How To Make An Alternate Reality Game: Pre-Production

How To Make An Alternate Reality Game: Pre-Production
WAYHOME studio/
Summary: ARGs are the result of many hours of ideation, refinement, and testing. Here are the 6 stages of the pre-production process.

6 Stages Of Pre-Production: How To Make An Alternate Reality Game

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.


In our previous article, we discussed the Initiation phase of the ARG building process, which is often overlooked as a ‘true’ project phase. In this article, we’ll explore the 6 stages of pre-production. Let’s begin.

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1. Build The Teams

As soon as the concept of an ARG is defined and requirements have been established, start building a Management team. This is the first of many teams that will be formed to tackle various phases of the project. The Management team should be a collection of creative brainstormers, technologists, and stakeholders familiar with the project's target audience.

Their goal is to identify the project's objectives, suggest possible team members, and build a rough schedule for the production staff. This team should also establish the communication tools and procedures (physical and digital) needed to facilitate how the creative, technical, and administrative teams will work together. The table below is a sampling of the sub-teams and their overall responsibility.

Effort during each phase (Scale of 1 to 4)
Team  Initiation Pre-production Production Post-production Debrief


Determine project objectives, goals, and outcomes

2 3 2 2 3


Envision the user and system experience

0 4 2 1 3


Create sensory assets (what the player will see, touch, hear, and smell)

0 0 4 4 1


Build technical and physical systems to support the user

0 2 4 4 3
Quality Assurance (QA)


Conduct testing and validate project objectives

0 0 2 4 2
Go Live


Manage users and the overall system during the live game play

0 0 0 4 3

Pre-Production Teams and Responsibilities

Of course, this is just one of many approaches, but as a guide it illustrates the relationships between teams and provides a rough estimate of their efforts in each phase. It should also be mentioned that team members often move between sub-teams based on individual skills, resources, and schedules. Many teams are so small (2-3 developers) that the line between duties and responsibility are blurred beyond definition. If this is the case for your team, we suggest limiting project scope down to the essential experiences needed to build the ARGs narrative.

2. Define The Goals, Objectives, And A Preliminary Schedule

The first task for the Management team is to determine what a successful ARG will accomplish. What are the ARGs terminal objectives (entertainment, learning, or brand marketing), which audiences are to be targeted, and what are the desired outcomes of each game activity?

In the corporate setting where training or orientation is the primary focus, the team should document the desired behavior changes and skills to be acquired by the participants. While in entertainment or marketing ventures the experience is normally centered on a product release, gathering event, or other marketing challenge where the goal is often part of an awareness campaign within a specific audience. In both cases, the goals and objectives should be documented and this can serve as the basis for the team's Design Document.

Next the Management team sets an initial schedule for the project. This schedule is normally built in reverse starting with possible Go Live dates and extrapolating rough milestones and durations to determine a Kick-off date and overall schedule. Little consideration is given to the game schedule at this time. However, the team should determine its duration in rough terms (hours, days, or months). Once a schedule of work has been proposed, it can be added to the Executive Summary in preparation for the next phase of the project.

3. Design The Experience

The Design team is charged with crafting an experience, which will excite, entertain, and motivate the game's players. Starting with the objectives, goals, audience, and proposed schedule from the Executive Summary, the Design team starts with a series of brainstorming sessions, where design and development teams gather to collectively share information and choose a creative direction. Ask yourselves and the team:

  • What are we asking the players to do?
    Solve, create, visit, share, and find are all common activities of ARG players.
  • What tools will be needed to accomplish these tasks?
    Internet access, mobile devices, live actors, written and visual materials, QR-code app, or teams are just a few.
  • Are there themes and metaphors, which will connect the game objectives to the desired player behaviors?
    Don’t limit yourself to the mundane; go for the extraordinary. Instead of simulating your business’ supply chain for an employee ARG, have the participants serve as advisors to a company recently established in New Hope, the largest colony on Mars.
  • Are the skills for building the creative and technical assets readily available?
  • Are there any obvious Rabbit Hole events?
    It might be a URL hidden within conference materials, a series of broadcast advertisements that on closer review provide latitude and longitude coordinates, a worn and weathered journal left on a park bench, or a keynote presenter overtly announcing the game's beginning. Whichever event is chosen, it should be designed to help set the game's tone with the players.

The outcome of your brainstorming sessions is to establish the game’s thematic scenario and structure, which will let players explore the world and adapt the intended behavior change or engagement presented by the ARG.

4. Document The Idea And Development Process

After the concept, theme, and structure are defined, the Design team will develop the Design Document. This document can take many forms, but here are some items that should be defined and addressed.

  • Overview
    This section helps set the stage for the production team.
  • Game objectives
    This can be for the entire project or subdivided for each target audience. Game objectives are important because they also help define success.
  • Story
    This will include theme concept, background story of the world, important characters, key game world events, player roles and motivations.
  • Player experience 
    This might list technical requirements, social interactions, and player activities. We often build this by first documenting how the player will interact with the game world, starting with the Rabbit Hole event and ending with any post-game activities.
  • Production schedule 
    This section includes a breakdown of production tasks as well as an outline of the event-driven activities from the player’s perspective.

5. Build A Media Plan

How will your players find out about the game? How will they communicate within the game world and with each other during gameplay? These are some of the questions you'll need to answer when developing a media plan. The Media Plan, which will be added to the Design Document, focuses on the traditional (offline) and digital (online) elements used to deliver content to your players.

Tools such as SMS (direct or public broadcast), Twitter, Instagram, Youtube, Facebook, WordPress, Wikis, custom websites, and the like, are common technologies accessible to most ARG audiences via smartphones and tablets. But they should not be the only access points. Traditional items like printed posters, handouts, public announcement systems and live actors add more than just variety of message delivery, they also keep the less technically savvy players engaged and provide an alternative point of engagement in the event of unexpected technical failures (i.e., wifi outage, dead batteries, etc.)

6. Put It All Together

Once these components are planned the Design Document will serve as a communication vehicle for the production teams. It's used to guide the Production phase and will influence the creation of the creative and technical elements needed to craft the intended experience.

In our next article, we’ll explore what you need to know about the Production phase of building an Alternate Reality Game.