15 Questions to David Varela


This time we welcome David Varela to our 15 Questions interview.

Most of you will suspect now, that he will give us some insights of the work behind the curtain of Perplex City, like Andrea did in our previous interview. Others already know that he sometimes walks over the Playstation Home Plaza just to meet with the players of Xi.

What other little secrets will he share with us by answering our questions?


01. About when and how did you get in touch with ARGs

It started back in 2005. I saw an ad in The Guardian newspaper written entirely in code. Unscrambled, it was a call for all kinds of creative people – writers, designers, programmers, directors – for Project Syzygy, which later became known as Perplex City. There was a rather long recruitment process but, by the end of the year, I’d managed to get a job as an in-house writer. It went from there.


02. Did you take part in some ARGs as a player, too? In which?

It’s an oocupational hazard but I tend not to play many ARGs these days – and there weren’t all that many to take part in before I started. I wish I’d been part of the excitement that surrounded The Beast and I Love Bees and Majestic and those formative games that still have such an influence. I dip in and out when I can now, for fun as much as for research. I’m very proud of my Flynn Lives t-shirt .

But I’m just as intersted in transmedia experiences that you wouldn’t really categorise as ARGs. The role-playing games popularised by Games Workshop. The theatre work of Coney and Punchdrunk. Hide & Seek’s live games. I like to keep my horizons as broad as possible.


03. In which ARGs have you been Puppetmaster/BHTS and what was your job in those?

Perplex City was where I started, and my role changed a lot during the 18 months I was there. The ARG team was always multi-tasking, but I ended up writing, working on puzzle ideas, managaing and maintaining the Story So Far site, and producing most of the audio and video content. By the time we madeFrozen Indigo Angel – a crossover between Perplex City and BBC Radio 1’s Big weekend Festival – I was a very busy boy.

When Perplex City ended, I wrote a short ARG named Emergency SubNET to promote an animated TV show called Afterworld for Channel 4. Then I joinednDreams, where I was producer (aka puppetmaster) on Xi for Sony Playstation and now I’m writing and producing Lewis Hamilton: Secret Life.


04. Which ARG do you like best and why?

You never forget your first time, so my totally biassed answer is Perplex City. I think it was visually wonderful, fantastically inventive, and I had so much fun working on it. I still meet people who played it and remember it fondly and the whole community it brought together was amazing – not to mention the talented bunch of people who made the game.


05. Which was the funniest/nicest happening while doing/playing an ARG?

Sometimes I have to remind myself that I actually get paid to do what I’m doing. When we were recording the audio of Monica Grand’s murder in Perplex City, we were crammed into a bathroom smashing a melon with a hammer. That was crazy enough, but later some of the players reported having nightmares after listening to the recording, which is very satisfying for a writer. It means you’ve made a connection.

Maybe this is a worrying insight into my mind, but the death of another character, Anna Heath, has also stayed with me. As Andrea Philips mentioned in a previous 15 Questions, the players made hundreds of origami cranes in her memory, and I still keep one on my desk as a reminder of how these stories can affect people.

On the flip side, I had a great time going walkabout in PlayStation Home using the avatar of one of the in-game characters and just chatting with players at the end of Xi. They were so happy to see him. I love having the chance to interact with players close-up like that and see how they respond.


06. Are there any memories to happenings that you wanted to forget about?

Things don’t always go to plan, and at the time, it can be extremely stressful. But I never want to forget them. The fact is that, no matter how bad things have got, I’ve always been lucky enough to find a way round each obstacle – and that gives me a sense of belief whenever the next obstacle crops up. There’s always a way round.


07. How do you explain ARGs to your family / friends / relatives and how do they react?

My brother is quite tech savvy so he gets it, but my parents are still pretty mystified. They’re waiting for me to get a proper job.


08. Which 3 things does an ARG really need to have, to be a good ARG in your opinion?

1. Interactivity – a sense that the characters are listening, at least, and will respond to you. The more immediate that is the better.

2. Story/character – they say that ‘story is character’, so I think I can sneak in two things at once here. People need to make an emotional connection with your main characters, so showing that they have foibles and flaws and don’t always do the smart thing is very important.

3. Fun – despite what some people believe, this is a game. Even if you’re dealing with the most disturbing subject matter, a good ARG still needs to be entertaining and enjoyable.


09. Do you have a favourite character from an ARG?

My personal bias is showing again, but I’ll always have a soft spot for Caine in Perplex City because I wrote his blog and he was a huge amount of fun: a hard-drinking thrash metal mathemetician whose laid back demeanour hid a cold-blooded disregard for human life. Something for everyone there.


