Alternate Reality Games: Genres And Categories - Originally funded and developed by independent game-makers, the popularity of the Alternate Reality Gaming genre (ARG) has grown in a way that lends itself to a further breakdown into several sub-genres.
In the first part of this research we provided an introduction to ARGs: this section is intended to cover a large variety of games within ARG, in order to find examples to help define each category by comparing and contrasting the different sub-genres present in the field.
Not only can ARGs be used to just tell a story, but players can also be taking part in team-building activities, educating themselves on Internet use, or merely participating in a publicity or advertising campaign.
By defining sub-genres within the ARG field it helps observers understand what is currently available in context of other games (both present and past) that may be similar in nature. There are five main sub-genres used for this purpose, although some games understandably (and in some cases, intentionally) blur the lines between categories:
What all of these games have in common is a level of interactivity, although how in-depth that interactivity is expressed tends to vary. Perplex City creator Michael Smith aptly and succinctly described the ARG genre when he was asked what Perplex City was: “part story, part game, part puzzle”.
Longer definitions of the genre as a whole incorporate the compelling community elements that players flock toward and the use of multiple forms of media such as e-mail, websites, text / voice messaging, live events, and similar strategies for content delivery.
Collective intelligence efforts also have ARG elements to them - websites often crop up to engage in collaborative interpretation and debate, but a web board discussing JK Rowling’s hints for the last volume of Harry Potter falls well short of the definition of an ARG.
It is only when these efforts are taken to the next level, and the mediums being discussed react to the community’s actions that the above categories spring to life to tease and delight the audience with yet another bit of information.
Over time, people have referred to all kinds of collective play activities as ‘an ARG’ or ‘ARG-like’, however not all these activities are ARGs. An example of this would be treasure hunts. Treasure hunts by themselves are not an ARG because they are simply a sub-genre of puzzles that can in turn, be incorporated into a larger story/game/puzzle that is commonly known as an ARG.
While puzzles are by nature two-dimensional (even pacManhattan, with an emphasis on recreating Pac Man in three dimensional space, still falls ‘flat’ due to the singular game-style focus, and limited scope) with clearly defined rules, ARGs enjoy a certain freedom by not spelling out all of the “rules of the game” in advance.
In fact, once inside the game, the often recited mantra of “this is not a game” becomes the only “real” rule in order to preserve the alternative reality setting. When rules are presented in an ARG, such as Perplex City, they are done in an in-character and in a way that does not break the flow of the setting. ARGs also tend to require a voluntary suspension of disbelief to enjoy.
Does a person need to suspend disbelief to enjoy the experience of A Treasure's Trove and its underlying story? Certainly not, the story is presented as a beautiful illustrated fairy tale that also happens to provide clues to a now-found real world group of treasures.
Does a person need to suspend disbelief to enjoy Perplex City, which is arguably another sort of treasure hunt? It isn’t necessary - the game already does that for the player. Additionally, immersive play such as Street Wars falls short of being an ARG - no reality is suspended, as the understood rules do not allow interference with day-to-day activities except within defined parameters (no one is going to “assassinate” a player during/at work, where an ARG such as Majestic could send you a fax or call a player at work, during normal ‘business hours’).
While it is possible to draw up categories similar to books, movies, and even massive multiplayer games (sci-fi, horror, fantasy), this style of genre definition fails quickly due to the puzzle based nature of ARGs. All ARGs at heart are mysteries - things appear “out of nowhere”, clues lead to puzzles that lead to solutions (that often lead to even more puzzles). It is easy to draw up a quick list in an attempt to define sub-genres by predominant content style - puzzles, multimedia, interactive/real time, and the like.
This list also leads to a rapid quagmire as over the course of an ARG the game may appear to be predominantly one thing and change instantly into another - a series of flashy multimedia may morph into a series of puzzles leading to a string of real-time events, giving each style of content “equal time”.
