medium for marketers, but a little more difficult for a fan-based model, because outside of “Majestic,” which was a very early game — about the same time as “I Love Bees” — there really hasn’t been a successful attempt at charging subscribers. So you don’t have book sales or ticket sales, the way you would in a normal storytelling environment.
Dan: I think there’s also a trend, or there’s a term, that’s coming out now, something called “continuous partial attention” that Linda Stone is talking about, and it’s something that a lot of people – I mean I’ve done it before.
Alice: Linda Stone is Microsoft?
Dan: Yeah, Microsoft.
Alice: If you Google Linda’s name, “continuous partial attention,” you find out she does long talks on this.
Dan: She basically talks about what a lot of people in this room are doing right now. So you’re all here, you’re all listening to us, doing this panel, but at the same time, there are lots of people blogging, there are lots of people checking email at the same time.
So a lot of people are paying continuous partial attention to things at the same time. You see this with TV, you see this with audience fragmentation, you see this with people watching TV shows, listening to radio at the same time, they’re in IM, they’re also browsing the web.
What ARGs offer is the potential to reach the people who you’d only reach once, say, through a TV advert but do it across a number of different media in a coherent way.
Alice: That’s really interesting.
Evan: I think just to follow up on that, Dan, one of the things that I was thinking is that these alternate reality games really are taking advantage of the natural state of the Internet, which is that people are always hunting for little bits of information and assembling them into some kind of knowledge. You’re graduating from that data to knowledge stage, and the way that these are created is the way that we seem to be interacting with the world now. These different sources of media are all happening at once, and I think that’s a good way of saying it.
Alice: Yeah, we did some research at the BBC quite recently, which showed that in fact 50% (this is in the UK but I’m sure it’s pretty similar in the States) 50% of television watching is now just the TV on in the background, which is up from I think around 10% in the ’50s, so I think you’re right about it spreading across media. But who would you say really plays? I’m going to go to you, Brooke, on this. From what we’ve been talking about so far, it sounds like we’re talking about people who carry laptops all the time or have multiple devices. Are we talking about just those people, or do you think it’s a broader picture?
Brooke: There is a much broader picture, but definitely you have to be computer literate for most alternate reality games. It’s not that it has to be that way, that’s just how it is, because there are pieces from all over the place. So you have to have a functional understanding of how to get and find information online, which actually is one reason why it makes them such good corporate training tools, because it teaches that functionality.
But the audience, as far as games go, people love alternate reality games because it has a huge number of women involved, both in the playing and in the development process. Age… It’s hard to say, because there’s games like Jamie Kane from the BBC which are actively targeting teenage girls, and then there’s games that are much more cerebral that seem to attract the 30-year-olds, the late 20s. “Perplex City” seems to attract late teens to mid-20s.
Dan: I think our age range peaks at around 26. For us it’s interesting because the way we stretched it that first season, there were so many facets to it, so the audience that we had were following the strict story side was very different from the people who were playing the other side of our business which is the puzzle side, the straight puzzle side.
Alice: What breakdown would that be?
Dan: It’s hard to say. What we do know is that there was a much higher proportion of women who were following the story than we would have expected otherwise. And that for the strict casual game side, for the puzzle card solving side, we had a very large age skew. So we were going from 10 years old up to about 80. So that was very much the casual gaming market, as opposed to, at the moment, the traditional audience we see for an ARG, which is slightly more hard-core.
Brooke: You can really customize an audience because you’re doing a story, so you can write something.
Brian: It’s like saying, who watches television? It’s very different for different shows. And you can write stories designed to appeal to particular audiences.
But I think that phenomenon of having a lot of women as players and developers in the community comes from the fact that most ARG models aren’t competitive gaming, they’re collaborative gaming, so the whole audience is solving things together. I think that’s one of the things that makes it appeal more to women than, say, a first-person shooter, that’s much more adrenaline-junkie competitive.
Evan: It’s got a whole social quality as well that’s a big draw, in the amount of interaction that goes on between players, but also the feeling you get of being one of those characters in the story as it goes along. It really feels like an empowering thing that I think hits a certain niche that you may not with others.
Alice: Yeah, the story is interesting. I just want to dive in here because I’d to be corrected on this. But I did hear a rumor that 97% — and this is why I’m kind of, “Huh?” This may in the sci-fi community only — but 97% of fan fiction is written by women. Is that true? Has anybody heard this before?
Dan: I wouldn’t be surprised.
Brooke Thompson: Yeah, me either.
Dan: I would not be surprised by what you said.
Alice: Although I also have to say, just to be difficult, the story does obviously appeal to women. But first-person shooters, I used to play “Quake” for England so…
[crosstalk and laughter]
Brian: We’re talking in generalities and not in specifics, right? [laughs]
Alice: Yeah, yeah. I’m always obliged, you know? That was before…
So right, let’s move on with where do you see ARGs going? Because we’re talking about a really broad spectrum here, so it’s kind of difficult to keep dealing with generalizations. But if you can, in general, where you see ARGs going from here?
