The Castle ARG

When I talk about video games and RPGs (and I will be talking about them some more soon), I speak from a fairly solid foundation of experience. Today, though, I am talking about something I know very little about, precisely because I know so little about it. Specifically, I’m talking about Alternate Reality Games, or ARGs.
(Note: While I always appreciate comments, I would like to especialy call out for them today from anyone who can expand on these points or who can call me out for being full of it)
These are on my mind, as many of this weeks topics are, because of their prominence in Reality is Broken. When the author is talking about games that can really change the world, these are the ones she’s really talking about, games that can engage a large number of players over a geographically diverse area in pursuit of shared goals. There are numerous variations, but the basic pattern seems to be this:
  1. Some sort of mysterious information is released to the public in a place that will draw some attention. It will be presented in such a way as to inspire curiosity, raise questions, and get people looking around.
  2. Investigation will reveal other sources of information, some of it real, much of it fake (in the form of fake blogs, fake posting on social networks and so on). In a big game, these investigations will extend beyond the internet and into real world investigations, through things like geocaching.
  3. As the investigation occurs, community springs up to discuss the problem and collaborate on solutions. This will probably be subtly or overtly helped along by organizers. Ideally, the puzzle is too complex and varied for any one person to solve it all, so the community is a necessity.
  4. Events may occur. People may get mysterious messages or phone calls, or there may be real life events managed by game masters.
  5. Eventually, things move into endgame. The last piece of information is revealed, probably an action to be taken or an event to be attended. When the curtain rises on that, the “winners” (members of the community who stuck through it) attend and reap appropriate benefits, or at least take secondhand enjoyment from other members of the community attending.
It sounds very dramatic, and while there are lots of possibilities for this sort of game, its most common use at the moment is as a means of marketing a brand. What may be the most famous ARG, I Love Bees, was a big ramp up to a Halo launch. Even the altruistic games talked about in the book, such as one for the Olympics, are ultimately promotion for the sponsors.
This sounds cynical, and it maybe is, but at the same time there’s a bit of harsh necessity to it. In some cases we’re talking about games that will be played in a few weeks which will take over a year to prepare. That ratio seems totally off unless you can really get the kind of numbers of players to make it feel like the effort was worth it. Or, at least, so it seems.
The crazy thing is that the technologies that make all this possible potentially make it easy for a much smaller operator to do something compelling, at least with the right combination of creativity and dedication. This thought is driven into my mind by a packet I received back during the height of the recent blizzard.
This is a packet of information for an ARG being run by Big House Comics. As a prop nerd, I’m blown away by the quality fo the work on this, but not surprised. Kevin, the guy behind this, is one of those disgustingly talented types, and he very clearly spared no effort in making the material really work. Now, I recognize a lot of the techniques that go into making this stuff, and I can tell you that you can accomplish a lot of it on a very small budget if you’re willing to put in the time and work.
Obviously, you should check out BHC – I wouldn’t have brough them up otherwise – but this example of a more grassroots ARG comes back to a question that has kept me from paying much attention to them: can they really get any good synergy with RPGs? Historically, I’d have said no. The scale is all wrong, the rewards are a poor match, and – to use phrase I rather liked from the book – much of it is “Real Play, not Role Play” (which is to say, you’re playing as yourself, or someone very near to yourself).
But what if the bar is lower? What if the complexities of creating a good ARG have been a function of their relative novelty, and the medium is a bit more open to us down on the street. If so, that’s a promising thought. The RPG community is already rich with enthusiasts and contributors – as the scads of blogs, web pages and wikis will testify – so would it be such a bad thing to engage that energy in play? As a game publisher, the prospect of an ARG in support of your game seems a reasonable scale. For a LARP organizer, it would seem only a small stretch. For an actual game, something on the scale of under a dozen people, then it might be rough, but I no longer think it’s impossible.[1]
Put another way – perhaps there’s another avenue for solo-yet-not-solo fun than just creating characters.
I’m going to be thinking about this one for a while. The difference between “It can be done” and “here’s how to do it” is a big one, but I think it’s a gap that can be crossed.
[back]1 – Thinking about it, there’s some precedent. PBEM/Post games like De Profundis are already using the same infrastructure as ARGs, albeit on a small scale. Similarly, Games like the Amber DRPG have a strong streak of out-of-game contribution. These ideas are largely untapped by rpgs as a whole, but they’re on the table.