10. What are you currently working on? (if you may tell us/are allowed to tell us 😉 )

Lewis Hamilton: Secret Life, which lets you into the secret adventures of Formula 1 driver Lewis Hamilton. In between races, he recovers stolen works of art from around the world. It’s like Ocean’s 11, but instead of 11 people, Lewis has thousands of players in his crew, helping him plan and pull off each heist. It’s all free to play and it’s running in nine languages simultaneously.

The second episode is about to kick off, so go to www.SecretLewis.com if you’d like to join in the fun.


11. Which puzzle from past ARGs do you like best/was real fun? Can you tell us why?

Again, it’s an event Andrea mentioned when she did 15 Questions: a ‘live text adventure’ that four of us wrote for Perplex City. It was essentially an elaborate chat program, inviting players to play with the artificial intelligence (that was us) in a classic 1980s style text adventure. We prepared a few set pieces in advance, but most of it was written spontaneously in reaction to the players’ interactions. It was improv for writers. And it’s probably as close as I’ll ever get to jamming with a band in front of a crowd. I loved every minute.


12. Do you have something like a „phrase“/“objective“ which you follow while organizing and running an ARG?

Right now, the one phrase that keeps coming up in our studio is “Don’t f*** it up.” Things are going well, so we want to keep it going. That’s got to be a good sign. 


13. Do you remember a situation, in which you wanted to give up anything? What happened?

On Xi, we planned a giant anagram puzzle which involved booking billboard space in eight European cities simultaneously – an expensive and tricky task to schedule. It was one of the first puzzles in the game and I was very keen to make it happen, to set the tone for the rest of the ARG. But our launch date kept moving and it became a huge risk for us. I was really torn, and we seriously considered dropping the puzzle and quickly writing something simpler instead. But we managed to organise it in the end and it was definitely worth it. We got some great press and the players loved it.


14. Was there something like a favourite item from an ARG that you didn’t want to give away, but you had to, because the IG-Character had to?

I love swag. Any physical object that comes from an ARG gains a very special value – it’s not just a souvenir, it’s a trophy. There are some very ordinary objects that I’ve found it hard to let go of, but the Receda Cube from Perplex City is a pretty amazing object which I’d love to have on my mantelpiece. Mind you, the reward for its safe return was £100,000. I’m glad that wasn’t my money.  That must have been painful to hand over, even if it was a joyous occasion.


15. How do you see the future of ARGs?

I’m looking forward to ARGs reaching out into a wider variety of genres. The audience for ARGs is expanding, so the range of stories being told in ARGs will expand: different tales for different parts of the audience. Right now, people tend to talk about ‘the ARG community’ as a single group, but there’s already much more diversity than that label would suggest. And that means more interesting games for all of us, as both makers and players.


David, thank’s a lot for taking the time to answer our 15 questions. We hope to see a lot more great ARGs designed by you in the future and we are looking forward for the upcoming episode of Secret Lewis.

15 Questions to Andrea Phillips

Some of you already know Andrea Phillips as a puppetmaster from ARGs like Perplex City or the 2012 Experience. Others know her, because she is currently in lead of the Special Interest Group „Alternate Reality Games“ of the International Game Developers Association.

And if you want to get to know her better, than you’ll have to read our 15 questions interview with her:

01. About when and how did you get in touch with ARGs?

Back in April of 2001, my best friend sent me a link to the Anti-Robot Militia website. We spent the afternoon chasing down links and wondering what the heck was going on. This was a part of the Beast, of course, so before long I was a Cloudmaker. Not long after that I was a Cloudmakers moderator, too.

02. Did you take part in some ARGs as a player, too? In which?

Of course the Beast. After that, I burned out for a while; it was an intense thing, to do Trail updates and manage editorials and stay on top of the community. I try to follow games – ilovebeesArt of the H3istEldritch ErrorsWhy So Serious, and so on. But I’m definitely a lurker and not a solver. It’s hard for me to engage with a game in the same way anymore, since I’ve become a creator. The games in the last couple of years that have kept me watching through to the end were Eagle Eye Freefall and Must Love Robots. And that’s because they made it easy to do in a low-commitment way.

03. In which ARGs have you been Puppetmaster/BHTS and what was your job in those?

I was involved in Perplex City, of course, doing a little bit of everything: so much writing, but also puzzle design, nagging other writers for posts and other production work. It was an amazing environment to work on, because you could find an opportunity to try doing just about anything. The other big projects I’ve done have been Routes for Channel 4 Education. I was the interaction design lead on that, which meant I defined the structure of the experience, the challenges, and the minigames. And for the 2012 Experience, I was the game designer and lead writer for the ARG. (Though a lot of great content already existed for 2012 when I came on board, and I’d hate to steal credit for it!) I’ve done snippets of work for other experiences, too, but you probably don’t really want a complete rundown of my resume!

