ARC – Alternate Reality Campaign


Alternate reality campaign Venn’s diagram

Welcome back, gamers and players

today’s topic is something growing bigger, already known (from mid 2000 al least) but not used at its best… just like gamification.  I’m talking about Alternate Reality Campaign, “ARC” from now on.

The standard term will probably be “Alternate Reality Game”, but it implies that there is a game underneath… something that in fact is true only by accident, because it is a standard: an alternate reality may be created also without a dedicated game, so I prefer the word “campaign”.

Note also that the figure opening the post is not accurate (at least, from my point of view) because it doesn’t serves at anything at all when you have to create and ARC. The 3 pools: Story, Gameplay and Community may be better described using the Caillois driver composition to create a more descriptive and functional structure. But start from the beginning.

An Alternate Reality Campaign is a complex structure made up by marketing/gamification activities, with the purpose (usually) to become “viral”. It relies on something we could call “blended reality representation”. From many point of view, it’s similar to the most modern and innovative Live Role Playing Games (note: see disambiguation below about Larp – at the end of the post).

As usually, for a brief background knowledge, Wikipedia page on Alternate Reality Game is enough to get an overview. I don’t agreed with some point stated here, but anyway it’s a good introductory reading.

My post today want to exploit best practises and practical hints to program and create your own Arc, or to decide if this is the campaign you need for your business. It’s a very broad and rich topic, so the post today will be longer than usual (and this is the reason because it has required me so long to write it down).

It’s important to notice that I’m not interested in describing all the task an ARC would require. This post will suggest modus operandi and strategies related to gamification with the purpose of empowering an ARC or designing a new one, focusing on the interactive activities (aka game) you want to include. An ARC, anyway, requires a lot more: copywriting, web activities, creative design and so on… an ARC is something you can’t achieve without a good teamwork and a full array of expertise.

First Step

Creating an Arc is a complex activity because, apart from gamification mechanism you have to include to engage players, it also requires a lot of understanding in marketing, behaviorism, sociology and mass communication. It’s more complex than a standard gamification solutions, but consider that I take for granted some of the conclusion I wrote in my previous post (for example, about designing specific game for your purpose and not to recycle existing gamification).

The first big difference between ARC and gamification is the following:

  • participant in an ARC (at least in the first approach) are not “players”, but a generic “audience”. You have to engage them in the first place with the Arc while they don’t know anything about it at all. There are chances they aren’t interested, they perceive the campaign as a disturb or useless and that they simply don’t listen. So you have to make them become truly player (and you will be able to apply gamification tools). In other words, the first impression upon an ARC follows rules of marketing, rather than gaming.

ARC’s how to

The basic knowledge to build a successful and engaging ARC are quite similar to a standard gamification solution. Anyway, also if the tools you use are the same, your objectives are quite different, so be careful about the following points:

