SXSW – Attack of the ARG

Update: This panel was one of the ones I most wanted to see whilst I was here. I’m starting to get my head round the space that is alternate reality, but only dipped my toes in the water in the more ‘amateur’ games. The commercial side is not one I’ve had too much experience of, the ones that are tied into a brand. But thise are the ones that most people start with. I played the Prague files and am looking at Perplex City 2; I’m also working with a friend to see if their story can be turned into a game.

I really enjoyed hearing from the professionals, who turn out these games for big corporates. One of the brands I used to work for was in the consideration process for a 3 month ARG, but we never got full commitment. Everyone loved it, in the abstract, but putting money against it was a problem It was a bit more than 1% of the marketing budget mentioned in the talk though. It was also driven from the agency, not the client, so in hindsight that was a major issue. Many of the clients discussed below seem to drive the need themselves, so have the motivation.

When you look at the demo, with a high percentage of females, and the time spent with the brand, this model of marketing could be useful in so many ways, working to cut through the clutter of ads today.

Dan Hon (Mindcandy) Perplex city
Brian Clark (GMD Studios) Known for art of the heist for Audi.
Evan Jones (Stitch media) Known for regenesis
Brooke Thompson (Giant Mice) Known in community
Alice Taylor (BBC) (Chair)

About 25% in audience are story tellers. More were bloggers and journalists. A few even admitted to not knowing what an ARG was.

Brian – a lot of ARg have been in advertising, for big sponsors. treat as opportunity online. you have a different relationship online. it’s an opportunity to use feedback and change story of product in real time based on audience feedback.

Evan – working with TV production companies enhancing their stories into interactivity.

Brooke – came into ARG from a social degree, looking at the online communities. Working with unfiction, argn, and now taking it into more serious games. games that do something other than just entertainment.

Dan: main product is perplex city. in first city was about treasure hunt and story. into puzzles, codes, social engineering (against actors). Big on story and narrative. Audience is 50/50 male female.

Alice: ARGS about 5 or so years, came out of a number of gaming communities, a tthe same time. an emergent development. they can last for for variety of times, PC ran 2 years, others are shorter etc. started in marketing and gaming.

Q: are they promotional, games or what

Dan: so what are books for, websites for. we are experimenting at using a lot of media and using a new platform to tell stories. weaving it together to create a coherent experience

Alice: why have marketers picked up on it. it;s far more work than sticking an ad up?

Brian: budget shifts away from broadcast to interactive. quality of interaction has more impact than sheer number of reach in a tv ad. an arg can produce session lengths of 30mins or longer, high repeat visits. it;s still measurable. In the way you would measure PR and the web. look at community discussions. More immediately provable from an ROI, but not ness from a revenue generating for story telling.

Dan: continuous partial attention…Linda stone talks about how everyone in the room is acting..we are doing multiple things at same time.. you see this with tv and online etc. what arg offers is the potential to reach people across a number of different media.

Evan; arg take advantage of natural state of web- hunting for bits of data and assembling knowledge.

Alice: 50% of tv watching is about tv on in background (BBC research in UK), change from 10% in 50’s
So far, it sounds like we are talking about always connected people

Brooke :you have to computer literate for most ARGs. you have to have a functional understanding of how to find and assemble info from online (hence can make a good training tool). companies love it as have a huge number of women involved, in both playing and development. different games attract different demo

Dan: PC peaks at 26; people following the story were different form those doing the puzzle cards. Higher proportion of women following story. puzzles were from 10-80yo, huge range of ages.

Brooke: you can customise to audience by writing different story

Brian: it’s like asking who is watching tv

Evan: the interaction, the felling of being in the story is an empowerment thing that hits a certain need.

Alice: where do you see ARGS going?

Brian: last weekend there was an AGR festival in SanFran. the people behind lonelygirl were there..the people in the arg community thought it was an ARG, when they found it was not they launched one..which was asked to be the official one.

Evan: different levels. certain games at mainstream etc. different models,

Brooke: we are going to see them spread more into TV. they are going to spread into education, to help people learn how things work. it will spread out.

Brian: academia are interesting. in the infancy stage, just developing

Dan: it;s hard to get into games in the middle. been looking at tv etc and trying to learn how people get into the things, help you catch up. it may happen in more bitesize chunks to make it more accessible, to make it manageable, has a start and end date. you know you can play the episode etc

Evan: it’s too easy to get into a rabbit how and not knowing what signing uo for, this gives more control

Alice: size/money etc

Brooke: worked on matrix game. 125k players, had high production values. under 10k budget, 7 people, 4 of them fulltime.

Dan: everyone has a content problem. you create a passionate audience. the audience sucks up content. just in time content creation. keeping up with everything. this is really user centered design – watch what players are doing and constantly adapt.

Brian: have rewritten almost everything halfway through, in response to audience and their better ideas. so can change stories in the middle.

