Before the release of BioShock 2, a man named Mark Meltzer asked for help finding his missing daughter. Before the release of Dishonored 2, scavenger hunters in London could find invitations to a dinner party. Before season 3 of Mr. Robot started airing last year, posters at ComicCon appeared sending people to sign up for a new crypto-currency. These rabbit holes all went somewhere, but now you can barely see the shape of them, defined by the space left between people talking about it online: on subreddits, on old blogs, on dedicated wikis. You had to be there when it happened, you see.
These are ARGs, or Alternate Reality Games. They're games, but the platform they use is real life, and they react to you playing. So, people who responded to Mark Meltzer's plea for help later went to beaches around the world and found washed up bottles of Arcadia Merlot, and received telegrams delivered by bike messengers. And the biggest ARGs, the most famous, the very first, came from video games. They came from the original Xbox needing launch titles, and from a tiny team at Microsoft trying, in a roundabout way, to meet that need. A tiny team lead by Jordan Weisman, who has worked in every kind of game space you can imagine. I asked him to tell me about those first ARGs. It's a long story, involving Steven Spielberg, murder mystery, Halo 2, a corrupted beekeeping blog, and the voracious, monstrous public.
I know I just said ARGs came from video games, but the roots are also tangled around film.
Microsoft Entertainment numbered about 250 working on PC games at the time Jordan Weisman started there in 1999, serving as Creative Director for the whole division. Weisman, who served as Creative Director for the whole division, said that when they started Xbox that number grew to about 1500 in around two years. The marketing team was shopping around for associations that would give the Xbox a bigger public profile, and one of the people they reached out to was Steven Spielberg, in connection with the film A.I.. You remember A.I., right? The robot teddy? Haley Joel Osment being sweet and sad?
During E3, Weisman, along with his boss Ed Fries and Fries' boss Robbie Bach, had a meeting with Spielberg, his DreamWorks co-founders Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen, and legendary Hollywood producer Kathleen Kennedy. The Microsoft lads were there to get a pitch on the film and see if they could make video games about it. After the meeting, Fries and Bach asked Weisman if the film was a good basis for making video games. 'I was like "Yeah, I think it's an enormously emotional story and any parent is going to cry their eyes out, and I think our core 18-35 male audience is not going to come to this movie in great numbers,"' Weisman told me. '"So I don't know if it's really a great launch title for us."
'I think about a month later they call me in and say, "Alright so we did make a deal, and it was very expensive. So we need to make six video games to advertise the license." I was like "Wow! Really? Okay! That sounds great guys, I'll get right on that!"'
Weisman knew that he couldn't make six games all based on one intimate story about a son desperate for a mother's love, so the first job was broadening the context to work in. Weisman brought on the writer Sean Stewart in early 2001, as the lead writer for the project. An entire timeline was laid out plotting the history of Earth around the events of A.I. the film, and the games were placed on it at different points. Development of the games began.
'Then I realised, well, now I have a problem, which is only we know that story,' said Weisman. 'How do I get this story of the world, the history of the world, out to the public? So that's where I came up with the idea of hiding it in bits and pieces.' Elan Lee, previously chief design officer at Microsoft and most recently co-creator of The Oatmeal's Exploding Kittens and Bears vs. Babies games, was brought on, and they started sketching out puzzles and ideas. But Robbie Bach wasn't on board; creating marketing materials and then hiding them seemed, to him, like anti-marketing. Which is a reasonable conclusion to come to.
Undeterred, Weisman took the idea to Spielberg and Kennedy, and here, flying by the seat of his pants, he pulled off a terrifyingly impressive blag: he convinced Warner Bros. that, since it would promote the film as well as the games, the cost of the ARG should be split between Warner Bros. and Microsoft… and that Warner Bros. should pay the first half.