04. Which ARG do you like best and why?

Must Love Robots is my favorite right now, because it was so honest and sweet. It was also brilliantly designed to be easy to follow, even if you didn’t have the time to be a very serious player. I expect amazing things from those guys.

05. Which was the funniest/nicest happening while doing/playing an ARG?

In Perplex City, when the character of Anna Heath was murdered, the players sent in 333 paper cranes to the Mind Candy office out of mourning. I was really touched by that. I’d written for the character of Anna Heath, and I had been concerned that the players hadn’t really connected with her. I was wrong!

06. Are there any memories to happenings that you wanted to forget about?

No, nothing. If you forget something, that means you can’t learn from it. There have definitely been painful moments in my career, but that’s the only way to get better. If you’re not ever failing, you aren’t taking enough risks.

07. How do you explain ARGs to your family / friends / relatives and how do they react?

It’s been nine years now, and I still haven’t found a great way of describing it! I think with ‘transmedia’ I’ve finally hit on a way, though: “It’s telling a story in a lot of different places at the same time, like it’s something that’s really happening, and you can watch it and maybe help shape how everything turns out.”

08. Which 3 things does an ARG really need to have, to be a good ARG in your opinion?

A great ARG needs a great story, of course. That’s what makes it interesting. It also needs a great structure – that affects whether people can follow along casually, how easy it is to play and share, how people can find their way into the experience and know what’s happening, and so on. Without a great structure, it doesn’t matter how great your story is, because nobody will be able to work out what it is or where it’s going. And it needs total commitment from the development team. They need to be completely devoted to working together, planning, reacting to unforeseen events, and keeping the show going.

09. Do you have a favourite character from an ARG?

I’m terrible at picking favorites of anything. I love half the cast of the Beast, still – Mephisto and Mike Royal, in particular. And I really, really love O11iver fromMust Love Robots. Of course the Joker is amazing. And writing Charlie Frost was tons of fun.

10. What are you currently working on? (if you may tell us/are allowed to tell us 😉 )

Pshaw. You know better than to ask that, don’t you? ^_^

11. Which puzzle from past ARGs do you like best/was real fun? Can you tell us why?

I’ve already mentioned Mike Royal – that was an amazing experience, calling a phone number and getting a real guy on the other end of the line. It was in the Beast, and you had to persuade Mike to help save a kidnapped boy. We’d never even heard of anything like that before, and it was electrifying. I think the most fun puzzle from my own projects were the live text adventures from Perplex City. They were incredibly fun to write, and I think the players had a great time with it, too. I’d love to do something like that again one day.

12. Do you have something like a „phrase“/“objective“ which you follow while organizing and running an ARG?

Balance, balance, game balance. There’s a tension between accessibility and depth you have to manage. You have a finite amount of time and money to spend, right? When you make a really deep experience, a lot of that material isn’t going to be available to the casual player. So my objective is to find that balance between making an experience that isn’t an iceberg, with 90% of the volume below the surface where the casual player will never see it… versus making an experience that goes no deeper than what meets the eye, and will be completely unrewarding to the player who is willing to dig a little deeper. The right balance isn’t the same for every game, either.

13. Do you remember a situation, in which you wanted to give up anything? What happened?

I’m still not sure why, but Routes was an incredibly difficult project for me, from start to finish. On the eve of launch, I was absolutely convinced it was the worst thing I had ever done, everyone who played it would hate it and hate me personally, and I would never work again. It was absolutely terrifying. By now, though, Routes has been nominated for a whole slew of awards and even taken a few home. Just goes to show you that the creator isn’t always the best judge of a work, eh?

14. Was there something like a favourite item from an ARG that you didn’t want to give away, but you had to, because the IG-Character had to?

I would’ve loved to get my hands on those escape craft tickets we auctioned off in 2012. And I’m still incredibly sad that I’m missing two cards from thePerplex City Season 1 set, and I’ve never seen any of the Season 2 cards in person, nor do I have a key.

15. How do you see the future of ARGs?

I see the ARG dissolving into the bigger thing, transmedia. Before long, we won’t know where the edges are anymore. A lot of transmedia experiences will continue to pick and choose ARG tools to tell their stories, and I think a lot of new things will spring into existence that are phenomenal. Will those things be ARGs? Maybe they will be, and maybe they won’t, but at the end of the day I don’t think it matters. A rose by any other name would smell as sweet; I’m obsessed with this bigger thing, of finding the shapes that a story can take in an online world. Call it whatever you like, just don’t stop me from creating!

