This curious package arrived this morning. I’ve had to keep the gold bar away from my daughter, who wants to chew it. I suspect it’s mostly lead.
It’s a packet of seeds for an ARG, obviously, and by blogging about it I am doing exactly what the seeders want. Best of luck to them. I wish I could tell you more about it but I don’t speak German. But the fact that I’m now considered worthy of receiving seed-packets like this illustrates one of the things that’s been worrying me about ARGs for a while: how do you publicise them?
The central tenet of ARGs is TINAG: This Is Not A Game. As far as the characters in the game-narrative are concerned, what is happening is real, and parts of the gameplay will intrude into the real world. The people behind the game won’t do anything to break the illusion of reality, and the players are supposed to go along with the charade, or otherwise the whole thing falls apart. Pay no attention to the puppetmaster behind the curtain and all that. But how do you tell people that a new game is starting when admitting it’s a game undermines it?
The traditional route for seeding an ARG is to tip off the forum-masters at ARGnet and Unfiction, and send packets like this one out to journalists, prominent bloggers and movers-and-shakers. That can backfire spectacularly if you misjudge it: if the Crysis package described in the link was in fact an ARG seed, and if you assume that ARGs spawn communities and wikis online as a natural function of their being, then a few Google and ARGnet searches seem to indicate that literally nobody played the game.
And if you’ve got the budget or access, you also conceal the first clue or URL in something prominent like a cinema poster or trailer. But that method relies on enough people spontaneously finding the clue and being intrigued enough to follow it, and spawn the news of its existence. That was fine back in 2001 when these things were rare, but these days ARGs have become a standard part of a marketing strategy. I moved into new office space two weeks ago, and one of my neighbours immediately wanted to talk to me about putting an ARG together for an indie movie some friends of his are making. A week later the film company two floors down launched an ARG of its own. And it’s an open secret that I’m on an ARG project myself right now. That’s three ARGs coming out of one building—and while it may be in Soho, it’s not a very big building.
I describe the audience for traditional ARGs as following a gobstopper model. At the centre you’ve got a very small, very intense seed of players who propel the gameplay and crack the puzzles, and around them you have layers and layers of people following the progress of the ARG, reading the updates, staying in touch with the story and occasionally posting to the discussion boards, each layer progressively larger and progressively more distant from the centre.
The thing is, without that central seed an ARG will never develop a following, and will wither on the vine. These people don’t just drive the story forward, they’re also the game’s evangelists and the community-founders and leaders for the less-involved ARG players. But the number of people who can devote the time and commitment to being part of that seed is small, and finding new ones is hard. And the number of ARGs competing for their intention is increasing daily.
This is the big problem I have with the state-of-the-art in ARGs: it doesn’t scale for density. The more ARGs there are, the less successful each of them will be. There is a limit to the number of ARGs that one can play or follow at the same time. Even with the low-investment ARG-alikes such as Lonelygirl and Kate Modern, where the majority of players’ involvement doesn’t go beyond watching a few minutes of video a day, there’s only so many that people will want to follow. And then there’s the Jamie Kane model, where all the players have the same experience and the community aspects are limited, and the indicators are that simply doesn’t attract an audience.
ARGs are conventional now. People are used to looking at videos on Youtube or blog-posts claiming extraordinary things and not taking them at face value, looking for the concealed information. The attraction of a hidden clue that promises access to a secret world that brushes the edge of reality is no longer unique, or even special. The alternative is to spend a bunch of money promoting something that is almost certainly intended to promote something else, which may be fun but doesn’t make much marketing sense.
So if ARGs are a gobstopper, how do you sugar-coat yours to attract the necessary players to form a community? If it doesn’t work, do you then fake the community with stooges and falsified metrics, and hope that the story develops a self-sustaining momentum at some point? Or do you work out a way of generating the good points of an ARGlike experience—community, evangelists, strong narrative, interactivity, months of gameplay, variable levels of commitment, and TINAG—while dropping all the bad points? In short, is there a better model?
Buy me lunch and we’ll talk.
Oh, and if any of you speak German…?
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