Launching Strategy: Birth Your Alternate Reality in an ARG Community

One of the issues when creating an ”alternate reality game” is that it may receive negative backlash from being perceived as a ”hoax”. Alternate reality games (ARGs) if you recall, are (among other things) multi-platform works that remove any cues to its fictionality. So, if you put fake newsfootage online, there is no meta information around it explaining that it is a work of fiction. There are many examples of negative backlash due to confusion over the fictional status of a work, a recent example is LonelyGirl15. August last year I posted a short essay on Why ARGs Aren”t Hoaxes on my old blog (which I’ve moved to my personal site). The argument I put forward was that ARG creators actively encourage players to co-create the work of fiction with them and the resulting player-production that occurs (gameplay resources) then puts all the fictional cues back in. ARG creators take the cues to fictionality out while the players put it back in. This has worked well with many ARGs, except those that are not launched to the ARG community first.

ARGs that launch outside of the community often garner lots of media buzz, but for (I argue) the wrong reasons: people are discussing whether it is a hoax and how this makes them feel. In an interview at ARGNetcast, filmmaker Lance Weiler, reflected that the reason why his ARG to market the Warner Bros. VOD release of his film Head Trauma, Hope is Missing , faulted temporarily under this hoax accusation was because it was launched outside of the ARG community. Weiler will be on a forthcoming podcast here (talking about distribution techniques and so on), but for now I wanted to explain why I think ARGs launched outside the ARG community suffer from hoax issues.

As I discussed in my mini ARGs & Hoaxes essay, ARG players have a new media literacy of ”judgement”. I reconfigured this new media literacy posed in the new media literacies whitepaper ”Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century” in the context of ARGs:

Judgment: players evaluate the reliability and credibility of different information sources (to discern whether the sources are part of a game, or discovered at the right time) through activities such as checking the date the website domain was registered, who the website was registered by, the depth in the archives and the links to and from the site and ingame references.

Recently, a longitudinal study ”Information Behaviour of the Researcher of the Future” conducted by CIBER research team at University College London has found that the ”Google Generation” (among other things) lack the skills to critically assess online information. This deficiency of judgement is due in part I believe to the lack of education in schooling. At many universities and secondary schools there is a ”no web” policy where teachers do not train students how to judge websites, they just forbid them from citing the web. One of the reasons why this policy is so rampant of course is because many of the educators don”t know how to judge websites either. But the inability to judge content (including its fictionality status) is a skill in itself. That is why many educators are excited about using ARGs — they (among other things) help teach such literacies.

Anyway, this phenomena explains in part the issue of a ”hoax” perception in some ARGs and reveals a strategy that can be used to circumvent it. Target those who have these judgement skills, wait until they create resources that frame the work, and let the ripple effect spill over into the non-ARG communities (with well timed efforts to raise awareness from yourself too). How practitioners target the ARG community will be the topic of another post…but in the meantime, if you have any thoughts on this issue comment away!

[26 JAN EDIT: This post seems to have been misinterpreted by some, so I’ve cleared up and developed the idea with Steve Peters and SpaceBass in the comments here and also in my follow-up post here].

5 Replies

  • Hey Steve!

    Thanks for coming by and taking the time to give a lengthy response. I really appreciate it! I totally agree that where an ARG is launched is not a sole defining factor in its hoax perception. I didn’t mean to give that impression, but I do think it does have a role. But I’m going to use your examples to try and draw out some other anti-hoax guidance and ARG launch tactics.

    Firstly, I would immediately dismiss existing properties as examples of successful outside-ARG community launches because the awareness of the existing fiction is a pretty good indicator of fictionality.

    However, thinking about this point. Perhaps one of the issues then with Hope is Missing is that Weiler”s intention of slowly bring the ARG and the existing property (Head Trauma) together was another contributing factor? The lesson here is to include cues that indicate it is part of an existing fictional world. This means I’ve got to adjust the “fictional cues” removal to something else: one can remove any paratextual (metadata) cues to fictionality but include cues to fictionality in other ways: professional lighting, use of actors, use of a script and set within an existing fictional world. Taking this adjustment further: setting the AR content in an existing fictional world is a more accessible cue than discerning the constructed nature (production) of it. It is the latter that most audiences have trouble with.

