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Are Alternate Reality Games the Future?

In this feature, we look at the rise of alternate reality games and measure their potential in video game advertising and across other art forms.

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In the summer of 2004, unsuspecting moviegoers in theaters across America witnessed the beginnings of a new form of interactive storytelling hidden inside the debut trailer for Bungie's Halo 2. Standing in place of the customary Xbox logo at the trailer's end were three little words, responsible for stirring the imaginations of more than 2.5 million people around the world: "I Love Bees."

The I Love Bees marketing campaign for Halo 2 was one of the earliest and most successful examples of alternate reality gaming, objective-based experiences that bring together treasure hunting, puzzle-solving, and interactive storytelling in one single, ambitious human experiment. Although alternate reality games (ARGs) began life as mere experiments testing the idea of using gameplay fundamentals in the real world, their ability to engage public imagination and target the innate human desire to play together has proved them to be a highly innovative method of interactive storytelling that is finding both commercial and artistic success. ARGs are the perfect distraction for an audience ready to embrace a new kind of social interaction, shaped by social networks and the popularity of mass casual gaming and driven by technological convergence. So what are ARGs exactly? And how do they work? Does their potential lie exclusively in the world of video game advertising? Or does it stretch across other media? And will pushing immersion to this kind of level only serve to highlight the limitations of video games as a medium?

In this feature, GameSpot AU looks at the beginnings of ARGs and analyzes their potential impact on the future of the video game industry and their adoption in wider art forms.

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This is what the I Love Bees website looked like a few weeks after its launch (the lines of code on the screen are meant to indicate that the site has been hacked.)

I Love Bees

In 2003, a small group of creative types got together to form a company that would help them meet their vision for a new kind of storytelling. Some had shared offices at Disney Imagineering, working to create innovative theme park attractions; others had backgrounds in gaming and entertainment. But all of them wanted the same thing: the creation of experiences that required the participation of a mass audience and infiltrated everyday life in one way or another.

"The goal wasn't to become a marketing company; it just evolved that way as the philosophy behind alternate reality games began to show real results," says Susan Bonds, the president and CEO of that company, 42 Entertainment. "Our aim was to extend stories and worlds through gameplay, mystery, surprise, and innovative delivery mechanisms. Carefully choreographed, these experiences gained traction in popular culture by placing the audience in the driver's seat and letting them be the fuel for bringing the product to life. By providing original content, organically discovered through gameplay, players become invested. Ownership gets transferred to them and they want to share with others; it fit the basic tenants of the Web: find cool stuff, talk about it, and share it."

Bonds knows the score. Prior to her role at 42 Entertainment, the savvy entrepreneur was responsible for the multiplayer online interactive game URU: Ages Beyond Myst, where she led the design, production, technology integration, marketing, publishing, music development, and project management for the title at Cyan Worlds. Before that, she worked at the aforementioned Disney Imagineering for 10 years directing the design and development of theme park architecture, attractions, and projects, including the Indiana Jones Adventure for Disneyland, Alien Encounters for Walt Disney World, and the ABC Times Square Studios exterior in New York.

42 Entertainment's first foray into the world of ARGs came with the 2001 game titled The Beast, created to promote Steven Spielberg's A.I.: Artificial Intelligence. Considered now to be one of the best and most influential examples of early ARGs, The Beast drew in more than 3 million people around the world through websites, online communities, phone and fax clues, email accounts, and live events. The campaign's narrative was designed to draw participants into the world of the film before its release, set 16 years after the events chronicled in A.I. with three overlapping entry points (or "rabbit holes," as they are known in ARG-speak). The Beast was chronicled in mainstream press and won a New York Times Year in Ideas award. (The project was initially conceived by Elan Lee, Jordan Weisman, and World Fantasy Award-winning author Sean Stewart).

