Pokemon Go: Return of the ARG?

Looking out my window watching small groups of people playing Pokemon Go and listening to yet another podcast talking about it. I started thinking does the mainstream success of Pokemon Go, indicate it would be time for alternative reality gaming (ARG) to make a come back?

I mean there’s been a whole ton of successful ARGs in the past and the dynamics got watered/broken down into transmedia (which isn’t meant in disrespect, but a must read from Dan Hon); but they are quite different beasts (pun intended). Looking back at previous ARGs they didn’t take advantage of mobile. Mobile data was expensive and was quite unreliable back in the early days. This is before you even look at many of the other things mobile can give you.

Of course there’s a lot of debate if Pokemon Go is augmented realty or location based gaming. The later would put it in the same ball park of Google’s Ingress and many others. But does it matter? There will always be privacy concerns (here’s a fix for those early adopters) and those who seek to take advantage for their own gain; but it’s certainly getting people out and about, for now at least.

If I was to design a ARG say for example We Dream The City (swear I wrote about it somewhere, but maybe I haven’t yet? findery.com is close);  I would be using the phone and building in functionality which brings groups together into little adhoc clouds like Firechat. Pokemon go shows there is appetite for these types of games and the technology can scale to this extent. Now’s a good time to build these systems and hopefully think about what useful things we could do for local community and society, not just collecting virtual goods?

Are ARG’s dead?

The 3rd Olympic Ring description

Arg’s or Alternative Reality Games, are really interesting and form a very tight and rich experience for thsoe who play them. But the mass adoption has stalled and tailed off as creators go for something more simple and easier to craft aka Transmedia.

So what happened? Is the genre dead before it really got going?

Well I saw a really interesting post on ARGN (alternative reality gaming network) written by friend Adrian Hon of SixtoStart. When ever I see him (usually at conferences) he likes to quiz me about what the BBC is doing regarding taking storytelling forward. And I like to question him about moving away from ARGs.

My feeling is there is much more potential/fuel and in the ARG genre and it will come back in another form. But I do share a lot of the points Adrian identifies in the post…

Most companies in the business now disavow the term ‘ARG’, preferring the trendier but frequently reviled and frustratingly vague term ‘transmedia’. In that context, it’s not surprising that people are happy to say “ARGs are dead” because it helps distinguish themselves from the old-and-busted crowd.

I can agree with that… I mentioned ARG at the recent Transmedia London festival and it was really interesting to see peoples faces from a panel member. Some were confused and some were shaking their heads disproving. When I was asked what transmedia is to me, I said something about it not being about screens but surrounding the person(s) with an immersive story. Like a ARG I would argue…

But for everything I like about ARG’s there is some serious problems and things which need to be ironed out. Adrian does a really good job covering the main ones…

1) Increase accessibility. People remain genuinely intrigued by ARGs, but they’re put off by the comparatively massive level of time commitment required to get involved. Yes, people will happily spend dozens of hours watching TV or playing video games, but those require less attention and crucially, they have a much quicker payoff. A good game or TV show will have me hooked in the first five seconds, and I know that I’ll have fun even if I just stay for 30 minutes. ARGs need to be more transparent and more accessible. If that means the end of ‘TINAG’, so be it.

Yes the best ones are when you can dip back in and help out, then take a less detailed role. I cant stand the chase element of ARGs. This is something I expressed with Larkin-about‘s ARG when I first met them. The best ARG’s have many layers just like great films. For example Donnie Darko you can watch and just enjoy the 80’s style highschool fun but theres a layer underneath which is about something much darker. Too many ARGs are like a Micheal Bay film or even something too deep and meaningful.

2) Make money. No-one is going to take ARGs seriously as a creative or commercial venture if they can’t get players to cough up cash. There’s absolutely a place for ad-funded or sponsored content, but good quality movies and TV shows still find millions of happy viewers willing to buy tickets and DVDs. Why not ARGs? Focus on the platforms where people have demonstrated a willingness to pay, like on iOS, Android, and Facebook, and learn from the successes of other apps. There isn’t much separating The Room – an incredible blockbuster iPad puzzle game – from being a full-blown ARG (the same applies for Zombies, Run!).

