Alternative reality games connecting tech-savvy fans


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Like the movie? You'll love the ARG.

That's the thinking at entertainment companies hoping to engage audiences as more than just passive viewers.

For the uninitiated, alternative reality games, or ARGs, are online contests that blend everything from real-life treasure hunting to interactive storytelling, gaming and, increasingly, advertising. They reach a connected, generally hyperinformed Web community. But plans are to take them mainstream, blending the physical world with a fictional arc.

It's massively multiplayer marketing, if you will.

"ARGs transform storytelling from a vicarious experience for the audience into an active, participatory one," says Jane McGonigal, participation architect for a socially conscious ARG called 'World Without Oil," who also was lead designer of "I Love Bees," which accompanied Microsoft's record-breaking launch of "Halo 2" in 2004. "Now more than ever, media producers understand that fans want to engage, they want to get hands-on with their favorite stories. It's direct, it's personal, and it's compelling in a way that really transforms the entertainment and communications landscape."

"I Love Bees" was hugely popular with the "Halo" fan base and received critical praise and press coverage.

"Because of the close connection to and deep interaction with the audience, working in the ARG art form is particularly rewarding," says Joe DiNunzio, CEO of 42 Entertainment, creator of "Bees" and probably the largest ARG studio. "The fact that ARG experiences evolve in real time and involve real people makes them compelling to be part of, on both sides of the fourth wall."

In addition to "Bees," 42 Entertainment was behind "The Beast," a marketing effort for Steven Spielberg's 2001 film "A.I." that was considered the first major ARG. Spielberg and producer Kathleen Kennedy capitalized on "A.I.'s" futuristic themes to help expand the film's appeal online. The "Beast" plot essentially was a murder mystery, with players tasked to figure out who killed a character connected to the "A.I." narrative. Players downloaded the game and a forum for discussion developed within the community.

Five years later, ABC's "The 'Lost' Experience" brought alternative reality gaming to the mainstream. The breakaway hit show's complex mythology was ripe for exploration online. Conceived by "Lost" writer Jordan Rosenberg, the game played out during the summer before the launch of Season 3. It primarily used Web sites, voice mail and newspaper ads to communicate clues and references.

But it didn't stop there. The network published a novel that added narrative density, created a fake TV commercial for a company called Hanso that directed players to ABC's call center and even created its own candy bar.

ARGs aren't always tied to pre-existing intellectual property. Stand-alone experiences include London-based Mind Candy's "Perplex City," the first "season" of which had players looking for something called the Receda Cube -- a priceless artifact that had been stolen and buried somewhere on Earth. Like most ARGs, the story of "Perplex City" was told through blogs, puzzles, and various other media. Unlike other ARGs, Mind Candy offered a real-life £100,000 ($209,000) reward to whoever located the Receda Cube, and sold a series of collectible puzzle cards to clue people in to where it might be found.

The game began in April 2005, and the cube was found in February. Although the second season has been put on indefinite hold, Mind Candy CEO Michael Smith calls "Perplex City" a success.

"No one had ever created anything quite like it, so we were flying blind for much of the journey," he says. "We utilized some pretty creative places to hide clues, but no matter what we tried, the players always tracked them down. We used sky writing, black helicopters, buried briefcases, Morse code on the London Eye, classified ads in Chinese newspapers, actors at live events ... but they always figured it out."

As is often the case, "Perplex City" players organized themselves: They created a wiki with hundreds of editors, wrote and published a collaborative book, organized physical meet-ups in different cities, created street teams to hook in new players, designed YouTube ads and even wrote graffiti to promote the game.

"People are naturally very curious and social," Smith says. "So if you can harness that in the right way, you can create incredibly compelling new entertainment experiences."

ARGs have devoted fans, but they can be very intimidating, even for savvy Internet users; "breaking in" to an active forum can be the online equivalent of approaching the jocks' table in a high school cafeteria. Participation in many games depends on hyperspecific knowledge. In other words, the games don't lend themselves to casual participation, and they generally reward those willing to devote obsessive attention.

"In hindsight, I think we got too deep and it was not accessible enough for anyone to participate," says Michael Benson, executive vp marketing at ABC and a force behind "The 'Lost' Experience," now on hold. "On the other hand, hard-core fans are looking for real depth. It's a tough balance to strike."

Andrea Phillips, who worked on "The Beast" and "Perplex City," agrees that ARGs have a reputation as exclusionary. "A lot of people will shy away as soon as the ARG label is applied because they don't have time to make a huge commitment or because they're wary of being subjected to crude marketing," she says. "For entertainment marketing, reaching a wider audience is key, and so you see these broader, less time-consuming experiences emerging."

Still, the future looks bright for the ARG medium. "It's a safe forecast to say that in the next five years, most major Hollywood films will have an ARG experience," McGonigal says. "Some will have ARGs as a kind of preview, some will run ARGs during the theatrical release and others will run ARGs between franchise installments to keep the fan base engaged."

Echoes Phillips: "I think we're well on our way already. Every major Hollywood franchise already has a Web site, and a fast-growing number of these sites now feature original, complementary content. I bet if you tried, you could reel off a dozen films and TV shows where a character has a blog or secret journal or diary on the Web site. It's become a marketing no-brainer."

And with the form still developing, those creating new Web experiences can flex their creative muscles.

Phillips would love to see an environment where the ARG and the film evolve together to tell a single story. "There aren't many examples of this sort of development, even in traditional video games ... though Atari's 'Enter the Matrix' springs to mind, which was created as canon material for the 'Matrix' universe and was released alongside 'The Matrix Reloaded.' But in general, franchise games don't take that opportunity to build onto the world and make it richer, and it's a crying shame."

McGonigal is excited about the future, even if she still has to explain to people what she does for a living. "I ask them, 'Have you seen the movie "The Game"?' And if they say yes, I tell them, 'Well, that's exactly what I do, except our games don't scare you, and instead of playing the game alone, you play it with thousands of other people from all over the world.' ARGs are not about individual fantasy, they're about collective engagement."