Brian: I could bring up a couple of things. Just last weekend was the Alternate Reality Gaming Festival in San Francisco. A lot of that community gathered together to talk about stuff like that.
Among the people they had as panelists were the filmmakers behind the “Lonelygirl” in part because, initially, the ARG audience mistook “Lonelygirl” for being an alternate reality game. And then when they discovered it wasn’t an alternate reality game they launched one – the fans did!
Brian: And the creators went, “Wow that’s pretty cool! We’ll let you be the official “Lonelygirl” alternate reality game.”
So you get this sort of ability, I think, for the idea of alternate reality gaming as a framework by which storytellers and audiences can play together instead of playing in just a one-way direction.
Evan: I think one of the things that’s moving forward is the talk – and I’ve heard a lot of talk about making it into a more mainstream experience. I am interested to see all the different models that take it in that direction.
I think there may be certain games that are played at a hardcore level and certain ones that are played at a mainstream level, or ones that separate the community into different levels of play, and all sorts of different models that will allow people who…
There are different stories of people who spend hours and hours being involved in these, but I do think there is an audience who wants to be engaged in a story on a much briefer level.
Brooke: Yeah, I agree. We’re definitely going to see alternate reality games spreading more into television, or taking from television the whole interactive – like “Heroes” the “360” experience, the “LOST” experience — they love to call things “The Experience.”
Brooke: So the television experience will be a big one, but I also think that there’s a lot of awareness for how games can do good things. We’re definitely going to be seeing how games can help people work, how they can help people find places in their cities and how they can interact with their world in a different way. I think alternate reality games tend to lead to that in a natural progression.
Brooke: So I think we’re going to see it spread out.
Brian: And you should have seen at GDC – at the Game Developers Convention – academia is interested in this because they’re looking at this as a teaching mechanism. The not-for-profit world is looking at this as a way to affect social change by large groups. Educators are looking at this, marketers are looking at this, and storytellers are looking at this.
In a way, I think the number of people actually in the scene is greatly dwarfed by the number of people watching the scene and trying to figure out where this can go next. So we’re definitely in a, like, infancy phase in terms of what other people in these other communities as they grab this model and twist it into something else.
Dan: Definitely. So, one of the things that we’ve learned from “Perplex City” is that it’s terribly to hard to get into a game that’s two years long and then you’re about a year and a half in. It’s pretty much impossible.
So we’ve been looking at lots of other media. We’ve been looking at television because that’s a very easy comparison to make. We like to say, “Well, what is it that ‘LOST’…” Well, maybe “LOST” isn’t such a good example…
“So, what is it that ’24’ does? What do television shows do to help you catch up halfway through a season, or three-quarters of the way through a season?”
I think we’re going to see a shift, and this is something we’re going to be trying out towards.
So I think we are going to see a shift. This is something we are going to be trying out towards much more episodic gaming. There is a shift towards that in the gaming industry in general, what with Half Life.
Evan: Sam & Max. Yeah.
Dan: So, there will be shift towards episodic gaming. Gaming will probably happen in more bite size chunks to make it more accessible to people, instead of having an episode in an instance of game play where you don’t know how long it is going to last. I think what we’ll see is, probably companies coming out saying this is probably going to only last two to six weeks. So you know it’s not going to completely take over your life.
Alice: So, it has a start and an end date, like a television series.
Dan: It has an end date. You know that you can come in. You can just catch-up. You can just play this episode. And that’s all that you’ll have to do. You can just dip into it.
Evan: It’s been an issue I’ve been bring up is that, with well established media like, for instance, books, they have this really tactile way of giving you the information of this is going to be this long, or that long, or something. And at the moment, we’re still working on that. It’s when you get involved in a rabbit hole. You don’t really know where you’re going…
Alice: Or what you’re signing up for. Yeah.
Evan: Yeah. That’s got an exciting element to it. But it also has a really practical issue, which is, “Oh my gosh. I don’t know what I’m committing to.”
Alice: Yeah. OK. Let’s see what else we’ve got.
Why do you think that for somebody who wants to make ARGs — we’ve been talking about the audience — if you involved — anybody who has run a web site would know that — if you’re involved the audience, it’s a little work? Immediately, the amount of effort goes up, and then therefore, the cost goes up. So we really are talking about playing with the audience, here. You have an audience for ARG. You’re using them. You getting them involved, etc. But that presumably costs. So…
Brian: To some extend. But realize that, I think most of that cost is creative personnel. So, that’s why you have a really vibrant grass roots community in alternate reality game as well as that most of the things you would spend money on, you could replace it with elbow grease.
Now, obviously, you’ve got 100,000 prize, or a helicopter coming out of the sky, or cars being stolen. Just like any movie, there are small budget movies and big budget movies. But teams that are willing to put their energy in, can bypass a lot of the things that marketers or companies would spend money on.