Although I don’t know too much about this side, he’s right. They need to be sustainable, be that with funding, adverting or paid for by the audience. Too many are made to flip and sell or made to be a one off. This leads to scummy people entering trying to cash in on the genre, like SEO and social media. All these one off’s pollute the work of others and make it even more difficult to be taken seriously.

3) Take the best and discard the rest. How can you replicate the immersive sensation of a good ARG at a low cost? Do you really need to have video, or can you just use audio? Do most people really enjoy decrypting hexadecimal strings, or are there more compelling challenges you can provide? Can you fake the experience of calling up real phone numbers or writing to real email addresses?

Absolutely too many copy cats… Another phone drop, another treasure hunt, yawn… seriously. Its lazy and boring. Innovate and push away from whats known. Its like when Perplexcity’s purple treasure hunt ended in a character from the group jumping into a helicopter. Mind blowing but how can you better that? Think! Creativity and think about the audience/participations not your own ego.

4) Think about scale. Almost all ARGs are live and cannot be easily replayed after the fact. That makes it difficult to make money, especially if you don’t have a big following. Imagine if Angry Birds or Farmville were only playable from April to June 2010; that’s what ARGs are like, and it’s mad. If you are going to run a live ARG, be sure to keep your costs down and charge players an appropriate amount for the privilege of getting personal interaction – no-one bats an eyelid at paying $25 or $50 for a theatre ticket, and the same should be true for a live ARG.

This is one of the most destructive thing I’ve known in ARG’s and one of the points I keep banging on to Adrian… Scale, repeatability and sustainability. No company is going to take this seriously if the resources are peed up a wall never to be seen again! How do you replay it and improve on it each time.

I have suggested an ARG framework before and somewhere along the line it fits with the notion of Decentralized systems. Stroytellers want to tell there story and don’t want to reinvent the book everytime.

Even the games I’ve played like the rings one (picture above) I was lucky enough to be in Manchester where the ring was found. For everyone else it was far less interesting. Plus the cost of creating and putting those rings in art gallerys around the world. Its not scalable and if you go about it that way, it never will be.

Total respect to everyone involved in the genre but its going to die before its gotten a chance to develop and spread its wings…

Larkin about with Stranger on the 11th Floor

At the ARG start outside the nexus art cafe on Twitpic

I was invited by Tim Dobson via Facebook to a Manchester ARG (alernative reality game) called Stranger on the 11th Floor setup by a organisation called Larkin about. Never ever heard of them before but I was intrigued and thought i’d give it a shot.

Now I want to be sure people understand that all the comments I have, I did say to them on the day and I think they would admit most of the points I make are fair.

So we started off at the Nexus Art Cafe (somewhere I’ve never actually heard or been before) and we were explained the basic premise of the game, split into 4 different teams, given a map of the northern quarter and some numbers of people in-case things go wrong. Then we were given a clue and location to start. Ours was a phone box in Stevenson Square.

My team pretty much pelted out of the Nexus Cafe and zoomed to the phone box. Later catching up with them, just in time to see one of the girls on the phone. She was given the clue and quickly told a few people around her and before you know it they were treking down the road towards Piccadilly. That was pretty much the last time I saw the team. What a joke…!

I refer to slide 26 and 27 of Dan Hon’s Everything we know transmedia wrong for the rest of the critique.

No more… Waiting, Solving stupid puzzles, Not telling me what to do, Lazy calls to action, Treasure hunts, Jumping through fucking hoops. Bad storytelling is just bad storytelling.

Stranger on the 11th floor turned into a massive treasure hunt with lazy call to actions, annoying hoops to jump through and frankly bad story telling. Once again no offensive to the Larkin’ about crew. They did everything correct and pulling off a open source ARG in the middle of Manchester on a busy Saturday night must have been one heck of a job.

So its time to put up or shutup… I’m thinking about adapting the ARG we tried to run in Edinburgh "We Dream the City" to a ARG in Manchester. This will be one heck of a challenge and will take a long while to get going but in the meantime, I think larkin about is a great place to run the next Manchester werewolf chapter, so keep your eyes peeled for that…

What is a Alternative Reality Game?