Andrea, thank’s a lot for taking the time to answer our 15 questions. We hope to see a lot more great ARGs designed by you in the future.

On her blog „Deus Ex Machinatio“ she writes about her projects and findings on the web.

15 Questions to Ken Eklund

It’s time again for a 15-Questions-Interview.

This time we asked Ken Eklund to answer our questions. He is well known for his work on World Without Oil and Ruby’s Bequest and some other ARGs of course. Especially with these two he and the other puppetmasters invented a new type of Alternate Reality Game called Serious ARGs. These kind of ARGs try to concern on real world problems and topics like running out of oil and they try to find solutions to those problems.

You can find some of his latest projects at his website, which goes by the name Writerguy.com.


1) About when and how did you get in touch with ARGs?
It was in early 2005, I think. I was working with a friend to develop this idea we had for this game where the story was scattered all around the Internet, as a benefit for the San Francisco Library. I was surfing the Internet that morning and stumbled upon I LOVE BEES. I called up my friend and said, “This idea has a name! It’s an alternate reality game.”

2) Did you take part in some ARGs as a player, too? Which?

Too many to list. THE LOST RING, SUPERSTRUCT, LAST CALL POKER, JAMIE KANE, TRACES OF HOPE are the ones that spring to mind… Followed many others: GHOSTS OF A CHANCE, for example, which I had a part in creating.

3) In which ARGs have you been Puppetmaster/BHTS and what was your job in those?

Two puppetmastering gigs so far: RUBY’S BEQUEST and WORLD WITHOUT OIL. In both cases I designed and ran the game – uberpuppetmeister, if you will. I have also had a Behind The Curtain role helping develop game concepts, for GHOSTS OF A CHANCE for example, and sharing game information for serious ARGs such as CORAL CROSS.

4) Which ARG do you like best and why?
WORLD WITHOUT OIL, definitely. It was a groundbreaking serious ARG, a true game for change. As the designer, it was simply thrilling to see people engage with it as I hoped and dreamed they would, and then beyond that in ways I never really expected.

It was also thrilling because the game continually surprised me, at every level. Every waking hour while it was going on, there was some clever or honest or astonishing thing created by a player, or by one of our gamemasters (who operated very autonomously), or some astute observation about the game appeared in the press and blogosphere. When articles about the game appeared in Le Monde and Der Spiegel, that was a high point, certainly.

5) Which was the funniest/nicest happening while doing/playing an ARG?
That’s a hard question, because funny and nice things happen all the time in ARGs. Their “pronoia” (opposite of paranoia) is one of the coolest aspects to them.

My most recent game, RUBY’S BEQUEST, was an ARG that explored caring, so it’s pretty much filled with caring moments front to back, some of them quite amazing and cathartic. Institute For The Future, my client, is doing follow-up surveys right now, and uncovering some marvelous player stories. For some of the players, RUBY’S BEQUEST was the best game they had ever experienced, because it was about something real.

A funny moment? One came in RUBY’S BEQUEST when a player asked us for a mailing address – she wanted to send a card to one of our characters – except that all our characters live in the entirely fictitious town of Deepwell USA! Too bad we couldn’t arrange to get all mail to “Deepwell USA” routed to us, as Santa Claus has done with mail to the North Pole.

6) Are there any memories to happenings that you wanted to forget about?
Certainly. Most of them I HAVE forgotten about. One I do remember had to do with a player that got behind the curtain early on in WORLD WITHOUT OIL. And we kinda freaked out. In retrospect I think the player got there pretty innocently and thus we really overreacted. So we ended up alienating a good player for no good reason and I still feel sorry about that. I’ve since learned to trust my players.

7) How do you explain ARGs to your family / friends / relatives and how do they react?
I think ARGs are easier to play than they are to define. I am lucky in that the kind of ARGs I do, massively collaborative ones like WORLD WITHOUT OIL, are relatively easy to explain. “You run across this website that believes the next oil crisis has begun. It shows you how the price of oil is skyrocketing and shortages are beginning. It wants to know how these developments have impacted your life and what you personally are doing to cope.” That’s really all that most people need to get started.

If necessary, you can continue: “It’s collecting all the citizen reports and linking to them. So you can click on what other people are saying; you find a gal in Toronto Canada, for example, talking about hoarding and a guy in Bristol UK talking about a fistfight that broke out in the petrol queue. And that leads you to imagine what actually would be happening on your street and in your life if a global oil crisis really had started. And you write it up or phone it in or maybe make a video, and then WORLD WITHOUT OIL links to it too.”

The part that’s hard to explain, though, is that these massively collaborative games are more than just a collection of stories, in the same way that I LOVE BEES was more than just a science fiction story. The way in which you help assemble it heightens the experience. In WORLD WITHOUT OIL the citizen stories wove together and built on each other in a really remarkable way.