Brooke: Yeah. I’ve worked on a game that — you know, of course, I’m going to say this — I think it had a really high production value. It was a fan fiction game for the Matrix universe. And we attracted over 125,000 players. Over 50,000 players that actually made it, like three stages into the game. There was, you know, as long as it was…
Brian: What was your budget?
Alice: How big was the team?
Brooke: The budget was under 10,000. And the team we have seven people. Four of us were pretty much full-time. The other three were sort of content writers like, “Oh, no! I need this, like massive article on something. Could you write it in three minutes?” “Sure.”
Dan: I think that really high lights one of the things that, I think we’re all grappling with, is the content problem.
Dan: Because, with this kind of audience, you create an incredibly passionate, incredibly inquisitive audience. And it’s the content creation. It’s creative that really sucks up time and result.
Brian: At ARG fest, your brother called it, “Just in time content creation,” which I thought was a wonderfully nice way to describe the feeling of chaos and terror that actually accompanies.
Dan: It’s panic. It’s writing copy, at three in the morning that really should’ve been up about 15 minutes ago. But the great thing about that is that it shows interactivity. This is really user center players into design.
We watch what the players are doing all the time. This is what you guys get with the Metacortex and with the other ARG. You watch what the players are doing. You watch what they like. You watch what doesn’t works and what works. And you constantly are adapting to it.
Brian: More specifically as a story writer, every ARG that we’ve done, we ended up rewriting it significantly half-way after it went public. Often, because the audience comes up with better writing than we came up with. They start thinking, “Oh, that guy’s going to turn on us.” And you think, wow! That’s a good idea to let that guy turn on him. You get all in a room and you start going, OK, what if that guy wasn’t the villain? What if this guy was the villain? How would we change the story from here on out?
That’s something you don’t get except maybe in the editing room of a film where you’ve already shot everything and you’re trying to piece the story together. But here you have the chance to let the audience tell you what they really want to see next.
Evan: Yeah it is really apparent when along the design process you have the players not just in mind but in notes in front of you that say this is what they’re thinking right now. It does influence all of your future decisions.
I think to answer your question as well, there is still an issue right now of an appreciation of the level of content and the creative that goes into some of these projects and how they are very different than putting a website up.
It’s about working with partners and bringing them along to appreciate the kind of production that goes into these behind the scenes that they also involve. They’re not just static pages, they’re constantly being updated.
Alice: I’m going to ask one last question and then I’m going to open it up to you guys. When does this go horribly wrong? [laughter]
Brian: Every time. Every ARG. My favorite one from Art of the Heist was we sent a bunch of people to break into an Audi backstage at a party at Coachella to steal an SD card from the drive mechanism that contained puzzles about an art heist being planned in Italy.
The company dropped off the vehicle with the correct serial number because all of this required that the correct number for the vehicle be matched up for things. But then forgot to unlock the car.
So we had people show up and unable to get into that car so they took pictures of themselves with a sign saying, “We were here, where were you?” and posted that.
Alice: But they didn’t wreck the car.
Brian: But they didn’t wreck the car. Those kinds of things, they’re because of the chaos of doing things in real world with production elements which you don’t have like established guidelines for the right way to deal with people pretending to be secret agents at a music festival and breaking into cars.
You always have to try to figure how you recover from that because you don’t have a chance to say, “OK time out! Let’s start over. Come back tomorrow. Let’s do it again.” Instead, you have to just take that as reality and adapt it from there. But I think every ARG has at least one horror story like that right?
Evan: Yes. I think some of the other things to bring up is that it’s a very careful line that you have t walk in order not to be put into the box of being a hoax.
Evan: There’s a lot of times that I’ve seen people who come at it as a hoax and say, “I’m going to create an alternate reality game that is going to be a complete hoax.” That feeling from the audience really changes the way that the game play works. Exposing yourself to a very committed audience, it almost is a betrayal of the game players sometimes.
Alice: So they don’t like that?
Evan: It depends. Sometimes it works but I am more of the mindset that it is a dangerous, dangerous territory to walk through. And on that note, you talk about horribly wrong and I’m going to diverge a little bit. There’s lots of writing about things like Cy-ops and things where creating fiction borders very closely on propaganda. The idea of doing this for entertainment is all well and good but it also does exist in other ways that are much more serious.
Brooke: Right. Well that was one of the biggest fears, not biggest fears but it came up a lot five years ago. It’s lessened but every once in a while you hear that Ender’s Game scenario. Are you just creating Ender’s Game? You could take it that way, especially if you go towards the hoax. Perhaps it’s an ethical thing but you have to make sure that players know that there is a game to be played because if there is not, why do you want to play it?
Brian: And that they can trust you, because they’re going to do things that they shouldn’t do. They shouldn’t listen to random people on the Internet and go steal from cars at a music festival, right?
Brian: But despite their mothers’ advice, they’re doing that, because they have an assumption that they’re not really going to get hurt, and that’s really important for you as a storyteller to make sure you don’t portray.
