AI was a large-budget Hollywood blockbuster that needed to capture the attention of a wide mainstream audience and the intended consumer of the movie was an adult, passive movie-watcher. At the same time, the player of the alternate reality game extension was different – an active participant who needed to 1) notice the rabbit hole in one of the 3 migratory cues and 2) take an active role in pursuing that cue online, and 3) keep engaged throughout the process of finding cues in the game.
The feature film followed the standard Hollywood business model that involves selling tickets to the feature film in the US market, selling DVDs to the home video market, expanding to international distribution. The game took place in the first part of this period, starting 1 month before the film’s release and extending 2 months after the film’s release. It was a purely promotional (and perhaps educational) undertaking underwritten entirely by the film’s marketing budget; thus free for the end user, and even for people who had never seen the film but perhaps recognized the rabbit hole in one of the trailers or posters or heard about the game from a friend. The Beast had a budget of over one million dollars.
The game attracted real-time players because to take part one needed to be actively involved throughout the summer of 2011, hunting clues online across many websites, as well as sending emails to characters and calling special telephone numbers – and by the end of the game even taking part in a real-life protest for robot rights, by that time being totally in the character of an investigator, with in-game protest actions taking place in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York City.
This was not a user-generate culture, as few pieces of content were developed, with no parodies, recaps or mashups created, however there was a very active fan community called “Cloudmakers” that acted as a central hub for players. The Cloudmakers group was founded on “April 11, 2001 by a 24-year-old, Oregon-based computer programmer named Cabel Sasser” (McGonigal, 2003) – named after an AI boat owned by Evan Chan, the central character who was killed in the game’s setup – and a mere “48 hours after [the launch] there were 153 new members in the group investigating these mysterious sites” (McGonigal, 2003) and by the time the game ended 3 months later, on July 24, 2001 the Cloudmakers group had expanded to a considerable size – “7480 members who had scribed a total of 42,209 messages” (McGonigal, 2003).
The player had an important goal to accomplish in the project – to find out who killed Evan Chan. The people taking part in the game where technically sophisticated and worked in a community, gathering around the forum. Some of the puzzles needed specialist knowledge, such as “understanding of lute tablature” (Wikipedia, 2011), that only a few members of the community could have, meaning a community was necessary to carry the story forward in a sort of a wisdom of the crowds type of story development. “The Cloudmakers’ work, and game play in general, consisted of tracking and interpreting plot developments and evidence that circulated mostly through Web sites and emails, but also through phone calls, faxes, television and newspaper ads, as well as occasional real-time and offline events” (McGonigal, 2003). Traveling to live events, people would have fun staying in character. Steve Peters, a transmedia storytelling active in the community recounts an email he received from a fellow player (unnamed): “I carpooled with 3 strangers down there and we all had a good time and got to know each other. The guy who had the car got big [xxxx] decals and we acted the part; telling people it was an employee car and staying in character “ (Peters, 2010).
The main appeal for players was to follow the story through and to get to know the fascinating specialist knowledge of what is happening in the storyworld, and through that knowledge forming a community of likeminded individuals working on a commons goal – and could become friends.
Players were characterized by technical proficiency and fascination with science fiction, seeking to attach themselves to the project mainly online, however a few separate cases of real-life gameplay did take place. People formed a community around the AI storyworld that became so immersive they took the trouble to travel to live action game play across the country. They wanted to find out new clues to the story and they loved acting the part of investigators. “These folks didn’t go to all this trouble to just get a poster or a t-shirt. They did it for the story. And for the community. And for the fun” (Peters, 2010) – underlying how story is central and technology is way to deliver the story.
An alternate reality game is supposed to create a feeling 2 worlds are colliding, with the fictional world colliding into the reality and slimy tentacles of the alternate reality reaching our own world, as happens in the popular TV series Fringe. “For [the Puppetmasters], ‘immersion’ meant integrating the virtual play fully into the online and offline lives of its players”, wrote Jane McGonigal describing the motivations and methods of the creators of the Beast (Szulborski, 2005). Blogger Danny Bowes, who played the game through the whole summer of 2001, looking for the person(s) who killed the scientist, described it as “awesome and [something that] painted a fascinating portrait of the movie’s 22nd century setting. [...] I miss that time, playing that game on my dial-up connection, looking forward to seeing this movie where the immensely talented Spielberg would bring the late master Stanley Kubrick’s vision to life” (Bowes, 2011).
