ARG Development: 10 Tips To Create An Effective ARG Story

ARG Development: 10 Tips To Create An Effective ARG Story
Summary: Regardless of whether your Alternate Reality Game is for entertainment and marketing or training and performance improvement, creating the story is a creative endeavor. Like most creative endeavors, it can be a messy activity. And each person will go about it differently.

How To Create An Effective Story During Your ARG Development Process

Andy Petroski, Emerging Technologies Leader and Author, is allowing our readers to read portions of his work. This article comes from his book Alternate Reality Games: Gamification For Performance.


There is a variety of story crafting methods and techniques that are beyond the scope of this series of articles, but here are some considerations for crafting your ARG story.

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1. Start With A Plot, Setting, And Subject

The plot can be very basic, to begin with. Start with the beginning (introduce the goal), middle (overcome challenges), and end (realize an altered/improved state). Later you can build simple and complex interactions (game mechanics) as well as twists around the basic story elements.

And remember that an Alternate Reality Game is a live event (digital and/or physical), the direction of which might change based on how players interact with the story and the game. So, leave room in the story for adaptation and plan for adjustments that the puppet master may need to make throughout the game. Your story plot, setting, and subject can be fictional or realistic and connected or disconnected to your performance improvement goal.

puppet-master: Puppet-masters manage the ARG.  Most often they are a member of the design team, but it is not always the case.  During the ARG experience, the puppet-master often makes dynamic changes to the game's progress based on player interactions.  They secretly work behind the scenes while the game-masters are interacting with the players.

If you’re creating an ARG to improve the efficiency of meetings in your financial services organization, you may not want to create a story that is based around improving the efficiency of meetings in a financial services organization. You may want to consider a fictional, disconnected story focused on creating more efficient meetings for the League of Justice (go figure, Superman is never on time for meetings).

Or you might consider a realistic, disconnected story focused on creating more efficient meetings for the local parent-teacher organization.

Consider the variety of plot, setting, subject, and gameplay options for an ARG story with the combination of Realistic|Connected, Realistic|Disconnected, Fictional|Connected, or Fictional|Disconnected points-of-view. Pick one from column A and one from column B in table below to begin crafting your story:

Column A Column B
Realistic The story and/or the player’s role is realistic. Realism helps to connect the game to work / life, puts the player in a role they will play in the real-world and creates a recognizable context for learning Connected A connected perspective is one in which the challenges, actions, and decisions are explicitly connected to the performance goals for the player
Fictional The story and/or the player’s role is fictional. Fiction can aide immersion and increase the fun factor. Fiction can also support game balance. Disconnected A disconnected perspective is one in which the challenges, actions, and decisions are implicitly connected to the performance goals for the player

Story Perspectives

There is a number of story creator sites and apps that can help you generate ideas for your story if there aren’t any apparent storylines for you to follow.[1] Brainstormer is one story creator that we’ve used. While the tool normally doesn’t spit out the story plot, setting, and subject for your story it does help to get the creative story crafting juices flowing. Some examples of Brainstormer generated plot, setting, and subject combinations are:

  • Letting Go | Attic | B-Movie
  • Fish Out of Water | Chef | Eskimo
  • Odd Couple | Inventor’s Lab | Stuffy British
  • Remorse | Ninja | Steampunk

2. Create Characters

Read my article How To Create Effective ARG Characters For Game-Based Training to explore ARG character creation.

3. Consider The Physical Space

ARGs take place in the real world, and the best ARGs take advantage of the physical space in which the game is being played. In addition to digital activities like tweeting, web-based games, and digital codes, players may have to visit specific physical locations for gameplay, communication, or collaboration. The physical space can also play a role in the story. In the Find the Future ARG, the New York Public Library space was the story. In the Robots are Eating the Building ARG, the story of the potential “destruction” of the space where the conference participants were attending sessions, eating lunch, and networking introduced tension, motivation, and humor to the story. Consider how the space in which participants are playing can be used to support and enhance the story and gameplay.

4. Consider The Timeline

The ARG story needs to have a beginning, middle, and end that occurs along a story timeline. But, the ARG will also have a real-time timeline. Consider the number of days, weeks, months, or years that it will take players to complete the ARG.

