Anatomy of an Alternate-Reality Game

We hacked the Portal 2 BBS and tracked Meltzer's kidnapped daughter to Rapture without touching a video game console. Alternate-reality games (ARG) have become more sophisticated in the last few years, and now it seems every major release comes with an extra mystery to solve. What makes these games so popular? Who plays them, and why do developers sink so much time and effort into a free product?

Alternate-reality games have come a long way since the ill-fated 2001 launch of EA's Majestic, an interactive game that contacted subscribers via phone, email, and instant message to make a fictional conspiracy come alive. Majestic was the first commercial ARG, a game played in real-time across multiple forms of media. That ARG was a commercial failure - EA shut the game down after recouping less than a tenth of the $10 million development cost - but today the format flourishes as a marketing tool. To find out why, GamePro talked to a few game designers about what makes ARG marketing campaigns so effective and whether their popularity suggests a growing trend or just a passing fad.

The menu screen for EA's early ARG, Majestic

"This is not a gimmick or a passing fad," says Jim Stewartson, president and cofounder of Fourth Wall Studios. The guys at Fourth Wall helped design a number of successful ARG campaigns - including the ilovebees promotion for Halo 2's release. And while none of the publishers we contacted were willing to share actual sales data, Stewartson assures GamePro that promotional ARGs are a very effective -- and profitable -- method of getting players hyped about a game because they demand audience participation.

The Why

"Gamers are perceptive, and they get defensive when it comes to traditional marketing," says Tom Bass, marketing director at 2K Games. "Nowadays, we can't just film a TV spot and call it a night."

Even if they did, the advent of DVR devices, Netflix streaming, and sophisticated ad-blocking software enables consumers to eliminate traditional advertising from their daily life. Elizabeth Tobey, community manager at 2K Games, explains that video-game marketing is a unique challenge because traditional media cannot convey intangible qualities such as the atmosphere or narrative tone of a game environment.

"For BioShock 2, we needed a way to attract players and get them excited about Rapture without revealing the plot," she says.

Enter the ARG, a participatory publicity stunt so subtle that many players never realize the puzzles they're solving stem from a retail product. Sometimes, the puppetmasters don't realize it, either. "It's not really marketing anymore," says Stewartson. "What it really is -- if it's done right -- is extra content for the audience."

BioShock 2's ARG included many clues and events that were viewable in public

The Who

These ARGs are still new enough that nobody quite knows who the audience is. When a marketing campaign is developed for a popular video-game franchise like Portal or Halo, the target audience is typically divided into two groups: returning fans rabid for fresh content, and newcomers who may know nothing about Aperture Science or Master Chief. Direct marketing like TV spots or magazines ads risk favoring one group over the other, but ARG clues are often sprinkled evenly across multiple forms of media. This method of marketing a game release with comic books or viral videos in lieu of advertising is becoming popular because developers can attract new players while simultaneously rewarding fans with extra content.

It's clear that ARGs appeal to companies seeking to attract a broad audience, and once word spreads of a particularly clever or daunting mystery, a third segment of the market emerges: the hardcore ARG player. They are a publicist's best friend and a developer's worst nightmare, because they'll effortlessly assemble into a global network capable of solving even the most complex puzzle. Consider the Cloudmakers, a team of more than 7,500 amateur cryptographers worldwide who spent the three months leading up to the film A.I.'s debut working together to expose a fictional conspiracy. The group garnered national media attention for translating clues in obscure Indian dialects, cracking musical codes, and generally pushing developers like Stewartson to create an interactive mystery challenging enough to last until the movie's release.

"The arrival of hardcore ARG players turns a transmedia campaign into a serious spectator sport," saysAndrea Philips, an independent ARG designer and former Cloudmaker. "A very wide audience is attracted by the accomplishments of a few hardcore players. We're seeing an explosion in ARG popularity because a clever game can potentially attract millions of fans for less than it costs to produce a prime-time TV spot."

The How (Much)

The potential profit margin on ARG marketing is so promising that even companies like NBC, Warner Brothers, and Audi USA are creating ARGs to sell new products. In 2005, Audi launched "The Art of the H3ist" to market the Audi A3 by encouraging players to seek out six locked cars containing coded plans for a fictional museum heist. According to statistics compiled by cross-media specialist Christy Dena from Audi's published results, "The Art of the H3ist" generated a 73 percent increase in online purchase activity over previous marketing campaigns and boasted "the most qualified online-ad generated audience of any Audi car launch." The cost of producing and running the game was nearly $4 million, but with over a thousand launch vehicles sold -- at roughly $27,000 apiece -- it's easy to understand the appeal of what Stewartson calls "the future of participatory marketing."

Since most ARGs don't actually sell products, it's difficult for analysts to quantify how audience participation translates into units sold. Consequently, many experts believe the ARG as we now know it -- a marketing gimmick -- will die once the novelty wears off.

"The ARG as a pure marketing tool won't last forever, but the ARG as a full-bodied piece of entertainment is here to stay," says Philips. In her opinion, the future of ARG development lies in offering game developers the tools to flesh out a story across multiple media formats without overly complicating the original game.

The Future

Consider Portal's use of contextual story clues sprinkled throughout the game environment: The player's free to spend as much or as little time as they want searching the Aperture Science facility for clues to their imprisonment, allowing everyone to find the perfect balance between solving puzzles and uncovering the story. Philips fantasizes about a future Portal game that you can play even when you're away from your console. For example, by investigating the Aperture Science website or joining the GLaDOS Liberation Society on Facebook future players might learn more about the Portal universe and even change how the story unfolds.

Portal 2's announcement ARG began with an extended ending, and continued on stage at the 2010 Game Developer's Choice Awards.

GamePro contacted Valve Software for comment on the recent success of the Portal 2 promotional ARG, and Portal 2 Project Manager Erik Johnson tells us the Portal update was never meant to be a marketing tool.

"We don't really see a clear line between marketing the product versus building the game experience," says Johnson. "We want to build an entertaining experience whenever we interact with our community, not just when we release the final product."

For Johnson, the future of ARG design is all about community involvement: "The next step for us is to allow the experience to go both ways, where the actions of the community will have more of a direct effect on either the activity before the game is launched, or the game itself."

Perhaps Philips is right in predicting a future where games shatter the fourth wall ("I'd really like to kidnap a player," she once confided during an Escapist interview), but given the apparent success of transmedia marketing, it seems inevitable that contemporary ARG design will continue to center around pushing product, at least until more developers grow comfortable communicating with players outside of the game.

"Entertainment is rapidly changing toward having a partnership with your community rather than hurling tiny bits of information from on high," says Johnson. "We feel like the return on entertaining a bunch of fans is incredibly high. If we succeeded in that, then everything else will work out fine."

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