Alternate Reality Games SIG/Whitepaper/Current and Recent Games
International Game Developers Association
Original author: Brooke Thompson
Over the past five years, alternate reality games have captured the imaginations of millions of people by getting them to play with worlds that are as fantastic as they are real. The ease of communication brought about in this digital age has driven story tellers and game designers to explore new ways in which their audience can participate with the interaction between fictional and real worlds. What started as experiments with two of the biggest companies in the game industry, Microsoft and EA, have moved on and combined efforts between advertising agencies, movie studios, television networks. This resulted in promotional campaigns and games that extended the story universe off of the big or small screen and into the hands of the audience. Today, not only are the big industries still looking into the possibilities but also small independent companies with a desire to create healthy financial models around this new genre of entertainment. Looking at a number of the games that have appeared in the past year shows trends such as playing with funding possibilities, exploring the relationships between fictional and real world spaces, and investigating new ways to interact with stories shown on the small screen.
Mind Candy has sent players in London, New York, and San Francisco on large city wide scavenger hunts and provided a physical artifact for players to come together in order to trade and share. That physical artifact is a collectable puzzle card which, sold in stores online and off and in a number of countries, helps to support the alternate reality game. Likewise, EDOC Laundry has built itself around a clothing line and New Fiction has published a comic book to support Catching the Wish. With Sean Stewart and Jordan Weisman’s Cathy’s Book soon to hit shelves, it appears that we are seeing the rise of alternate reality games built up around their own products with their own intellectual property.
Mind Candy is far from the only company that has encouraged players to gather together to play in real world spaces. Two years ago, 42 Entertainment took gamers away from their computers and sent them on a quest to answer payphones in order to hear a compelling audio drama. They returned this year with Last Call Poker which, again, took players away from their computers and sent them cemeteries throughout the country to engage in active games of Tombstone Hold’em and to explore a real world space in a new or different way. Players and designers alike are embracing the trend of exploring real world spaces and there is no doubt that we’ll continue to see it rise.
Television has been exploring the possibility of extending the story beyond the small screen and onto the internet since Fox first aired Freaky Links in 1999. They were not alone in seeing the potential of the new media and were quickly followed by ABC which experimented with several extended realities prior to this year’s The LOST Experience. Designed to carry US viewers of the popular and mysterious LOST throughout the summer hiatus, it also engaged players in the UK and Australia. ABC Family teamed up with Xenophile Media to extend the reality of this summer’s Fallen Miniseries. Xenophile had plenty of experience prior to this summer. Their multiple award wining ReGenesis was renewed for a second season this year. As broadband internet becomes more widespread and digital video recorders more common, networks will continue to experiment with ways in which they can engage viewers both on and off the small screen.
With all of this activity, it is an exciting time in the world of alternate reality gaming. While this past year has been filled with games created by teams experienced with alternate reality games, more and more people are discovering and exploring the possibilities. It’s just a matter of time before we see what they have come up with.
Catching the Wish
- Running dates: May, 2006 – September 2006
- Design Team: Dave Szulborski
- Funding Model: Supported through sales of a graphic novel
- Website: http://www.chasingthewish.net/
Catching the Wish took players to the fictional Aglaura, NJ where mysterious forces seemed to follow residents wherever they went. Dale Sprague, community activist and web designer, was plagued by dreams that seemed so familiar and real that he was driven to document them in a series of graphic novels. Unbeknownst to Dale, the events actually occurred three years earlier and were explored by players in Chasing the Wish, a previous alternate reality game by Dave Szulborski.
The game was designed to support a series of three graphic novels which refer to previous events as well as direct players to websites and characters in the current alternate reality game. With an experience as rich in characters and events as Chasing the Wish, this creative blending of print and online media allowed players new to the series an easy way to familiarize themselves with the events that the designers felt were important to the experience.
Following in the footsteps of the previous alternate reality game, which was praised and criticised for its heavy reliance on personal email interaction, Catching the Wish was a character-driven narrative where personal communication with the characters that populated the fictional world was rewarded in kind. Players participated in conference calls, communicated via email, and even met characters in person. The vast amount of text generated from all of this communication could be intimidating to players entering the experience late in the game. Therefore the designers provided a comprehensive guide to the experience on a website that was outside of the game universe.