But it wasn't until 2004's I Love Bees that something quite extraordinary happened. Microsoft approached 42 Entertainment with a fairly simple goal: Expose the general public to the world of Halo by getting the national press involved. At first, the team--consisting of Bonds as producer, concept creator Elan Lee, and Sean Stewart among others--conceived the campaign as a radio drama, similar to Orson Welles' War of the Worlds. The key difference would be the incorporation of extensive player excursions into the real world through the use of pay phones, engaging players through puzzle-solving and global positioning system coordinates.

After the Halo 2 trailer debuted, those intrigued enough by the final few frames logged on to only to find what appeared to be a website dedicated to honey sales and beekeeping. Those who kept coming back to the site were soon introduced to the weblog of Dana the webmistress, who began posting intriguing rants about her site being hacked. This is how the story of the campaign developed; it was a story that was unrelated to the Halo universe, but it moved along similar lines. About 250,000 people viewed the site during its launch in August 2004, and another 250,000 more started turning up every time it was updated. (42 Entertainment estimates that during the four months leading up to Halo 2's release, more than 2.5 million people participated in I Love Bees.) During that time, Dana's story was slowly revealed through a series of audio logs, puzzles, and fragments of stories posted to the site. They eventually built up into a countdown, 210 pairs of GPS coordinates and time codes, and instructions for passwords. Players learned that Dana's site had been hacked by Melissa, a lost A.I. suffering from a case of amnesia after crash-landing on present-day earth. After coming across Dana's bee enthusiast site on a San Francisco server, Melissa attempted to send distress signals, leading the two women to finally cross paths.

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Over 2.5 million people participated in I Love Bees, the marketing campaign for Halo 2.

As time wore on, the campaign became more complex. People eventually worked out that the coordinates referred to pay phones, the time codes referred to when the phones would ring, and the passwords had to be used to unlock pieces of the radio drama before it was played down the phone. Players who had signed up began receiving emails and text messages. They also attended coordinated meetings with other players and I Love Bees characters, eventually culminating in an invitation to play Halo 2 before its release.

"There are great stories of individuals and groups working together to unlock these messages and piece together the story that couldn't be scripted or made up," Bonds says. "People networking to get someone in Alaska to ask a business owner to open early so that they could answer the pay phone there; someone answering a pay phone in a hurricane; groups of people aged between 17 and 55 years waiting patiently in Georgia while they let one person answer the pay phone and then share the message with everyone there.

"The greatest feedback we had on I Love Bees came from those who participated. People went to great lengths to thank us for the memorable experiences--people showing up at our offices to thank us in person, mail, phone calls, and even one person who made custom I Love Bees chocolates for us. Whatever the medium or platform, what people want really hasn't changed. They want great stories and fun experiences."

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The success of I Love Bees helped to drive more than just Halo 2 sales. The innovative marketing campaign is credited with reinstating ARGs as a viable form of marketing, one that has since become particularly attractive to game publishers. In 2005, 42 Entertainment was again enlisted to create an ARG for Activision's release GUN, titled Last Call Poker, and again in 2007 for the release of Microsoft's Halo 3 with an ARG titled Iris.

Since then, ARGs have begun to feature prominently in video game marketing campaigns, each implementing its own level of immersion based on the publisher and the game: Majestic, an experimental game developed by EA that utilized websites, phones, and faxes as vehicles to develop the game's narrative; Microsoft's Violette's Dream, an ARG created to promote 2009's Velvet Assassin, which introduced the game's protagonist Violette Summer (based on the real-life spy Violette Szabo) through an insurance assessor tracking down lost gold that was hidden in the real world for players to find; Project Abraham, the ARG for Sony's Resistance 2, which introduced Nathan Hale's origin story through the eyes of his nurse at the SRPA, asking players to choose which soldier in the program would be administered with the serum that contained the Chimera virus and that gave Hale the immunity he needed to survive the first game in the series; Darkspore's Help eDNA ARG, which presented players with challenges ranging from recognizing the chemical composition of DNA to parsing through thousands of digits of the number Pi to find an encoded message; BioShock 2's Something in the Sea, which saw the creation of a website launched on March 4, 2009, to provide players with hints about the upcoming game through a story revolving around a father whose daughter was kidnapped by a Big Sister; and the GKNova6 ARG for the launch of Activision's Call of Duty: Black Ops, which set the stage up for the game's Zombie mode through a series of references, photographs, and videos of events surrounding the Cuban Missile Crisis.

