How To Make An Alternate Reality Game: Introduction

How To Make An Alternate Reality Game: Stage 1 – Initiation

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.


Alternate Reality Games use complex stories told across multiple media formats to blur the lines between fiction and reality. Each activity, learning objective, technical component, and communication vehicle are evaluated by how it impacts the user as they uncover the mystery hidden within the narrative. In our experience, no two ARG developers follow the same development process. But we have seen many common approaches and practices in use.

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The most common practices seem to originate as a cross between the prototypical Software Development Life Cycle (SDLC), used in many technology-related industries, the production process used in stage performances, and the Analysis, Design, Development, Implementation, Evaluation (ADDIE) process used for the design of adult learning solutions.

Together, these three production fields (technology, the dramatic arts, and Instructional Design) emphasize the importance of maintaining a cross-disciplinary approach when building these highly engaging experiences. ARGs are fundamentally team-oriented collaborations, drawing from a wide variety of skill sets, requiring precise error-free execution, while being performed with, or in front of, a live audience.

Specific production steps vary greatly from project to project, but in general, the ARG process follows initiation, pre-production, production, and post-production as the primary phases, but is overlapped by SDLC and ADDIE milestones. The table below lists the milestones for each methodology that has an impact on ARG creation and how each methodology supports and augments each other.

Film/Stage Production SDLC ADDIE
Development Definition Analysis
Pre-Production Analysis Analysis
Design Design
Production Prototype Design
Build Development
Test Evaluation
Post-production Revisions Evaluation
Final Testing Implementation
Go Live Deploy/Kick-off Implementation
Debrief Analysis

ARG Production Milestones across Methodologies

With the multitude of moving parts across the phases and milestones, the most important component in building an ARG is developing a coherent plan. The plan is a physical document that will broadly outline the crafting process with specific goals and milestones. It's a living document, which will be updated and revised many times during the production process. And lastly, it serves as an overview document to be archived with the project's artifacts for review by future teams wishing to refine and build a new ARG starting with a familiar approach.

Building An ARG

For the purposes of this series of articles, we will discuss a simplified version of our production process. We have utilized versions of this outline during the development of 4 ARGs, each time identifying areas of improvement and tweaking as new requirements and technologies are needed. Before tackling your own production, we highly suggest you become familiar with this structure and others to build an approach that fits your needs.

  1. Initiation 
  2. Pre-Production 
    • Build teams
    • Define goals, objectives, and preliminary schedule
    • Design the experience
    • Document the idea and process
    • Build a media plan
    • Put it all together
  3. Production 
    • Create a treatment
    • Build components
    • Prepare to fail
  4. Post-production 
  5. Go live 
    • Starting the game
    • Monitoring the experience
    • Ending the game
  6. Debrief


This phase is often overlooked as a true project phase, but this is where the ARG idea is formed and defined. At some point, the concept of an ARG is initiated and brought to others for discussion. But before pre-production can begin, the individuals responsible for the creative vision should document what they have in mind. In some instances, the idea is documented in a formal creative brief or on a napkin during an informal discussion over coffee. But in either case, the goal is to take a root idea and transform it into a governing concept of the ARG itself.

In 2010 Tandem Learning set out to develop an ARG for Field Sales Managers at the Constellation Academy of Wine. The experience needed to illustrate the nuances of the sales process for Constellation learners. To achieve this goal the designers wanted to create an environment where students could safely experience the sales process without working with real clients. The team decided a fictitious hotel would provide the theme and environment for delivering the educational message. Students would practice their sales skills by working in this simulated environment and the training staff could easily review the choices made by each trainee.

This step is also where the ARGs requirements are documented. Is the game primarily being used to educate or entertain? What technologies will the players use to interact with the game? When and where will the ARG take place and for how long? Is it repeatable? Do all players begin at the same time or is the discovery of the game the first activity?

Having a firm understanding of these questions before the pre-production phase, which we’ll discuss in our next article, will help further the success of the project.