>> Transparency, and Bungie.net

Since the conclusion of I Love Bees, many gamers – players of ARGs, and Halo fans alike – continue to express sorrow at not having been a part of that ‘legendary’ ARG. Over the years, some have expressed hope for an “I Love Bees 2“, as a continuation or a way to re-experience the fun of the original ARG, even to reunite the community.

One property of traditional ARGs, however, is that they are, generally speaking, once-off experiences by their real-world, temporal nature — there really is no way to truly experience ILB the way it was originally played.

That experience in 2004 took place then in an ‘alternate reality’. Its creators remained a mystery. What was playing out was happening seemingly on its own, independently, without any claim to ownership by creators or storytellers. Even though players immediately knew what property it was connected with and ultimately what it would lead to, during its run it remained an independent production, with no one visibly, or directly claiming ownership.

This “curtain” allowed us as players to focus on the ARG, with its story and mysteries, without external influence, preconceptions, or expectations. In adopting this behind-the-curtain philosophy while executing our own grassroots ARG, however, it became a double-edged sword, splintering a community that we’d hoped to attract.


While we knew that our project could not replicate the original ILB experience precisely (and we daren’t try), our goal was then to create an ARG that would provide an inspired and similar, yet sufficiently unique experience. We hoped to design a game and tell a story faithful to ILB, so that many who missed out could have a chance to be a part of it and enjoy.

With each official Halo ARG production and promotional campaign, new groups and communities had formed. Args.bungie.org and Compound Intelligence are two great prominent examples.

However, the most significant hub for rabid Halo fans, with many still hungry for mystery and ARGs, was Halo’s own ground zero: the Bungie.net forums. It was a grand beast, and we deliberated on whether or not we should look to that community an essential demographic, a focus for drawing in players. We decided to at least give it a try.

What we didn’t take into account was the effect that being an anonymous project, eventually confirmed as unofficial, would have on the opinions of ARG-hungry Halo gamers on this home turf.

What’s it for?!

After its rough launch, and after Intimation had finally made its way to mention on the Bungie.net forums, its connections to the Halo universe were quickly calculated. Given previous Halo ARG promotions, the first and foremost question discussed among players was what product this project could be leading up to. Even up until recently, some who’d occasionally discovered it still asked that same question. This unintentional mystery was an enormous boost in generating curiosity and interest. It was a bonus to watch the speculation and debate about whether the ARG was for Halo: ODST, Halo Chronicles, Reach, or perhaps even some other unannounced Bungie or Microsoft product.

We grew concerned, however, about what they’d think when they discovered it was promoting none of the above.
The community had started with the assumption that it was official with no int otherwise, even with some doubts expressed by a few people due to our use of a Youtube channel, which they claimed Bungie would never do.  With the assumption prevailing that this was an official production, expectations were set high. Previous viral campaigns such as Iris, the Cortana Letters, I Love Bees, and even the live action Halo shorts set a precedent: they culminated with the release of a video game or another commercial Halo product.

Speculation was bolstered even more with the mystery surrounding the depiction of the blue planet at the end of the foreboding dream video – an image which was also hidden as a background image on thewaytheirworldended.com. The similarities between that planet and the mystery planet depicted at the end of the Halo 3 legendary ending were uncanny (and unintentional). Not only that, but when the Halo: Reach teaser was released in June of 2009, speculation was sparked anew: maybe it’s a depiction of the planet Reach!

This was a difficult situation given our philosophy of keeping the curtain drawn: On one hand, the attention received from the mystery was encouraging and something from which our audience could grow. On the other hand, focus was taken away from the project, the content, and the story itself, and rather placed on solving the mystery of its presumed marketing tie-in.

The debate culminated and came to an end when forum staff got involved. Once it was confirmed by moderators and Bungie staff that “Intimation” was unsanctioned and unofficial, general consensus flipped. Suddenly it was labeled “fake”, a “hoax”, a “knock off”. Every time someone posted asking what it was about, responses included sentiments such as the above, and another nail was driven into its Bungie.net coffin; a “hushed casket” of its own.

Occasionally a shining beam of hope would peak through when someone who was following and enjoying the ARG would instead respond with enthusiasm, that it had a great story, or when they linked people to Unfiction where other enthusiastic players were actively following.