More recently, Valve used the "Potato Sack" indie game bundle on Steam to initiate its now infamous Portal 2 ARG, a concept developed and implemented internally with the help of several independent developers. And in August this year, Sony developed its own ARG for the upcoming release of Resistance 3, enlisting the help of British theater company Punchdrunk. This company is renowned for creating interactive theatrical works; it created a site-specific work beneath London's Waterloo Station asking participants to take on the role of one of the last remaining survivors of an apocalyptic event and navigate their way through the dark corridors exploring rooms for clues and participating in team-based activities. (More on that later).

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Microsoft's Violette's Dream was an ARG created to promote the 2009 title Velvet Assassin.

Preaching to the Converted

In November 2008, Australian-based media agency Ikon launched a virtual campaign for Eidos Interactive's Tomb Raider: Underworld. The ARG, titled The Tombraider Challenge, pitted gamers against each other in a digital artifact hunt aimed at reinstating Lara Croft's image toward a more intellectual, rather than sexualized, slant. Players were tasked with solving daily riddles on the site and, in a world first for any ARG, using Google Earth to uncover 21 hidden clues inspired by events in the game.

Mark Gilbert, marketing director at Namco Bandai, and Brett Dawson, Ikon's agency director, worked together on the 21-day campaign, spending a total of A$250,000 over two months creating the campaign's content, website, desktop widget, and mobile site as well as hiring a qualified archaeologist to help assist with the authenticity of the artifacts and their respective real-life locations. During its 21-day cycle, the Ikon site received some 286, 616 unique page views and more than 180 pages of forum comment discussing location ideas and tips.

"Gamers want to be entertained and involved, not shouted at by traditional advertising," Gilbert says. "Before we started, we identified that one-upmanship, self-improvement, and bragging rights are a gamer's raison d'etre; players love talking up their achievements. This insight led to fuel the brag. I think how the campaign turned out offers great insight into the future of marketing where brands will create people-powered ideas that invite participation and an experience that is worth talking about."

While it seems clear that ARGs have the potential to revolutionize game advertising by actively involving the audience in a real-world campaign, there are some who argue that the potential of this new form of storytelling spreads far beyond just a mere marketing tool. After getting hooked on puzzle-solving antics during The Beast campaign in 2001, ARG-player Steve Peters decided to start his own online discussion forum that would serve as much a meeting place for other ARG fans as it would a research tool for lovers of the genre. Ten years on, ARGNet is now the largest online news hub for ARG players, both online and offline. As a news network, it delivers reports from volunteers on the latest games and campaigns, as well as provides a resource for players to get together and discuss clues, strategy, and progress. These days, the site is run by Michael Andersen, who first started playing ARGs in 2004 after noticing a group of people standing in the crowd holding posters of bees during one of the US presidential debates on television.

"I listened to the six-hour-long audio drama that was at the heart of I Love Bees and was irrevocably hooked," Andersen says. "I think we've reached the point where following a story's evolution as it hops between media has become an accepted part of our culture. For me, the appeal of ARGs lies in the narrative flexibility it provides. Any method of communication we have available can be subverted to advance a story. With access to the right information, anything from a poster on the street to a television commercial can be transformed into an entry point into a story."

But is there a risk that ARGs could undermine, rather than enhance, the video game experience? Real-life gaming experiences are inherently much more exciting than video games themselves, purely for the level of immersion that can be achieved. While games ask players to suspend belief by stepping into a pre-imagined world, alternate reality games do the opposite: They give players the framework for a pre-imagined world and allow them to use real life to bring it into context.