Finally, it is almost too simplistic to define sub-genres of ARGs according to if they are “professionally” run (by a media company or marketing department within a company) or not, as four of the above categories can be run by “professionals” (grassroots being the exception), and four of the above categories can be run by “independent” efforts, but those definitions don’t say much about the games and are better loaned to a discussion of business models, found later in this paper.
This sub-genre is the one that started it all, and are often what people mean when they refer to ARGs as a whole due to their high profile nature. These are the games that everyone can name due to media exposure - articles about ARGs do not fail to mention I Love Bees, for example.
Promotional games are at the core designed to push a product to the audience in a way that does not necessarily require off-screen interaction with that product to a large degree. As product tie-ins, this medium lends itself nicely to video games (Halo 2’s I Love Bees; GUN’s Last Call Poker), movies (A.I.’s The Beast) and television shows (Push, Nevada; Lost; ReGenesis), although games like Art of the Heist (Audi A3) illustrated the potential for raising brand awareness in other products.
These games also can be enjoyed independently of the product itself, but are occasionally more transparently ad-like then other sub-genres, especially in the later stages when the game is reaching its conclusion.
I Love Bees culminated in large scale events that allowed “crew members” to play Halo 2 before the official release - and launched itself by sending out jars of honey with the phrase “I love bees” floating inside at the same time the URL to the first site (in ARG terminology, the “rabbit hole”) flashed on Cineplex screens at the end of a theatrical trailer for Halo 2.
The Lost Experience was launched after the television series Lost was well underway (towards the end of its second season), not before - and made no pretense of covertly announcing itself to the world.
Designed for large scale audiences and funded accordingly, these efforts attract audiences anywhere from 10,000 to 3 million. Promotional efforts are considered “officially approved” original stories that take place in an existing fictional universe, providing consistency in content, making them different in presentation from “fan based” grassroots efforts that must neatly skirt around IP issues while at the same time presenting a compelling “hook” for the story that they wish to engage players with. At the same time promotional efforts also have the potential to be but are not necessarily to date less flexible than grassroots efforts in storytelling due to the nature of scale involved.
The two compelling stand out features of this category is often the presence of outside funding to the team that is creating the ARG, and the degree of interactivity with a product. The funding feature sets it apart from Grassroots (“self” or small group funding), and Productized ARGs (where the funding comes from a product being sold concurrently to the game). The degree of interactivity sets it apart from Productized ARGs. Promotional games can be Single-Player or multiplayer, as well.
This sub-genre of ARGs began to surface shortly after the end of The Beast in an effort to keep the newly established community thriving as well as attempt to recapture the magic that the first major ARG was able to do so well.
Grassroots games, as they have come to be called, are designed by individuals (or likely teams) either as a bit of fandom work, or as a stand alone work of fiction. Generally, these games operate with a much smaller budget than Promotional efforts. Depending on the type of game, reported costs range from around $150 (Exocog) to over $2000 USD (Chasing the Wish).
They can be done for free, but the bar has already been raised by many high quality efforts and it is likely any aspiring ARGtist/ARGitect/”puppetmaster” will end up investing at least a minor sum in order to implement a game that will attract a fair size audience and be worth doing.
The audience these games attract is often smaller and forms a more tightly-knit community as well, although there are exceptions to the rule that compare to fully-funded Promotional efforts. Notably Last Call Poker (Promotional) attracted approximately 10,000 players, while quoted numbers for MetaCortechs (Grassroots) fall around 12,000, although they both ran for similar timeframes (Last Call Poker ran 90 days, MetaCortechs, 80).
The fact that these games are funded privately also means they are run as volunteer efforts, which can occasionally lead to turn over of staff or a higher risk of failure or the ARG itself due to the circumstances or just the nature of the team assembled.
Even wildly successful games such as Lockjaw had had turnover in staff before they even launch. ARG failure is not notably new - Majestic is held up as a shining example of a Commercial/Productized ARG that failed in a very public way.
