Clues are projected onto the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas as part of the launch of the Vanishing Point alternate reality game on Jan. 8, 2007.
Alternate reality games: It's all about buzz
Last Updated December 6, 2007
By Aaron Broverman
If you were at the Bellaggio fountains in Las Vegas on Jan. 8 this year, you might have noticed more people than usual crowded around to watch the water dance to Faith Hill's This Kiss. It wasn't until 6:30 p.m. that things got weird.
The music stopped, the fountains shut off and a gong sounded. Suddenly, a hologram of a sexy Asian woman appeared. She introduced herself Loki and started speaking in riddles. Meanwhile, world landmarks and equations flashed into sight along with a website: vanishingpointgame.com.
Just as quickly, they were gone and the fountains returned to normal.
Most people probably regarded it as yet another thing that happened in Vegas and stayed in Vegas, but 300 people knew this was the first real-world clue in a giant puzzle game called Vanishing Point.
The game attracted players from communities in cyberspace to visit countries across the globe, all for a chance to win a trip to space or their name on a new line of processors built by Advanced Micro Devices Inc. (AMD). Participants were attracted to this night by a perplexing video. It was distributed to some on a flash drive packed in a Chinese puzzle box that accompanied new, fully loaded laptops, while others saw it in a clip on Youtube. The video featured Loki speaking to an unnamed benefactor over the phone and dropping clues pointing viewers to the event at the Bellaggio.
By game's end on Jan. 30, 100,000 people were decoding clues in sky-written messages, or projected onto world landmarks, to solve complex puzzles on the website to earn points. Many of the newer players were helped in online communities set up by veterans of the game.
The rise of ARGs
When the dust settled, two walked away the winners, but the real winners were those behind the scenes. Vanishing Point wasn't just a global treasure hunt, it was also the largest example of an elaborate viral marketing strategy called Alternate Reality Games, (ARGs) — this one to hype the consumer release of Microsoft's Windows Vista operating system, launching on the game's final day.
The exterior of the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto is lit up with clues as part of the Vanishing Point alternate reality game that drew players to a number of international locations in early 2007.
Marketing to a group of 100,000 hardcore players may not seem like much in terms of getting a message out to the world. But when you look at the millions of people tracking the game on blogs around the world, the mainstream media coverage from outlets like Fox News, CNN and the New York Times, — along with the fact that Microsoft sold 80 million copies of Windows Vista and had its strongest opening quarter in six years, — the potential payoff of ARGs becomes evident.
Although it was the most successful ARG to date, this wasn't Microsoft's first foray into the world of alternate reality games. In 2005, the company's gaming division launched I Love Bees, an ARG for the release of the Halo 2 video game. It sent players to payphones across 50 states and international locations to unlock bits of an online radio play that, when arranged properly, exposed the storyline for the new Xbox title.
Other companies are seeing the potential buzz that can be generated and are jumping on the ARG bandwagon, too.
ABC launched The Lost Experience, clothing company EDOC Laundry sews codes into its clothing used to unlock an online mystery, and Canadian company Xenophile Media won an international Emmy for its ARG supporting the Movie Network's ReGenesis and a primetime Emmy for an ARG connected to ABC Family's Fallen.
The marketing rewards from ARGs can be plentiful, but they are not without risk.
Vanishing Point cost a little less to produce than the airtime price of a Super Bowl commercial, took about a year's commitment from the Windows marketing team, months of planning, and approval from the cities involved. All for a complex initiative that would have fizzled had it not managed to grab the attention of its intended audience.
"The best analogy I can think of is a movie set," said Windows senior marketing manager Aaron Coldiron, — except that ARGs are completely in the hands of the players, and the corporations pulling the strings can never guarantee people will participate or spread the clues to others. That's the gamble.
"Before we did the event at the Bellaggio, I was personally really nervous because we had a lot invested in this and we had already rolled the dice. It wasn't until we had 300 people show up that I knew we were there," said Coldiron.
His nerves were quelled by multiple contingency plans in case things didn't work.
42 Entertainment, based in Emeryville, Calif., is the creative force behind Vanishing Point, I Love Bees, and what many consider the original ARG, a game called The Beast. The company has been guiding clients through the ARG process since 2002.
Microsoft approached 42 Entertainment with a challenge: Attract an early-adopter audience that had tested their products for so long (through months of beta releases) that the traditional style of marketing the brand and relaying the features wouldn't work to generate excitement. It was also an audience that basically doesn't like being marketed to.
"We wanted to give this audience a chance to really feel like they owned this and were really pushing it forward — they had to be the hero, not us — so covertness was really important," said Coldiron.
The team at 42 met that challenge with the puzzle box idea. Just 100 enthusiasts around the world would get them, and the rest was up to the audience to decode. The packages came from One Microsoft Way and the laptops were preloaded with Vista a month before its release, so most recipients figured out this was a Windows Vista campaign pretty fast — but were so intrigued they didn't care.
"All it led to was more questions than answers," wrote one blogger. "A spectacular adventure indeed … stay tuned guys, we are going to be having loads of fun with this one."
"It's a combination of doing your homework [about the client's target audience] building something from prior experience you know will engage that audience and frankly, a little bit of a leap of faith," said Joe Dinunzio, president and CEO of 42. "You have to have clients who are willing to take that leap and let go of their brand a little bit and trust the audience to treat it with respect. If you can't let go, the brand can't become of the audience."
Toronto-based Xenophile Media may have smaller budgets than 42 ($500,000 to $1 million) for its TV show-related ARGs, but the company is well versed in persuading clients new to ARGs to let go of their brand.
A good example is the Regenesis project for Xenophile's clients at the Movie Network. The show dealt with biohazard conspiracy and blurring fiction with reality, so it was perfect as an ARG — except it was overt in its execution in order to attract the interest of a general audience. Characters on the show spoke to the viewer and pointed them to the website, for example. But like 42, Xenophile also mailed clues to enthusiasts to seed the market, so that once the mainstream audience went online to play, there would already be a group of hardcore players who had developed a community to help the casual viewer solve the game.
"We didn't know in the beginning if it would work, and I always tell these clients that the success of the game is dependent on how well they promote it, but I can guarantee critical acclaim and respect," says Xenophile Media co-founder Patrick Crowe.
Xenophile also pointed to case studies from 42's early efforts to show what kind of player numbers they were drawing. In the end, 95 per cent of the players watched every episode of Regenesis and people were subscribing to the Movie Network to play the game. This year's Emmy didn't hurt, either.
"The clients we work with are very interested in innovation for its own sake and the market is heading in that direction," says Crowe.
As ARGs prove their audience-drawing power, more clients are signing on with companies that specialize in producing them.
42 is currently producing campaigns for the upcoming Batman movie, The Dark Knight, and the new Nine Inch Nails album Zero Hour. It is also producing ARGs around car companies and regular consumer products, looking ahead to what they've termed, "the next generation of ARG."
"We're seeing the rise of consumer-generated media. Customers value word of mouth way more than advertising," says Microsoft's Coldiron. "The trust is much higher, they're creating their own media and they want the more authentic story of the brand, so it really opens the doors for this kind of marketing. Whether companies realize it or not, consumers are in control of the brand now in today's world, and that's the best possible scenario [for loyalty]."
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