How do people react? Usually there are these stages: first, hunh? Then, what?? Then, tell me more. Then, does that mean that….??? And finally, fascination.

8) Which 3 things does an ARG really need to have, to be a good ARG in your opinion?
The three things that to me make an ARG work: it has to have an alternate reality, there has to be gameplay, and it has to be fun. You probably are saying, “Well, duh!” but the key here is defining what these terms actually mean.

First: the alternate reality. I define “alternate reality” in this context as a fictive scenario that’s got plausibility and internal coherence. “Plausibility” is hard to explain exactly; it has to do with being unflinchingly honest with the concept. Take space aliens as an example: almost all the space aliens we see in modern entertainment are constructed to be entertaining, not honest attempts to imagine what aliens might actually be like. Similarly, “internal coherence” is being honest and real with your story and characters and using that honesty to make the experience richer. Blade Runner and Children of Men are examples of movies with internal coherence. ARGs lose internal coherence when the puzzles are clearly gamemaster constructs, for example.

The second thing an ARG must have: gameplay. I focus here on the verb “play” rather than the noun “game”: that is, are you the player playing at something? How much room is there for you to figure out your own way to achieve the game goal, the way you can in chess or basketball? ARGs rate low in gameplay, in my book, if players follow a rote path to unlock a bit of canned story.

The third thing an ARG must have: it must be fun. “Fun” to me goes beyond the usual experience of a pleasant pastime or diversion – it must have true life value. So winning 10 levels in BEJEWELLED or finding a dead drop is fun but not as much fun as forming intense friendships in your WoW guild, or gaining a real sense of the power of collective intelligence in I LOVE BEES, or getting your worldview challenged in WORLD WITHOUT OIL. Many ARGs score well in this area: people remember them vividly years later, still have friendships with fellow players, are still applying life skills they never knew they had until the game called them forth, still look back on their accomplishments with pride, and so on.

For myself ARGs must have a fourth thing: relevance. They must put you the player in touch with something that is actually meaningful to you and to the society you’re part of. I guess another way to say this is they should aspire to be something like art.

9) Do you have a favourite character from an ARG?
Oh yes: Gracesmom, a young single mother in New Hampshire, brilliantly played by Gupfee, aka Marie Lamb, in WORLD WITHOUT OIL. Marie says that she was channeling people she knows in real life, and Gracesmom certainly had that well-imagined authenticity, but mostly, the way that Marie played her, she was just someone you wanted to be with. As a young single mom, Gracesmom was vulnerable to the worst that the oil shock had to offer, and as the wolves of deprivation came sniffing around her door, her brave and resourceful response to her vulnerabilities brought out the best in our players.

10) What are you currently working on? (if you may tell us/are allowed to tell us 😉 )
WORLD WITHOUT OIL really opened the door for games that address serious real-world issues. So I have people coming to me with fascinating ideas and challenges: what about a game about climate change? Water crisis? Food production? Immigration problems? Can a game help people refine their personal mythologies about hate and forgiveness? About immigrants and citizenship? About health and self-esteem? About freedom? About creativity and community? This is just so unbelievably cool, I can hardly stand it sometimes. RUBY’S BEQUEST is the first of these games to get funded, but others are underway.

I’m getting pings from corporations too along these same lines. There seems to be movement toward “serious promotions”  – entertainment ARGs that also engage with civic issues. For example: a fun and funny ARG features a fuel-efficient car – AND a public dialog about responsible consumption. Or inquiries about how a brand can mobilize its fans to lead in a socially relevant cause such as democracy advocacy or rainforest preservation.

In between these conversations, I’m pursuing interests of my own. I’d really like to do a game for teachers; I’m in some great dialogs with museums; I’m in some fascinating dialogs with theater people and film people. All of us see increased interactivity and participation as an imperative and social networking as a tremendous opportunity. Jane McGonigal speaks eloquently these days about how “happiness engineers” need to keep connecting games with real-world issues, and that’s just what I’m doing every day.

11) Which puzzle from past ARGs do you like best/was real fun? Can you tell us why?
JAMIE KANE had a very neat puzzle where you had gained remote access to a villain’s computer and thus could order it to upload a secret file to your allies’ server. The only problem was, the villain was actively using the computer at the time. So you had to watch the computer’s webcam stream and select a moment when the villain would be distracted long enough for you to upload the file – if she saw the upload happen and canceled it everything would be ruined.

So here I am, watching a completely boring vid of a woman reading her email, petting her cat and sipping her tea – with my finger poised over the INITIATE DOWNLOAD button and sweating bullets the whole time! It was a fabulous example of how a puzzle can be entirely in-game and plausible, and gain drama by doing so.