9 thoughts on “The Castle ARG

  1. RLW

    One of the reasons I decided to run a Trail of Cthulhu game is the level of support for feelies. Chaosium always had good ideas for props, but there are some great on-line resources for making creepy props for your Cthulhu game. The HPLHS disk is brilliant and I think it really enhances play.

    In publishing there’s a mystery subgenre that includes the evidence in the book as well. I have a Batman themed one that’s neat and bought a Dracula sequel one for my goddaughter.

  2. Chuck

    I’m amazed that the crossover between ARG and RPG space is pretty rare in my experience. I think they share DNA (though, with that said, they’re animals who have evolved quite differently which I guess explains the deviation in audience).

    ARGs are pretty cool, but in many ways limited. They have in the past made room for a very small but diligent number of players to take control of the game. Because so much of the unfolding ARGs has to do with ciphers and puzzles, ultimately it ends up that whoever solves the puzzle becomes something of a prime mover in terms of that given ARG.

    One ARG you should look at: The Jejune Institute. Breaks a lot of those characteristics you (accurately) note. Fantastic experience, and I recommend it to anybody who visits San Francisco.

    — c.

  3. Brahman Atman

    I wonder if WotC’s Encounters or Living Forgotten Realms programs are primitive examples of RPG ARGs? As I understand it, WotC tweets one-time bonuses to players on nights when Encounters events take place. Living Forgotten Realms has the big network of players and DMs which seem ripe for ARG play.

    In the RPG context, I suggest that a publisher could successfully start an ARG by using these WotC models as a foundation. The RPG gaming public is already conditioned to this sort of thing, whether it’s through direct participation in the WotC programs or by hearing about them.

  4. Reverance Pavane

    On a smaller scale than the PR-powered ARGs (which have an advertising budget to support them) there are the social games that can be found around the place, such as the pervasive games of Hide and Seek (which is based in London). Combining aspects of LARP, ARG, and flash-mob, and supported heavily by the various Arts and local Councils, they have been developing quite a following over the last few years. [Also check out Holly’s website, Several Bees for some of the things they do.] The emphasis here is in engaging in a shared social activity, rather than the just viral marketing.

  5. Dan Livengood, CPA

    The first RPG I ever encountered, with a ARG feel was De Profundis put out by Hogshead in 2001. I’ve never actually played it, but… It might be a good mid-ground as the players (via thier characters) can add their own elements of mystery confusion and action, using letters, email, blog posts, etc, of thier own, instead of just unraveling a series challenges put before them by the game master.

  6. gamefiend

    Good stuff as always. I haven’t played in a ton of ARGs but was involved in the early stages of one ( playtesting and some puzzle /game design). My thinking is that the ARG forms the connective tissue (or backplane as you put it on twitter) that contains the puzzles typical of the genre, but within those game spaces, there are rpg “growth” and “choice” mechanisms. Maybe you are x type of sleuth, which could give you a certain type of clues that a person who signs up as a y type of sleuth won’t get.

    Slicing the characters into roles creates the need for interaction to most effectively solve puzzles, and in the interaction rolepplaying can occur. To drive roleplay even further, we can award some “fiction rep” where people are rewarded for contributing to the game. If you roleplayed briliantly or did something otherwise clever, you get some whuffie-equivalent that you can use in the game later. Or it can just serve as a score.

    Whatever the mechanism, it’s clear to me that the most important factor in merging ARG and RPG is getting people talking, because in my experience that’s where everything fun occurs in RPGs.

  7. Distilled

    I’m heavily involved in ARGs on a daily basis – and often blog about them if you’re interested:

    The Old Soldiers game which you’ve been included in is just hotting up and all the community stuff is going on here:

    ARGs in general, I believe, are the vehicles which can bring gaming out of the basement and into the real world. Currently, games are seen as just simple “play”; a distraction from the real world, and nothing more. McGonigal makes some fine points for how gaming can make a difference and she is a great spokesperson for Alternative Reality Gaming as a medium for real change.

    Heading over to unFiction and taking a look at some of the threads might be an interesting insight into how the Alternative Reality Gaming community works, I think theres a lot of opportunity for RPG players to really get a kick out of the games held there.


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