  • A specific Engagement Driver Composition – while in Gamification, according to Caillois theory of engagement, you can create different effect on audience using different driver, in an ARC you probably have to use more engagement driver than usual. The foundational corner-stone is obviously Mimesis: ARC, as the name suggest, take place in an alternate reality that the campaign brings up to life in our reality. So, the strongest component will always be Mimesis: campaign achievement, instruction for players, progress within the campaign always have to keep alive the suspension of disbelief.
    Anyway, that’s not enough (also if this task alone can prove itself quite difficult, see “storytelling” point below). ARC are mass campaign, so they work write well with cooperation, competition or a mix of this two options (called Agon as a whole driver): either way, you have to let people interact between them, or you miss at all the “viral” opportunities of an ARC. The other two engagement drivers can be used or not (we are referring to Alea and Ilinx), but anyway they should be less important than the two primary driver. We can give a simple and quantitative rules: an ARC should consist at least of 50% of Mimesis and 25% of Agon, with a shifting slide of 25% you can manage to best fit your needs. Also, check out “Multi-Games Approach” a few bullets below.
  • A well-balanced Progression Goal and Learning Curve – we stated that the first ARC approach is a marketing issue, and this would be instantly making you reconsider about the importance of a good learning curve and progression goal for an ARC. Obviously, it is a matter of fact that length of your campaign has to lead design processes: as a general rule, an ARC have to be without upper boundaries (no “final goal” to score) and follow a very narrow and strict timeline, to keep player engaged. But, above all, the first impact with an ARC should engage players quite immediately. Time is the essence here.
  • ARC is a Mass Market Product – gamification is often intended as science of consumer engagement. But our target audience can be very different, from a bunch of people in a working environment, to a national audience. ARC usually are in the ending edge of this array. The requirement and efforts needed to create a successful campaign are sustainable only for a wide market strategy. This audience has a feature that is common to many ARCs: isn’t segmented. As stated above, this means that you have to approach as a marketeers, considering your customer as generic audience, and not as players or people who have at least to deserve attention to the starting point or rule of the game. And this is, by the way, the reason because ARC uses mimesis: it’s a standard tool that belongs to any human being.
    Another general rule that follows, usually applicable to the “scavenger hunt” kind of ARC: the relationship between quality and accessibility. The simpler way to create an engaging ARC is to build some kind of scavenger hunt (see “Why so serious“). It’s a common game, easily applicable in very different environment, everyone knows how to play it, and it can be settled efficiently on any kind of time duration. Anyway, a good scavenger hunt is difficult to balance: easy clue means that the smartest players will easily find their way until the end (and they will spoiler to everyone else how to do it – as usually happens). harder clue may be disengaging for the majority of participant.
  • Multi-games approach – the time management, engagement driver composition and appropriate learning curve can be easily solved by this approach, that is somehow “standard” within the definition of ARC, also if there are possible ARC that uses a single game. The multi games approach gain advantage in engagement, because any different player may be involved with the campaign from a different starting point. HAving multiple games or activities also allows to let anyone choose the games he prefer, lowering the learning curve and balancing naturally the accessibility of the game (i.e. player will choose first the game he want to play, and only when fully engaged in the campaign will face those that he likes less).
    Anyway, an ARC can also consist of a single game (or a single kind of game). I will publish soon an example of how creating a single-game consistent ARC (you will find it in “All the Games” section).
  • Storytelling means a good story to tell – as pointed out above, an ARC needs to be constantly fed with new games, idea, update and so on. There is no way to keep such kind of progression without having something really interesting to say. So, keep in the best consideration what your ARC is about. If the story itself isn’t engaging or emotionally rich, there is no good planning that will guarantee success for your ARC. You always have to be very accurate in developing and interesting story, an alternate worlds full of details and the appropriate approach. Important Note: this do not means that your story have to be long, or to be exploited to players. Good ARC usually create a climax without telling too much… anyway, all your activities have to be coordinated. If you suggest that an evil overlord will take control of the world if the player doesn’t find out his minion around the world… well, this charismatic overlord has to act and react to player chooses as if he’s real. He needs personality, resources (fictional resources of course), ideal and maybe friend and connected organization. This kind of detailed back story is what you need to properly articulate your ARC.
  • Devils is in the Detail – A strong mystery and “real world” approach for creator is usually a standard for ARC. this is based on a principle called also “a whisper is sometimes louder than a shout“. Anyway, this kind of thinking can be used when you create a campaign for someone really interested in topic, or for an audience particularly fanatic (as often hardcore video gamers are). This is in fact similar to creating a engaging campaign. But and ARC could be more, could be tools to extend their consumer base by an innovative presentation of your product, and fragmenting too much information and references may be exciting for your stronger fans, but will be delusional for casual gamers. So do not exaggerate in mystery: try to create a composite level of experience where the first step is enough easy to be immediately bypassed by your usual audience while remain and engaging and challenging activities for casual audience. If the first step is made properly, than any player may play your ARC until he find that amusing: someone will collect all your hints and goals, someone else will stop before (and search for the solution on the Web) but anyone should obtain some kind of result for its efforts. This leads us to…
  • Trophy and Prizes: to have them or not to have them? I you recall briefly gamification history, the new gamification wave rises when the first internet-based motivational systems prove themself to work very good also without some kind of economic reward. With a material reward, gamification is nothing more than best practises adopted from a long time (like the sales incentive). So, suppose you are about to run a campaign like described above: players have to collect evidence and resources to stop an evil overlord from conquering the world. You have a disruptive idea: the best 2 (or 3, or 10, or whatever) players got a full holiday on an island where they can face the final step of the game trying to stop the evil doomsday device. You think of recording that,  to create a perfect mimetic campaign end totally depending of best player’s chooses. IT sounds goods, at first, but you have to reconsider that. Gamification isn’t a lottery. A wonderful first prize do not make the trick, because the game you are requesting the player to participate into is far more complex and time-consuming than buying a lottery ticket. You are not making business on selling something (a ticket) in order to give a prizes, but you are requesting engagement, hour of attention, dedication and willingly playing to everyone: maybe your game is more fair than a lottery (the best player wins, not the lucky one) but anyway if you choose to reward the best what you gain is a limited engagement: only those who are already interested in your campaign or those who like the game you propose will play (because it’s fun and, by the way, maybe they are actually the best). But what about casual gamers? What about those who play a game or two also if they don’t like it only because they are engaged in the backstory, or want to know more, or are waiting for another step they like the most?
    So, trophy and prizes are a must in any ARC, but they have to be small, consistent, frequent and rewarding. Some examples may be the following: exclusive artwork.
    A good system to take inspiration from is Kickstarter: not the platform itself, obviously, but the successful project and their reward segmentation is extremely useful to stay in touch with what people want the most (and, not irrelevant, KickStarter host a lot of creative projects, from game to comics, and this is usually one of the most promising ARC application).