Evan: it’s about working with partners, bringing them along.

Alice: when does this go horribly wrong?

Brian – every time. because of the chaos of the real world, you have to adjust. you always have to figure out how to recover – quickly. take it as reality and adapt it.

Evan: exposing yourself to a committed audience…you have to stay in game sometimes it works, but it is a dangerous territory to walk through. but it can be used for entertainment but worse

Brooke: one of the biggest fears 5years ago…lessened now. you have to make sure people know it is a game and that they can trust you

Brian – people should not listen to people on the web telling them what to do!

Dan; you can get bad pr very quickly. these are very connected very passionate people. put one foot wrong it;s bad. when it goes well, you get all the passion, all the creativity. it’s great. the treasure hunt was hard for the PR company to get around..they lined up interviews before it was found..and could not understand that it was not done to order. we try and be safe but we do real world things. to work well you have to give up an element of control. it can get risky, the bad things can happen but this is where the fun stuff happens.

Audience Questions:

Q: user engagement and passionate user experiences etc; commercially applied – awesome, can see why a corporate client would want this. but when things go wrong, its bad. so how do you sell the high production values etc, don’t know how many people get involved.

Brian – you can plan, the amount into media can help predict audience. if you can’t afford to experiment with 1% of marketing budget you will fall behind. it’s the ones that are potentially behind who are willing to experiment.

Dan: on PC that is not a problem. the beast was skunkworks – not known about it. at MC the phone is ringing, everyone wants one. but there is a different set of people being approached who need to think about it.

Q: ARGS and public safety. are they the bridge btw the living and the street?

Evan: we always found it most useful to add an extra layer; before going into real fiction they need to take a moment and remind people that is is a game. have always pointed people that way. getting people to acknowledge that it is fiction.

Brian: we know the ARG genre has matured when the legal defense is an arg..people are looking for the influences, they say it for books, video games etc.

Q: games that matter and interact in a real way. for education etc. what is the budget…how can we do it

Brooke: keep your eye out in the next few weeks for something on climate change. See jane mcGonagle keynote last week. There is a game being developed called world without oil. get people to talk about things and explore it.

Dan: the things you can get people to do when they are in the story is amazing. characters put in peril…people try all sorts. gets people to do things they would not always do.

Brian: have to avoid edutainment trap. perception that serious games aren’t fun

Q: lg15 was interesting; a fundamental principle is about being in the know? how do you see it co-exisitng as more commercial

Brooke: the secret knowledge is one motivation
Brian; we are trying to give the audience something to do. the simplest is to take the narrative and break it into a 100 pieces and hide it. the audience has to assemble it. so it;s about sharing and collaboration etc, ie finding something out and bringing it to the rest of the community.

Dan: with PC there was a lot of sharing, even though a lot of money for grabs. it;s also about the discovery process, is it real etc..it’s at the start and we will start to evolve into entertainment more, it is fiction, it;s about the narrative.

Brian: for big games, they expect a sponsor. and people look to find out who it is.

Dan: the audience expects them to be tied into a brand. PC and Cathys book are the only ones that are not tied into the brand.

Q: work for major media community and we have problem of the opposite..people wanting them for their shows (ie lost experience). what costs and time do you take to build them. do you do it for new shows?

Brian: have done new stuff. took pilot money and turned into website. (freaky links). it was heavily trafficked before it was cancelled.

Q: so how do you get people to it?

A: have an interesting, episodic content. a year before hand.

Alice: is it difficult to set up quickly?

Evan: one game had a turn around of 2 months. but the caveat, it’s more successful from how early it gets into the creative team.

Dan: an example of how things can go wrong. things are separate. things are not linked. you have to have everything together at the early stages or a very disjointed experience.

Brian – costs depend on budget. you design the games around the budget. most is millions….

Q: how do you measure organic growth, WOM.

Brian: that is what happens

Brooke: there is a core group of people at unfiction that do get tagged.

Brian: recruting more players is one of the subgames

Dan: 2 elements – fun games want my friends to ow..plus you need to get people on board to do things.

Q: how do you build games to suit products etc, how do design the games

Evan: it can be more of branded entertainment. the story may not be directly related to a brand.

Dan: there are stories which are retrofitted, or a complete new experience where creatives are part of it.

Q: are the players of the games the direct target?

Brian – it’s broader than that. see American idol and the difference betw the audition peiple, those who vote and those who know it exists.

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3 thoughts on “SXSW – Attack of the ARG

  1. Hey there! Glad to hear you were at the panel – how was it? Did we cover the right stuff, and were there any questions you wanted to ask?

  2. dan, i did enjoy it. I’m just starting to dig into commercial ARGs after dipping my toes into the free fun ones. So far I’m really enjoying them. Questions to ask – lots! Really want to dig into the buzz/WoM aspects, so I may try and grab you for some questions whilst I’m here

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