Brooke: Yeah. So when the hoax thing comes up that is when an ARG goes wrong.
Dan: I think there are some practicalities involved as well. There’s a really fine line to be trodden when things go wrong — you can get some seriously bad PR very quickly. These are — I’ll say it again — very connected, very passionate people, and it will be around the blogosphere like that if you put one foot wrong. To balance that, when it’s going right, it goes incredibly well. You get all the buzz, all the passion, you get mash-ups that you would never dream of coming in to existence.
We had some fun stuff happen when we were dealing with our PR company, and they were trying to sort out our PR for when our treasure got found, and they were saying, “This is on-line dealt with; we’ve got a TV interview for Friday morning.”
Dan: And we’re saying, “We don’t know when it’s going to be found!” “What do you mean, you don’t know when it’s going to be found?” You know, it’s a treasure hunt. We’re not there watching it: if we were, then it’d probably give away where it was!
Dan: So it was something that was really hard for the PR company to get their heads around. There are other considerations as well: I have conversations with our public liability insurance people, because we do lots of live events. We have helicopters buzzing people, we ask people to do some really strange things that we hope — well, that we know are safe, but these are very committed people and they may well do —
Alice Taylor: You don’t know where it’s going to go. I saw people doing a conga around Trafalgar Square, thanks to this man. How many people did you stuff into a phone box?
Dan: Oh, probably an illegal number.
I think a lot of it comes from an awareness that you have to give up an element of control. And that’s when things can get risky, that’s when the bad things can start to happen.
Brian: It’s also where the fun happens, right?
Dan: It’s also where the fun happens, it’s a great thrill, and that’s where I think you can show your community how much they mean to you. And that is worth so much.
Alice: It’s pretty obvious you guys love your jobs. It does sound like a fun thing to do.
All right! Questions? There’s a microphone; if you want to come up and form a queue that would be great. Sorry to make you move.
Brian: How are you doing, Stephen?
On the other side of that, when things go horribly wrong, the fact that it is a discipline in its infancy – is it a discipline? I don’t know! If any of you are familiar with how “creative” gets pushed through the sausage factory with a major automotive client —
Brian: Oh, yeah! [laughter]
Stephen: I was with brand manager for Audi at Driving Interactive several months ago, and this guy was incredibly forward thinking: you could tell he was going to advocate some kind of radical new program for Audi — Audi has the brand equity, they can afford to do that. But how do you sell something for which in order to get those high production values that engage people, there’s that log curve, in terms of the labor intensity that you have to invest in the project. You don’t know how many people are going to get involved, it could totally go to shit.
Brian: But you can still plan that. Just from a media end, the portion of budget you put into media lets you predict what your reach is going to be. Then the real quality is — can I engage that audience and keep them? The way we do it with ad agencies is if you can’t afford to experiment with 1% of your marketing budget, you’re always going to fall behind.
The brands that tend to be most interested in experimenting are the brands that are in pain. Because the brands that are doing really well, they just keep doing what they’re doing. But as soon as they become the number three, or the number four player in their space, they start saying, “What do I do that my competitors aren’t doing?”
And that’s what you just try to keep it to, you know, not an amount of money where they’re going to say, “God! There goes Audi!” Right? But instead, a small enough amount that it’s more like what the production side of a traditional ad spend would be rather than the media spend portion of it would look like.
Dan: I just want to be honest here and say that that’s not yet a problem that we’ve necessarily had to experience. Now, just addressing your point on what happens when, you know, when this gets pushed through the sausage factory. When “The Beast” was produced at Microsoft, it was effectively a dark project. No one knew about it. Legal did not know about it.
Dan: And this is Microsoft, right? There is no way that project would have gotten out the door if people knew about it.
Dan: From Mind Candy’s perspective, at the moment our phone is ringing off the hook in terms of people coming to us and saying, “What you’re doing is amazing. We want one of those, please.”
But at the same time, there is an entirely different set of companies and brands out there who we are going to. And they are saying, “Well. That does sound interesting, but this is going to take quite a while for us to get our head around.”
So, I’d say that there’s a sizable audience of companies and brands out there who get this, which is great from our point of view. But then, there is a long, hard sell for a lot of the others.
Man 1: Good answer, that was mine.
Man 2: I have a question about ARGs and public safety. Looking ahead, are ARGs sort of the bridge between the living room and the street, taking video games from the living room and moving them into the street?
When I look at lifestyle invading ARGs, like “Street Wars” or even one step beyond the mixed reality games being developed in the U.K, like “Blast Theory”.
Alice: Yep, yep.
Man 2: I mean some of these are first-person shooters, MMOs being taking place in the physical world. It seems like, looking ahead, there’s going to be some fool who takes “GTA” or “Manhunt” or “Go Postal” and develops an ARG around that. I don’t know if you guys can kind of speak to that –
Alice: “Manhunt: The ARG” Oh, my God!
Brian: Oh, wow. It’s closer to your stuff, Evan.
Evan: Oh, is it? “Manhunt”?