12) Do you have something like a „phrase“/“objective“ which you follow while organizing and running an ARG?
Not really. Each one is pretty much built from the ground up with a certain audience, gameplay and goal in mind. I do have certain rules of thumb: “What really WOULD happen?” “What WOULD the character do?” – if the ARG fiction were true. And: “That player has a great idea. How can we embrace it?”

13) Do you remember a situation in which you wanted to give up on anything? What happened?
This situation doesn’t happen in crowd-sourced ARGs. In WORLD WITHOUT OIL and RUBY’S BEQUEST, the players really drove the story. So you never reach a point where the players are diverging from the story – they’re creating it!

14) Was there something like a favourite item from an ARG that you didn’t want to give away, but you had to, because the IG-Character had to?

Nothing material. But there were moments all during WORLD WITHOUT OIL when it was tempting to Hollywoodize the story, to make it more like a dramatic movie. But WORLD WITHOUT OIL was not a movie and our characters were not driving the story – the players were. The characters’ job was to be authentic, to help the players be authentic too. So every day we passed up on “dramatic” storylines in favor of authentic ones, and thank heavens we did.

15) How do you see the future of ARGs?
Regarding commercial ARGs, would you as a consumer rather see a company spend a million dollars developing a Super Bowl ad or a great ARG? As more and more people prefer ARGs, more and more of them are going to be made.

The ARG future that I’m very connected to, and excited about, is how ARGs and ARG-style collaborative play are moving into other areas – areas such as culture and civics and politics and science and education and health and economies and ecology. ARGs can revolutionize how people experience these issues and also how they resolve them. We have this fabulous resource in that we have so many people with good ideas and good energy to apply them, and I see ARGs as the perfect way to get people to connect and create, to express those ideas and that energy in positive, meaningful ways. And to have a blast doing it!

Thank you very much for taking the time and answer our 15 Questions, Ken. We are curious about your next ARG-projects.


15 Questions to Steve Peters

A new year has begun and it is time for another 15 Questions interview.

Have you ever taken part as a player in one of the big American Alternate Reality Games? Then you will know his name already. Are you often online at the unforums? then you will know our interview-partner, too.  It is Steve Peters, who also goes by the name of vpisteve on the unforums.

He was founder of ARGN and build up the first news and information hub for Alternate Realit Games in the US. Then he worked for 42 Entertainment and brought some really interesting ARGs to us like The Dark Knight, but we don’t want to spoil you any more at this part of the interview. Go on and read for your own…

1) About when and how did you get in touch with ARGs?

Hmm, for that you have to go back to the wild days of slow dialup internet connections and this new thing called Flash that took forever to load! I was watching CNET on TV in 2001, when they mentioned this cool internet mystery having to do with the upcoming Steven Spielberg film AI: Artificial Intelligence (the game that became known as The Beast). They mentioned cloudmakers.org, and I had my laptop open, so I went to the website, started reading the player guide they had set up there, and was instantly fascinated! Spent that first night going through all the websites, really getting immersed in the world. It was all pretty new and amazing and awesome.

I followed the events, even was the first to solve a puzzle (which was very fun), but the game really hooked me in one day when I was just leaving my office headed to lunch. As I was getting in my car, my mobile phone rang. It was a character from the game! I instantly forgot about lunch, ran back into my office, fired up my computer and went to see what new things had updated in the game. It was then I knew that this was the future of entertainment! 🙂


2) Did you take part in some ARGs as a player, too? Which?

Absolutely! After initially playing The Beast, I played the first (mostly) grassroots games to follow: LockjawPlexataSearch4E, and Majestic. In fact, I was a moderator for Lockjaw, along with Sean Stacey (Spacebass), and after the game was over, we together launched the first dedicated player forums at what was then my company site. After a month or so, I moved them to ARGN where they lived and grew for a while until Sean founded Unfiction. Little did we know at the time how things would grow in the subsequent years!

And then of course, there came I Love Bees. It’s kind of hard to ignore a game that begins by sending a jar of honey to your house! I Love Bees became a true phenomenon, and it was another of those special times when everything seemed to come together in a perfect way.

I think the last game I really played seriously was Art of the Heist. So much cool new stuff they did! I even got to stalk a character on the floor of the E3 show. Fun times.

Others I played to a lesser extent but still enjoyed were (in no particular order, and surely forgetting something) Perplex CitySarah Connor ChroniclesWorld Without OilThis is My MilwaukeeRegenesisExocog. I’ve collected lots of cool swag from a lot of these games too, over the years. 🙂


3) In which ARGs have you been Puppetmaster/BHTS and what was your job in those?