“The game [...] involved websites registered in several countries around the world as well as telephone numbers from across the US” (IMDB). “The mantra of The Beast [was] “This is not a game.” When a player reads a character’s blog, or looks at his employer’s website, or even speaks to him on the phone, the character never indicates that he is anything but what the game says he is, whether that’s a professor of biology, a kidnapped child, a DP artist, or a robot bounty hunter” (Wikipedia, 2011).
The game had no timer or other ticking clock to add tension to the experience nor a system of rewards or penalties to the players developed; a possible point of weakness of the first alternate reality game. The player’s primary motivation to spend time in accomplishing the goal was the narrative curiosity (just like in a movie) to find out what happens next and the feeling community created by the Cloudmakers group. In an interview with one of the players, a web developer in his 30s reveled that he was “less interested in the details of the game than in the game play itself; the unfolding of the answers IS the narrative that has me hooked… a meta-narrative” (McGonigal, 2003). The Beast was an interactive project and the mechanisms of interaction were the are web pages, the email addresses where actors answered in character, and phone numbers that answered with automated messages – and in one case is answered by an actor speaking in character. One can compare the interest of the player to find out more about the character to the addiction one has o the Facebook wall with new clues to the story appearing.
The beast offered meaningful interactivity by hiring phone actors who where live actors in character and would answer the phone. “One of the most talked about and fondly remembered parts of the Beast was when players discovered a phone number they could call and talk to” (Szulborski, 2005). This was hugely important in establishing more feeling of reality to them game and keeping with the TIAG (this is not a game) ideal. The players where encouraged to impact the storyline by persuading this live actor
The player was in the role of himself when entering the interactive storyworld; he does not explicitly identify how he entered the game and who is it inside the game and there are not set interfaces or boundaries however through gameplay and the puzzled appearing in the storyline he became an investigator of a crime; rather the boundaries are mental and set by the player himself. The player alwas remained in the first-person, and never enters in third-person or a mixture of both.
The player affected the outcome because the story was being written at the same time as the game was being player. Player’s actions would have direct influence on how and what would be fed in the clues next. The existence of a central forum for collaboration on the came was crucial. This 1) allowed games to collaborate, and 2) it allowed Puppetmasters to understand the gamers and where they were at. “The ARG “the Beast” was truly one of humanity’s finest creations. I feel privileged to have been a participant, and the souvenirs I received at two in-person events (an in-game rally for the Anti-Robot Militia and one of the movie premiere showings) are among my most cherished possessions” (G., 2011).
The game drove mainstream awareness of AI while the actual players numbered perhaps in the thousands, it created buzz and excitement for opening night
and explored the key thematic elements of the film. “The campaign generated over 300 million impressions for the film through mainstream press such as Time, CNN, and USA Today, as well as niche outlets such as Wired, Slashdot, and Ain’t it Cool News, and won numerous awards including best idea (New York Times Magazine) and best web site (Entertainment Weekly)” (42 Entertainment).
According to the creators, “Over 3 million people actively participated […], playing in dozens of countries around the globe” (42 Entertainment). The beast worked as a cultural activator for the main attractor – the feature film and while “[t]hree million people engaging with The Beast was a lot for something that had never been tried before, but by Hollywood standards it was a neglible figure” (Rose, 2011). Nonetheless, for the creators of the first alternate reality game, it was a resounding success. After the Beast finished, the same group of game developers left Microsoft and formed their own company called 42 Studios, an obvious reference to the answer of life, the universe, and everything reveled by Douglas Adam’s Hitchhikers Guide – and went on to develop I Love Bees, Cathy’s Book, as well as other alternate reality games for marketing entertainment properties.
Continue reading part 3/3: Worldbuilding.