SXSW Alternate Reality Games transcript online

Dan Hon, COO of Mind Candy has put the transcript of the 2007 SXSW conference panel: ARG! The Attack of the Alternate Reality Games transcript online. It is a fantastic talk that addresses alot of questions people have about ARGs and marketing and emerging trends. I’ve cherrypicked some quotes that stand out for me.

Moderator: Alice Taylor VP Digital Content, BBC
Panel Organiser: Dan Hon COO, Mind Candy

Dan Hon COO, Mind Candy
Brian Clark Founder/CEO, GMD Studios/IndieWire
Evan Jones Creative Dir/Producer, Stitch Media
Brooke Thompson Giant Mice
Alice Taylor VP Digital Content, BBC 


Man2: [A]dvertisers have typically been interested in reach: how many millions of people will see this. Now they’re starting to realize that the quality of the engagement and the quality of that interaction with the brand have a lot more impact than just the sheer number of people you reach.

So where a television advert might, in the best-case scenario, give you 30 seconds of attention, an ARG will produce session lengths that are 30 minutes or longer and heavy repeat visitation, for all the same reasons that people tune into an episodic television series.

Forensic Storytelling & Community

Brian: [W]hat we’re doing is trying to give the audience something to do, rather than just read. The simplest thing that you can do is take your narrative and break it into a thousand pieces and hide them all over the place. Then the audience has to become an active researcher. It’s like CSI, it’s forensic storytelling, where the audience is actually assembling that, and thus feels ownership over it.

Part of that is, “I know something you don’t know.” But it is also, “I know something you don’t know, and now I’m going to share it with you.” Rather than, “I know something you don’t know, and now I’m going to keep it secret.”

Realtime Writing

Brian: At ARG fest, your brother called it, “Just in time content creation,” which I thought was a wonderfully nice way to describe the feeling of chaos and terror that actually accompanies.

Dan: It’s panic. It’s writing copy, at three in the morning that really should’ve been up about 15 minutes ago. But the great thing about that is that it shows interactivity. This is really user center players into design.

We watch what the players are doing all the time. This is what you guys get with the Metacortex and with the other ARG. You watch what the players are doing. You watch what they like. You watch what doesn’t works and what works. And you constantly are adapting to it.

Brian: More specifically as a story writer, every ARG that we’ve done, we ended up rewriting it significantly half-way after it went public. Often, because the audience comes up with better writing than we came up with. They start thinking, “Oh, that guy’s going to turn on us.” And you think, wow! That’s a good idea to let that guy turn on him. You get all in a room and you start going, OK, what if that guy wasn’t the villain? What if this guy was the villain? How would we change the story from here on out?

That’s something you don’t get except maybe in the editing room of a film where you’ve already shot everything and you’re trying to piece the story together. But here you have the chance to let the audience tell you what they really want to see next.

ARG Demographics & Tiering

Dan: For us it’s interesting because the way we stretched it that first season, there were so many facets to it, so the audience that we had were following the strict story side was very different from the people who were playing the other side of our business which is the puzzle side, the straight puzzle side. 


Dan: It’s hard to say. What we do know is that there was a much higher proportion of women who were following the story than we would have expected otherwise. And that for the strict casual game side, for the puzzle card solving side, we had a very large age skew. So we were going from 10 years old up to about 80. So that was very much the casual gaming market, as opposed to, at the moment, the traditional audience we see for an ARG, which is slightly more hard-core. 


Brian: But I think that phenomenon of having a lot of women as players and developers in the community comes from the fact that most ARG models aren’t competitive gaming, they’re collaborative gaming, so the whole audience is solving things together. I think that’s one of the things that makes it appeal more to women than, say, a first-person shooter, that’s much more adrenaline-junkie competitive.

Accessibility & ARGs

Evan: I think one of the things that’s moving forward is the talk – and I’ve heard a lot of talk about making it into a more mainstream experience. I am interested to see all the different models that take it in that direction.

I think there may be certain games that are played at a hardcore level and certain ones that are played at a mainstream level, or ones that separate the community into different levels of play, and all sorts of different models that will allow people who… 

Seriality & ARGs

Brian: In a way, I think the number of people actually in the scene is greatly dwarfed by the number of people watching the scene and trying to figure out where this can go next. So we’re definitely in a, like, infancy phase in terms of what other people in these other communities as they grab this model and twist it into something else.

Dan: Definitely. So, one of the things that we’ve learned from “Perplex City” is that it’s terribly to hard to get into a game that’s two years long and then you’re about a year and a half in. It’s pretty much impossible.

So we’ve been looking at lots of other media. We’ve been looking at television because that’s a very easy comparison to make. We like to say, “Well, what is it that ‘LOST’…” Well, maybe “LOST” isn’t such a good example…

“So, what is it that ‘24′ does? What do television shows do to help you catch up halfway through a season, or three-quarters of the way through a season?”

I think we’re going to see a shift, and this is something we’re going to be trying out towards.

So I think we are going to see a shift. This is something we are going to be trying out towards much more episodic gaming. There is a shift towards that in the gaming industry in general, what with Half Life.

Alice: Yeah.

Evan: Sam & Max. Yeah.

Dan: So, there will be shift towards episodic gaming. Gaming will probably happen in more bite size chunks to make it more accessible to people, instead of having an episode in an instance of game play where you don’t know how long it is going to last. I think what we’ll see is, probably companies coming out saying this is probably going to only last two to six weeks. So you know it’s not going to completely take over your life.

Alice: So, it has a start and an end date, like a television series.

Dan: It has an end date. You know that you can come in. You can just catch-up. You can just play this episode. And that’s all that you’ll have to do. You can just dip into it.

Evan: It’s been an issue I’ve been bring up is that, with well established media like, for instance, books, they have this really tactile way of giving you the information of this is going to be this long, or that long, or something. And at the moment, we’re still working on that. It’s when you get involved in a rabbit hole. You don’t really know where you’re going…

Another item they talked about was Linda Stones’s notion of “continual partial attention”. I’ll be addressing this in a separate post. In the meantime, check out the full transcript.

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