Brian: You’ve certainly done stuff that could be mistaken…
Evan: Well, yeah. We did a bio-terrorist attack in the first episode of the series.
Evan: We always found it most useful to add an extra layer, which said before we go into the real fiction, we’re going to just take a moment and say to ourselves that we are about to step over than line. And say, “This is all for play and fake and isn’t that nice? OK, now that you’ve realized that, here we go, and we’re going to walk into this door…”
That has been always the way that we point people back to say, “Look, it’s really not our responsibility if people that things that they have acknowledged as fictional and believe it.”
You know, there are miles of that in every meeting.
Dan: They have their own problems.
Evan: And so I think that’s the important thing I would point to. I think it’s the responsibility to go there and to say that it’s false before you go in to say that it’s real.
Brian: We’ll know that the ARGing genre has matured when someone starts saying, “I did it because of an ARG.”
Brian: Because they’ve said it about books, they’ve said it about movies; they’ve said it about video games. People are always looking for those influences or blames. So, I think the only reason we haven’t heard it from someone yet is because it’s still a scene – it hasn’t grown big enough that a serial killer has become an ARG fan.
Dan: We’ve no been on Fox News yet.
Brian: Right, exactly.
Alice: Yeah, yeah.
Dan: Or “Focus on Family” once we’ve gone off the air or something like that.
Brian: My name is Brian and I work for Greenpeace International and I’m interested to hear more about games that matter and interact with the real world in a real way, simply because we’ve had some very good experience with traditional game formats on our website that have built (sometime for activist purposes, more times for educational purposes) an awful lot of traffic. But I dream of the interactive platform that’s going to do something about climate change and get that particular demographic of young women, 26 year old people, out there doing something for that.
So what’s the sort of shoe-string budget for that kind of development possibilities for this? Great – you can develop one for $10,000 but what does it take to get that out and totally viral and going wild?
Evan: I think he likes you.
Brian: I think he does.
Brooke: Yeah, you just set me up really nicely there. Keep your eye out in the next couple of weeks for something on climate change perhaps – maybe – I don’t know anything, of course. [laughter] But, you know, there was a really interesting keynote at GDC by Jane McGonigal who’s doing amazing work in this field and she brought up – I don’t know how many of you heard about “Last Call Poker.” It was sort of an unknown Alternate Reality Game, surprisingly. I thought it was fantastic. But they sent people out in cemeteries to play…
Brian: To play poker.
Brooke: To play poker with the tombstones. Now…
Brian: Historical, famous cemeteries where noted cowboys were buried.
Brooke: And the whole thing was, it really fit in the story game and it never once occurred to me while I was playing this game that they were getting me to a cemetery because, hey, cemeteries need live bodies because they’re losing their land to big box stores, to condos. The land is too valuable to just have it sitting there with 200 year-old dead people.
So, by bringing in bodies, they were able to show that it had value as a public space and so cemeteries could then point to that. So that’s an example from the past about alternate reality games.
Brian: But just to add one more thing – they knew this. They talked to all of these parks and recreation departments to try to how this marketing campaign could also help solve that need so they built in game mechanics like you would get extra points in you cleaned up the graveyard. So these groups that would come and play didn’t destroy these places, they actually left them better than when they first arrived.
Brooke: And it was a game for Acitivision’s “Gun” – it wasn’t a promotion for cemeteries, it was a promotion for a first person shooter. But also, Jane has a game that she’s working with anther guy, Ken Eklund, that’s called “World Without Oil” and it’s going to get people to imagine what life would be like if there is no oil. How do you date if you can’t get in your car to go someplace?
Brian: How do you have a wedding if your family can’t fly from all over the country to attend it?
Brooke: And it’s going to get people – get you – hopefully you’ll all play – get you guys to go and talk about these things and explore this. And not only at the end of that game are you going to have fun thinking about these theoretical ideas, but at the end there’s going to be this massive database of things that people did fictionally that might be able to prepare us for when that time comes, if it does come.
So there’s a lot of really exciting things that can be done with these games that can engage us on a level other than, you know…
Alice: So it’s harnessing ideas…
Evan: I think it’s about putting a spotlight and a human face on the issues and so by basing a storyline around an issue that you feel passionate about, it does exactly what all the other media does, is draw attention to it.
Dan: So just to draw on what Evan said, this really shows the power of story and the power of narrative. The things that you can get people to do when they are totally immersed in a story are amazing.
One of the best examples is that you take a storyline in an ARG, you take a character, you put them in peril, and then you have a social engineering type puzzle, where, for the players to save this character, who they’ve known, in our case, for two years, they’ve watched this character grow for two years, so it’s been like a soap opera to them, and this person’s going to die if, collectively, as players, you can’t get the security guard to let you into this building. So then, just think of the possibilities. People look this guy up in the blog that you’ve created for him. They find out they’ve got kids, so some people might take the strategy of saying, “We’re going to kidnap your kids if you don’t let my character in.”
