Perplex City: Learning From an ARG

Perplex City: The Receda Cube

“If it’s successful, I think we’ll see even more and better things like this in coming years. As far as ARGs as a genre, it’s becoming less and less of a genre for itself and more like how entertainment is done as cross-media elements meld together.”

“Perplex City Faces Reality Check,” Wired

Andrea Phillips‘ presentation on Perplex City at the Transmedia New York City Meetup was fascinating on a number of levels, primarily because she offered such honest insights into what she felt they got right and wrong with the ambitious, ground-breaking project, launched back in the summer of 2005 as the first major attempt at a “self-sustaining, commercial Alternate Reality Game.”

Part collectible card game, part treasure hunt, augmented with an immersive online community, Perplex City predated The 39 Clues — the closest publishing-related example I can think of — by a few years, but Andrea offered a number of interesting takeaways for anyone wrestling with how and where audience development and transmedia intersect.

First, some stats.

Over its two year lifespan, Andrea noted that Perplex City generated:

  • 55,000 registered users
    • 50/50 Male/Female
  • 1 million+ page views/month
  • ~1.5 million cards sold
  • ~850,000 cards solved online
  • 500,000 words written

Among the things she felt they got right was the immersive online world, populated by a variety of fictional characters and companies, and augmented by a a weekly newspaper and user-generated content. Their initial marketing strategy was solid, too, opting for a combination of guerilla tactics — posting “$100k Reward” signs and classified ads in newspapers for the return of The Receda Cube — and old-fashioned PR to generate a lot of pre-launch buzz.

The cards, puzzles, live events and online community offered multiple layers of engagement to players, though that strength ultimately became a weakness, as the game eventually became “too intimidating” for newcomers. She noted how Star Wars’ sprawling Expanded Universe still offers entry points to newcomers via the original movies (and I’d add the new Clone Wars cartoon to that list, too); Perplex City, though, became far less accessible as it progressed.

Of the things Andrea felt they got wrong — planning, follow-through, and accessibility — perhaps the most crucial one was related to Perplex City’s driving platform and primary source of revenue: the cards. Released in three waves, they were initially only available via one UK-based online retailer (, and later in select UK-based brick-and-mortar shops, a major obstacle for their US-based players who made up 41% of their user base. Distribution via Gamestop came later, but there were reports of the cards often not being in stock. They also ran into shipping delays that pushed their planned nine-month season to two years, resulting in the need to generate additional “filler content” to bridge the gap between releases.

Notably, with its first (and only) season ending in early 2007, Perplex City missed out on the social gaming and sharing phenomenon that might have enabled them to adjust their strategy. When I asked if it were to launch in 2011 if she’d forgo/augment the physical cards in favor of/with virtual substitutes, she surprisingly said no, noting the importance of the cards’ tangibility to their players.


Though Perplex City‘s second season was ultimately canceled, causing some to declare it a failure, its ambition and accomplishments are noteworthy, and there are valuable lessons to be learned from their experience.

From a publishing perspective, there are obvious parallels to the print vs. ebook debate, as well as questions related to the ROI on audience development initiatives that don’t have an easily measurable impact on revenue.

Perplex City’s most notable challenge was arguably its dependence on a single source of revenue, and having multiple intermediaries standing in its way, a situation many publishers are very familiar with. (I forgot to ask, but I didn’t get the impression Perplex City was selling anything directly via their own site.) While they did introduce a board game near the end of its two-year run, despite having 55,000 registered users, there were no other brand extensions, no merchandising, and no premium options for their most engaged users to delve deeper.

In 2011, publishers and authors solely focused on the book, print or electronic, as their primary source of revenue are not only leaving money on the table, they’re doing a grave disservice to their most passionate readers, aka their best customers.

The successful publishers of the 21st Century will need to shift their focus from the books they publish and dig a little deeper into the stories they contain, unlocking their full potential: “You mustn’t be afraid to dream a little bigger, darling.

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