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He Loves Bees: An interview with Xbox's experimental storyteller

Gamasutra sits down with Elan Lee, father of the Alternate Reality Game (including Halo 2's landmark I Love Bees campaign), to discuss his new work with Microsoft and a future beyond the ARG.

July 19, 2013

13 Min Read

Author: by Kris Ligman

Elan Lee, who recently rejoined Microsoft to work on an undisclosed project for the Xbox One, is considered by many to be a pioneer behind Alternate Reality Games (ARGs).

His credits include The Beast for A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, widely regarded as the first high-profile ARG, and I Love Bees, a viral marketing campaign for Bungie's Halo 2. Now he's working at L.A.-based Xbox Entertainment Studios under Microsoft's digital entertainment boss Nancy Tellem. Here, Lee discusses the tough balancing act of transmedia storytelling, and how his new work is taking him beyond ARGs.

Gamasutra: First of all, Elan, congratulations on the new position. It must be very exciting for you.

Elan Lee: It is very exciting, thank you.

Tell us a bit about your new work, what you're able to say about it. Can we expect an 'I Love Bees v2.0'?

EL: [laughs] We've certainly come a long way from those original alternate reality games.

The new job is pretty exciting, in the sense that it is a continuation of the work that I've been doing over the last decade. My career has always been about creative storytelling -- what's the future of entertainment? How do we move beyond the confines of traditional gaming and traditional narrative? -- and this new job is probably the world's most exciting opportunity to do so when you think about the promise that the Xbox [family of consoles] holds. It's got more than 80 million people with these boxes in their homes and they look to it to provide storytelling, to provide entertainment every single day. So to be in a position where I am not only encouraged but given the resources to build the future of entertainment, that's just exactly where I want to be in the world.

Going off of what we saw at the Xbox One reveal in May and the further announcements at E3 in June, the technology is very promising. Microsoft's vision for entertainment is a very optimistic one. And you obviously see your line of work as fitting in with that.

EL: I was a lead game designer on the original Xbox. I've had one forever. When you start looking at what it can do today, and especially what the new hardware will be able to do, it's such an inlet for pretty incredible things. When you take those 80 million connected boxes and you add on top of that the fact that they've got controllers in their hands, and on top of that there's the Kinect camera looking at them -- and the next one will have facial recognition -- and on top of that voice recognition, and SmartGlass, friends lists, windows for social networking, you add all these things together you realize this platform has put itself into a position to completely redefine the nature of entertainment. All it needs now is for a very smart group of people to flip that switch.

In the history of storytelling there have been five or six big advancements that changed the way we tell stories and the way human beings communicate with each other. Things like the invention of Western theatre, the invention of the printing press, the invention of the motion picture camera. Every time one of these things is invented we, being humans, scramble about madly trying to figure out how best to use these to convey a complex idea, emotions, narratives.

We are, right now, right in the middle of another one of those huge events in the history of humanity's ability to tell stories -- and we don't even have a name for it. It's sort of the internet. It's sort of connected devices. It's sort of a lot of things. But we do understand that there's this new, always-on, always-connected method by which we interact with each other all day, every day. And to be in a place like Microsoft that has an advantage over the rest of the planet to use that power, those tools, to redefine what it means to tell stories, that's what gets me really excited. That's the work that I'm most excited about doing.

We've got this interest now in redefining what storytelling is and to convey these stories across hardware, across a network that's already established and has this audience. That puts Microsoft years ahead of anyone else out there. And the fact that they are this excited to use that advantage to tell really good stories and to hire a team that can tell those really good stories, that's just exactly where I want to be in the world.

Where to do you see Alternate Reality Games (ARGs) fitting in with other media such as music and television?

EL: ARGs are a tricky concept for me. As I was saying earlier, we've seen these huge steps forward with the evolution of storytelling. ARGs fall right into that evolutionary trail. From the time the first motion picture camera was built it took us 85 years to invent the sitcom. It takes a lot of wild experimentation and meandering about before we figure out how best to use a technology to tell stories. Same thing with the printing press. Same thing with the theatre. With the invention of the internet, I look at ARGs as one of those really exciting, interesting steps in the evolution of that storytelling but certainly not the finished form.

ARGs suffer, of course, from a very high barrier to entry. They ask only the most devoted audiences to leave their homes and answer a payphone in the middle of a hurricane, or go to a cemetery to participate in some crazy community event. And I've built some of the biggest and some of the most memorable of those, but it seems clear that ARGs were just a step along the path of defining what comes next.

I learned a ton by participating with those communities, playing with those communities, building incredible things with those communities. What I want to do now is harness that power. How do you build those giant communities? How do you get them excited? How do you get them motivated? And, now, how do you get them to an even larger audience? How do you make the barrier to entry even lower? I want to use everything I know and everything I've learned along the way to build something even bigger, something to reach a much larger audience.

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.

In addition to moving away from advertising toward these subscription models, then, one thing that will also be interesting to see, that we're already catching sight of on the horizon, is transmedia for noncommercial purposes, such as education and activism. Anything in that sphere that's caught your eye?

EL: Quite a bit. It's something of a personal mission of mine. I don't know exactly where this will overlap with Microsoft yet -- it's something that I'm trying to define as I go.

However, I really believe that the world gets better the more that we talk to each other. I've done projects in the past where I've seen people get married as a result of the experiences gone through in some of these games. I've seen people start activist movements and voting parties, or take part in local elections. Any number of things, based on a game's encouragement for them to talk and seek out others.

You drop two [strangers] in a room, it's hard to get them to connect on any real level. But if you give them a sense of ownership, a sense of purpose, a goal that they're trying to accomplish and by so doing they must rely on each other, suddenly they become friends very quickly. They have these wonderful experiences to share. Their creativity is encouraged and they make progress based on their ability to interact with each other and the world around them. I have only seen good things come of that.

I love using these things for education, for teaching people more about their world, and more importantly, teaching them to create the tools necessary to live better lives and make the world around them better. That has been the underlying theme of almost every project I've ever worked on and I will continue to integrate that substring into everything that I do.

It's so easy to be really cynical about this subject matter, because what we typically see of transmedia in general is this very commercial face. So it's great to hear that attention is being paid to these other spaces, and that it's part of your own mindset.

EL: It's worth saying, I think. All of us at our hearts want to make the world a better place. I believe very strongly that the only way you can do that is with the help of other people. I just don't think anyone accomplishes very much on their own. And so I feel that any experience, no matter how commercial, no matter what kind of experience it is, it can be built in a way that encourages you to interact with others. To make new friends, to work with friends in accomplishing something -- that's a net positive. Even if it seems very subtle.

I've seen video games change people's lives. I've built games that have changed people's lives. And it's really exciting for me to continue to do that even if it's not overt. I'm always able to see a net positive from putting experiences in front of people to reach out, participate, and most importantly to create something new.

The most powerful stories that you can tell are twofold. One is something you have a personal passion for, because you'll be able to tell those stories better than anything else. But the second half of that is one that tends to get overlooked, which is: the stories that make the audience feel empowered. If you can figure out a way to make your intended audience feel empowered -- if you can make them feel more of a badass for having gone through your story, know something more, experience something more, understand their world a little bit better -- those are the people that are going to stick with you. They are the ones who are going to grow your audience for you. They are the ones who are going to facilitate your career, your ability to tell more stories in the future.

If you can keep those two things somewhere in the back of your head -- passion and the ability to empower that audience -- you're almost playing with fire.

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