Well, that’s it. The topic is far away from getting a full description, but I think this outlines the most interesting line of actions and also help avoiding the most frequent mistake. Another presentation by Yami (sorry, I don’t find her surname) could be found here.

Also, an old (2010 related) presentation and introduction to ARG may be found here. And, of course, do not forget to visit the ARGs Network homepage.

Finally, here also is some material: Pearltrees opn Alternate Reality Games

We’ll meet again in those pages around September (probably), but I have to figure out what of the next topics I want to write about will be more interesting (I’m actually working of the following: freemium and free to play advanced models, creativity in games, an evolved badge approach and the best 10 gamification application).

Anyway, have a nice holiday (if this applies)

Operative Addendum

Follows a machine-code required by the Agency to monitor dangerous contents.

—follow string code —


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* = Disambiguation Note: the reason why you don’t know what “Live Action Role Playing Games” really are, even if you think otherwise

There are a wide variety of hobby and activities that follows under this definition: “Larp”. Unfortunately, its varies a lot from country to country (also within the same country). A live action roleplaying game is a game settled in a fictional world were you act directly, following some kind of safety rule, and where you can act (almost) freely as in a tabletop pen and paper roleplaying game.

Unfortunately (especially in US), there is the broadly accepted convention that reduces Larp to: latex sword, sword and sorcery, funny costumes and hopeless nerd. See “Larpers” web series or “Knight of Badassdom” movie to understand what I mean. Well: you are wrong if you think that those are Larp. They are one kind of Larp. There are dozen (probably thousand) of different approach around the world, from “Monitor Celestra” to “Jeepform” to a wide subcultures of Larper that probably will never play a game as above.

We can monitor alternate reality campaign as they are Live Role Playing Game, where the playing world is demi-finctional, a little different from the actual one. And, to play, you can also be yourself, and do not have to create or register a so-called “character”.

ARC could also be considered as “invasive Larp” (using a definition I wrote for some future projects)… but we’ll discuss about it some other day.



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