Alternate reality games represent a new genre of digital gaming designed to blur the distinction between a player’s experience in the digital world inside the game and the real world outside the game. Combining online information and real-world events, ARGs bring gamers together to collectively solve puzzles and advance a game’s storyline. Part of what characterizes an ARG is that the game universe is not explicitly limited to a particular piece of software or set of digital content. A typical ARG would not even acknowledge or promote the fact that it is a game, yet every Web site or discussion group may contain and reveal a potential clue.
One of the first successful ARGs was “The Beast,” a murder-mystery problem-solving game launched in 2001 to promote the Steven Spielberg movie “Artificial Intelligence.” Its first clues (known as the “rabbit hole”) were planted in the images in movie advertising posters. People who followed the clues found Web sites suggesting that a character named Evan Chan had been murdered in the A.I. movie universe. In order to identify the murderer, the gamers formed their own discussion group called “Cloudmakers” (www.cloudmakers.org/). The game attracted significant mainstream media and public interest. At its peak in July 2001, it had an estimated three million unique visitors, putting ARGs on the entertainment map.
Two features of a successful ARG are a compelling storyline and collaborative game play. In it, a plotline is narrated and delivered through multiple communication channels, including Web pages, email messages, phone calls, and print-based mailings. Gamers use them to track the story’s progress. In two of the first ARGs to achieve a critical mass of more than a million participating gamers—”The Beast” and “ILoveBees” (2004)—compelling plot development made it possible for the designers to attract, retain, and increase the number of players. The collaborative nature of game play is another important ARG feature. Game players construct their own means of interacting through Web-based discussion boards, email messages, and real-world gatherings. Through this interaction, players communicate with one another, share their knowledge, offer interpretations of the storyline, and gather the information necessary to progress toward the game’s conclusion.
ARGs are quite different from another more widely played digital game genre: massively multiplayer online games. MMOG gamers collectively play in a shared digital world that provides a persistent game universe in which a large number of gamers (often more than 20,000 at a time) play against computer-generated characters or other MMOG players. Whether individually or as a team, or “clan,” gamers aim for a relatively well-defined set of goals (such as killing enemies, seizing a castle, or strengthening a gamer’s in-game character). In the MMOG world, gamers generally play their chosen roles, engage in combat, or create collective real-time strategies in war or commerce.
ARGs are not designed to create a compelling experience through 3D graphics or simulated battles. Rather, they provide shared scenarios through which gamers interact and collaborate to construct an eventual ending to the story. ARG gamers’ enjoyment depends on the kind of shared experience they have with one another. Without it, they will not stay interested in collective puzzle solving and information gathering. The gamers’ sustained, active, and voluntary participation is the most important condition of the ARG experience. Without it, the game stops evolving and ultimately ceases to exist.
An ARG sustains player interest by generating new content based on the constantly updated state of the game. If an existing puzzle is solved, the game’s storyline is designed to move forward to sustain gamer interest. If players find a clue and share it with the rest of the gaming community, the storyline must be updated in real time. A typical story update cycle takes a week, enough time for gamers to reflect on the story before new action takes place or a new puzzle is released . However, if gamers move more quickly than the designers (“Puppetmasters”) anticipate, the designers must react immediately to maintain the game’s appeal. Timing is key. A stale game loses both the smaller group of active players and the larger body of participants watching the action unfold. ARGs are both collaborative game and spectator sport.
The time-dependent and interactive nature of ARGs makes them like theatrical productions, spontaneous and responsive to the audience. The challenging aspects of creating an engaging ARG include compelling plotlines, regular content delivery, collective puzzles of the appropriate difficulty level, player feedback monitoring, and self-organizing player groups—all while maintaining strict secrecy and leaving no opportunity to test before going live.
Launching an ARG (“ILoveBees”)
The ARG “ILoveBees” (ILB) game was launched in July 2004 to promote an upcoming release of the Xbox game Halo2. From the beginning, ILB offered a stream of mysterious clues, initially through two different channels: In one, FedEx packages were sent to approximately 20 people active in the digital gaming industry. Inside was a bottle of honey from Margaret’s Honey in San Francisco (see Figure 1). Suspended in the honey were nine letters spelling I-L-O-V-E-B-E-E-S. The editor at an ARG player Web site (argn.com) received the same package and immediately posted his thoughts on the site. In the other channel that same weekend, the ilovebees.com address was displayed for a fraction of second as the Halo2 trailer was being shown at movie theaters. Visitors to www.ilovebees.com found a Web site that appeared to have been infested by a strange artificial intelligence program most notable for Web images.