    Metacortechs is a good example. Obviously it was set in an existing fictional world, so there aren’t the same problems as introducing players to a new fictional world. But as you say, some people still didn’t get the fictional world link. So another good fiction-identifying cue that you mention then is “unrealistic statements of truth”. That would work well an off-hand remark such as “we all know the world is flat” etc. But you’re also forgetting the media coverage. You got some great media coverage and there was a lot of talk about the ARG. The majority of that talk would have been referring to it as fiction. Metacortechs of course did have a problem though with the paratextual cues: in that players got upset when they realized it wasn’t the Wachowski Bros. behind it. Which will be a problem for fan-fic ARGs obviously.

    I Love Bees of course was launched within the frame of the existing Halo fiction. So it didn’t have the same problem. But I think that 42 (and you can tell me if not) do make sure they always include the ARG community in the first birth. And if one assesses the movement and understanding of worldwide players, that it is the interpretations of ARG players that helped cement what was going on pretty early.

    Last Call Poker was not solely launched via ads, it was also launched to the ARG community with an email on the tip-line! Here is what Johnathan said:

    We found Last Call Poker through an email sent into the ARGN tip-line this morning. We”re not sure exactly what to think yet, but the site is definitely… interesting. It has all of the standard signs pointing towards ARG — registration, automated email replies, suspicious video, voice mail, and an attractive brunette character that needs our help. However, if you actually sit down and play on the poker tables, you”ll find that they are all functional and that many people (or, if you want to go in a different direction, poker bots) are already sitting down, calling and raising, as if the site had existed for months already. (For what it’s worth, the site has been registered since May, although we can”t find any hits on Google about it).

    Is this an Alternate Reality Game? Or is it simply a gambling site? Perhaps a haven for dancing robots? Only time will tell, friends, but after only a handful of minutes on the site, we”re pretty stoked about what may be ”in the cards” for Last Call Poker.

    I find it interested that even the ARG community wasn’t sure — or they were playing the game to get everyone interested. I wonder too how successful the ad launches were? Did those who came to the site expecting to simply poker stay when they realized it was also an ARG (the haunting?)? How long before this happened? Were the ads to attract poker players to seed the world, to make it seem alive and real before the ARG community arrived? I don’t think it was an ARG until the ARG community was alerted. But I don’t know, I didn’t play it. Can you help me with these questions?

    Art of the Heist is probably the only example you’ve given which appears to refute my claim since it is a new fictional world that, as you say, began with ad buys. But here is something I prepared earlier (I’ve used AoTH as an example of an ARG launch strategy in my talks).

    All of this information is from McKinney-Silver’s official report video. Now, as you can see they first put the ingame, story sites online, then major ad buys for “art retrieval” services and Virgil Tatum (“master video game auteur”). [Indeed, the fact that Virgil was described as such would have been an “unrealistic truth” for some audiences.] And then it was announced in the ARG community and then the video and then the “official launch” at the car show, and then the PM-gameplay sites. Now sure, there were ingame ads there for the general public before the ARG community, but the gap was short and this was all way before the actual launch of the game — which I think started with the break-in video. The ARG community were already in place when the video was released and the “official launch” happened to the general (car) public. Of course this ARG was designed to be played by non-ARGers as well (I’ve got an essay and website about this coming out in the next few weeks which I’d love your critical feedback on Steve).

    But for now. Steve, I think there is a difference between content that “furnishes the world” (that is: creates the online presence of fictional world), acts as a hook to garner interest and the actual beginning of the game.

    I’m not sure if Vanishing Point proves your point either, as it was obviously a “game” right from the very beginning. All the videos etc were obvious constructions and there was little storyworld.

