ARGs and the Economy: Part 3 of 3

Movies haven't been doing so well in recent years, but it's not because people are opting to stay at home watching their grass grow. Instead, it looks like a lot of that discretionary spending has shifted to the thriving video game market:

It's also a given that no matter how you look at it, the global games market has been absolutely booming the last several years. Between 2000 and 2001, the U.S. games industry grew from $6.6 billion to $9.4 billion. In 2007, that figure was up to a record-shattering $17.94 billion (and it doesn't even include PC game sales or online revenue).

The economy may be tanking, but you sure couldn't tell by looking at video games. It's important to recognize that games aren't just seeing success around AAA console titles. It's been a great year for indie gaming, too. There's ample evidence that even a small team of designers can put together an incredibly popular experience.

In Part 1 of this series we figured out that ARGs don't want be more like movies in order to be successful. In Part 2 we established that it's going to be lean times for the marketing ARGs, as budgets shrink and clients flee for more measurable measures. But this third cousin of ours, the video game? I do believe we've found ourselves a good role model. 

So if the ARG community wants to hit its own boomtown days, we have a couple of questions we need to answer, namely: What do video games have that movies don't, and what does that mean for ARGs? My answer is that video games are active, social, and convenient -- more on that in the next post. In short, though, these are traits already inherent to the ARG. We're much more like video games than we are like movies already.

But none of this directly tells us how the hapless ARG designer should plan to weather the bad economy. The problem is that video games already have a clear and well-trodden path to revenue, and ARGs don't, not yet. 

There have been a lot of different experiments in monetizing ARG-style immersive gameplay directly, without first pitching to a client and creating an experience tailored to that one brand's preferences (and subject to its creative veto, too). And here is our path to survival. We have to go out and do more of that, boys and girls. First we build a rich, engaging experience that people love. Preferably a lot of people. If you do that, then you're free to make money in several ways.

  • Offer subscriptions or added content for money.

  • Sell material goods for money. (Books, shirts, artwork, maps, keys, posters, plush dolls...) 

  • Tap into those marketing dollars from the other side: Get your eyeballs first, and then sell them via product placements, sponsorships, partnerships, affiliate relationships, or good old-fashioned Google AdSense. It's definitely worked before. (And now we've arrived at Brian Clark's prediction of pushing risk to the content creator, though by a different route: The content creator is taking on the risk of creating a user experience that just might flop, and if it does, it's all out of pocket for the dev team, since no sponsor has come on board.)

At the end of the day we need to recognize that our art lives in an attention economy, and the things we need to do revolve around gaining and keeping that attention. Once you have that, the ways to eke out a living are varied and plentiful. Frankly, if you have enough eyeballs looking your way, money will be banging on your door and describing exactly how to let it in. It's cheesy to say "If you build it, they will come," but it's accurate. Not the players, you have to work your tail off for that -- but attention-seekers with money.

We do need to get out of the pernicious mindset that making money at all is a grubby thing to do. We're not betraying the trust of our audience if we use the gift of their attention to line our own wallets (or pay our own mortgages, as the case may be.) Why don't more grassroots games try to monetize? Why is sell-out a dirty word? The audience is sophisticated enough to recognize that we can't all build the things they love purely out of the goodness of our own hearts. You're going to want to do it in a respectful way -- for heaven's sake, don't go selling the phone numbers and email addresses you've collected to any and all comers -- but that doesn't mean you can't or shouldn't profit at all.

And as for me, the freelance ARG designer? I'll be keeping my hat in the ring, of course -- I'm certainly not one to turn down marketing dollars. Less risk and less uncertainty is still a fat checkmark in the plus column as far as I'm concerned. But if it comes down to it, I've also got my eye on just laying it all on the line and making cool stuff (and ultimately hoping other people like it, too.) Making cool stuff is the whole reason I'm in this game at all. 

And hey, the United States is officially in a recessionjob losses are mounting higher every day, and venture capitalists are putting their wallets away. People are going to need cool stuff to help take their minds off it all.

This is the third part of a three-part series. Part 1. Part 2.

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