With Grassroots efforts, the risk of failure (often dubbed “implosion”) is much higher. Grassroots games have no corporate backing so when they lean on existing IP for inspiration (such as Matrix-based MetaCortechs, or other films) they may be mistaken for official efforts by players.
Early efforts in the Grassroots area include the notable Ravenwatchers, which appeared to gain more notoriety for its failed start than much else and Lockjaw. Lockjaw catapulted Grassroots ARGs into the media’s eye with a short (but tantalizing) teaser article in Wired magazine prior to launch.
Even with a smaller budget, a Grassroots ARG that appears smooth, professionally done, and presented by a well skilled (and often genre experienced) team can gather a lot of attention quickly. Urban Hunt blurred the line between a Promotional ARG and Grassroots by appearing to promote a reality TV show.
Games in this sub-genre also can diverge wildly in content, and allow previously unexplored boundaries in content delivery to be explored with a wider range of freedom. Chasing the Wish included dozens of game related artifacts, expanding upon the idea of a small metal disk that found itself part of Majestic-world based ChangeAgents: Out of Control.
When the disk proved to be an incredible hit with players, incorporating real items into a very internet and media based strategy for content delivery became yet another way ARG makers could touch their audience.
Unlike Promotional ARGs, where the “point” is most often related to the product being pitched, and Productized ARGs, in which the purchase of a product is highly tied into the game itself, Grassroots games use these items as a means to an end. The item(s) in question for a grassroots game usually contains a clue, or must be delivered somewhere.
These items tend not to cost the player anything other than the effort required to get them. Grassroots games can also be more flexible, since they are not officially endorsed by a company in their efforts.
The motives for engaging in the creation of Grassroots games have been clearly diverse. Exocog, for example, began as an exercise launched by Miramontes Studios and Jim Miller to learn how to conduct an interactive marketing campaign.
Exocog is an example of a “fan homage” style game, as it tied in to the then upcoming release of the film Minority Report, but Lockjaw established an entirely independent storyline wrapped around fictional biotech company GanMed and a group of urban explorers named DCMetroCrawlers. But what is the draw for creators to spend a significant amount of personal money to establish an alternative universe?
Author Dave Szulborski (and puppetmaster of many games, including Urban Hunt, ChangeAgents, and Chasing the Wish) comments in his book on the compelling phenomena of ARG creation in This Is Not A Game, “Even without being actively involved in the genre for a couple months though, I couldn’t stop ideas for new games from percolating around inside my head.”
Over the years and to the present day, the grassroots sub-genre is by far the largest one in the Alternate Gaming reality sphere, most likely due to reasons similar to those expressed by Mr. Szulborksi.
A very small look at a long list of grassroots efforts chronicled at the “unforums” include successfully concluded games Acheron, Alias: Omnifam, Metacortechs, Anyone seen James?, The Carer, Rookery Tower, Strange Dreams Pts 1 & 2, Wildfire Industries, and an even longer list of efforts that have either “imploded” or suffered a “meltdown” and did not come to a “successful conclusion”.
This genre is most clearly defined with a product as the driving effort of game or critical to puzzle solving within the game. This category also includes commercial efforts designed to fix a business model on top of an ARG experience.
While developed at the same time as The Beast, Electronic Arts’ Majestic (2001) differed on several levels. Unlike The Beast which was free to play, Majestic was designed to be a commercial product from the outset, announcing itself to the world many months before it launched, and quickly having to re-establish itself as “not a game” once it did. How did Majestic fare in the market? Dismally - by all public reports.
"Majestic" drew such an anemic audience that Electronic Arts abandoned the story half-way through. Of the 800,000 people who started to register for the free, first installment of the game, only 71,200 completed the process. That number fell to 10,000 to 15,000 subscribers when it came time to pay. It was a grand experiment, but one that ultimately cost EA between $5 million and $7 million. - (Chris Morris, CNN, “Innovation at Risk?”, December 2001)
Single-Player games merit their own category, as the nature of these games are often (but not always) promotional in nature (example: ReGenesis, The Lost Experience) but are tailored to be played entirely by an individual. The stand out ARG in this category is Jamie Kane, created by Cross-Media Entertainment for BBC. Jamie Kane can be started at any time and lasts for approximately two weeks, start to finish.