A longer ARG timeline may require a more elaborate ARG story and deeper character development. A shorter ARG can be supported by a simpler story. In fact, it’s important that a one, two, or three day ARG have a simple story. When there is only a short amount of time for players to complete the ARG gameplay, an elaborate story can get in the way of players completing tasks in the game. They will spend more time trying to determine and understand the motivation and objectives defined in the story than completing gameplay and achieving learning and performance objectives.

5. Create The Rabbit Hole

As we’ve mentioned in earlier articles, the Rabbit Hole is the entry into the ARG for the players. It may be explicit and easily discovered and accessed or implicit and disguised.

An example of an explicit Rabbit Hole is an email sent to all new hires asking them to watch a video from the President of the company that describes the story, gameplay, and expectations of players. Or, the Rabbit Hole can be implicit and disguised among the everyday environment of the potential player. An example of an implicit Rabbit Hole is an anonymous post-it note left on each new hire's desk announcing a meeting in the conference room at 1 PM.

ARGs for business often require 100% participation. So, an explicit Rabbit Hole is preferred for onboarding, training, and performance improvement ARGs. The Rabbit Hole introduces the gameplay, but it should also introduce the plot, theme, and characters of the story.

6. Create A Backstory

The ARG backstory can serve several purposes. Depending on how you introduce the Rabbit Hole, the backstory can provide a prelude to the Rabbit Hole, giving players some context regarding how the current state came to be when they enter the game. The backstory can also be a way to address the interests of players who are primarily the Explorer player-type.

Remember that the backstory of characters, the environment, and the current state are important to Explorers. It gives them context from which to plan their own exploration during gameplay. The backstory can also be a source of interests for Achievers as well. As Explorers and Achievers review the backstory there can be opportunities to find hidden treasures and/or gateways to move forward in the game without having to take the normal path.

Read the previous article about story and player types.

7. Tell The Story Across Multiple Mediums

Alternate Reality Games are “transmedia storytelling.” Take advantage of the opportunity that multiple mediums presents. Tell the story on paper, with sidewalk chalk, and with signs. Tell the story with video, graphics, and animation. Tell the story with Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Sharepoint, and Pinterest. It’s not an ARG if there aren’t multiple forms and formats as the player experiences and participates in the story.

8. Incorporate Collaborative Storytelling

A well-designed ARG provides opportunities for players to interact with and even impact the story individually, in groups, or based on cumulative play. Consequently, the puppet master, who observes the overall gameplay, must be available to make edits or create additions to the story and gameplay based on the cumulative actions being observed. Opportunities for players to impact the story through individual or group gameplay should be identified and taken advantage of. Observation of gameplay and subsequent changes to story and interactions should also be considered when creating the initial ARG story.

9. Simple Is Better Than Complex

The story should not be too complex. Err on the side of simplicity for an ARG that is focused on improving knowledge, skills, and attitudes. A complex story can confuse players and bring the gameplay to a halt. When players are participating in the ARG as part of their job, they need to balance ARG gameplay with getting their work done and balancing their lives. Also remember that you’re most likely targeting 100% audience participation in an ARG for business. A complex story can turn players off right from the very beginning and jeopardize reaching 100% participation.

A complex story can also jeopardize completion within the targeted timeframe. If it takes players a few hours in a day-long ARG to understand the story and what they should be doing, it’s likely they’ll be rushing through (or skipping) later gameplay elements in order to complete the gameplay on time.

10. The Story And Gameplay Should Be Intertwined

It seems reasonable, but creating game mechanics that are linked to learning objectives and support a storyline can be complex. It’s easy to lose sight of the story and characters as you focus on incorporating learning objectives, practice activities, and learning collaboration into the game. At the same time, it’s easy to lose track of the performance objectives as the creative juices begin flowing and you get immersed in writing a story and developing characters.

As is the challenge with most serious games and immersive learning, ARGs for business and training need to have an effective mix of learning focus and fun-focus. If there’s too much focus on learning and performance objectives the ARG won’t be fun and it won’t be much different than other boring training sessions. If there’s too much focus on fun, the players won’t learn anything and there won’t be any positive impact on employee or business performance.


Story writing has been presented in an orderly fashion here. In actuality, it’s anything but orderly. You may write the end of your story before you write the beginning. You might create characters first and then a theme and plot. Regardless of your order, interactive story writing is an iterative process that will go through numerous stages and drafts before its logical, playable, and entertaining. Remember that An ARG story should be entertaining, but also needs to be functional.


  1. The Five Minute Fiction Writing Exercise That Will Get You Published and The Brainstormer...where it came from.