In Here ARGs are maybe seven or eight years old, if we take The Beast as a starting point. A few things are becoming clear: they are, conceptually at least, one of the hottest things around; they are a genuinely exciting web native form of storytelling; there is the glimmer of a business model behind them and paradoxically there is no one thing that can be called an ARG. The term itself is slippery and expansive.
We have now seen ARGs promoting films (like Cloverfield and The Dark Knight), TV series (like Lost) and even albums (like Nine Inch Nail's) not to mention charitable causes (like the Red Cross and Cancer Research). It seems that the promotional model is well established and provides a workable raison d'etre for many ARGs.
However my concern is that this is not sustainable. ARGs are still new and interesting enough so that the simple fact of their existence is sufficient to garner publicity. However as even this list demonstrates there must be a saturation point on the horizon where this is no longer the case. What happens to the business model then? I made the point that if one looks at the genesis and early years of the form then it coincides with a boom. As marketing budgets are slashed in the bust, what happens to ARGs?
A related point is that I suspect more people are talking about ARGs then actually playing or following them. Most of them require considerable investments of time and initiative- I freely confess they are beyond my feeble powers- that most people don't have. They are still niche, difficult and in many cases overly complex.
Dan made two good points in response. Firstly that ARGs, if done well and tailored to the product and audience, can actually offer a higher ROI than conventional advertising and hence are ripe for growth. Secondly he likened an ARG to the FA Cup final: you might only have 22 players on the field, but you can then have thousands in the ground, millions at home watching on TV, all participating.
This makes sense, up to a point. I managed to follow the We Tell Stories ARG without strictly "playing". However the forums and discussions at places like Unfiction and ARG Net can feel like a demi-monde of impenetrable geekery. Nothing wrong with that, natch, it just makes it hard for ARGs to reach a critical mass.
Perhaps that is the point, perhaps ARGs are meant to be small scale, light weight, free thinking, anti-corporate entertainments. Perhaps, but I can't help but feeling that would be only half the story.
For me there are two really exciting possibilities in ARGs. Firstly is how they could be used to produce second order products that would augment the existing business models. Secondly how they can, in both complex and simple ways, form part of what Henry Jenkins calls transmedia storytelling.
By creating new products or gathering valuable data the proposition of an ARG changes. It can become a crowd sourcing application, an engine of content creation with a ready made fan base. This could be a union between entertainment companies like us and the grass roots explosion in creativity (or distribution depending on how you see it) engendered by the web. It allows an ARG to be somehow packaged or archived without detracting from the unique nature of the ARG, whilst also providing a strong rationale for the initiation of the ARG.
Stories are increasingly transmedia, which is to say they exist across platforms. This is not to suggest they are ARGs, but ARGs too are cross platform and so the have a resemblance. Fans like to get deep into a fictional world and transmedia storytelling is an enabler of this. ARGs point the way in terms of creating engagement in this fashion. They have pioneered the seamless use of mixed media integrated into a conceptual whole. Many of the biggest cultural phenomena of the past few years have been fully transmedia- think Potter and the Matrix, and this trend will become ever more the norm.
For publishers then I think these two strands are especially promising. Smaller scope projects like the Young Bond adventure will have their (ever growing role). These big two tap into emerging trends in what was traditionally publishers back yard and add economic incentive while they're at it.
No one truly knows where ARGs are going, least of all me. I do know, however, that they are seriously cool.
And being cool counts.