The game was designed to appeal to players who placed an emphasis on character interactions and realism. If someone unaware of the game happened upon the online experience, they may never have known that they were interacting with a fictional world. Events occurred in real time and as naturally as they do in our everyday experiences. The town and people that inhabited it could be anywhere or anyone. And, even though players were interacting with the characters, it was a voyeuristic experience of getting pleasure from observing a world so like our own. Well, aside from the strange mystical happenings.
- Running dates: March, 2006 – (anticipate run through 2008)
- Design Team: EDOC Laundry
- Funding Model: Supported through clothing sales
- Websites: http://www.edoclaundry.com/
Founded by Dawne Weisman, EDOC Laundry is a clothing label that specializes in apparel for the smart and stylish hipster while also delivering a large interactive story that unfolds online. While the interactive story is accessed through codes discovered on the apparel, the clothing and the online elements can stand apart. Not only are the clothes so stylish that people have purchased them with little to no knowledge of the online elements, but players are encouraged to share the information that they have discovered forming an active community that does not require people to purchase every article in order to uncover the story.
On the inside of each article of clothing the phrase "nothing to hide" is printed in code. That code is used as a key to reveal a secret phrase hidden within the bold graphic design. Players take the secret phrase to the EDOC Laundry website where they can then input the code which will provide them with a video, audio, image, or text based clip that reveals a part of the story. On the surface, the story is a classic mystery plot that revolves around the murder of the band manager for Poor Richard, a very popular yet fictional band. On a deeper level, the story mirrors that of the American Revolution. While most of the story can be revealed through those assets, it is backed up by several other websites.
As with all fashion, the clothing line follows seasons and each season brings new items with new codes that unlock even more of the story. This allows the designers to pace the story delivery throughout the expected two year run. However, the limited number of articles in each season makes the game move at a slow pace. In order to engage the active players, especially once the season's clothing has revealed its secrets and the next season has yet to come, the characters provide regular updates and weekly puzzles on their respective websites. Through a mix of static web pages and forums, they are providing areas for players to both explore and come together as a community.
The game makes heavy use of multimedia with many video and audio clips. Reviews have been positive and players are responding well to the high production quality. It is very obvious that it is a game, however, in true ARG fashion, the game itself presents a very consistent world and the interactions between the players and characters help to further blend the boundaries between the game's world and ours.
Last Call Poker
- Running dates: September, 2005 – November, 2005
- Design Team: 42 Entertainment
- Funding Model: Promotional
- Websites: http://www.lastcallpoker.com/
At first glance, the Last Call Poker website provides free flash-based online poker and, in fact, was promoted as such through various press releases. However, hidden not too deeply under the surface was a complex alternate reality game that included a wide array of story and play opportunities for casual and devoted players. Launched in the fall of 2005 as a promotion for Activision’s Gun, the website and story took players through a span of 150 years as they traced the history of a cursed Navy Colt.
With casual or competitive online poker games, deeply immersive narratives, and ample opportunities for real world creative or active mission-based play, players could engage with the game in a variety of ways. Through episodic storytelling that provided a game long story arc occurring in present time as well as weekly stories that took players back in time to trace the gun’s history with both fictional and historical figures, Last Call Poker was one of the first alternate reality games to effectively consider various levels of engagement. Players that could only devote a short time in a single week and players that were heavily involved for then entire eight weeks were both rewarded with a complete story.
The online story discovery highlighted an exciting dichotomy of collaborative and competitive play. Twice a week at assigned times, the website would update with new information being made available for players together. Players, aware of the time, gathered together for the event in a race to be the first to find new characters by working through story clues and inputting names into a search engine. When a character was discovered, the player would receive recognition on the website and new pieces of the story would become available. While dozens of other players were searching for the same character, the excitement over discovering new pieces of the story encouraged players to cheer on their competitors helping to solidify the community surrounding the game.