'Then – one of my favourite phone calls of all time – Kathleen Kennedy picks up the phone and calls Brad Ball, who was [Warner Bros.] head of marketing, she calls him up and says "I'm going to send this guy over, and you're going to give him a cheque for X million dollars, and you're not allowed to ask what it's for,"' remembered Weisman. 'I mean it's like nobody could pull that off in Hollywood except for her! Like, really! And she hung up and I said "Wow, it's gotta be good to be king!" and she said "Yeah, it is."'
With the startup money secured, the team (who became known as Puppet Masters or PMs in a nod to A.I. essentially being a Pinocchio story) began hiding clues in the marketing for A.I. – possibly the most famous now being a credit on posters for Sentient Machine Therapist Jeanine Salla – all leading to a murder mystery set around 40 years after the events of the film. Ain't It Cool News wrote a post on it and, in Weisman's words, when it broke 'it kind of broke big.' To the thousands of players it was The Game; to the team it was The Beast, so called because the first asset list they drew up had 666 items.
'I remember Robbie coming into my office one day with a New York Times article which was a big rave about it, and he's like "I thought I said we weren't doing this?" and I said "Ohhhh, I thought you said you couldn't pay for it yet… but now you have to pay for the second half."' Weisman said he thinks that to get anything done at a company, no matter the size, you've got to be willing to lose your job – which is of course easier said than done. And Weisman is able to look back having not lost his job on that particular roll of the dice.
Despite the success of the guerrilla marketing the six A.I. games were never made, which, with the benefit of hindsight, is not that surprising. By 2003 Weisman had left Microsoft, but the company tapped him to put the band back together for an ARG promoting Halo 2. The band was amenable; Lee and Stewart both joined Weisman and pivoted what had been a mobile entertainment company into 42 Entertainment (originally stylised as 4orty2wo), an ARG company that's still going today.
'The mainline marketing theme had kind of embraced a war of the worlds campaign concept with being invaded as kind of the underlying theme,' explained Weisman, talking about concepting for the Halo 2 ARG. A huge fan of both radio dramas and Orson Welles, Weisman felt that you only get so many opportunities to do an homage and he wasn't going to let this one pass by. The next step was to break the drama into small pieces and devise a way for those pieces to be discovered by the audience. 'I'm reasonably sure it was Elan who came up with the idea of pay phones,' said Weisman. 'I think one of the attractions was it's a great audio delivery system and it's an antiquated one, which is a nice tie-in to this very high tech futuristic story.' Lee is credited as the director and lead designer on ilovebees and Stewart the lead writer; puzzle designers included Bill Redmann, Maureen McHugh, Ronnie Lee, Jim Stewartson and Jane McGonigal. Susan Bonds, the producer, is the current president and CEO of 42 Entertainment.
People who had played The Beast were FedExed jars of honey, with letters that spelled I LOVE BEES inside them. The theatrical trailer for Halo 2 dropped on July 16, and, right at the end, the web address on the logo splash flickered from www.xbox.com to www.ilovebees.com. It seemed to be a fun website about beekeeping, but one that had gotten weirdly corrupted. A link on the front page sent interested parties to a separate blog about the website, where a woman named Dana was asking for help fixing what turned out to be her aunt's fun website about beekeeping. So the players went back to investigate. By digging into source code, emailing the address listed on the site, and opening images as text files, they figured out that an AI from the future called Melissa had crash landed onto the server hosting ilovebees.com, split into several personalities, and was trying to repair itself. A timer on the site was counting down to August 24.
In advance of the date the site updated with a list of GPS coordinates, with staggered times. On the morning of the fateful day, pay phones at those coordinates began ringing in batches, and players would have to pick up and answer with code words; correct answers would receive a snippet of audio (between about 20 and 50 seconds long) and, when the players jigsawed those snippets together, they gradually revealed an ongoing audio drama. New batches of pay phones went live every couple of weeks as the story continued. The audio drama ended up with a runtime of over five hours, with a story happening simultaneously in the present day and the future and involving the alien Covenant from the Halo games. All the while, weird puzzles hidden on the site were providing players with other, constantly updating diversions.
