Alternate reality pioneer wows crowd at RIT event
Elan Lee's mantra is if you're bored, you're doing something wrong.
Lee, a pioneer in the alternate reality game genre, spoke Friday to a standing room only crowd of about 175 at the 2009 RIT Entrepreneurs Conference at RIT's B. Thomas Golisano College of Computing and Information and Sciences Auditorium. The diverse audience included everyone from college students in hoodies to suit-clad businessmen.
Lee, a 1998 RIT graduate who lives in Los Angeles, shared inspiring stories that have led to his success. He's regarded as one of the creators of the ARG genre and the founder or co-founder of three companies: 42 Entertainment; EDOC Laundry, a clothing company based on the genre; and his most recent project, the entertainment studio Fourth Wall Studios. He also served as a consultant on Picture the Impossible, the alternate reality game developed by the Democrat and Chronicle and RIT.
But Lee didn't start out as an entrepreneur. His career began at Microsoft Game Studio as the lead designer for Xbox and other projects. When Microsoft was commissioned by Steven Spielberg to create a video game for his 2001 film, A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, Lee quickly realized creating a video game was not going to work.
Instead, he and his team at Microsoft developed "The Beast," a campaign to promote the film and bring the audience into the film's world. A name credited on the film's promotional poster, which turned out to be fabricated, intrigued audiences and soon they were immersed into a fictional world and murder mystery. "The Beast" attracted more than 3 million participants.
Lee realized alternate reality games were the wave of the future, and when Microsoft wasn't willing to give Lee an outlet to explore the new genre, he resigned to co-found what would later be known as 42 Entertainment. "I have a huge passion for defining the word fiction in different ways, and I wanted to explore alternate reality," he said. "And I really hated having a boss."
The day after Lee resigned, Microsoft called to offer him a project — and for more money than he was making on staff.
Since then, 42 Entertainment has been responsible for a number of alternate reality games, including I Love Bees, a game-meets-marketing campaign for the video game Halo 2, and Cathy's Book, a New York Times best-selling novel written as a high school girl's diary but also filled with clues to solve a murder mystery.
Lee says his success is attributed to "being two steps ahead of what's accepted and what's mainstream." He said, "Even if the world thinks you're extremely insane, stick with it."
Audience members were struck by his honesty and creativity. RIT student Sawyer Hollenstead, 19, said, "He's so innovative — he has a completely different way of thinking."
From the speechElan Lee was asked if he had any words of advice for players of Rochester's alternate reality game Picture the Impossible. He responded by encouraging players to watch an online video of a short talk he gave in 2007 on how to avoid boredom. The object he describes in that video, he said, would be very important to the game's players.