Last Call Poker was also very innovative in the way in which it utilized play in real world environments. The website was created by the fictional Lucky Brown, an avid poker player who had passed away. Early on in the story, players learned of a game that he created called Tombstone Hold’em. Based on a popular poker variant, the game was played in cemeteries and utilized tombstones as part of their poker hand. Lucky’s estate set aside money to run various Tombstone Hold’em tournaments at locations throughout the United States. The events were held on Saturdays throughout the game run and attracted upwards of 200 players. Players were also encouraged throughout the game to visit local cemeteries and complete simple open-ended missions such as cleaning up gravesites, leaving flowers, and writing letters to people who had passed away. These events became deeply meaningful to players who participated. Additionally, this generated much conversation about the historic use of cemeteries as parks, the state of older cemeteries, and how to best remember and honor life.
While the alternate reality game is no longer being played, the story and game play is detailed on the website which still exists and continues to provide free online poker games.
The LOST Experience
- Running dates: April, 2006 – September, 2006
- Design Team: ABC
- Funding Model: advertising supported/promotional
- Websites: http://www.insidetheexperience.com/
About to begin its third season, the popular television program LOST has always had a loyal online following intent on discovering the secrets behind the mysterious show. This made it an ideal property for an experiment in combining alternate reality gaming with a television show so it should have been no surprise when The LOST Experience was announced last spring – just in time for the US summer hiatus.
Produced by the networks that carry LOST in the United States, United Kingdom, and Australia, the online experience provided players with a storyline that runs parallel to the television program while also hinting at and even revealing some of the shows deeper mysteries. While the experience contained the alternate reality game standards of cryptic websites, video clips, and intriguing voice mail messages, it took it a step or two further with a character appearing on a late night talk show, a massive chocolate giveaway, and even a book available on Amazon.com and written by a fictional author who died in the plane crash that started the television series. .
The game also experimented with new advertising methods. Since the advent of digital video recorders, such as TiVo, that allow viewers to easily skip commercials, networks have been struggling with ways in which they can appeal to advertisers. During several episodes of the television program, ABC aired commercials relating to The LOST Experience. Players, not wanting to miss clues to the Experience, sat through the commercial breaks. Additionally, sponsors of the television show were provided the opportunity to be involved with The LOST Experience. Sprite, Jeep, Monster.com, and Verizon participated with websites that contained clues and additional story information, while also including a marketing message, i.e. the website sponsored by Jeep, letyourcompassguideyou.com, contains one of the slogans for the Jeep Compass.
With a strong online community already in place, fans of The LOST Experience can be found on any number of websites and forums devoted to the television show as well as forums devoted to gaming and alternate reality gaming. To assure that players are all working at the same level, The LOST Experience had an official guide that provided regular updates. While this was successful in keeping players informed of what is happening, there were some complaints that it was just leading players and discouraging the actual discovery process.
- Running dates: July, 2006 – (currently running as of August, 2006)
- Design Team: Xenophile Media, Matt Wolf
- Funding Model: promotional
- Websites: http://www.oculareffect.com
Ocular Effect was created as an interactive tie-in for the ABC Family television movie Fallen which premiered on July 23rd, 2006. The game began with a mysterious countdown that tempted players until Fallen aired, at which point the website changed and delivered interested players to a message board which was monitored and maintained by the creative team as a means to help to facilitate discussion and deliver content. By utilizing complex Flash content and on-location videos featuring the main characters, the game took players on a virtual journey around the world as they followed the characters to six cities in three different countries. While the game did not feature characters from the TV movie, or the books upon which it was based on, it was set in the same story reality where nephilim (mythical/biblical offspring of angels and humans) exist in our world.
The story of Ocular Effect was complex and simple at the same time --help Faith, an orphaned teenage tattoo artist who has always been obsessed with specific rune-like symbols, on her voyage of discovery, learning more about herself and the meaning behind the mysterious symbols. Early on in the game, Faith was given money by an anonymous source which she used to finance her trips to various locales across the world. Along the way, she found out that the symbols had connections to others who had experienced death, and by the end, Faith was able to put the pieces together to solve the mystery. An interesting and unique element in the game was the Oculus, a spheroid covered with rune-engraved plates, which provided players the ability to see both into characters’ pasts and the future of the game plot. Having the Oculus as a reference, coupled with an open line of interactive communication with Faith, players were able to help Faith with decisions, such as where to go next.