Eventually, however, we decided to shift our focus away from attempting to gain a community foothold at Bungie.net. It wasn’t feasible given our goal to keep the curtain drawn. If people came across the story and liked it, they would find a way to follow it and play along with it. It would be far better for us to focus on the community that had already formed than to lose that focus and be continually discouraged by negative comments from loyal video game and Bungie fans who only cared about official products, at least as long as we remained anonymous fans.

This was a turning point in our production – when we went from offering recaps and research notes on past stories for the uninitiated, to fleshing out the prologue’s story content and enhancing the gameplay, providing a better experience and story for those already following. That was really the only option we saw to keep this project from crashing and burning.

Looking back, we noticed that during Intimation’s epilogue when we revealed and confirmed the grassroots nature of the project via the SFTA organization (inspired by Iris’s Society of the Ancients), further comments posted at Bungie.net began taking a lighter tone, shifting from sentiments about it being just “fake”, to being “fan-fiction” (as of course it was). This change in tone really only happened once we were transparent about the project’s nature.

We believe Intimation may have played out smoother at Bungie.net had the grassroots, fan-fiction nature of the project been known much earlier in its lifetime, if not from the very start, to avoid the official/grassroots debate. This would have encouraged people to focus more on the story and events rather than whether the game was “real” or not and leading to potential disappointment and apathy from failed expectations – even if our interested audience would have been smaller.

“Major” Woes

During the uptake and debates surrounding the legitimacy of Intimation, one unavoidable misunderstanding helped to sharpen that proverbial double-edged sword. Some people had checked the list of who @intimation was following and noticed that Major Nelson was in the mix. The existence of Major Nelson (Larry Hryb) in the @intimation statistics, being a very prominent Microsoft Xbox spokesperson, had fueled the debate about it being an officially sanctioned ARG because some vocal members on Bungie.net made the claim that Major Nelson was following @intimation.

Major Nelson, however, never followed @intimation – it was @intimation that followed him as part of the initial attention grab.

Major Nelson hadn’t even noticed or shown any sign of reciprocated interest (this was a long shot, we realized). His appearance on the list of who @intimation followed drew a lot of attention though, and we watched this debate also rage on – Intimation must be official because Major Nelson is following!

Well, as much as we’d hoped he would show some level of interest at the prologue’s launch, he remained among the many initial targets who certainly didn’t.

This was another player-created expectation that set a higher bar, which once knocked down would become another major hit to community acceptance, simply because the grassroots nature of our ARG wasn’t made clear up front.

Final Thoughts on Transparency and the Curtain in a fan-fic ARG

Looking back, we found that being intentionally anonymous and vague about the fan-made nature of the ARG we were producing within the existing Halo property ended up causing confusion, distraction, and resentment. We had decided to run the project with the mindset that being open about its grassroots nature, even if the puppetmaster team remained anonymous, would breach the 4th wall and be in conflict with the philosophy of a traditional ARG, and could also drastically reduce the demographic reach and potential audience for our project.

Remaining anonymous, we also chose to be very careful of potential IP infringement, unsure of what fair use rights we had with the Halo property, and yet still attempted to create a unique, independent story and experience while remaining connected and accessible within the Halo universe. That was a lofty, difficult combination of goals to fulfill.

We don’t know if it would have worked out better had we been transparent about our identities, but we do know that this lack of clarity in the context of the Halo franchise became a source for confusion and skepticism, hindering the building of a more significant fan-base for the project.

Anonymity also meant that expectations for the experience were immediately set higher, with focus placed on potential marketing tie-ins, rather than on simply enjoying and the experience and story as it played out.

It’s understandable when discovering an ARG that’s taking place within a prominent property or franchise that the first assumption would be that it’s officially promoting or marketing something – but is the only way to remedy that for the grassroots creators to be visible and identified? Fan-fiction in the form of traditional ARGs isn’t very common, as opposed to short stories and other fan-made content in a trusted environment such as fanfic communities – the latter is publicly identified from the start as being grassroots in nature.

Fan-fiction Alternate Reality Games adopting the curtain philosophy of puppetmaster anonymity could face a rough journey.


PITFALLS: Mission: Hide and Seek