    Also, you keep mentioning where the games are played. While I agree that PM-created gameplay resources and non-ARG gameplay communities relate to the hoax issue, I’m talking about how the launch can influence a hoax perception. How it can be defined as a game really early so the whole game isn’t a discussion about whether it is a hoax. I’m not talking about where games are played, just whether the ARG community is intentionally targeted at the launch.

    As for Year Zero. You’re right, it was launched outside of the ARG community but it was an extension to an existing entertainment property. In this case there was no issue of a hoax, but of it being perceived as a marketing campaign rather than part of a work of art.

    Cloverfield is also an existing entertainment property that was launched through direct connections with the film. I think that the people who found any of the fictional sites through serendipity were in the minority and even then the amount of players (ARG communities and otherwise) were so loud on the web that any question would be verified immediately. And I agree, there is a whole other story with Cloverfield. I’d love to have a chat with you about that.

    As for Dark Knight. I don’t think it was launched in the comic book shops. Given your place of work, you could find out for me! But what I was able to discern is it began with the official teaser site for the film being launched on May 12, not soon after that (I don’t know the date) the first fictional site that is part of the game was revealed on that film site. The same image on the fictional site were also on posters around streets, and then on May 19th the cards were found in the comic book stores. So, as I spoke about earlier in this response. The tactic was to link the ARG with the film right from the very beginning — that way those outside of the ARG community would understand it as a game.

    As for the ReGenesis ERGs, well they thwarted the hoax issue by password-locking any fictional sites so that only people who had registered to play the game could access it.

    So, in summary: there are many ways that an ARG can be launched. My original post was not about the various ways it can be launched, but how can an ARG that has little fictional cues in it can thwart the problem of being perceived as a hoax and why it is that some people just don’t get the fictional cues. Launching within an ARG community is one tactic (which doesn’t exclude in my mind seeding the world in the public domain or restrict the gameplay to that community). But for ARGs that are linked with an existing entertainment property, then making the connection between them early seems another good way. Basically the point is that there needs to be fairly early on either an overt clue that it is a work of fiction (eg: set in a fictional world), launched through a work of fiction, or a loud community that knows it is a work of fiction.

    Over to you Steve…

  • Heya Christy,

    Interesting topic here! 🙂 While the issue of perpetuating a hoax is near and dear to my heart, I think that tying it in absolute terms to how and where you launch an ARG is a mistake. In my experience, I’ve seen no correllation between an ARG’s hoax perception and where/how it was launched.

    Birthing your ARG into an ARG Community has pretty much only one predictable effect: it immediately limits your audience. If this is what you”re aiming for, due to scalability issues in your design or whatever, that’s great. But I don’t know too many puppetmasters who want to put a cap on who many people can participate. 🙂

    The list of ARGs that stealth-launched outside of the ARG community (as opposed to having a pretty straightforward launch via a meta-site or something, such as games like ReGenesis) without this hoaxing consequence *far* outweighs those that have run into problems:

    -Metacortechs is a fine example, as it did a complete end-run around any ARG community, launching initially via a Google ad that was picked up and run with by a large Matrix fan-base. While it was pretty obvious to most that Metacortex was part of the Matrix universe, anyone who didn’t know that fact still picked up on many other cues, such as statements in a press release about Metacortex being the world’s leading software developer, that let them know this was something other than reality. The player-base ended up being spread among a dozen or so communities, although the bulk gravitated to Unfiction.

    -I Love Bees launched pretty successfully using widely released movie trailers and packages of honey sent to various gaming websites, although ARGN was included in there. Again, while it was pretty obvious by the design of the launch that the game had something to do with Halo 2, it wasn’t specifically birthed into the ARG community. In this case, though, your point is made to the extent that the ARG community, due to receiving a package of honey, was able to get their organizational ducks in a row so that when players looked for a place to play, they found the community waiting for them.

    -Last Call Poker was launched solely via ads on online sites such as Maxim, billing itself as a free poker site. There was not an obvious brand tie-in until 4 or 5 weeks into the game, but it was obvious from the start that the poker site was “haunted.” While launched outside of the community, the player-base again ended up gravitating to Unfiction.

