Producing alternate reality games supercharging brand communications

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Earlier, we mentioned 15 minutes of brand interaction with games. What if you could get an audience to interact with your brand for weeks by connecting on the Web then travelling and seeking out locations and unravelling hints that you are giving them while trying to solve a mystery? Welcome to the world of alternate reality games - a variation on the online gaming theme, albeit quite an elaborate one.

In principle, almost any website can serve as a starting point for word of mouth activity. Strictly speaking, forward-to-a-friend functionality is already a basis for word of mouth. A well-designed teaser page with compelling content can also prompt people to forward the address to a friend.

Developing alternate reality games for brands is a way of taking the idea of a 'teaser website' way beyond its original meaning and even outside of the Internet. The concept could be said to have started online with the Blair Witch Project, an idea that really took momentum as a project when the people behind it realized how powerful their story idea was for generating word of mouth, particularly on the Web. By using online media - a website and a corresponding newsletter in particular - the team managed to create a personal connection with fans and build up the suspense around the film itself. The website became a resource for information about the myth of the witch and about those behind the film (filmmakers Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez) claiming to be filmmakers uncovering a mystery. By limiting access - the film was to have its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival with only one screening - they managed to generate a hype that quickly led to a bidding war for the rights to the film and, ultimately, to worldwide distribution.38,39

Even though the Blair Witch Project was about creating and maintaining the illusion of an alternate reality, the game aspect of it was not as strong as that in later projects that approached word of mouth from a similar angle.

Sean Stewart was involved in creating the online mystery world The Beast for the Steven Spielberg film AI. On his website,40 he talks about the approach they took:'So there was the project: create an entire self-contained world on the web, say a thousand pages deep, and then tell a story through it, advancing the plot with weekly updates, concealing each new piece of narrative in such a way that it would take clever teamwork to dig it out. Create a vast array of assets - custom photos, movies, audio recordings, scripts, corporate blurbage, logos, graphic treatments, websites, flash movies - and deploy them through a net of (untraceable) websites, phone calls, fax systems, leaks, press releases, phony newspaper ads, and so on ad infinitum.'

By spinning an elaborate mystery story based on a compelling narrative idea, and locating and promoting it on the Web and through other media, these games invite an attentive online audience to connect, work together and search for the truth, the solution, or whatever else lies at the heart of the story.

A fundamental aspect of these games is that it is usually impossible to solve the mystery alone - a collective effort is required and, in successful cases, this gets self-organized rapidly on the Internet. Fans find each other quickly through postings in newsgroups or by setting up blogs. Blogs, as a type of user-generated media, have received much attention by marketers recently and are mentioned again later in this chapter (as well as in Chapter 10).

Importantly, an alternate reality game usually doesn't inform its audience that it's artificial. The game is treated as reality, and the puppeteers pulling the strings will only give away their identity at the very end, if at all. Some critics call it a deceptive tactic because of that.Those advocating this technique see this kind of non-disclosure as a type of texture that needs to be used with caution, yet is ultimately part of the fun for players. They argue for making the distinction between fake content and 'fictional storytelling'.

Looking at the intention behind the game is one way to draw a line between the kind of deception that's likely to damage a brand and the kind that probably won't. When they're not supposed to be revealed as promotional activity, deceptive techniques can have a backlash; for example, marketers posing as independent end-users and hyping products in Internet chatrooms. When consumers find out about this, negative word of mouth is almost certain. With alternate reality games and similar approaches, the deception is either obvious, or meant to be found out in the course of the game.

More recently, there have been successful attempts to realize this kind of game with more overt branding - for instance, the MoreToSee campaign by Sharp.41 Even though it could be considered branded entertainment, it was compelling enough to generate enthusiastic responses and involvement from consumers.

The 'ilovebees'42 campaign for the Xbox game Halo 2 is another recent example. It has no overt branding but is still obviously commercial - the address was featured at the end of an Xbox advertisement. The story was introduced when the site appeared to have been hijacked with hints and information that were written in a strange language. Microsoft, Bungie Studios and agency 4orty 2wo developed and distributed an elaborate mystery plot via a wide range of media (even voicemail telephone messages) that covered the lives of six characters leading up to the events of Halo 2. More than 2 million people accessed Players worked together internationally, tackling each part of the story at a time, sharing information in chatrooms and splitting up the tasks until the riddle was solved.43,44

These projects require a lot of planning, preparation and innovative creative work (that is why it's appropriate to see a strategic component in them as well), but the reward is that they can entice large audiences to interact with a brand's communication at a highly intense level. Results: Halo 2 had more than 1.5 million pre-orders before reaching the retail shelves, achieved sales worth US$125 million on the first day, and is considered the most successful video game launch to date.45,46 (It should be noted, however, that industry experts thought the fact that the original Halo was popular also helped push pre-sales.)

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