December 15, 2005 4:00 AM PST

A novelist turned gaming innovator

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The book was subsequently nominated both for the World Fantasy Award and science fiction's Nebula Prize. "I wish someone would give him a great contract. But I feel that we're going to have to wait 10 or 15 years to read the next Sean Stewart novel."

Blame that on Jordan Weisman.

In early 2001, Weisman was creative director of Microsoft's entertainment group. He'd persuaded Steven Spielberg (and a reluctant Microsoft) to experiment with an unconventional game to help market the director's "A.I." movie, and had already tapped Lee to direct the project they code-named "The Beast." Soon after, they recruited Stewart to be their writer.

The hope was to build on the way people seek information online. The trio launched "The Beast quietly," telling almost nobody. But over a few weeks, traffic inched upward, finally soaring into a genuine viral hit in which a "hive mind" of millions of players solved puzzles together, shared theories, and fielded midnight phone calls from game characters with astonishing aplomb.

"We don't tell the story; they discover and tell the story to each other."
--Jordan Weisman,
CEO, 42 Entertainment

"That was the only game I ever made where I followed the community hourly," Lee said. "It was an incredible rush. Any change I made to any Web site was noticed and absorbed immediately. It was like exploring a living body."

The team left Microsoft to form 42 Entertainment shortly afterward and was immediately rehired to promote the company's "Halo 2" game. The team created another sprawling story called "I Love Bees" (after the game's first fake Web site), telling it through an online radio drama and puzzles that drove players to real-life phone booths to answer characters' calls.

The game was again a hit, winning an innovation award from the International Game Developers Association, which typically honors traditional video games. Microsoft also viewed it as a marketing success.

"We can always get massive press coverage in the enthusiast press," said Chris di Cesare, the director of marketing for Microsoft's game studios. "But even a game like 'Halo' isn't guaranteed coverage in The New York Times or Entertainment Weekly. We were able to reach an audience beyond what we could ordinarily get."

Players are storytellers, too
As Stewart played Hickok that November afternoon, across the country in New York City, players were wandering through a real-life cemetery, looking for clues to relay to people standing by online. Stewart waited for his cue to enter the game in character as Hickok, gossiping with his other co-creators about their audience.

This was more than just voyeurism. This medium requires an unusual level of collaboration between players, and even between the game creators and their audience. To a very real extent, Stewart, Lee and their partners don't know what they've created until they listen to their audience.

"We don't tell the story; they discover and tell the story to each other," Weisman said. "It goes through the filter of their millions of minds, so it's never the same in the end as what we wrote."

Watching the players sift through the game's pieces, Stewart was particularly pleased with a comment from a player named "Rose," who--after weeks of "Last Call's" bloody mix of modern gang tension and Western drama--wrote in the game's online forum that she finally understood.

"Rose" was Sharon Applegate, a mid-40s Manhattan lawyer who had been playing alternate reality games since an accident temporarily limited her to her home in 2003. After loving previous work by Lee and Stewart, she'd had a hard time with "Last Call Poker," she said in an interview.

"I didn't like the violence, and the women either being prostitutes or being beaten up," she said. "Then it dawned on me that all of these stories were about family relationships, and I could see it in a whole different light."

It is such moments that help convince Stewart and his partners that they are engaged in something that is more than just an expensive commercial. Still, there's more work to do.

For all their creative novelty, it's not clear whether ARGs can break out of their marketing role. The most ambitious attempt is being made by an ongoing game called "Perplex City," created by several people who played "The Beast." That game sells $18 packs of puzzle cards online and has attracted more than $4 million in venture funding, but has yet to demonstrate a profit.

All of this may keep Stewart from writing novels for some time. As much as he loves them, novels will always be there. ARGs, by contrast, are changing with each iteration.

"It's like building airplanes" around the turn of the century, he said. "You know they haven't reached their final form."

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ARGFest 2005 DVD- Creative Commons version- Free
If you missed ARGfest 2005, where several ARG developer teams gave talks on particular ARGs theyd been working on, you can download the videos of the event for free. <a href=""></a>
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