A few weeks ago I received an unusual package in the mail: a small dictaphone containing a cassette tape of a conversation purporting to be between a young woman and her therapist. It was part of a labyrinthine plan to get greater attention for German bestseller Sebastian Fitzek's THERAPY, the first of his thrillers to be translated into English. I liked the book considerably more than Patrick Anderson did - mostly because I couldn't stop reading and was happy to buy into its conceits, however manipulative - so the dictaphone's arrival piqued my curiosity about what sort of efforts were going on to promote the book.
It turned out there were quite extensive plans afoot, all part of an Alternate Reality Game (ARG) called "Charlotte is Becoming Real" crafted by the German viral marketing company VM People, which had come up with similar games for Fitzek's other novels when they were published in his home country The gist is that gameplayers were asked to unravel the mystery of the tapes, purported to be stolen from the psychiatrist's office (who bears a different name than the main character in THERAPY) and the solution entailed receiving more clues, a mysterious object hidden in Central Park, and for two players, "Rowan" and "PinkCloud", a trip to Germany earlier this month for the final reveal.
The game is over - only a final chat on the afternoon of April 29 with the "puppetmaster" remains - but it will be interesting to see if this particular marketing effort will become more commonplace in American publishing. With that in mind, I conducted a Q&A by email with VM People's Thomas Zorbach and Patrick Moller, also a senior editor of ARG Reporter.
There are a lot of ways to publicize a book, but an alternate reality game is rather unusual. (I know about the game created to publicize the movie AI, and Jordan Weisman has moved into the book world with some success.) How did this come about, and what level of involvement did Sebastian Fitzek have?
Moller & Zombach: An Alternate Reality Game is a strong means to involve potential
readers, long before the book is being published. For example you can
let characters of the book come to life and let them interact with the
players. In Germany we have done that for Sebastian Fitzeks third novel
"Das Kind" (= The Child). The ARG "push11" was meant to be the
unwritten prologue of the book.
The Therapy-ARG is rather like a sequel to the events that take place in the novel. There are many different ways for publishers and authors to expand the universe of a good story by an ARG. For us as puppetmasters/producers it is essential that the author is part in the team. Together with Sebastian we developed the outlines of the ARG-levels based on his book. Usually Sebastian also contributes a major part of the content and is involved in production. In the Therapy-ARG for example he is the male voice in the recorded "Therapy" sessions that have been spread among ARG-players in the United States.
What sort of logistical complications must you deal with in order to blur fiction and reality successfully? From my own reading it seemed that participants were fairly aware that the ARG was based on THERAPY, but is this expected? And what contingency plans are there if something goes wrong or if there is an error in the game? Or are such things built in?
Moller & Zombach: It's always a great challenge to establish and sustain a narrative
world, in which players like to dive into and experience an adventure
lasting for weeks, that is logical in itself. As game designers it is
our task to avoid interferences between the real and the fictional
world, as this spoils the player experience. It's like the microphone
hanging in the frame from above in a Hollywood blockbuster.
Nevertheless errors happen as we are all human and in the end it depends on the suspense of the game whether the community of players are willing to oversee the error and stays tuned. There is one aspect which is critical in designing an ARG for a book. You have to make sure that the game can be played without the knowledge of the source material. Otherwise players might feel forced to buy the book and nobody wants to be forced to do something.
How much of a crossover is there between the ARG world and the book world? Is there a natural line of convergence, and what sort of challenges are there to get ARG types to buy the book and readers to learn more about ARG?
Moller & Zombach: Altenate Reality Games and books obviously have one thing in common.
Both are narrative formats. It's all about telling a story. The
difference lies in the way the story is being told. Reading a book is a
linear user-experience where you start with the first chapter and end
with the last page. Experiencing an ARG surely is more complex in terms
of the reception process. But to be frank, we don't see a general
difference between an ARG-type or a book-type. From our experience we
can tell that ARG-players read a lot of books and vice versa there is a
growing amount of readers who like to get involved in an ARG.
In Germany Sebastian Fitzek has managed to build up his own ARG-addicted fan base consisting rather of book readers who haven't heard anything of ARGs unless they found a yellow Post-it note in his fourth novel "Seelenbrecher" (= Mindbreaker). The note was a rabbit hole that lead to an intriguing experience that happend six week after the "after-sales" and triggered more than 300.000 book sales.
How do you measure success? Word of mouth? Online buzz? Or actual sales of books?
Moller & Zombach: No secrets to tell here. Just the ordinary tools to track quantitative and qualitative response. In the end a publisher wants to sell books. That's why sales surely are a key factor in measuring the success of an ARG. In case of Sebastian Fitzek also the relations to his readers play an important role. Ever since his first novel Therapy which was mainly a word-of-mouth phenomenon in Germany fueled by enthusiastic readers, he is striving to build his fan base. For Sebastian ARGs are interesting because these games are community building events and the results are strong bonds between the players and the author.
Are ARGs more suited towards thrillers and science fiction or would they work as well with other genres?
Moller & Zombach: Of course murder mysteries and stories about alien invasions suit perfectlty for an ARG. But we wouldn't say that these are the only genres an ARG would work for. In the end you have to tell a good story. You have to have an intriguing plot, a trail that people like to follow and to spend their time with for a couple of weeks. It doesn't matter whether the story is about a boy or a girl falling in love or an alien invasion as long as it is a good one.