"In order to let the player seamlessly assume these roles, video game characters are often treated as empty shells for the player to inhabit," Andersen says. "There are ways around that problem, but the disconnect between creating a unique character for the player's avatar and letting the player become immersed in the world still remains. With alternate reality games, players are asked to immerse themselves in the story as themselves. I think gamers are predisposed to embrace the idea of interacting with stories, and alternate reality games give players a way to channel that interaction away from the console screen."

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Valve used the "Potato Sack" indie game bundle on Steam to initiate an alternate reality game for the release of Portal 2 earlier this year.

Andersen believes that with video games becoming increasingly social experiences that seek to utilize the ever-growing shift and evolution of technology, there is room for ARGs to work alongside the medium rather than in contrast to it. The same collaborative skills needed to complete a multiplayer match can be used in real life to solve puzzles and organize players for live events.

"What I'm excited to see is video games that weave ARGs into the fabric of gameplay. PlayStation Home tested the waters with its PlayStation Xi experience, and Funcom's The Secret World seems like it's planning on bridging the gap by offering in-game puzzles that require players to venture forth into the real world to find answers. There is also potential for game developers to invest in ARGs. More than any other medium, video games demand long-term time commitments from their players. Alternate reality games provide a means of introducing players to the narrative hooks that will see them through the game's challenges and have the potential to provide incentives to keep coming back to the game after its release."

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Influencing New Art Forms

The successful combination of immersion, interaction, and the innate human desire to solve complex problems makes ARGs the perfect social experiment, one whose principles are becoming increasingly more appealing outside the gaming industry.

When Sony enlisted Punchdrunk to create its Resistance 3 ARG, it did so with the intention of doing a lot more than simply promoting its game. The more important objective was to test the relationship between theater and video games, working out how the two art forms could be used to create entirely new experiences that appeal to the audiences of both.

"Mixing theater with video games seemed especially pertinent for an innovative theater group like Punchdrunk and for a game like Resistance 3," David Wilson, head of public relations for Sony Computer Entertainment UK, says. "Punchdrunk is very much about an experience where the audience is very much in the thick of the action and, furthermore, plays an active role in the proceedings. Punchdrunk melded their knowledge of the game with the Japanese phenomenon of 'walks of terror' to create a theatrical experience that evoked the thrill of being within the video game world."

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Punchdrunk's Resistance 3 ARG for Sony took place beneath London's Waterloo Station. [Photo credit: The Telegraph, UK.]

Punchdrunk artistic director Felix Barrett says the company agreed to the Resistance 3 project for the same reasons: to test the level of immersion that is inherent within video games and the possible interface with the real world.

"The emotional and experiential potential of finding yourself within a video game is huge--you are your own avatar," Barrett said during the lead-up to the event. "We [wanted to] explore the role of the audience as player, participant, and potential character within a project that transcends theatre and gaming and, in particular, [look at] the visceral potential for a fusion of these two forms."

This potential for fusion between theater and games is something that is becoming more and more apparent to theater makers. In the summer of 2012, attendees of the Brighton Festival in the UK will be the first to experience How Are You Feeling?, a site-specific work created by British playwright Fin Kennedy. Kennedy's work revolves around a group of terminal patients whose potential value to society must be determined by the audience; if they have what it takes, they will be allowed to live; if they don't, they will be left to die. For Kennedy, who has become somewhat of a video game advocate in the world of theater, the work is a perfect example of how different mediums can borrow from each other to create something completely new.

"The site itself is rather dystopian looking," Kennedy says about How Are You Feeling? "It has a very BioShock feel to it. In fact, I've borrowed a lot more from games than just locations for this work, everything from gameplay conventions to mood to story. I used to be a gamer, but I had a 10-year gap and got straight back into it for this production."