    -Art of the Heist used a wide variety of ad buys to pull the general public into the experience. While ARGN was one of those buys, most players came into the game from outside the ARG community. The bulk of this player-base ended up playing at AOTH’s in-game forums.

    -Vanishing Point was not launched into the ARG community at all, but was inserted into various Windows sites and blogs. There was no indication what the game was for, at first. The bulk of this player-base played at the NeoWin forums (a Windows community) with Unfiction a close 2nd.

    -Year Zero had absolutely no launch into any ARG community, but was rather launched via concert T-shirts, which inserted the game into Nine Inch Nails’ fan-base.

    -Cloverfield was basically launched through its own trailer, and not aimed at anyone in particular, really (which is a whole ‘nother story). The vast majority of its player-base did end up at Unfiction, though.

    -The Dark Knight was launched via comic books shops around the country and picked up by numerous comic book and movie communities. The bulk of this player-base is overwhelmingly outside of the ARG community, being mostly active on the SuperHeroHype community.

    If your initial launch is aimed squarely at a community that has, well, limited “new media judgment,” and you don’t give absolutely obvious cues that this is fiction, then yeah, you can run into problems, as the Save My Husband campaign did, which is really the only game I can think of where the impression of perpetuating a hoax has become a major problem. But I really don’t think this is because they launched outside of the ARG community, it is because they launched the wrong way into the community they targeted, in this case, via sites like Linking this group headlong into a kidnapping mystery without absolutely obvious cues that it was all fiction didn’t work out too well for them.

    Now, granted, when a game has a pretty inherent IP tie-in, the hoaxiness factor is going to be negated to a large extent, but my point is that this hoaxiness isn’t exclusively caused by or correlated to *where* the game is launched as much as *how*.

    What you’re talking about here is more of a design issue, not a community leveraging issue. Sure, it can be very fun and effective to create an initial experience where players *aren’t quite sure* it’s real or not, but you want to let them know pretty quickly that it”s all for fun.

    It’s not about launching your game into the ARG community or not, it’s about launching your game into your target audience in an appropriate way for that audience.

    I mean, my mom has no idea what PhotoShop even is, and is always sending me pictures of horrific tsunamis and frogs in salads. Am I going to send her to a site that shows a human being being held as a pet and expect her to know it’s not real right away, if ever?

    Steve’s ARG Rule #47: Be smart. Know your audience. 🙂

  • Stop, you”re both right! I agree with Steve that campaign launches do not require targeting the existing community in order to be effective but I also agree with Christy that those productions picked up and expanded upon by the existing ARG community at Unfiction seem to have an easier time surpassing most kinds of “is this real or a game” obstacles. The community at Unfiction excels at making those judgments and is already frequently looked to for advice in this respect: most of the game tips that arrive on the forums are organically generated by the community or by guests who have previously heard of the community and respect its skills of investigation and verification.

    I personally would prefer, however, that Unfiction (even as the currently-central ARG community) NOT be targeted by developers to kick-start a campaign. As Steve said, so far this has only resulted in an arbitrary self-limitation on the reachable audience. It’s extremely seldom that the Unfiction community has not noted a significant new development within the CF sphere.

    Perhaps a better recommendation for developers might be to continue targeting broader audiences (while respecting those audiences tendencies and knowledge base, as described by Steve) but to also facilitate those audiences” quick progress toward resources that can help them understand the fictional nature of the work, to point them toward assistance in that important “judgment” as described by Christy.

  • Wow, typing. It’s so much easier to talk over beers at a Con or something. 😛

    I think at the end of the day, we’re pretty much saying the same thing. Your summation paragraph at the end says it all pretty well, and launching your ARG into the community itself makes the hoax issue pretty much go away, but you”re potentially limiting your audience by doing so.

    Generally, it’s a matter of determining your target audience, figuring out what, if any, existing communities you want to leverage, and designing your pre-awareness and launch strategy with this audience’s level of sophistication/specialty/interests in mind.