Some people will find…
Brian: That’s a great idea for Greenpeace.
Dan: This shows the power of narrative to get people to do as a call to action. To get people to do things that they otherwise would not normally do because they’re suddenly identifying with a character that they really care about.
Brian: We’re just going to avoid the edutainment trap, right? There’s certainly a perception that games that are serious aren’t fun when, in reality, if we can find a way to let those two things co-exist.
Brian: Thank you.
Man 3: I thought that you guys mentioning that people thought lonelygirl15 was an ARG was pretty interesting. For me, that was all about figuring out where this was coming from. “Is this evil? Who’s behind this? What’s going on?”
I feel like, to me anyway, I’m new to this. That seems to be a core fundamental principal for these games. It’s like being in on something that others aren’t, necessarily, in this public space. Do you think that this is a core part of these games? Also, how do you see that coexisting as they become more promotional, which it seems to be?
Brooke: I think that’s one motivation. The whole, “I know something you don’t know” is a really exciting thing.
Dan: A viral thing.
Dan: It’s not just for us, I think it is pretty much everything. I think that being the first person to know about something…
Brian: But really, conversely, what we’re doing is trying to give the audience something to do, rather than just read. The simplest thing that you can do is take your narrative and break it into a thousand pieces and hide them all over the place. Then the audience has to become an active researcher. It’s like CSI, it’s forensic storytelling, where the audience is actually assembling that, and thus feels ownership over it.
Part of that is, “I know something you don’t know.” But it is also, “I know something you don’t know, and now I’m going to share it with you.” Rather than, “I know something you don’t know, and now I’m going to keep it secret.”
Alice: It is very collaborative, isn’t it?
Evan: The feeling of finding something out, and then being able to bring it to the rest of the community, and show it off is a major driver for this type of gameplay.
Alice: With “Perplex City” even though there was a massive amount of money to be won, which you would think would make people keep the bits of their uncovered secrets. In fact, it was the opposite, wasn’t it? People would uncover something and rush to the forums and go, “Yeah!”
Dan: People were very realistic, and they were very open. I mean, yeah, we did see some closing up, and it was like, OK, we think they’re in kind of the right area now. But they were still sharing information in ways we didn’t think they would.
I think part of the question also goes back to one of the very first things we’ve talked about on this panel. The question about whether this is real or not, or kind of discovering something and trying to work out where it is coming from. What it is for.
I think that’s something that we’re just seeing at the beginning of this. Again, it’s like asking that question about a book as media or television as media. Do I know if this TV show is true or not. I think we are going to start evolving into a “This is entertainment. I know, and I would think that everyone who is playing an Alternate Reality Game knows that it is a game. They’re just trying to figure out the stuff about it.
So, I guess it can be a little like “Memoirs of a Geisha,” where you have plot twists at the end. I don’t want to give any spoilers or anything, but that kind of thing, where it is fiction. It is a way of telling a story, and it is all about narrative. It is all about engaging people with it and wanting people to be brought along with it.
Man 3: The other part was how does that coexist with the promotional nature of these?
Brian: Oh but it is. That’s exactly like, as an example, real quick, “Who is Benjamin Stove?” It was a three week ARG about ethanol use and we didn’t mention the name of the sponsor until the third day from the end. And so, consequently, the community the whole time was in suspense. Obviously this was a big game, who’s the sponsor? And they were like, they thought it was a rum company. They thought it was totally making this stuff up. But then, when we gave them that information they propagated it.
Alice: So they expected a sponsor?
Brian: So it was a solution of a mystery. Right. They expected a sponsor.
Alice: They didn’t have a problem with the fact that it was a sponsor?
Brian: How can we be doing this? Oh no, they expect a sponsor. In fact, they were sort of surprised that they weren’t being told who the sponsor was. They were expecting like an overt brand.
Alice: So you made it part of the game?
Brian: We made it part of the game, right.
Dan: That’s quite challenging because right now the audience expects ARGs to have sponsors. It expects them to be tied into a brand. It’s very rare in “Perplex City” and “Cathy’s Book,” which is something that 42 are doing, are pretty much the only ones right now that aren’t tied to a brand and aren’t a promotional exercise.
In “Perplex City’s” case it’s interesting because “Perplex City” is in fact promoting itself. We have the rest of the brand that we are in effect marketing with the ARG that…
Alice: I think everybody understands you had an alternative form of revenue so you sell the puzzle cards and then the ARG comes with that. Whereas most of the ARGs are free. But at that point there is a sponsor. So there is just a general understanding that that’s OK and expected.
Woman 1: Hi! I come from sort of the non-idealistic spectrum, I work for a major media company and we kind of have the opposite problem of people getting it. It’s not that they saw the “Lost Experience” some of our people and when it came to, I work in the interactive department, and they said we want that for one of our shows. And I told them well I don’t know that that’s really appropriate…
Alice: Did you get six different shows turning up all at once, saying, “We want one of those.”
