James Wallis levels with you

All That Glitters…

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.

Package of goodies presumably seeding an ARG

Letter in German

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…?

Categorised as: Uncategorized


  1. Ozzy says:

    I can try and have a stab at translating the letter tonight or tomorrow evening. ;o)

  2. james says:

    Does it look interesting?

  3. Ozzy says:

    Mysterious is the word, I think.
    I actually just managed to translate it while waiting for something to finish. Mail me at karohemd at yahoo dot com and I’ll send it over.

  4. Simon Wistow says:

    I think it’s publicity for Velvet Assassin.

  5. Ozzy says:

    Bah, others have done it already. Lemme know if you still want my version.

  6. james says:

    It seems to lead to this site, at least according to the folks at Unfiction.

  7. Trippenbach says:

    It’s true – ARGs are in a way an inherent contradiction. TINAG only works if the game is small and exclusive – but if everyone is scanning YouTube vids looking for hidden messages, TINAG doesn’t work because _everything_ is a game.

    On the other hand, the community-building, heavlily motivating part of ARGs still makes them hella attractive, as Jane McGonigal mentioned a while back.

    There’s plenty of meat here to hack through.

    I’ll buy you lunch. Let’s talk.

  8. […] Wallis, who asked us “ARGs – are they fucked?” He said the subject was a riff off a recent blog post: This is the big problem I have with the state-of-the-art in ARGs: it doesn’t scale for density. […]

  9. Robert M Maier says:

    I hadn’t come around for a while, and it looks like it’s not really necessary any more anyway, but still: translation? here you go:
    (if you excuse my not-quite-native English)

    —translated text follows—
    [blacked-out bits represented with XXX]

    Buenos Aires, April 19th

    My dear XXX,

    I have just finished reading your report on the first stage of project Nibelungen and feel urged to congratulate you on a job excellently done. Sixteen tons! Almost half a billion dollars [500 millions]. XXX reports that the goods have already been rerouted and separated, and are now on their way to the various destination where they will be most beneficial for our purposes. Predominantly in XXX XXX and XXX, where – according to our sources – XXX will be well-disposed towards us, if XXX can be removed without XXX creating any fuss. According to him, this will be the last step necessary to destabilise the entire region for the next decade.

    I had a good laugh over your description of how you transported the XXX through England. Such a shambles at the airport! You must have done more damage than the [German?] airforce. For the last stage of Nibelungen, we will of course need to find a different itinerary and a different system. In its entirety, the whole situation is now more complicated, and if your guess is correct, then the authorities will have a hunch that something is going on, and we cannot fall back upon our contacts in Britain. XXX has asked me to come to Europe to take matters into my own hands. On the other side I am certain that our numpties in London will minimize the risk. I am also authorized to let you know that Wheat [proper name] is in the area.

    And while we are at that, I went to the hospital last week to see XXX. A very sad affair. He is more and more hell-bent on [sic; poss. intended “obsessed with”] Violette Summer and “her legacy”, as he calls it, insisting that it might destroy us all. His room is littered with scraps of paper full of letters and digits, hoping to decipher here last messages. I explained to him that all danger from Violette Summer has ceased 65 years ago: that my father saw her die, but he just doesn’t let himself be reassured. I worry that XXX might pass away one day with his mind still in disorder. What a shame it would be. All of us have followed this dream for such a long time, and nobody has done more for it than he. Now that everything is so close, he will not get to see it once [sic] it has come true.

    Give my regards to Lili and little Adolf. I shall see you all when my plane has landed.

    —end of translation—

  10. Robert M Maier says:

    (oops – excuses to ozzy who came first)

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