Wednesday, June 14, 2006

A Quick Alternate Reality Gaming (ARG) Q&A with Matt Forbeck

I play a lot of games. I don't necessarily claim to be a "gaming expert" or "expert gamer," but I definitely consider myself a fan of games in multiple media. In fact, I like games (as well as movies, literature, philosophy, and comics) so much that I am surprised when a type of game has existed without my knowledge. I don't mean that I overlooked a particular game that people play. I am certain that happens all the time. One only has so much time and thus can only be exposed to so many different games. I mean an actual type of game. But when I read Matt Forbeck's entry titled Clothes Make the Game, that is exactly what occured. Matt was talking about a type of game I didn't know existed, or I hadn't made the connection that it exists. I didn't know there was a such thing as an Alternate Reality Game.

An Alternate Reality Game (ARG) is defined by the Alternate Reality Gaming Network as:
Alternate Reality Gaming is, according to CNET, " obsession-inspiring genre that blends real-life treasure hunting, interactive storytelling, video games and online community...

"These games are an intensely complicated series of puzzles involving coded Web sites, real-world clues like the newspaper advertisements, phone calls in the middle of the night from game characters and more. That blend of real-world activities and a dramatic storyline has proven irresistible to many."

These games (which are usually free to play) often have a specific goal of not only involving the player with the story and/or fictional characters but of connecting them to the real world and to each other. Many game puzzles can be solved only by the collaborative efforts of multiple players, sometimes requiring one or more players to get up from their computers to go outside to find clues or other planted assets in the real world.

One such game, and maybe the most famous was The Beast an interactive advertising game designed for the movie A.I. where perceptive viewers found clues to a mystery. More on that below. There are many others, and I guess I had a hint that such things might exist when I discussed the phone number on the show Supernatural. I noticed they gave out a real phone number, called the number, but didn't explore to see if there was a game. There might just be, as I have explored their website more thoroughly and unlocked things I hadn't known were there. But the number is no longer active, likely do to the uncertain status the show had with the WB/UPN merger. Though that tension has been resolved. Another time I encountered a possible ARG was when I read David Blaine's book Mysterious Stranger which advertised a contest where readers who solved puzzles could win money. I didn't try my hand at the time as I was stressed about life enough at the time, but it seems I might have missed a fun opportunity. And recently I went to the website for Stranger Than Fiction which has more interactivity than I would expect without some "gaming" element.

With the advent of ARGs, it appears that games can happen anywhere and at anytime. With this knowledge, I asked Matt Forbeck, a game designer who did some work on The Beast, some questions in the hopes of writing an article. Time has conspired against me integrating his quotes into background for a more detailed article, so I will post the coversation here (my comments are in bold).

1) Where does the name "Alternate Reality Game" come from and how does it,
in your opinion, describe the phenomenon?

I'm not sure where the term sprang from, but I think it does a fair job of pinning a label to that sort of game. It can conjure up images of things like Deadlands, which is set in an alternate reality, but I think most people who learn a little about ARGs can recognized them for what they are.

2) Other than the Beast, the AI ARG, what are some of the more successful

ilovebees (for Halo), Dead Hand Poker (for Gun), Perplex City (a new CCG/puzzle/ARG from the UK).

3) Hecatomb had an ARG, which I was unaware of at the time, how does one go
about trying to find/identify extant ARGs?

It's hard sometimes. The Beast was designed to be viral from the start. The only way you would know about it is if you spotted a strange credit in the original AI trailer for Jeanine Salla, Sentient Machine Therapist. A web search popped up Salla's website, and from there you fast became embroiled in the game. is a good source for details on ARGs, both new and old. Otherwise, the best thing to do is keep your ear to the ground and keep listening for something odd.

4) In your discussions with Sean Stewart, etc., did the old "Choose Your Own
Adventure" or "Fighting Fantasy Gamebooks" ever come up as an influence on
the construction of ARGs?

I worked very little with Sean. Pete Fenlon (formerly of ICE, now of Castle Hill Studios) directed most of my work. I think the analogy to those sort of pick-a-path adventures is clear. However, the Beast had a specific ending that the fans were meant to reach: solving the murder of Jeanine Salla.

5) What types of prizes are offered, if any, in a typical large ARG?

It varies from game to game. Perplex City offers a $200,000 prize. With the Beast, players were invited to early screenings of the AI film and given special movie posters that had their handles printed on them. I have mine framed in my office still.

6) What is your personal ARG design philosophy? By which I mean what types
of "game mechanics" do you think are most appropriate?

It changes with regards to the property involved. Puzzles always seem to play a big part in such games, as does mystery. It's great to come up with enough substance to your alternate reality to give it the verisimilitude such worlds require too.

There often aren't mechanics as such. With the Beast, for instance, the players kept solving things faster than the team could come up with them, so a lot of development was done on the fly. As Jordan Weisman once said, "It's like running a roleplaying game for 50,000 of your closest friends."

7) What role did you play in the creation of the Beast?

I wrote design documents for a bunch of the websites, including—in most cases—the full text. Most of these were the background sites that added to the game's sense of reality. I also helped out with some of the bit games tossed in, including a cell phone game I'm told only appeared in Japan.

8) What do you think are the long term implications, say the Lost "novel",
in terms of marketing opportunities for the RPG industry? In other words,
could Wizards create a d20 Modern ARG to accompany an animated or live
action show which also supplemented their own campaign supplements? How
would they go about communicating the existence/interaction of the ARG to
the PnP game?

The trick is that a great ARG requires a huge audience. In the RPG arena, only Wizards has a good hope of drawing in such a group. A smaller crew might be able to pull something like this off, but a good ARG is expensive to deploy and maintain.

In the past, most of them have been executed as marketing tools, not revenue generators, although Perplex City aims to change all of that. I'm watching their progress with great interest.

Getting people who already know about Dungeons & Dragons to try an ARG affiliated with it wouldn't be too hard. Most of the time, though, ARGs are meant to generate a huge buzz for the introduction of a new product/film/game. D&D is already established, so I don't know that an ARG would fit it all that well.

As for things like the Lost novel, Wizards did something like that last year when it published Three-Dragon Ante, which is meant to be a card game that characters might play in a fantasy world. I don't know if it brought in any new players that way, but it was a cool idea, and I hear it's a solid game too.

So, are you just picking my brain, or is this for your website? If not, I think it might be fun to run this Q&A on my site instead. If you'd like it for Cinerati, though, no sweat. Just let me know when you post it, and I'll put up a link on my site too.

Great questions, by the way. If you have more, just let me know.

A part of me is excited about the viral nature of these games, but another part is resistant to praise anything that creates an “insider” vs. “outsider” phenomenon. For example, with the AI thing, I had never heard of the Beast. I think it is a great idea, but I never noticed the obscure credit and so I was out of the loop. So now I feel like an outsider trying to catch up.

These all tend to be event-based games, and if you miss the event, you can't do much more than read about it afterward. Still, the event is one of the big draws of the games, so I don't know if anyone will ever want to separate that out.
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