I'm speaking on a panel @ Hide and Seek today cheekily called "Why ARGs Don't Work." It's an awesome topic -- as an ARG designer I like to pull wrestle with the difference between the hype (god knows there's a LOT of it when it comes to ARGs) about how and when ARGs work, and also to talk about the real challenges of making what we currently call an ARG. (We're also taking about what today's ARG developers really want to be making and in almost every case it's not what most people who know what an ARG is think of as an ARG).
It's a non-blogging panel so no one will be repeating what we're saying (awesome). But I don't mind sharing, so here are some crazy shorthand notes. Not meant to be controversial -- mean to share what I really think and am really excited about.
MY THEORY OF WHY ARGs DON'T WORK (remember, this is a cheeky title)
The big thing I want to say is this: ARGs are not at the leading edge of game design or game development. I see myself as a game designer/developer first and foremost, so this matters a lot to me. ARGs are NOT the future of gaming.
ARGs, as traditionally designed and developed simply aren’t games. They often have games embedded in them. (e.g. lost sport in The Lost Ring) but they are not games they don’t work like games. That’s what *I* mean when I say ARGs don’t work. They do work, but they don’t work like games.
What do they work like? There are three things ARGs are good at. These are basically the three fields ARGs have been at the leading edge of since 2001 (The Beast and Lockjaw, the two games that more or less cemented the "rules" of the genre).
1) collective intelligence
2) social or dark (formerly "viral", but that's kind of sleazy sounding these days) marketing
3) small groups/existing social networks and communities entertaining each other
I say ARGs are good at this with some reservation – more than 50% of ARGs fail to be good at either of this, not through any failures of the designer, but through the failure of players to show up and actively participate. Which, by the way, is the standard percentage of social media projects that fail to reach a community size of any viability and fold within the first year. More on social media in a moment.
So if you are interested in CI or marketing, ARGs are good for you, with some caveats.
If you want to do 1) CI, then you have to have a real mystery. With ARGs that actually produced CI, there were real unknowns. What is this, how does it work, who is making it, etc. are always a good one (see The Beast, see I Love Bees, see Lonelygirl15). The CI is often a byproduct of the meta investigation (how does this work) rather than the actual interactive content (puzzles, distributed e.g.) The other option is to have an open-ended problem as the core of your game (see World Without Oil). Players can produce real CI when they are dealing with a giant, actually unsolved but potentially knowable terrain. The thing is, there has to be a REALITY to what the CI is investigating. The meta stuff is real (someone IS making this) or the topic is real (we ARE on the verge of facing extreme oil prices) I could spend a lot of time explaining this in more detail but for now I’ll just say that I’m pretty sure this is right and I’ve been thinking about it for years.
So: If you want to teach CI through ARGs, don’t manufacture an experience with the ARG “aesthetics’ or ARG “mechanics”. I refuse to work on any projects like this, they’re in my opinion a kind of sham. I DO believe in educational ARGs. (see my 2007 MacArthur essay) but I now firmly believe the “game” needs to be about something real. Pick a real mystery or problem and do a real investigation and give players social platforms like ARG players use, and have puppet masters oversee the pacing/tempo of the investigation, giving feedback and showcasing excellent play/work. So borrow the SOCIAL STRUCTURE and PUPPET MASTER dynamic of ARGs, but all this distributed story/multi-talent puzzles/interactive characters stuff for my money is besides the point.
By the way if you want to see the best ARG every created, Google search "Bachelorette spoilers" and check out the spoiler community for the ABC TV series The Bachelorett. I'm not kidding. IT IS MY DREAM ARG, and it's just a bunch of passionate people investigating a real mystery (the end result of the series and everything juicy leading up to it)
If you want to do 2) viral marketing then first of all, you must understand the pyramid of participation. The power law curve. 80% of your “players” won’t DO anything except casually look at it or poke at it. That’s how ALL social media works. 1% of your players will do 90% of the active “gameplay”. Which isn’t really gameplay by the way, it’s social media creation (wikis, forums, videos, etc.) So when you imagine your great big player base, be realisit. Don’t try to make social media work like a game. Social media thrives on superusers, not the base, not the typical user. Games ARE played by everyone at roughly the same levels – gradients of activity yes, but not a power law curve! There are no passive players of WoW, chess, C2BK, whatever. So if you are making an ARG, you better get some awesome power-players involved early, because your players are the real entertainment, just like in all social media. You can't make a mass experience through ARGs, at least no one has EVER. and I don't think it's possibe for as longibut you can ente
The one exception here is that if you are marketing with ARGs, and you have an intellectual property people already care about (again a REAL thing people want to investigate, like a backstory for a new film or videogame or spoilers from a TV series) then a broader base of people will show up. You might still only get 5% of your players actually doing something, but the 80% of people not doing anything WILL be watching a lot more closely and talking a lot more. (See the Lost Experience, the NIN game, the Dark Knight game, the Halo 3 Iris experience, etc.) So they’re not playing exactly, still, but they’re more active social media users. So if you want to do a marketing ARG and you have an actual IP people care about, this bodes well for you.
3) Dating back to Lockjaw (google it!) existing communities CAN effectively entertain each other, like making scavenger hunts for your friends or school or fans you know of your favorite show. I can make an ARG for my husband for his birthday, or for all my favorite people in NYC, or whatever. If there is an existing community of people who like to interact with each other and have that fun built in, AND you're not trying to make money off of it. In that sense, it's an art form, a medium. And it's cool for that. And I don't want to discourage anyone from making awesome ARGs, indie ARGs, but it's ART, it's intimate, it' s not some kind of mass audience thing.
So: the summary: ARGs that HAVE worked are social media. NOT GAMES.
By the way, as it turns out, I WANT TO MAKE GAMES. .I want to create experiences most people participate fully in. I don’t want the core experience to be conversation, I want to it to be action and post-action storytelling.
I also still want to help create and teach CI. I think the future of non-marketing ARGs is really around building real CI by investigating fun unsolved mysteries (science, TV spoilers, whatever!) and open-ended problems and maybe even the future. That's why we're developing something called massively multiplayer forecasting games at IFTF. It's going to be awesome and new and different and very social media intensive -- so, ARGs that work like social media, but maybe a little gamier. More on that in September when Superstructure launches! (oooh)
I think I’m a very good game designer (lost sport, c2bk, tombstone hold em, werewolf hacks, e.g.) and an awesome mission designer (the early days of the go game, flash mob activities, payphone missions for I Love Bees, missions for World Without Oil, ministry of reshelving) but not necessarily a great social media developer, and that’s why I’m not even sure I’m really going to be in the “ARG” business much longer, unless the ARG is a real mystery (see above). I want to make GAMES! Like The Lost Ring's The Lost Sport! and The Lost Ring Trackstick Missions! Like C2BK! Like Tombstone Hold Em! I LOVE MAKING GAMES! I'm going to make more games and more missions from now on.