The game designers went out of their way to make sure that visual design was aesthetically pleasing while also serving the players needs. To this end, the Ocular Effect website underwent a dramatic cosmetic change about halfway through the game which made it easier to track Faith’s progress. The Oculus, an interactive Flash animation, was eerily beautiful and menacing and provided the creators a means to include interesting puzzles in a meaningful way. The videos and 360º panoramic photographs showcased on the main character’s blog were carefully framed and edited in such a way that suggested professionalism while still appearing to be created by an amateur. The game web sites were easy to read and with themes and styles carefully chosen to appropriately represent the site’s purpose.
While it is not known yet whether Fallen will make it back to the small screen in the future, the Ocular Effect game served its purpose well, providing an interesting interactive story that included a number of the key elements of the Fallen universe. From the accounts of the active player base posting messages at the in-game forums, the experience was an enjoyable one and interest in the Fallen franchise has increased because of the game.
- Running dates: May, 2005 – December, 2005
- Design Team:
- Funding Model: none - grassroots
- Websites: http://www.omnifam.org/
Omnifam was designed and executed by several genre enthusiasts as a fan-fiction piece revolving around the story universe of ABC’s Alias. While not the first alternate reality game to be written independently by fans for an existing media property, it was the first to do so for a television property and, more importantly, for a television property that had played with ARG-like aspects in the past. It went much deeper than the previous official efforts and included stronger interactivity and a richer narrative experience.
As a piece of fan art, the creators did not have access to the current and future story lines. As such, they built off existing backstory creating their own adjacent but wholly separate storyline with new characters and events. This allowed them a certain amount of freedom while not conflicting with the show or upsetting fan expectations and understandings.
While the alternate reality game did not mirror or support the events in the broadcast show, it did follow a similar episodic arc. The initial vision was that players would be faced with a series of missions that would take a week to complete. The first mission was a set up as a qualifying test to allow the player access to the future missions. It was simple enough for anyone to complete and, essentially, served as an introduction to the play experience. That initial mission was available to players no matter how far along in the experience they happened to join the game and, after completing it, players would join in with the existing game audience as new missions were made available. Each additional mission would provide a specific goal that would advance the overall story arc.
The game was relatively ignored by the active alternate reality gaming audience at web sites such as unfiction. In part, this was due to the reputation of the earlier Alias web games among ARG fans as being light on both the interaction and narrative. However, missing the existing ARG audience did not hurt the experience. The game was embraced by fans of the television show and actively played on a website dedicated to the series. These fans had no experience with alternate reality games and their level of engagement with the game, despite it not being “official story” or “canon”, showcases the desire of fans of the story world, not just fans of alternate reality games, to participate with the story world beyond the small screen.
- Running dates: November, 2005 – January, 2006
- Design Team:
- Funding Model: none - grassroots
- Websites: http://www.orbitalcolony.com/
Orbital Colony was initially conceived as a way in which active players in the unfiction community could learn how to design and produce an alternate reality game. The goal was to maintain an open development group that received aid from experienced developers. However, they quickly realized the inability to keep the group visible while still allowing for a unaware player base that could become steeped in the mystery. Once the group closed itself to wandering eyes, the volunteer team struggled to stay together and it took almost two years before the game would launch.
As they had played dozens of games between them, they had a strong idea of what worked from a player’s perspective and this helped them tremendously. Despite a non-existent budget, they utilized their various interests, skills, experience, and locations to build a dynamic experience that included a variety of online communications as well as hidden cache locations in four different countries creating a truly global experience. To supplement their knowledge and create a game based in factual fantasy, they contacted a number of people in the space industry, gaining access to official images and information that would only add to the realism of the experience.