Woman 1: So, and, a couple questions I have is let’s say that we decide, yes, let’s do this for this upcoming show, how much do I need to pay one of you and how long do I need to give you?
Woman 1: And also is it, you know, I got the sense that you don’t want to do it for a new show that no one’s ever heard because we’re a mass media company.
Dan: Oh well, you…
Woman 1:…so, yea where do you get those people.
Brian: We did a project with Fox Television back in ’99-2000 called “FreakyLinks.” And what we did is we took the pilot money and launched a web site out of it instead of making the traditional pilot. And so the web site was live for nine months before Fox ever mentioned there was a television show.
So once the television show got announced, everyone made an assumption that Fox had literally licensed this poor guy’s life and made a television show out of it. And then, slowly they began to realize that those two stories were directly interconnected. But, that was a nine month prelaunch before the series.
Woman 1: But how many people is everyone, because “Freaky Links” got canceled really fast?
Brian: Oh well, that’s true. That was my favorite thing was seeing the list of family guys shows that had to be canceled before “Family Guy” would be brought back.
Woman 1: Well I didn’t mean, it’s a small community right now, but I’m dealing with a mass.
Brian: Conversely, at its day when it launched, it was the fourth highest trafficked television show web site. And “Oprah” was going to be next if they hadn’t canceled us. But, that’s what you had is where, compared to like the network’s traffic, it wasn’t as high. But we were 600,000 plus users a month.
Woman 1: That’s good!
Brian: So, in a very adverse environment.
Woman 1: And you were able to market, how did you go out there to get those people? How did they find out about it?
Brian: It helps when you’re writing about monsters and paranormal and you sort of draw that audience to you sort of naturally. And having episodic content, having him researching something every week, gave a reason for people to come back and evangelize.
Woman 1: OK, but…
Brian: There was really very, very little media spend.
Woman 1: So how long did it take you, how long ahead did they come to you and how much did it cost?
Brian: A year, but in that case we were working with the people who were also creating the television show which was Haxan that made the “Blair Witch” project and David Goyer, who wrote “Blade” and “Dark City.” So Fox knew they wanted a horror property and they wanted something with an interactive edge to it.
Alice: Would you say that it would be really difficult to set something up in a shorter period of time, say three to six months, because television folks often turn up and go, “Hey our show’s on in September.”
Evan: I have a specific example of last summer with Xenophile’s project called the “Ocular Effect” which had a turnaround time, I believe, of two months in order to hit launch date.
Alice: So the show was ready, you had a transmission date and you had to create the –
Evan: Yes. Now the caveat that I wanted to say is that I think all off my collaborators would say and agree that you really know that a project is going to be successful by the earliest integration that happens, by how early you’re integrated into the creative team.
Dan: You really need the buy-in from the…
Brooke: So at the development stage we need to say, “This is a good candidate,” and then it will come to you.
Brian: Yes, completely.
Dan: Otherwise, you’re going to see the kind of thing that happens with –
Brooke: You’re just using scraps.
Dan: Right. Well, not all…
Brian: Well, not just that but let’s use an example. In Fox, we could only use the principle stars. We couldn’t use guest stars because of SAG rules. So, whoever the guest star was in those episodes wasn’t a choice for us to build an integrated story with.
The sooner you can kind of get ahead of that the more you ca make sure that the television stories don’t lock you out of the potential of doing anything.
Dan: There’s also a good example here in the way that things can possibly go wrong. You can get it by going right back to the beginning to 2001 with “The Beast.” So, that was a separate storyline from the film. It was set in the same game world, but it was… It had nothing –
Brooke: Which was the film?
Dan: Yeah, the film was “A.I.” by Steven Spielberg.
Brooke: Mmm, OK.
Dan: So the interesting thing there was that the creative team for the ARG had pretty much free reign in their part of the universe and they created something that was really very good.
Dan: And then the reviews for the movie came out. Because this was one of the first really big ARGs and, you know, the buzz the ARG was getting was enormous. I was on News90, I was in the New York Times and everything. People were saying, “This game? It’s amazing! This is the future of entertainment. This is brilliant. And I’ve seen the movie now and, well, I think I preferred the game.”
So you really need the earliest possible stake. You need everyone to get on the same page, otherwise there’s going to be this really bizarre mismatch between the two.
Brooke: And that’s the way it always is. OK, so the final question, though, that no one’s answered is, “Soup to nuts, what’s it cost, mean?”
Brian: What’s it cost to make a TV show?
Alice: Yeah, it is…
Brooke: It’s around those lines.
Brian: You design the story around the budget. Right? So, if you know you’ve got a lot of budget you do car chases and gun play. If you know you’ve got a little budget you hide notes in library books around the country, or call pay phones.
Dan: Which works!
Alice: OK, cool! Just to give a bit of an idea… What would you say the most expensive ARG – how much is the maximum anyone’s spent, do you think? Because the minimum is free, right? Or ten thousand, let’s say.
Evan: Historically? I think you measure in millions.