ILB’s primary aim was to attract gamer and media interest in the Halo2 release. The ILB design team created a Web site (www.ilovebees.com) that seemed to be infected by a mysterious computer virus from the future (as in Halo2). For the next few weeks, ARG gamers and Halo fans did not know what to do with the game. Only after investigating clues left on the Web site did they figure out their main objective. They would have to help an AI program (“the Operator”) that crash-landed on Earth find its way back to the Halo universe. The Operator was searching for surviving crew members from the crashed spacecraft while fleeing from an enemy virus program (“the Covenant” in the Halo universe). The story advanced as the gamers pieced together the reasons the spacecraft had crash-landed, as well as who was responsible for the crash. Working collectively, the gamers learned the ultimate goal of the Operator was to fix the spacecraft, gather crewmembers, deactivate a strange artifact (“the Artifact”), and return to the time of Halo to fight the invading Covenant army.
ARG Design Team
Before taking on development of ILB, its design team already had a successful experience with the ARG “The Beast.” This helped the lead game architects assemble a design team of three storywriters, a community lead, a number of audio-file producers, a technical support group, and several voice actors. The total ILB design team included no more than 30 members, significantly fewer than a typical MMOG product-development team. The ILB design team had three main responsibilities:
Storyteller. The lead writer, science-fiction author Sean Stewart, led the story writers. Before the game’s launch, the ILB team interacted with the Halo2 team (Bungee and Microsoft’s Xbox Division) to keep the game story consistent with the Halo2 universe.
Community lead. While most sound and image production was outsourced, the design team maintained tight control over the monitoring of players. Because timing and the mystery of the story are key elements of any ARG, the design team did not have the luxury of beta testing or focus-group testing. Rather, it relied on round-the-clock monitoring of the community. The community lead (Jane McGonigal, then a doctoral student at the University of California, Berkeley) monitored player activities and communication throughout the entire game. The community lead checked every known source of information written about the game, including discussion groups (such as bees.netninja.com and the “haunted apiary” at unfiction.com), as well as mainstream media coverage and blogs. The community lead filed a daily report to the design team every morning the game was being played. With the report, the design team could make instant story updates and adjustment as needed. Gamers were locked in a contest to solve new puzzles. And, with so many gamers collaborating, the pace of the game often moved more quickly than the design team had anticipated.
Technology support and sound effects. The technology group managed Web page design, site security, and maintenance. The audio-production group created audio files that, when assembled in the correct order, provided stories from the Halo universe. More audio files and special sound effects were added as the game progressed.
From the beginning, ILB attracted gamers from other ARGs, as well as from various MMOGs (Halo fans). The design team saw exponential growth as the campaign went on. The initial number of gamers was about 100, then increased to 500, 10,000, 250,000, and eventually three million (over only 12 weeks). During the first week of play, gamers posted 50 new comments every 30 seconds . In addition to more than a million message-board posts, the gamers logged an average of 33,000 lines of chat per day .
ILB players fell into two categories: active players and bystanders who watched the active players solve the puzzles and advance the game; the 100,000 active players were only a fraction of the three million unique visitors to the ILB site. The ILB players were not limited to the typical game-playing demographic: teenage boys. Though the ILB design team did not survey the player community, it felt that the players’ demographic characteristics were similar to their previous experience. For “The Beast,” a fan Web site survey with several thousand responses showed 50% of responding gamers were female. This contrasted sharply with the typical gender distribution of digital games: 80% male, 20% female. However, most ILB gamers belonged to the traditionally most active player age group: 16 to 25.
The ILB gamers played together as a group (see Figure 2), often gathering (physically) for game activities (such as receiving phone messages). They created discussion groups to share game information, including dedicated ARG sites (www.unfiction.com) and general Internet collaboration sites (wikipedia.org). One of the first items posted by experienced ARG gamers was a message asking how they would play the game together. Within two weeks, they began to get a sense of the ILB story. Volunteers posted summaries and possible interpretations of the storyline on various Web sites. Throughout the game, these sites offered a well-organized and coherent storyline as ILB progressed. Contributors also connected plot developments with detailed information from the Halo game universe. Information at these sites was so well organized that even the ILB design team found the summaries helpful. The ILB gamers collectively found clues, solved puzzles, and shared their thoughts on the deeper meanings in the story. Players assumed that the ILB design team knew exactly how the game would unfold and therefore would always be a step ahead of the players. When the game concluded in November 2004, ILB gamers were genuinely surprised to hear the design team say the gamers themselves had control over how the plot unfolded.
Story Construction and Delivery
Gamers had to assemble the story of the Operator (the crash-landed AI program) from various story fragments delivered by the ARG designers. To provide story narratives the ILB design team relied on three primary channels:
- Hidden html code, email exchanges, sound files, and images purportedly created by the Operator;
- Voice clips sent to payphones; and
- A blog maintained by an imaginary character in the game.
