A Matter Of The ARGument

This isn’t going to be a massive heated debate where I simply vent like a mad man. I do that enough in my other blog posts.
This is about the Alternative Reality Game (ARG) genre and how one in particular made me think differently about gaming forever.

As a kid I had a Commodore 64 which is what set me on my path to being a developer and designer. At the time I simply wanted to load up games as quickly as possible which was an advantage for anyone with cartridges or a console.
The games that we played as children were fairly straight forward in their delivery. There were driving games, flying sims and other button bashers, but all of them were about delivering content electronically via your screen.

ARG’s go a massive step further.
Instead of just utilising the electronic form they also embrace the real world and involve puzzles or clues that get players to explore further than just their bedroom or study. Going beyond the computer an ARG will often go across all mediums in what is known as transmedia.

To give a prime example of what I’m talking about and how I was introduced to this genre I should talk about Perplex City.

Back in 2005, Mind Candy released a game whose narrative was very well thought out and structured to combine the online and offline worlds. You were tasked with finding the Receda Cube for a reward of ¬£100,000 which was a ‘real’ cube that had been stolen and brought through a dimensional gate in to our world and hidden.

The advantage was that the online world could be manipulated to be whatever Mind Candy wanted, so they used the online world and community to bury their hints and clues within but used transmedia perfectly to extend the reach of their story. They hid clues in bill board advertising, TV broadcasts, flying banners and radio broadcasts.
The ‘fake’ websites that were created took the form of fake drug companies or ice cream manufacturers where you had to leave your details or you had to investigate the sites content, and sometimes structure, to find answers.
Leaving your email address or mobile number resulted in a message being sent out with further clues. Occassionally the in-game characters would contact you as if they were real-life people. This made their story much more believable and very involving if you wanted to delve deeper.

Mind Candy didn’t stop there either. They hosted a series of events in major cities which involved actors and actresses extending their stories across our world and there were a warren of fake websites created to look like genuine companies here on ‘Earth’ so that clues could be hidden or answers to puzzles could be sort.
One of the main features of Perplex City was the puzzle cards that were produced in series’ and released in waves. Buying a set of six, packaged like trading cards of old, you would get a clue to the main story arc on one side and always a puzzle of varying difficulty on the other dependant on the colour of the series the card belonged to. Red was easiest and the most common card series to find and moving up through the spectrum got harder and rarer.
Each card had a unique code for you to enter your answer against online and move up the ranking for. You weren’t just playing the story but competing against other players to rank highest for the day or month.
I know players who ignored the main story arc and simply attempted to collect all the cards and solve all their puzzles.
The artwork of the puzzles cards alone was a reason to collect them.

The first season ran for nearly two years and was a huge success for both the ARG community and for Mind Candy as a business model.
It went further than the ‘free-to-play’ alternatives with the inclusion of the puzzle cards but you could always play the main story arc for free.
If you do the math and try to collect all 256 cards, then allow for duplicates, that becomes a decent sum. Spread that across an estimated 50,000 players and you’re looking at a huge revenue stream.
The following for Perplex City is/was so vast that entire sites and forums have been created dedicated to solving the cards that were released with one of the most popular being ‘A Billion To One‘. The card simply featured a man in a photo with Japanese text translated to ‘Find Me’. He has not been found to this day despite the dedicated site offering $1,000 for his discovery.

In 2007 the Receda Cube was found in Northamptonshire in a forest which brought the first season to a close.

The second season was in the process of being launched shortly after but in 2007 Mind Candy indefinitely shelved it as they felt they weren’t prepared, so sadly there will be no continuation to what was a fairly epic game.

You may not even realise it but you’ve probably already experienced a form of ARG.
Advertising is getting smarter every day and new ways are being invented or adapted to get ahold of your hard earnt cash. Transmedia is more and more becoming an accepted way to engage with those who regularly use the online community. This includes gamers, film buffs and everyone involved with social media sites.
Occassionally people get lucky on YouTube and their video goes viral being exposed to the masses which for a marketing exec this is a dream come true.

A recent example that I can think of is the release of Terminator Salvation where they released coded messages from the ‘machines’ through Twitter. Those clever enough to decipher the secret broadcast were rewarded with pre-release trailers and stills of the upcoming film.

In the instance of our much beloved game, Portal 2, the online world was used to gather a following, like a resistance to expedite the release of the game. ‘Potato Sack’ was used to entice gamers to complete tasks and missions within existing games on Steam. The more people who were actively engaging and joining in the sooner the game was released. The combined effort was charted and Portal 2 was released ten hours earlier.

Another unique aspect included with Portal 2 was the bonus content of an interactive trailer for the film Super 8. Using the Source engine you were able to navigate through a scene from the film in first-person perspective. A completely new way of drawing the audience in to the story of what is usually just a sit and watch affair.

I think we will see more occurrences of this type of promotion but I wonder if we’ll ever see a broader cross-over of all formats to continue the story and not just promote a launch date? I hope so. It’s quite common place to see advertising across all formats but I’m looking for ways in which the story can be enhanced or manipulated to add another dimension in ways that Perplex City did so effectively.

Mass Effect 3 has an iOS game lined up, Infiltrator, which you can play on it’s own but it’s not just a stand-alone game. You can directly impact your characters main story line on console or PC by freeing hostages and¬†collecting intel within this additional game.
What I ideally want to see is another version of Deus Ex where all the hacking can be done via an app on your phone where you break through encrypted files and delve deeper in to the storyline. There could also be cryptic clues of a retro nature that lead you around our real world to find solutions that help you in-game, even if you only do your research via Google. This would then affect the main story arc when you’re playing on the main gaming platform of your choice. With more and more services offering to store your save-games via a cloud service it should only be a matter of time.

Having the ability to extend an experience beyond a single format is very exciting and I think is the way all interactive media advertising should be handled.

To acknowledge that we tend to mention Portal 2 a lot here on AMOLAG, and to see if we can also encourage a bit of group activity, we are giving one lucky PC gamer with a Steam account the chance to win both Portal and Portal 2. To enter the draw simply tweet to the masses our name @AMOLAGPodcast along with the hash tag of #AMOLAGwantsaportalgun. The draw will take place once we have at least fifty individuals tweeting or retweeting this message so you have to tell your friends to get involved. Good luck!

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