Before the ARG went live to players, the PMs had been hard at work for a while, writing the story, producing the audio drama, and figuring out how to transmit it. They also went and scouted thousands of payphone locations to make sure the phones were functional and in safe places (an effort that Weisman cites as a reason that Pokémon Go 'drove me crazy'; at the height of Pokémon Go fever in 2016 two men fell off a cliff whilst playing, and the devs had to add a patch to stop people playing it whilst driving. 'There are really good ways to make sure it's safe, and those guys just didn't do their homework.').
But however much work they did beforehand, it wasn't enough. 'I always called them 80/20 rules or 70/30 rules, where you only can produce about 70% of the content in advance,' explained Weisman. 'The remainder has to be developed in real time in response to the audience, because that's part of what makes that format unique.' So, in ilovebees, for example, the AI personality known as The Sleeping Princess would respond to questions players had sent her, and sometimes the phones were answered by a live voice who asked them their name, or to sing. One of the catchphrases that arose from The Beast was 'This is not a game', referring to how the game would always present itself and its events as real, and hoped the audience would treat it that way. In a blog post Stewart says that early on he was worried that the players were 'treating it too much like a series of puzzles, and not enough as a story' and deliberately wrote an update to add some real emotional stakes. Working with and against an audience of hundreds of thousands is, it turns out, quite difficult.
The awesome power of the hive mind
'One of the things you learn about the hive mind is that once engaged there is nothing it is not capable of,' said Weisman. Within a couple of weeks of the pay phones going live for ilovebees, making sure any phone would be answered was, said Weisman, 'like rollin' out of bed' for the combined might of the players. To try and up the challenge, the team changed the system so a player on the east coast who answered a phone was told a code that had to be given when the next phone rang hundreds of miles away. The first time it happened, the hive mind was unprepared and it completely fell over, but in less than a week the players had organised to pass the codes seamlessly, using IRC chat rooms and text messaging in a time long before social media existed.
'Ultimately games are nothing without people, for me. It's all about the people,' Weisman said. He started in roleplaying games – as in tabletop, pen and paper roleplaying; Weisman is one of the original creators of the game Shadowrun – and he loved the collaborative nature of those, where players sitting around a table tell a story with each other. 'That's what an ARG is, really. Just a giant version of that.'
'When we were working on the very first one, The Beast, the hardest thing for me was to get the game designers to design things that were impossible,' Weisman explained. Their instincts and training were all geared towards making things that were possible for a person to solve by themselves. Weisman was sure they should design things that needed, for example, an expert knowledge of coding, photoshop and the Aztec Calendar. One person couldn't solve a puzzle like that, but the whole point of an ARG is that it deals with a collective. 'I'd done this kind of bullshit math that said: hey! If we have, like, 300,000 players then within a couple degrees of separation those 300,000 players will have every knowledge base in the planet,' said Weisman. 'Well, I was right that they would have access to every knowledge base. I was wrong about the degrees of separation required, 'cos when we were lucky enough to have millions of players there were zero degrees of separation.'
Not only did the hive mind have expert knowledge of every subject imaginable, but it also had an unlimited amount of time to devote to the game and essentially unlimited resources, whether those be intellectual, monetary, geographical, or so on. The team of Puppet Masters was smaller, and that imbalance was summed up by a phrase bandied around 42 Entertainment a lot: the very few can't entertain the very many for very long. The audience was voracious. 'It was a bit like being Frankenstein. You've given birth to a monster and now you're like, okaaaaay, how do I keep it fed? How do I stop it from eating us?' Weisman said.
During The Beast the team tried to slow the hive mind down. They created a website showing two eyes. Underneath each eye was a field to type text into; on the left you entered the name of a character and on the right you entered an emotional state, and in return you'd get a piece of media that related to that character in that state. There were no instructions on what to do but, a thousand monkeys style, the players figured it out within hours. But the team wasn't too worried, because each IP address could only make one entry attempt a day. 'We figured, this is going to slow them down. Right?'
'We were wrong. We were always wrong.'
