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Thursday, February 01, 2007

Alternate Reality Games: Interview with Adam Martin from Guardian Unlimited: Gamesblog

via Aleks at the Guardian:

"In researching the article on Microsoft's Alternative Reality Game marketing campaign for today's paper, I met and interviewed a whole host of great people. One of them was Adam Martin, the editor of the International Game Developers Association's ARG White Paper published late in 2006, former CTO of Mind Candy and current Lead core programmer at NCSoft, agreed to answer a few questions about the attraction of ARGs to non-(video)gamers. Along the way, he inadvertently highlights a few problems with the way computer games are currently designed.

What is the appeal of ARGs?

It's mainly two things: firstly, they're very easy to start playing; secondly, the core gameplay provides rich experiences in areas of gaming that very few traditional games excel in - rich, deep stories; gameplay based on "personal skills" (persuasion, negotiation, consensus-building, etc);

Personal skills in particular are something that you very rarely get to exercise in any traditional game. In a traditional game, the options are usually limited to two or three set-phrases you can select between at each point in a conversation with an NPC. In ARG's, the NPC is usually a real live person, and you can do *anything* you like to persuade them to help you - from making them laugh by telling jokes through to evoking strong empathic emotions such as pity.

Why do they appear to bridge the gap between computer gamers and non-(computer) gamers?

Non-gamers have countless reasons not to play computer games, and ARGs variously erode, remove, or sidestep those reasons.

For instance, any game that involves a two-handed controller covered in buttons and (multiple!) joysticks can be very off-putting to the large number of people who've never played games on such a controller before. The current consoles have approximately 15 separate buttons, and gamers have learnt conventions of which buttons do what. Game designers tend to follow those conventions fairly closely (they're usually based on which buttons are easiest to reach individually and/or in combination), and so a gamer can pick up a new game and be reasonably competent very quickly. Anyone who's never played those games faces a huge learning curve before they can even get to learn how to play the game itself!

By contrast, ARGs require no special skills or knowledge of conventions other than those you encounter every day in your daily life. If you know how to use Google, how to make phone calls and send emails, how to surf the web for information, and how to find your way around a new city using the map, the tourist info, etc, then you're fully qualified as an ARG player already.

How much does an ARG typically cost to make?
This is one of the biggest differentiators between sub-types of ARG, so there's a couple of answers:

Independent ("grassroots") games, those produced for fun or as a learning experience for the developers, tend to cost from a few hundred dollars to a few thousand. It's easy enough to make these games at no cost at all, although a little expenditure can add a lot of value to the gameplay, and so usually the authors spend at least something. This works because by far and away the biggest cost in producing an ARG is time - if the authors are not paying themselves, then it's practically free to run.

Marketing ARGs typically cost in a similar range as other professional marketing campaigns, although probably a lot cheaper for the value that the client gets from it (measured in exposure, press coverage,
etc) - anything from a hundred thousand dollars up to a million or more.

Commercial games can cost anything in between, and - interestingly - can adapt their costs over the lifetime of the game as necessary to fit their income. Usually they'll cost slightly more than a marketing ARG because they're aiming to provide an equally rich and powerful game experience, yet with the added difficulty of having to keep the service running over a longer period of time than just one short campaign - but they can peak at much higher costs, depending upon how many people you want to reach and what the revenue model is. Unlike almost all traditional computer games, developers have a lot of direct control over their cost base for an ARG.

Why are ARGs effective marketing tools?
Because they're more interesting than reading yet-another attempt to grab your attention in 2 seconds by using just a picture, or an animation, and a few words of text in a fancy font? :)

Seriously, though, and comparing like-for-like, ARGs rely on viral marketing as a large part of their spread. This is even more true than for traditional viral marketing campaigns, as this viral mechanic is not just the way the message spreads, but also fundamental to the gameplay - if it isn't done well, the gameplay will suffer, and the ARG will crash and burn even faster than a crass attempt at viral marketing.

Although you have to be careful when talking about viral marketing - there's a lot of cynical usage of VM around, and it's generally got a bad reputation amongst many consumers. ARG authors generally strive to provide something that is amenable to spreading virally without feeling they have any right to expect or demand that it work - they know that if they do a good game well, it will spread, and that they have no more control than that.

What is the future for ARGs (independent and product-based)?
The low-cost, high-penetration, the wide demographics they cover, and the heavy involvement of creative thinking and imagination from the developers make them a prime target for an even greater role in the wider marketing industry. This is likely to be the easiest market for them to grow into in the short term - there are many brilliant creatives in marketing who would love to make much more interactive, game-like, campaigns but for whom the mainstream games industry is too lumbering and/or specialised for them to get into.

That holds true for the games industry too - there is plenty of room for much smaller-scale ARG's being used in marketing of new games, especially online games. Halo/ILoveBees and Gun/Last Call Poker were both great campaigns, but the possibilities could be explosive for fully online games like WoW that are more naturally able to intermesh with an ARG. The biggest opportunity here is that such games could have permanent ARGs running intermeshed with them throughout their lifetime - since they already have constantly changing content, they can weave outcomes from the ARG back into the core game, giving players the sense of an "ability to affect the game-world" that is so hard to provide in mainstream MMOG's, and yet so often asked-for.

From the games side, I think we'll see a game soon that successfully merges the primary ARG elements with a simpler game style - probably borrowing heavily from the conventions and ideas of the Casual Games industry - and gets just the right mix at the right time that it explodes in the same way as sites like MySpace. I don't think there's anything that's quite there yet, although many things are coming ever closer - ARG developers tend to be great at producing stories and rich experiences, but lack the shorter, brighter, more visceral ideas and brilliance at "polishing" that characterise Casual Games.

If PopCap or Real/Zylom moves into making an ARG, that's the moment you'll see the next sea-change in the industry. But, personally, I think it'll come from a tiny independent, a group of friends or students doing everything off their own backs who happen to get it just right.

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