The first game I worked on was Metacortechs. The team that did Lockjaw approached Sean and me wanting us to join them in making another ARG, and I had a little inside info that the upcoming Matrix sequels weren’t going to be doing one, so we decided to do our own. That was in 2003. The trailhead site is even still there, pretty much as it was, at www.metacortechs.com. I never had the heart to take it down.  We all shared designing/writing tasks in that game.

After that, I did some BTW work on Chasing the Wish, and then was hired by 42 Entertainment in 2005 as a designer/community lead. Over the next 3 years I did numerous great projects with them:

Last Call Poker: Designer (2005)
Dead Man’s Tale: Lead Designer (2006)
The Vanishing Point: Designer (2007)
HiveMind Corporation: Lead Designer (2007)
Year Zero: Designer, Community Architect (2007)
Why So Serious: Lead Designer (2008)
Project Abraham: Experience Design Director (2008)
Stop the International (Phase I): uncredited


4) Which ARG do you like best and why?

That’s a really tough, tough question, after so many during the years, but I’ve actually thought about that quite a bit. While I loved The Beast, and it was really the game that “started it all,” I really have to go with Lockjaw. Why? Well, I always compared the two games (The Beast/Lockjaw) with two kinds of cruise ships: The big Carnivale ships vs. the smaller more intimate sailing cruises. While The Beast was huge and amazing and majestic (pun!), I liked the intimacy ofLockjaw’s smaller player base. It was definitely less intimidating, and you got to know almost everybody! Lockjaw did a great job of re-capturing that magic, somehow, and had a very compelling, fun story that really drew you in. It’s weird, I really feel a very specific emotion when thinking back on those times. I guess that’s what I always hope players of my games will experience as well.


5) Which was the funniest/nicest happening while doing/playing an ARG?

Last Call Poker surprised us with the truly meaningful experiences players had while playing. As part of the game, we gave players the opportunity to go to any local cemetery to perform any one of numerous “missions” that could be played out anywhere. Things like finding a neglected grave to spruce up, looking for someone with your birthday, things like that. They got extra poker chips to play with if they did these things, heh.

What was cool were the truly touching emails we would get from players who sent stuff in describing the experiences they’d had. Folks would tell how they’d been particularly touched by something, or had gone with their parents or their children, which resulted in great moments for them. They came away appreciating their lives, their family, and even the lives of others who they didn’t know. It was really inspiring and humbling to read. That’s when we knew we had stumbled into a place where this game we did was actually, tangibly affecting peoples’ lives in positive ways.


6) Are there any memories to happenings that you wanted to forget about?

I guess the most unnerving moment came during Metacortechs. You see, there are dangers when you do a game revolving around computer hackers. Real computer hackers think it’s a great opportunity to show what they can do, heheh. We all had our personal computers being constantly probed by unknown people trying to sniff their way in. Ultimately, though, someone succeeded in using an exploit to get into the root of our server. A lot of our game was pretty much laid bare, and they really could’ve done whatever they wanted at that point. Luckily, we got everything shut down and finally patched, but man, it was a terrible day!


7) How do you explain ARGs to your family / friends / relatives and how do they react?

Well, I usually just say “I, um, do Alternate Reality Games. They’re kind of hard to explain, so just look them up on Wikipedia!” OK, seriously……I build cool entertainment experiences that are broken up into puzzle pieces and spread all over the world on the internet, phones, emails, real locations, etc. Your life is the platform. Have you ever seen the film The Game, or Amélie? Sort of like that, except real. Oh, and I usually mention the Joker and cakes somewhere along the way.

Their usual reaction is stunned silence, but every once in a while someone responds, “Oh….sort of like I Love Bees?”


8) Which 3 things does an ARG really need to have, to be a good ARG in your opinion?

1: A great story
2: A great story
3: No mimes


9) Do you have a favourite character from an ARG?

Can I say the Joker? Is that cheating? Well really, he was just about the perfect character for an ARG. He had total freedom to really do whatever he wanted, on either side of the 4th wall. And despite being an anarchist/murderer/psychopath, you liked him and even  rooted for him. You actually wanted to be one of his henchmen, and make him happy, to do what he said. Plus you didn’t even really care if he played mind games with you or betrayed you. He could get away with anything. It’s amazing. Plus, I hear he’s a really good bowler.


10) What are you currently working on? (if you may tell us/are allowed to tell us 😉 )

Well, the big difference for me now is that I’m no longer with 42, but I’m now doing a few freelance projects for various developers. Probably all I can say is that they’re for stuff like upcoming films, TV show, etc. In addition, I’m starting up a shop (No Mimes Media) to do my own stuff, so we’ll see where that goes.