The hive mind organised into groups, researched emotional states, doled out a state and a character player by player, and emptied the website within 24 hours.
One of the more interesting things about the ilovebees hive mind was that it was a collision of two different groups. The ARG community, newly minted from playing The Beast, suddenly found that they had been joined by Halo fans who didn't yet understand what ilovebees was or the collaborative work that ARGs run on. There's a diary by a player that also functions as a guide to ilovebees still hosted online, and the entry describing the influx of Halo players around a week after the Halo trailer dropped is titled 'Invasion!', and includes a note explaining that the author has nothing against Halo but they haven't played it and don't know any of the backstory. I asked if video games are tailor made for ARG tie-ins because they provide an audience already used to suspension of their normal reality, and Weisman said: yes and no.
'Halo is a very good example,' he said. 'The game sets the tone, and a first person shooter sets a pretty aggressive tone, and a tone of trying to be the best, to show your superiority within an environment. That's just the nature of that kind of game.' But this nature is opposed to the nature of an ARG, which is all about collaboration. There's no way for an individual to 'win' an ARG. When the Halo players joined the ARG fans, they had to adjust their learned behaviours of trash talking and being the best. Your win-state is being appreciated by the community, which depends on your selflessness and your contribution to the larger goal. 'I think it depends on the game and who the audience is, and how the game has set them up to behave with each other – how comfortably they'll merge into a different kind of play pattern in a different kind of community environment.'
Will we see their like again?
There have been and still are ARGs after The Beast and ilovebees, but they're still not a ubiquitous artform. Weisman described an ARG as a very special but very limiting kind of storytelling, because it asks a huge amount of the audience. 'It's like a live concert,' he said. 'And they don't replay well.' That means that participants have to be there when it's happening, and devote a big chunk of their time to it. This feeds into the other limiting factor, which is that people are more likely to devote this time and overcome the barrier to entry if they already have an emotional connection to the story; Weisman said they learned that it's not a great medium for telling brand new stories.
But more significant are the changes in how we talk to one another. ARGs require strangers to be connected, and we are, now, more connected than ever – and instantly! If you were to Tweet that you needed someone who understood lute tablature, which was a puzzle in The Beast, you would find someone within, potentially, seconds. Or you could just Google the tabs for yourself. When a new Overwatch character was announced (which turned out to be Sombra) there was a kind of ARG attached to that, but the players' progress was determined not so much by their own sleuthing as by several announcement stages and countdowns set by Blizzard. Most of the ARG was waiting for a timer to tick down. Weisman said that, while all the social media platforms would be fun to design for, they also mean that the art form has to evolve, because in an ARG the ways people interact is part of your design.
But that way of telling stories, the term 'transmedia' that Weisman came up with to explain the concept to Spielberg – that Weisman sees a lot, in things like the post credits scenes of Marvel Movies. 'We're seeing those techniques for more linear media being used very widely. I think there's definitely been some interesting cultural impact of the work that has seeped out into entertainment in general.' Weisman sees ARGs echoed in LARPing (live action role playing) and in room escape games. The specific form of the ARG, however, remains a more limited use case.
'Oh, I never say never,' he added, when I asked if we would see huge ARGs again. 'Because the world moves in cycles. I do think that there's an opportunity to reinvent them in a more modern context.' But the difficulty remains that ARGs started, accidentally, as marketing, and as part of the marketing budget they remain – though current ARG developers describe them as storytelling still. Weisman said at 42 Entertainment they worked hard at, but never quite cracked, how to monetise an ARG in itself, freeing them from being marketing altogether.
'The reason that's important is because if indeed they themselves are a revenue source then there's a business case for why to keep making them, and how to learn how to make them better,' explained Weisman. 'Because they've been kind of stuck in the marketing camp that means that you're having to see them in to market another product, and marketing and advertising has been in constant upheaval for the last couple of decades.' In short: brands are less willing to experiment on the scale needed to try something that new again.
'All that means is: it will happen. I just don't know when and by who,' Weisman said, laughing.
You had to be there. Maybe we will again.