How Are You Feeling? takes place at an unspecified point in the future in a hospital run by two consultants who have a vision to selectively treat patients based on their potential value to society. When audience members book a ticket to the see the show, they will receive one of two letters in the post: an acceptance letter as a patient to the hospital or a trainee medic. Once the show begins, the audience members will be split into groups accordingly and will proceed to make their way through the hospital to be assigned different tasks according to the path they have chosen. At the end of each 'scene,' every person in the group will be given a choice that will determine where they will go next, and the groups will become increasingly smaller until only one or two audience members are left roaming the hospital's abandoned rooms.

"We don't want to make anyone upset, of course, but this is the kind of experience suitable for adventurous people," Kennedy says. "Changing into hospital gowns is as far as it will go in terms of what we'll make the audience members do; they're not really asked to speak unless they want to. We did explore a few Mass Effect-style choices to include in the work, but it turns out that's a lot harder to write and direct."

Kennedy spent two years playing and researching every game he could get his hands on, taking elements from each to create a framework and narrative for How Are You Feeling?: BioShock ("That was a big influence; the idea of a biological empire with a mad figurehead."); The Saboteur ("Massively underrated. I love the idea of the game and the authoritarian world. There are echoes of that in the way the staff rebellion takes place during the work."); Red Dead Redemption ("I love the way games are now starting to have a moral element and the way you're behaving will catch up to you. We have got some scenes where the audience will have to take a moral stand. Even the end of play is kind of like an end boss: Things are out of control, the audience is gathered in a lab full of tanks of jellyfish, and then the audience has to vote on whether to burn the whole place down."); the Grand Theft Auto series ("Evident in the choice of which door to go through and which character to kill off."); and finally, L.A. Noire ("There's some detective work throughout the production, like browsing through patient records and trying to figure out what the scandal is and so on.").

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UK playwright Fin Kennedy was heavily influenced by the atmosphere in BioShock when creating his site-specific theater work.

Kennedy's colleague Ellie Jones is also working on a project inspired by gameplay conventions. A playwright and artistic director, Jones has conceived a site-specific piece of theater that asks the audience to perform a bank robbery: each member of the audience is allocated a specific role within the criminal outfit and must perform certain tasks at different points throughout the piece to gather information before finally 'robbing' the bank. Jones developed a pilot version of the show during her time as artistic director for Southwark Playhouse, where she worked with a video game designer to create a show that required audience members to play a point-and-click game to determine behavioral patterns.

"It seems to me everyone under the age of 40 has grown up gaming; it's a part of life now that's hard to avoid, and if you've spent any time gaming, you've learned to like being the hero in the story," Jones says. "I like that what I do makes a difference to my virtual world and that I can be someone I can't and perhaps wouldn't choose to be in the real world. I'm looking to create the idea that I am the hero for real (or antihero perhaps in this case) and to make the relationships and encounters real. I also took the idea of smaller achievements from gameplay conventions, hence the other encounters and tasks that need to be completed before the actual robbery."

Once audience members have signed on for Jones' show, they will be sent a recruitment email from the head of the criminal gang; there'll be some questions to answer; a riddle to solve; and then finally, more instructions. Once each member of the audience has been assigned a role, he or she will be asked to fulfill a series of tasks relevant to this role, all of which involve real-life meetings and situations, all taking place before the night of the actual show.

"This kind of work immerses its audience in a world in a way that traditional theater can't. I think this makes the experience more affecting and, therefore, more powerful. The bank robbery project is more fun, more a chance to be someone you're not for a while. I think that's as important to adults as playing doctors and nurses is to a child."

"Certainly, this is not for everyone. Some people want the distance between themselves and the actor. It's risky; it makes people feel vulnerable. I suspect the audience will be mostly under 40; people who want to try being someone else for a day, discover what their life might be like if they'd taken a different course. For me, this is about theater that relies on its audience. A play in a theater where the audience just sits and watches might be a bit redundant without its audience, but it won't truly affect the performance. A show in which the audience are key players can't happen if they aren't there."

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