The ILB design team used them to blur the boundaries between in-game and out-of-game reality and experience; players exchanged email messages with the in-game AI programs and communicated verbally with the Operator and with each other.
The ILB design team tried two new approaches to ARG delivery: more extensive game community monitoring and nondigital, as well as digital, media to deliver the game experience. Throughout the game (three months), the community lead checked gamer Web sites, analyzed wiki updates, and read Internet relay chat activities on a daily basis. This information helped the designers adjust the game to reflect recent player actions. For example, the designers assumed that gamers would sympathize with the Sleeping Princess, another in-game AI program on the ilovebees.com server. In an unexpected turn of events, some gamers felt otherwise and informed the “bad” AI program about the Princess’s hiding place. The designers had no choice but to let the Princess be captured by the enemy in the next round of the ILB’s story update.
The ILB design team applied various media (such as email, blogs, and phone calls) to quickly deliver pieces of narrative to as many and as diverse a group of gamers as possible. The most notable technical innovation in ILB was the use of public payphones as a delivery mechanism (throughout the U.S. and the U.K.). The GPS coordinates of selected payphones and narrative transmission times were announced on the ILB Web site. Once the narratives were confirmed to have been heard via payphone, the design team made the audio clips available on the ILB site. The designers tried to ensure that game play was not too difficult. In order to keep entry barriers as low as possible, the design team hired a group of payphone-location-seekers “axon hunters,” who searched for suitable payphones and documented the relevant GPS coordinates. This selection process ensured that the only entry barrier involved the geographical location of the gamers in the U.S. and the U.K.
The gamers relied on email to communicate with the in-game characters. Thousands of gamers traveled to retrieve the messages at payphones, sharing their experience on specialized discussion boards. The gamers also collectively learned the syntax and meaning of the special language embedded in ilovebees.com Web pages. The language itself was not overly complex but was arcane enough to give gamers a sense of camaraderie. These collaborative experiences contributed to a shared sense of playing together. Eventually, in Aug. 2004, the number of unique visitors to the ILB site reached three million. All the voice clips (412 in total, plus 70 other clips embedded in Web images) were heard at payphones and compiled by players into a coherent sequence that revealed the secret reason for the spacecraft’s crash landing. The game ended when the gamers helped the Operator regain control of the spaceship and bring her crew back to the future.
In November 2004, live events in major U.S. cities, including Boston, Chicago, and San Francisco, allowed ILB gamers to meet one another and speak to the game’s designers. In the end, the ILB designers reached and surpassed their goals in terms of numbers of unique visitors for generating and sustaining player interest in the ARG (see Figure 3).
As ARGing have become increasingly popular, new variations have pushed the boundaries of the genre. New ARGs are experimenting with stories based on real-world and political topics (such as the World Without Oil simulation ). Instead of being tied to an existing story or product, ARGs (such as Perplex City ) are creating their own standalone storylines and game products. Other ARGs tied to specific products or storylines are being created unofficially by fans. In one celebrated case, the producers of the online video series Lonelygirl15 were so impressed by an unofficial “fan fiction” ARG that they made it the official ARG for the series (www.lonelygirl15.com). As long as players show interest, the ARG genre will continue to diversify.
Perhaps the most significant development for ARGs is that they are going mainstream. As ARG-like games are used in more movies, TV shows, and consumer-goods marketing, mainstream audiences may demand less secretive and complex gameplay. This will also create more experimentation with different kinds of ARGs and measures of ARG performance.
Bringing ARGs into the mainstream increases the importance of ease of use and low barriers to entry. Because the gameplay itself can be complex (spanning multiple Web sites, phone lines, email systems, and physical locations), ARGs must learn to accommodate both hardcore and casual players. While a hardcore player might be willing to leave home in the middle of a tornado to answer a ringing payphone, the casual player must be able to find a way into the game simply by visiting a Web site or an online forum. The opportunity must always be available for players to be more involved, but as ARGs enter the mainstream, they must offer more casual, compact, and immediately entertaining experiences to attract the largest audience possible.
What will never change is the importance of a compelling story that attracts and keeps people in an ARG universe over the course of months, even years. For both experienced and casual players, an ARG’s success depends on the simplicity of its storyline. An ARG must be easy to understand and simple enough to describe to friends, even those who know nothing about technology. The ability to spread a simple intriguing message virally among players will continue to be a key to any ARG’s appeal. Also, the community leads’ ability to know players and sense their daily reaction to the story will remain central to a successful ARG. Like any form of mass collaboration, the future of ARGs is in the hands of the players and the people watching them play in both the real and the virtual worlds.