Initially envisioned as two one-week long mini-games, the complex story grew into a full blown alternate reality game that was played out over a town month period and fifteen different websites. With a series of difficult puzzles attracting those that enjoy the complex problems, a sweet story of a little girl on an orbital colony surrounded by mystery and missing her father grabbing the hearts of story specialists, and enough personal email and chat to drive any character interactor wild, the game engaged a large number of players with little to no promotional effort and over the stigma of being a “training arg”.
- Running dates: March, 2005 – (currently running as of November, 2006)
- Design Team: Mind Candy
- Funding Model: Supported through collectable trading cards and merchandise
- Websites: http://www.perplexcity.com
Perplex City, created by London-based Mind Candy, is one of the first successful self-supported alternate reality games. The game finances itself through the sale of collectable puzzle cards that provide insight into the Perplex City universe. The cards also direct players to the massive online world where the story of Perplex City unfolds. But the story isn’t just told online, there have been a number of live events, primarily in the form of city wide scavenger hunts, that have provided some of the most talked about story events. Who wouldn’t talk about a helicopter whisking away a mole that had infiltrated your group?
The fictional Perplex City is a large city in an unknown universe that has recently connected to Earth. Perplex City’s priceless artefact, the Receda Cube, has been stolen and is hidden somewhere on Earth. In order to recover the cube, one of the city’s residents enlisted the help of Mind Candy to spread the word on Earth. As the Perplex City culture revolves around puzzles, where they compete in puzzle contests much as we on Earth compete in sport, he proposed the puzzle cards as a way to familiarize the citizens of Earth with the world of Perplex City and offered a £100,000 (approx. $200,000 or €150,000) reward for the safe retrieval of the cube.
Despite some initial controversy over whether players would need to purchase the cards in order to participate with the alternate reality game or discover the location of the cube, neither is true. The cards support the game both monetarily and story-wise, but the game is free to any who wish to participate. Though, it is undeniable that the cards have become a source of community building with players meeting both on and offline to trade the cards, solve puzzles, and discuss the game.
The fourth and final wave of puzzle cards was released in July, 2006 and, as far as those outside of Mind Candy know, the cube could be found any day now. Capitalizing on the success of the puzzle cards, Mind Candy has announced that Perplex City will be continuing in another episode and that a board game based on the world will be arriving at stores mid-late September, 2006. The designers of the game have also expressed a desire to take the Perplex City universe as far as possible, including books and film.
- Running dates: March, 2006 – June, 2006
- Design Team: Xenophile Media
- Funding Model: Promotional
- Websites: http://www.regenesistv.com/
The ReGenesis Extended Reality (commonly referred to as just ReGenesis) is an alternate reality game that runs along with the popular Canadian television show, ReGenesis. Extending the one-hour bio-threat drama over multiple platforms, including websites, email, video-on-demand, voicemail, and real world events, the game allows players to explore the world as agents aiding NorBAC, the North American Biotechnology Advisory Commission. After the award-winning first season, Xenophile Media, the design and production team behind the experience, did something that had never been done – they redeployed an alternate reality game when the programme was syndicated.
When the television programme was picked up for another year, it was no surprise that they wanted to include the extended reality. Learning lessons from the first season, they made the experience more accessible to wider range of player types. For example, they included a flash based game that introduced players to the scientists at the NorBAC lab that required minimal time commitment and provided another entrance into the alternate reality game. Through video-on-demand, viewers interested in the extended reality story but without access to the internet or the time to commit to the experience were able to receive story updates. A mission based play scenario provided direction to players who were overwhelmed by the freedom of exploration. The only people that lose out on the extended reality are casual browsers and information seekers, but that is by design.
Because the game is designed to be deployed multiple times as the series is aired in additional markets or in syndication, the designers need to control who accesses the websites and minimize the discussion about the experience elsewhere on the internet. As the websites are designed to change throughout the experience and in sync with the television episodes, they need to be displayed on a user by user basis. Additionally, website access is blocked to visitors that have not registered to the site to both minimize discussion and avoid search engines and archival websites from copying, or caching, the websites at various stages of the game play. The unfortunate side effect is that casual browsers and information seekers often include people that would tell others about the game or that would register once they were sufficiently intrigued by the experience.