    Now, on to other comments and responses to your questions. I really like the way you quantified the “unrealistic statements of truth” as being a major cue that things are fictional. Say, if the Save My Husband team had but something in the initial video like (bad example) they live in New Seattle, Canadiastahn, they could have avoided much of the initial clamor against them.

    As far as your questions about Last Call Poker, the email to the ARGN tipline wasn’t from 42. The ads were pretty successful in getting people to the site to play poker, and in fact, quite a poker community stayed and stuck around even after the ARG had ended (you could pretty much play poker and not be bothered by the ARG, if you wanted to). In addition, although I forgot to mention it, there were press releases about the new site and how it was built at the request of the estate of a recently passed-away gentleman, etc., that was in fact filled with many questionable “statements of truth.” Bottom line was that Last Call Poker’s launch was pretty dynamic as things were put out there, responses measured, and new steps taken until it all took hold. But the ARG had definitely begun before the ARG community got there.

    One note too, is that once it took hold at Unfiction, the Last Call Poker “admins” on the on-site forum posted a link back to Unfiction, as they seemed to be doing a good job of figuring out why all the weird things were happening at LCP.

    One clarification, as far as Vanishing Point goes: At the very beginning, it was in no way obvious it was a game. Players found cypher blocks on sites, received Japanese puzzle boxes, and got an initial video that didn’t reveal anything at all about what was to come. the site as it is now wasn”t revealed until the night at CES when Loki hijacked the Bellagio fountains and basically set everything up. Up until then, it was all speculation.

    As far as further comments about any projects that may or may not be in progress, well, no comment at this time. 🙂

  • Great! Thanks Steve and SpaceBass. I think we’ve nutted out some tactics here. Tactics that help thwart the issue of being perceived a hoax. Indeed, why is it that most ARGs have no problem with the hoax issue while others do. So, I’ve been trying to figure out what it is in the design that helps thwart this. Here are some strategies we’ve come up with in this discussion:

    1) If an ARG extends an existing fictional world, then make the connection explicit from the very beginning;

    2) Include ”unrealistic statements of truth”;

    3) Include the ARG community in the pre-game launch…

    On the last point. From the ARGs I’ve looked at there is a pre-game launch that includes trigger points in non-ARG AND ARG communities. I consider the Vanishing Point game launch as being the Loki video and all that came before the pre-game. It seems, therefore, that it is OK (indeed perhaps good) to have speculation at the beginning, but that speculation is stopped fairly early on once the game is officially launched. The official launch seems to target a wide amount of audiences while the pre-launch targets niche groups. This is exactly the same tactic that Blair Witch used. It is what Alex Wipperfurth of Plan B has called the “ripple effect” (which I alluded to before).

    And as for targeting lots of different audiences specifically. I am completely in agreement with both of you. My initial post was not arguing to use only one strategy, it was just highlighting one. I find ARGs to be the most effective format to target multiple audiences (which I call ”tiering”). I actually wrote an essay on it 18 months ago that will be launched any day now — with a detailed website to go with it. You’ll see then that you don’t need to convince me of that strategy either. 🙂 But these ideas are always in flux and my initial essay was written in a different ARG climate…so any thoughts you both have are VERY welcome.

    I find 42 and Xenophile to be the most conscious implementors of this strategy and your points about LCP is another great example I’ll probably add to the website. Thanks for clearing that info up. As for Vanishing Point. I’ve got the video of Loki in a hotel room, saying ambiguous things with lots of shots held on clues around the room. I found that to be an obvious peice of fiction…but this is where the issue of ”judging fictionality” comes in — some people just don’t read these assets in the same way (which is why the hoax issue happens). Is there another video you’re referring to? If so, could you please send it to me!

    Anyway, I wanted to summarise the points here because I’ll do another post for the benefit of those that don’t read the comments. We”ve come up with some good design clues here. So let me know if there is something I’ve missed or you’d like to add. None of this is fixed in stone off course! This site is meant to be about sharing design approaches as we figure them out and amend them.

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