A couple ARG’s that I’m responsible for:
ARG’s have become a popular subject mater in online advertising these days. I believe their attractiveness as an advertising model stems from the fact that they’re an easy way of “going viral”, although making a successful one is by no means a simple task and there are but a few individuals or studios that have the ability to pull it off properly.
My rule of thumb is that the first and best way of becoming an internet phenomena is by not wanting to be one. Many studios that try to cater to the web generation, or today’s young consumers, fail miserably because of their inability to understand the web, or even their own audience. The best and most successful campaigns are by people that have a deep rooted understanding of the internet and it’s audiences. In short; the best people to cater to an audience are people that come from the audience. They will be perfect mediators between your product and your consumers. I often sound like a broken record to many of my clients when I try to persuade them to “listen to the audience”. Your audience will tell you what they like, and be especially quick to tell you what they don’t like. They’re better at predicting success than you or any multi-million dollar marketing agency. Your marketing agency won’t buy twenty-million copies of your product or give you viral buzz, neither will you. Everybody else will. Listening to the audience also has another valuable perk; ideas. Audience speculation can often be more inspired and interesting than the real story or idea. Much of the speculation can make for great concepts (often better than what an agency will come up with), and it’s important to take note and implement the best of it. Doing so will add some great mechanics and depth to your product as well as giving the fans the excitement of “I knew it all along!”, which will spur even more attention and speculation. Speculation is healthy. It means people care, and when people care you’re doing something right. Once you’re that groove you want to keep nurturing what they like about your experience and expand on it to give the audience more of what they enjoy. In the end if they enjoy it others will come to take part in the fun.
People like me grew up on the web. Not only having partaken in memes, we’ve first hand experienced them when they where starting, like lolcats, the popularity of Zombies, why Domokun is an icon and his association with kittens, and Chuck Norris’s rise (and current decline) as an icon, just to mention a few.
It is unfortunate that many of the people I have worked with fail to grasp the importance to listen to their web audience and understand the web. If you wish to market to a platform it is important to have some degree of understanding or at least willingness to learn about it. Ego is the predominant culprit in many cases. If you want to reach todays generation you cannot, in any way, act or give the impression of being “holier than thou” and belittle your audience. This simply creates a bad experience and you are only catering to yourself. In many cases, especially for ARG’s, the audience cares about experiencing and interacting with your product THEIR way. It is not impossible to reach absolutely everyone, the key here is to pay attention to what users are saying and make sure that you are constantly incorporating these demands. An understanding of the internet, how to “fool” people and how trends are born is also crucial.
ARG’s are all about the art of bending reality by using peoples sense of “normal”. You fool and play with peoples perception of everyday by using everything from popular social networking sites (MySpace, Tumblr, Twitter), to community driven content sites (You Tube, and Flickr). I have yet to work with people that build up the courage to seriously go to the roots of the internet to reach the true “phenomena” audience. I am not referring to the aforementioned “popular” sites, I am referring to the places where all memes are born; 4Chan, IRC, B3ta, etc… The dangers of doing so is that if you don’t explicitly understand the audiences there, and do not come from there, there is a risk of it backfiring and them propagating you in a negative fashion. Note that this is also true from the popular places like YouTube. For example the negative reaction generated from the “All I want for Christmas is a PSP viral-marketing campaign” was so bad it became “uncool” to buy Sony products. If you do not understand the web your meme-to-be can quickly turn into an anti-meme. The failure of this and other campaigns can be credited to having non-web people marketing to the web. Like in the above example the “web-culture” was executed in such an overdone fashion it belittled the audience. It was painful to watch.
Although frightening, this should not be off-putting but something to learn from. In the end good viral-marketing stems from not looking like marketing. Like in ARG’s; you entertain first and win people over THEN you very subtly increase your “marketing”. Like the-frog-in-hot-water scenario.
The frog-in-hot water metaphor also rings true for the difficulty of your ARG and the puzzles the user is subjected to. For example if the first few puzzles (especially the first) are too hard to beat, you will likely deter a large amount of visitors. The web audience is very “casual” (after all it is home to Casual Games), and by making the first impression difficult you deter the initial visitors (while they are still in their “casual” state) and only committed players will stay. Difficulty needs to be increased slowly, over time, this way you catch even the non-committed visitors. A good experience is one that actually nails the casual gamer because, in doing so, you are really nailing the general web user. The internet audience has a non-existent attention span (equatable to an amnesic hyperactive kid on coffee with a sugar rush) and if something frustrates them they will go somewhere else and forget about you. If the frustration takes place upon first impression, they will most likely not come back. Good experiences are driven by first impressions and the first 3-5 seconds a person spends with your site is what determines whether they will stay or not.
The flexibility of how you want to get the IP across is another important point to investigate. A good project will be in constant flux, not because of poor planing or management (both of these are imperative for any good work environment), but because of creating a product that caters to the viewers demands. The challenge here is keeping true to the IP and story while understanding the limitations and playing-habits of the web. This balance is a very tricky one to keep when making ARG’s or catering interactive entertainment to the web audience because they’ll most always try to find a work-around to your keenly laid out “game-plan” and forcing them to interact otherwise or “over-securing” it will just offend them. People want to play it their way because they want to feel smart and sneaky (ARG’s and viral is all about sneaking, snooping, and following clues). Very few companies will allow their IP to budge, letting it bully the users demands aside in order to have it done the IP way. If you force people to “play it your way” you are letting your vision strangle the player’s experience. It’s a delicate balance between user habits vs. story telling and it can only be maintained by having a flexible vision. This way the consumer is getting what they want, the way they _think_ they want it (according to their developed playing habits), while the IP is getting across in an transparent and immersive fashion.
In the end the online platform has given birth to a very exciting genre in ARG’s and viral marketing. It’s a brilliant way of merging all creative medias into one in order to play with peoples perception of reality. The great thing about fiction is that you can tell an unbelievable story, the great thing about blurring that line is that it can haunt people.
Interactivity has a strong advantage to other passive mediums because of it’s ability to riff off and exploit real life emotions caused by decisions.
For example TV (passive medium) would leave the viewer stating, “I can’t believe they did X!”
Interactive (ARG’s, games…) would leave the “interactee” stating, “I can’t believe _I_ did X!”
This can be a very powerful tool because it causes people to think and consider their actions. They can feel bad or good about what _they_ just did, not about what the character they are passively watching just did. This is what draws me so much to the online interactive mediums. It adds an entirely new unexplored dimension to art and storytelling, especially with it’s capability to so seamlessly “inject” itself into peoples daily online lives. The “hey, check out this link” phenomena can easily be followed by “I can’t believe this is real…” This is the perfect point of starting a breadcrumb trail that leads the viewer into your fictional world. It plays on peoples curiosity, and the web audience is just full of that. As soon as you’re able to manipulate peoples emotions, imagination, and beliefs on such a level you know you’ve got them wrapped around your finger and hungry for more. If you’re smart about how you’re marketing to them they’ll love your product and you’ve created your “faithful following.”