ARG. It's a dirty word and one of these days I'll write #2 in that series about it, if it's not pipped to the post by Interactive. I'm going to overextend it in this post just the way I hate it, to mean any online/crossplatform interactive.
There isn't any forum or space, to my knowledge, where ARGs are criticised seriously and robustly. This isn't healthy. No art-form has the chance to grow tall without criticism nourishing the good and weeding out the poor. Works and artists define themselves and develop by failure as much as success, by discussion as much as promotion. Not only that but the fog of secrecy that tends to drop over most 'traditional' ARGs means that - without the critic as documenter - there is no record even of what actually happened. Other than by the two types of documenter least likely to remain disinterested, makers and fans.
Any player who stays the course will likely be a fan. The traditional ARG tends to last for months, has its narrative broken into little pieces scattered and hidden across platforms and media, and discovered and played by its audience. If you're going to experience anything approximating a reasonable chunk of it, you're going to spend a lot more time and effort than the 90 minutes spent sitting watching the 'traditional' event of contemporary new theatre.
Adrian Hon and Jane McGonigal are two high-profile (and most excellent) game-designers who have started a trend for blogging about their own game. These posts are invaluable as documents and often insightful, but invariably and inevitably they deliver a positive spin on the game. Why should they do otherwise? It's not in their own interest to highlight relative failings. But I worry that these well-meant pieces are contributing to a certain public puffery and hyperbole whenever we talk about ARGs and their ilk. 'Yeah, they're amazing!' Because the audience to this hyperbole are the commissioners of the next work. So everyone is afraid to break the magic circle.
It's still such early days for the medium that any new work is talked up as ground-breaking, where the discussion about the work becomes itself the best PR for the work and the brand backing it - viz We Tell Stories, a neat portfolio of beautifully-rendered digitally-told short tales that attracted amazing column inches in print and the blogosphere, hundreds of thousands of first hits but a big tail off towards tens of players for the ARG beneath (according to one of them).
I am reminded of a commission my brilliant friend Chris had from Pizza Express to make a theatre miniature version of The Godfather to play in restaurants for diners. Chris has made hugely acclaimed work that plays in the houses of the audience - I had the quite perfect We Must Perform A Quirkafleeg! in my living room - and so it was natural for Pizza Express to commission him for this and then equally natural for the press to write about this as a phenomenon, how you as a diner might be surprised by innovative theatre at your table, or in-tertainment in brutal PR coinage. The first performances played to tables of only press all over the country. And then PR job accomplished, you can perhaps guess how many performances for the public actually happened.
Is the quality of an ARG reflected in its metrics, the numbers of playing audience that engage? If it is, the problem is that no one is telling just how many players they get. Again this is partly so as not to discourage the commissioners, and because simple numbers don't yet tell the full story. Received wisdom in the industry quotes Jimmy Wales' 10% power law or 90-9-1 as the ratios of players in levels of activity termed casual, immersed and hardcore (although yet to know how and if the numbers from this particular power law extend across all interactive participation or just Wikipedia)
So an interactive Emmy-winning TV ARG - The Truth About Marika - quoted figures of 300,000 viewers but only 3,000 online players. The Lost Ring had 500,000 viewers for its first (well-marketed) trailer on Youtube (comparing very well to 850k for the latest Bond trailer) but only 60-odd players worldwide running the Lost Sport in its finale (from a guessed head-count in the broadcast video which had itself 1200 views in Youtube). In comparison, The Gold-Bug that I worked on had 4,000 site visitors and the two finales had attendances of 60 and 80-odd.
It isn't just about the numbers, of course. But it'd be nice to know more of them so we could see. And an understanding of what players would have to do to be counted at a particular level.
Plus... I wonder if we need to lay a time axis for the length of event along the power-law figures too. The longer an event goes on, the harder it is for players to enter, not least because if it's using the player forum of the traditional ARG, the sheer volume of player posts generated is itself a barrier.