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So you'd say you're anticipating your work with Microsoft will be, if not the thing, then the next step toward the next thing that we will know as ARGs?
EL: I wouldn't call them ARGs. I would say that ARGs were a very interesting experiment in how to tell stories. But for me, just speaking personally in terms of my own career, I've stepped past that. That is something from which I think I've extracted as much as I can. Microsoft, to me, is the next step in that evolution. It is a little bit like my previous work at Fourth Wall, but on a much larger stage.
The one advantage that I have over probably anyone else on the planet is that I have made more mistakes in this field than anyone else has. So at the very least I can promise that those same mistakes will not be repeated. And I get to learn from those. It gives me a strategic two-year advantage over everyone else, at least in being able to determine where most of the major landmines are buried.
There's a classic debate among those into games -- developers, critics, scholars -- concerning what's often seen as a separation between gameplay and story. It strikes me that the dynamic of those two concepts probably looks different in relation to your work, which so often interweaves the two.
EL: The relationship between gameplay and stories is a really fragile one. I have yet to play a video game that can make me cry. There are games that I really loved and really enjoyed the stories but the fundamental issue, to me, is one of placement of the audience member. If you allow the audience member to be the protagonist of your story, they have the ability to alter your story. They have the ability to turn left when you really wanted them to turn right, because that's where the plot's going to continue. Games try very hard to toe that line, to find the correct balance between freeform exploration -- like any kind of interactive video game -- and very set, strict narratives where the audience has no ability to alter things.
If you look at that spectrum, of very standard, linear narrative on one side and very dynamic, free-play video games on the other side, we've seen experiments all over trying to crack that nut. In my field, I get to kind of change the model around quite a bit. I get to really reinterpret what it means to be a participant. I don't necessarily need players to be characters in a story. I can actually let them be passive participants, who can lean forward when they want to, control when they want to, give control back to the system when they want to. Or communicate with the larger community and let the community make some of those choices for them.
This is the advantage that a system like the Xbox gives creative teams. People have already bought into the system. They've already installed it in their homes. Now they're just looking for entertainment. 'Show me what comes next. Show me how you're going to attract my attention and keep it.' We get to play around with a lot of very exciting new toys to get to do so.
Nearly all of the high-profile ARGs -- and post-ARG transmedia may fall into this too although it's still developing -- that we've seen tends to boil down to a marketing campaign. Do you find that this compromises them from an artistic standpoint?
EL: A lot of these transmedia narratives, including ARGs, don't have built-in revenue models. That's why you see that. When I was first building those and figuring out what they were, advertising was the only place to go. We could pull really big numbers but we had no way of charging those people for anything. With the high barrier to entry, we were asking them to do so much stuff that we couldn't tack on a $5 or $10 price tag on top of that. So we went to advertising just because we saw a way to attract the attention of really devoted, almost evangelical audience members who want to go out and scream from the mountaintops how great a thing is. That has tremendous power to brands, and thus it was an easy way for me to start approaching these companies with really good revenue models based on devoted eyeballs. That's why it was really appealing to me and why I made sure to find sponsors for every game that I built.
Moving forward, we're watching a lot of games try to break out of that model. I haven't seen any that have been particularly successful yet, though I've seen some interesting experiments. But I really think the future is in platform play, like the Xbox, which as a destination for entertainment will let you do all kinds of awesome stuff every day. And in exchange, all we want -- like any of the giant services out there -- is a subscription paid for access to this library, with incredible, exclusive content.