I gave this presentation at Social Media Cafe Manchester back in November and Salford University in December. Its a nice easy to follow over view of what a ARG is and leads nicely on to transmedia. It seems a lot of people don’t have a clue about Alternative reality games and get them confused with Argumentative gaming.

Everything you know about transmedia storytelling is wrong

I’m glad Dan Hon created this and the follow up presentation, unfortunately I can’t believe it took me 2 years to see this presentation. I totally agree with the points made in the presentation. Transmedia storytelling to date has been pretty lazy affairs. I’m wondering where the blockage is… beyond the notion that people don’t get it. Its a whole new world and personally I feel there no frameworks to support this new kind of storytelling. Someone should do something about that…

Alternative Reality Gaming Whitepaper

Jane McGonigal on ARGs

The ARG SIG has written a whitepaper for Alternative Reality Games – ARGs.

This is the first paper from the ARG SIG, and provides a full introduction to the genre as well as a wealth of practical and analytical information on design methodologies, business models, and current and recent games.

The ARG industry is consistently producing multi-million-dollar games for tens of thousands of players at a time, and generating interest across the entertainment, broadcast, and advertising industries. In the last few years, successful games have received widespread recognition, winning awards from the gaming, media and broadcasting industries. As well as these critical success, there are already several businesses with long-term sustainable revenue streams.

Although new to many people, Alternate Reality Games (ARGs) are still far short of achieving their full potential, each new wave of games bringing major new innovations and increased understanding of what works and what doesn't. We hope you find both inspiration and real practical help in this paper, and look forwards to playing the next wave of ARGs you come up with.

The word in the communities around ARGs is that it royally sucks. As Christy points out in a note BBCi did Jamie Kane not Crossmedia entertainment and there's meant to be lots more errors and mistakes. For the full low down listen to the ARGN podcast 25mins from the end.

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ARG’s and Education

I saw this in my aggregator today, Calling All ARG Academia.

With the Alternate Reality Gaming Special Interest Group whitepaper still in development, we have a request from our friend Christy Dena who writes extensively about ARG at her blog Cross-Media Entertainment.Needed: Academics who have investigated Alternate Reality Games
I'm writing a section on ARGs and Academia for the upcoming International Game Developers Association Alternate Reality Game Special Interest Group Whitepaper (IGDA ARG SIG). I'm after approaches from all fields using all sorts of methodologies, and by researchers at different levels of candidacy and postdoctoral status. Since there are many investigations in development around the world I'm including unpublished insights and findings along with published ones.

Well how very interesting, this is exactly what I was thinking quite sometime ago. Using ARG's in education seemed like a logical solution for teaching and meta teaching (teaching about how to teach someone else).

The post goes on…

Alternate Reality Games have captured the imagination of players and academics from its beginning. Academics have analysed the form through comparative analysis with other arts types both contemporary and historical; have employed the aesthetics of ARGs as illustrations of cultural phenomena; have utilised ARGs to interrogate the nature of reality and fiction; utilised ARGs design for pedagogical applications and have also proposed reframings of methodologies in light of the unconventional form. Consistently, however, they have tried to understand the emergence of thisform. Some of these academics are players, some are not. Some are independent scholars, some have made ARGs a subject of a PhD, the PhD or a post-doctoral investigation. Papers have been given at conferences, in journals and articles offered online. Their investigations into what an ARGis, the implications of the form on entertainment, the design of ARGs and the creative heritage of this form provide well researched and measured considerations that offer unique contributions for the benefit of players, designers, researchers, industry and media.

I'm going to subscribe to the Cross media blog for sure, its one of those areas I would like to keep my eyes on in the near future. Maybe a trend for the near future? Talking about ARGs for a moment, I've also been emailing a guy who commented on the runaway success of Perplex City (a ARG from a couple of great and clever english guys). He was talking about the need for Grassroots ARG's. So we've emailed back and forth a couple of times so far. TJ is his name and he's wrote a couple of interesting things.