While it is possible for larger scale ARGs to be played individually, they are designed to benefit from collaborative community interaction. Single-Player ARGs also can be designed to be free of traditional time constraints, allowing them to be played whenever they are stumbled upon.
These games are also designed to rely more on generic and predictable reactions to the puzzles presented. It is true that ARGs can be played in a single or collaborative fashion, but it is the strength of this sub-genre that the games are designed to be played in such a fashion that anyone with enough diligence can solve the puzzles within by themselves, making single-player ARGs a bit easier to follow and ideal for genre newcomers.
ARG creators in large-scale games in other sub-genres have come out on record admitting that many puzzles were designed so that one player could not solve everything due to the wide range of knowledge required. Single-Player ARGs often do not stay that way for long - as fans learn about the game, information is swapped and shared.
The fans usually collaborate to solve all the puzzles as teams and post their findings as rapidly as possible - once the puzzles are solved, players who are “late” to the game can simply read a walkthrough with all the available solutions, making the game as “easy” or “difficult” as the solo player wishes to make things. There is no “new” content to discover, unless the game has been updated or a puzzle within the game was never solved by the “first wave” of players.
Instead of using live actors, or having the expense of relying on live events to move the action in the story forward, this sub-genre can leverage “chat bots” such as Alicebots if “live interaction” with a story character is required and websites to move the story towards a conclusion. However, the more automated the interaction is, the more superficial and slightly less personal the experience becomes regardless of the sophistication of the technology used.
Another small category, this category illustrates the growing flexibility of the ARG medium to be used for training and team building. Noted ARG expert Brooke Thompson parlayed her skill in ARG creation to take employees on a journey into a world where corporate communication led to humorous results, while subtly attempting to train players in skills designed to increase interdepartmental communication.
Titled SMB: Missed Steaks, the game was tailored for a specific audience, yet similar to most corporate training in that it imparted lessons that can easily be exported to other departments and companies. While Educational/Training efforts are the least talked about sub-genre in ARGs, they do exist, and are a natural and sensible extension of the genre due to the pervasiveness of technology and collaborative efforts often needed in other types of ARGs.
In recent years, mobile and PC technology have increasingly been viewed as a yet another delivery platform for all sorts of content on a day to day basis - something that ARGs discovered early on. In education and training efforts, collaboration is encouraged and welcome.
Societal pressure and the pervasiveness of varying forms of media in general have led educators to adopt new strategies to leverage existing and in many cases, emerging technology to capture and engage students’ minds. Many higher education campuses require computers, enticing students with steep discounts with the help of manufacturers and software companies - some even require cell-phones.
Educational/Training ARGs can share elements of the Single-Player category, but instead, they promote a non-traditional product. The product isn’t a movie, or a shirt you can wear, or a card to keep - it is simply knowledge.
Comparatively speaking, the massive multiplayer genre has also seen similar outgrowth in use, and this category shows the most potential for consistent growth in both ARGs and massive multiplayer worlds. Linden Labs actively encourages the use of Second Life for learning by distributing free accounts to teachers at universities and colleges for students to use though the Campus: Second Life program.
Second Life then becomes a real-time collaboration tool to engage distant learners in ways traditional online learning does not offer, and ARGs become another way for people to learn while having fun. As this is a relatively small and new category, it has the most in common with the Single-Player ARGs and is still finding its place as a sub-genre as it grows in popularity.
End of Part II
Originally published on 2006 by the IGDA Alternate Reality Games SIG as "2006 Alternate Reality Games White Paper" on the IGDA website.
About the authors
This paper by the IGDA was created and written by volunteers on behalf of the community at large. The editor of this second part is Nova Barlow.The IGDA Alternate Reality Games SIG -