11) Which puzzle from past ARGs do you like best/was real fun? Can you tell us why?

I really liked the meta puzzle we did for The Vanishing Point. This was a large puzzle trail that lived outside the actual sweepstakes game itself, where players had to solve and put together clues over a 4-week period of time in order to discover the identity of Loki, the fictional puzzle master behind the Vanishing Point game.  Loki was a fake employee at Microsoft, and she even had her own office, email and voicemail accounts there. Players had to track her down, watch videos for subtle clues, solve very tough puzzles that she had hidden for them to find. There was even a physical puzzle built into her office at Microsoft for those who found it. In the end, players realized that Loki was actually four identical quadruplets, which explained why she was such an over-achiever!

It was fun, because she was really challenging the puzzle elite, throwing down a gauntlet of sometimes really tough puzzles, and we didn’t have to worry about the classic “why would this character put a puzzle here” dilemma. The puzzles were fun, I think, and ultimately the person who solved it had their name immortalized on an AMD chip that was used in an entire production run. The best part, she included the names of the two online communities who helped her:Neowin and Unfiction. 🙂


12) Do you have something like a „phrase“/“objective“ which you follow while organizing and running an ARG?

I have a few:

  1. Is it fun?” Anybody can make a tough puzzle, or a clever experience. But the thing to keep asking yourself every day is, “Is this fun for the player?” If it’s not, fix it or throw it out.
  2. Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.” Self-explanatory.
  3. Players can’t break things, only design can make things that are broken.” In other words, don’t blame the players for doing something you didn’t anticipate, or being dumb, or “playing it wrong.” If something’s broken, it’s because you didn’t take something into account, so step back, take a breath and figure out a way to fix it.
  4. See how it plays out before you react.” Don’t make knee-jerk decisions when your game is live. Give things a little time. Players are still having fun, can’t see the bedlam going on behind the scenes, and 9 times out of 10 the problem will fix itself.
  5. Jazz, not chess.” Remember, your not in competition with your players, you’re more like playing Dueling Banjos with them. Together you are shaping the experience, and it just may go in a different direction than either of you anticipate.


13) Do you remember a situation, in which you wanted to give up anything? What happened?

Do you mean like give up a hint to something that wasn’t being solved. Or just give away a secret? In either case, no. I just don’t understand all these people who assume that we have shills on community forums posting hints or something. That just makes absolutely no sense to me. If I were to hand out an answer to someone, I’m essentially robbing somebody else of the thrill of solving it themselves.

It’d be like working really hard to throw someone a surprise birthday party, getting everybody there, the place decorated and all the work that went into it, and then as you lead the person to their apartment door you tell them “Hey! I’m throwing you a surprise party on the other side of this door!” I mean, why’d you go to all that work just to ruin the surprise for them??

This goes back to my point above about not reacting too quickly. Give players time, they’ll usually work it out. If, however, what you’ve built is broken, that’ll become apparent too. Then, just work on a way to fix it within the context of the experience. There’s always a way to do that, somehow. At least, so far. 🙂


14) Was there something like a favourite item from an ARG that you didn’t want to give away, but you had to, because the IG-Character had to?

Bowling balls. Cool, purple and green swirly bowling balls. I surprisingly got very attached to them. I ended up buying one for myself, which is good because they don’t make them any more.


15) How do you see the future of ARGs?

I’m always thinking about this, and the biggest problem is, I can’t ever give specifics because not only don’t I know, but I wouldn’t want to give anything away even if I did!

I still look at where ARGs are today as like being at Kitty Hawk, watching the Wright Brothers launch the first flight. Or more accurately, like early film or TV as the genre struggled to find its most effective narrative form. I mean, it took quite a while before what we consider normal editing or a three-camera shoot to become what it is today. People had to experiment; the technology was changing really quickly.

It’s the same with ARGs today. What worked even 6 months ago just might not work now. It’s still changing and growing and morphing. But one thing I know for sure: What we see now are the beginnings of The Future Of Entertainment. I’m not talking about TV shows being put on line. I mean a form of entertainment that you can experience from every direction in your life, truly platformless, that you can touch and immerse yourself in like never before. And you’ll be able to take part by yourself, or with friends, and even re-experience it if you want!

But it’s tough to see the specifics of what may come, just as the Wright Brothers could never conceive of carbon fiber wings, on-board WIFI and free drinks.

OK, I’ll give up one specific: Whatever it is, it will involve networked appliances and clues burned onto toast!


Steve, thank’s a lot for taking the time to answer our 15 questions. We hope to see a lot more great ARGs designed by you in the future.