Evan: That’s all that I know.
Brian: What you would measure in one handful of millions, not two handfuls.
Alice: OK, we’ve got four minutes, so let’s see if we can fit the last two questions in the fours minutes.
Man: Hi, guys. How do you see, measure, or is there any form of peer-to-peer, organic growth with these games? Like, are people going to their neighbors and saying, “Hey! You’ve got to get involved with this!”
Dan: That’s pretty much how they –
Brian: Yeah. You give them a task and they’ll find someone. So like, “Oh! We’ve got a voicemail in Russia” and “I’ve got a friend in Moscow. I’ll call him right now!” So they’re literally recruiting in the skills that they need.
Evan: And they’re bringing other people who are previously non-participants into the game.
Brooke: There’s a core group of players at unfiction, which seems to get tagged quite a bit. Like when “I Love Bees” was launched –
Alice: Wait, the URL for that, Brooke? Unfiction?
Brooke: Yeah, unfiction.com. And the forums are forums.unfiction.com, I think.
They were sent a little jar of honey. So Unfiction was given a week’s advance before the “I Love Bees” URL went on movie trailers. So we were able to sort of gather and build, and then let this community come in. Other times it’s tagged and it spreads from there but, it allows that first chunk of people because you need a group mind and it gives that first group mind before it goes out.
Brian: But recruiting more players is definitely one of the sub-games that the players play.
Dan: It’s kind of got two of the viral fronts. It’s got the “This is really cool. I want to show all my friends.” But also the “I have no idea how to decipher hieroglyphics so I’m going to have to get in touch with everyone I know.” Because, again, the story’s pulling you along and you’re going to have to work out how to decipher these hieroglyphics. So you ask everyone you know, and they ask all their friends, and they ask all their friends, and then we all get rich.
Evan: The only thing I’ll add to that is also the real time quality of it. That you feel as if I need to get people on board because this is happening at this moment.
Alice: And so presumably you build in mechanics into the games that makes this really easy to go and pull people in, right?
Man 4: Do you track? Are you tracking and measuring that, like how that spreads? What are you doing to track that?
Brian: It’s a long conversation. Talk to me later. We’re trying to measure it a bunch of different ways.
Man: So, magic.
Alice: Let’s get this last question. We’ve got one more minute. Thank you.
Man 5: Just a quick question. A lot of games seem to be marketing vehicles for a brand, or a product, or whatever. I was just wondering about building the game to suit that. Obviously with the base there’s a lush story well that you can explore with the game. But other things such as I like “I Love Bees” where it’s a month long unfolding story for a first person shooter. How do you kind of decide on how the game is going to take its form?
Evan: Well just before the real answer comes out, I would like to challenge that a little bit, which is I do think there are quite a few examples of things that are not marketing ventures, and I would like to include some of my own work in that. Which is that it’s more about creative entertainment that’s being put into different license windows.
Brian: Branded entertainment is the category.
Evan: Right, and so…
Dan: There’s lots of soap operas. When soap operas first started coming out on radio and…
Brian: They were selling soap.
Evan: But even without a brand like, for instance, “Regenesis,” a series that we worked with that was not associated with anything but the creative elements of the show. And so whether or not that’s considered a promotion for the show?
Alice: It’s the same brand.
Brian: Yea, yea. You wanted to get viewers to turn in, Audi wanted to sell cars, GM wanted people to know…
Alice: But, Evan’s point is that maybe the game was another shard of the same story. It wasn’t there just to promote the TV show. It was part of the story in itself, right?
Dan: I think that’s a good point. So with “Halo 2” Bungie knew what they were doing with “Halo 2.” And then someone came along and said, “Right, we want to market the launch of ‘Halo 2.'” How can we do that? Well we can do an ARG. Then we will write a story that fits with the ARG that will also fit with “Halo 2’s” universe.
Yes, so there’s a difference there between stories like with “I Love Bees,” and like with the “Beast,” where they’re kind of retrofitted onto an existing creative universe and ARGs where they are new or part of the same experience. So you get stuff like, and this will happen when creators are much more aware of the potential.
So you’ll start to see it with NBC’s “Heroes 360.” You get it to an extent with the “Lost Experience.” You get it with “Regenesis.” So that’s just another facet of how this branding can work.
Man 5: Sorry, to take it back to the marketing thing, do you think the actual players of these games are like the direct target for a marketing program? Or, do you think it’s more…
Brian: It’s broader than that.
Man 5:…creating the buzz.
Brian: It’s kind of like, I mean to use an analogy with like “American Idol,” there’s a difference between the people who go and audition to be on “American Idol,” and the people who call with their cell phone to vote for their favorite person, and the people who just know it exists, right. Who are aware of the brand, but aren’t even a watcher of the television show.
Alice: With every new ARG, the whole communal audience gets bigger.
Brian: But the marketing value is really to all of those groups, not just any one of those segments.
Man 5: Thank you.
Alice: All right, we’re out of time. Thank you very much.