Many of the staples of immersion have been done before, but just aren't commonly done, such as the pay phone calls, dead drop of items, having characters in the game contacting players directly instead of vice-versa.

I would like to see a greater emphasis on roleplayers acting as the characters, responding to emails, noticing players in the community and reaching out to them.

However, the step I am going farther is to branch out with factions. A couple games have promised an open-end to the game that players can change. We want to do the same, but go farther. Instead of a simple, direct puzzle hunt, what if the players are asked to step inside, investigate and then choose sides?

This is a real neat idea, kind of build the landscape and let people choose which sides they would like to be on in the landscape. The push and pull of each side would work to build up the narriative of the ARG.

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The future of everything conference

I may have messed up the dates but for some reason I thought the Carson Workshops Future of webapps was on the same day as the BBC's digital futures conference. It looks like a early email mistake by someone might have been at fault. Either way I ended up going to the BBC's digital futures and not the future of webapps, but Licence to Roam's Racheal Clarke has written up quite a few of her notes which have been really useful. Thanks for that Racheal. Paul Hammond told me I need to check out Tom Coates presentation.

I'm tempted to upload my notes from digital future but one I don't/didn't write many notes and two my dyslexic mind means my notes make a lot of sense to me but not to anyone else. I usually have to tiidy stuff up afterwards if I'm going to give my notes to someone else. By the way I tried using Gobby which is the opensource and cross platform version of subedit on the mac. But not many people were using laptops and of those who were, they were all mac users. Anyhow I believe although it was a BBC staff event I'm sure I can talk about it publicly without a problem.

So who were the guests?

  • Ron Pompei
  • Matt Webb
  • Dan Hon and Adrian Hon
  • Natalie Jeremijenko
  • Jeffrey Veen

Honestly I actually enjoyed every single presentation and they were really varied. Natalie Jeremijenko was great but I quickly realised I had heard her before on IT Conversations. The only thing new I saw was the excellent idea of Howstuffismade.org But it was great to see her live and see the videos of the OOZ robotics and the feral robotics dogs project. It was great to see the Dan and Adrian Hon doing a presentation about Perplex City which is the first major ARG in the UK. And one I was involved in from day one. I was quite suprised by the openness of there presentation, as it seems they have lower the curtain and made the game a… game? Something which the American ARG's are very strict about. For those who have never checked out ARGs check out these links.. The curtain issue is like a line in the sand between the players and the game creators. In some previous ARGs the line has been over stepped and it was not uncommon for puppetmasters (general term used as they pull the strings of the game, I prefer game creators) to go into hiding during a game because people will and have followed them around as part of the game. I talked with Dan and Adrian a lot afterwards about there openness and previous mistakes by other games. I wanted to ask the questions in public at the event but didn't get a chance. But moving on, as I got a feeling I will end up back at ARGs again at some point soon.

Matt Webb was good but owning his book Mind Hacks meant I had heard and seen quite a lot of the presentation already. I think Matt gave a good presentation on a very difficult subject to present. He may have lost a few people on the way but made everything easily understandable by the end. I didn't get much time to talk to him afterwards but I'm sure our paths will cross at somepoint again. Talking of which. Matt Blackbelt Jones was the event afterwards and said he was subscriber to my blog and to keep up the good work. I was kind of blown away, like when I heard Doc Searls also reads this blog at one point. I wanted to ask Matt why he reads and how he deals with all the rants and grammer mistakes but he was on his way out, so maybe next time. Ron Pompei started ok and got much better towards the end. He talked about the different sides of people and our own ideniity. I think my notes on this one presentation will make more sense than any other. One thing to note was the progression graph which struck me as very cluetrainish.

Co author instead of consumer. dialogue instead of message, journey instead of the desitination, cooperation over corporation and status activities instead of status objects.

Jeffery Veen was fantastic and really rattled through his presentation which was about the buzz of Web 2.0 and why he felt it could be Bubble 2.0. After looking at what others thought of Web 2.0 including the audience and Tim O'reilly. He went on to prove that although Web 2.0 may be buzz word it does have some elements which do show a certain progression forward. Even out of the boom and bust cycle which has been going on for decades The whole presentation is here and worth looking at.

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