In order to contain the discussion that is inevitable in a collaborative play experience, the extended reality makes use of message boards within the game reality. Players may find that they are reacting with both players and characters as the game progresses which adds an interesting dynamic to the game play. And, because the game environment is so controlled and all of the players understand they are interacting with a fictional world, the typical confusion found on in-game message boards is drastically reduced.
- Running dates: May, 2006 – ongoing
- Design Team: Studio Cypher, LLC
- Funding Model: Pay to play
- Websites: http://www.studiocypher.com/
Studio Cypher is a serial ARG with game episodes lasting about a month long each. It utilizes a subscription model that allows those who subscribe to an episode access to additional content and interaction while anyone may follow along with the story and work through the puzzles for free.
The story universe revolves around the Cyphers, a team of paranormal investigators and conservators, who have operated independently with no problem for years. However, things have changed and psychic forces being what they are, they need help and consequently created the Wakeful Agent program. Against this backdrop, the series lays down episodes which contain individual mysteries for players to solve while also delivering clues to the larger game story.
Though the episodes are part of a larger series, players must subscribe to each one individually. The US based company charges $9.99 to players within the United States and $13.99 for those outside of the country to cover the additional communication and shipping costs. Players who subscribe are given the title of “Wakeful Agent” and, in addition to the interaction, are granted access to game and story updates prior to those who do not subscribe.
The three episodes launched thus far (Out in the Cold, Perfect Friends Forever, and Descry.us) have received mixed reviews, with players who paid for the additional interaction feeling more satisfied with the overall experience. The company behind the game, which maintains a blog on their website for company announcements and post mortems, actively listens to and addresses player complaints.
Who Is Benjamin Stove
- Running dates: January, 2006 – April, 2006
- Design Team: Campbell-Ewald & GMD Studios
- Funding Model: Promotional
- Websites: http://www.whoisbenjaminstove.com/
As a promotional campaign, Who Is Benjamin Stove? was unusual. It was not designed to promote a specific product and nor was the client revealed until several months into the campaign when they suddenly found themselves in the campaign. It’s confusing, but it worked.
Designed by Campbell-Ewald and executed by GMD Studios, Who Is Benjamin Stove? launched in early January with a character who had discovered an odd painting while was visiting his parents for the holidays. The painting was of a crop circle in a corn field that had the shape of an ethanol molecule; a shape that would reappear a number of times throughout the campaign. Players immediately recognized the ethanol connection and, while trying to uncover the game’s mystery as well as who might be backing the campaign, discussed the benefits and uses of the fuel. Several weeks later, when a Live Green, Go Yellow commercial appeared during the Superbowl, active players quickly determined that General Motors was likely behind the campaign. It would be several more weeks before they would receive confirmation.
The game’s mystery revolved around the original owner of the painting, Benjamin Stove, with players and characters trying to discover who he was, where he might be, and, eventually, what led to his interest in ethanol. Tracking down Mr. Stove, required players to communicate with a character in Brazil and uncover notes he had left hidden in libraries throughout the United States. At one point, clues led one of the characters to Campbell-Ewald’s offices in Detroit and, from there, players received more confirmation that General Motors might be involved. The big reveal, however, took place in late April when Benjamin Stove published an open letter to General Motors with General Motors responding in ads in the USAToday as well as a number of popular websites directing people to their Live Green, Go Yellow campaign website for more information.
The community for the game gathered on forums hosted on WhoIsBenjaminStove.com, a website created and maintained by one of the central characters. While this is nothing new to alternate reality games, the control that the game gave to players was unique. The forums were hosted and maintained by a character, but they were moderated by players who showed leadership and previous experience in moderating forums focused on alternate reality games. This allowed players to deal with questions and comments relating to the game reality without involving a character who might be suddenly confronted with the reality that they were, in fact, fictional. More importantly, it allowed the players to maintain control over the space and feel as if it was truly their community. This had the added benefit of inviting a strong shared culture and experience which has, in some ways, followed the players as they have joined other forums and games.