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alternate reality games 6 3 special feature

In order to engage a youthful but jaded audience, more advertisers are using alternate reality games in their campaigns. Laura Swinton speaks to the sector’s innovators about the fine line between entertainment and branding

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In January 2007, the image of a mysterious woman called Loki hijacked a fountain show at the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas. A crowd had gathered after some people had picked up on what seemed to be odd hints in Bill Gates’ speech made earlier at a technology conference. Others had turned up after discovering puzzling YouTube videos, USB drives and a website featuring little more than a countdown clock and some coordinates. Using the jets of water as a six-storey-high screen, Loki projected a video that unleashed a spectacular puzzle challenge that would roll out across the world. Clues were also embedded in a firework display in Seattle and written in the skies of Sydney. Just as the conspiracy theories were starting to bubble, it became clear that a massive launch campaign was under way for an alternate reality game, or ARG. ARGs break the ‘fourth wall’ and immerse players in an unfolding story. Clues are distributed on fake websites, or you may get a text message or phone call from a character. Cryptic notes may appear in magazine ads or you may even have to take part in a cross-city chase. ARGs are not new – they’ve been used to promote films and computer games since Steven Spielberg’s A.I. was followed up with The Beast – a crossplatform tale of anarchic androids which involved live phone conversations with characters and anti-robot rallies across the US. But in the past year they’ve leapt from the realms of obscure Internet communities to a mainstream audience. Subscriptions to news site ARGnet’s emails have more than tripled since January 2006. These days if a new TV show or computer game isn’t linked in with some vast global treasure hunt then it ain’t worth beans. And when even Sex and the City star Sarah Jessica Parker is using an ARG to launch a perfume, then you know these games have become, for advertisers, the equivalent of a tantalising pair of Jimmy Choos. And – because I’m not about to let a good metaphor go to waste – ARGs are expensive, at times impractical and difficult to walk in. So why are advertisers so keen to get in on the game? One agency that’s taking a serious interest in the genre is Ogilvy. “I think for the big agencies, if they’re not actively involved in ARGs already, they soon will be,” enthuses Jethro Ferguson of Ogilvy Interactive. This year the agency sponsored a Content360 award at the MIPTV audiovisual and digital content conference. The challenge was to pitch an innovative way to

“Alternate Reality Games give consumers the opportunity to live in a world that extends stories and brands in a unique, personal way. Quality entertainment can connect with a community in a powerful way, whether to achieve a shift in brand perception, generate rampant awareness, provoke discussion of serious issues or just create fun.”

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alternate reality games 6 5 special feature

publicise American Express and, as Ferguson discovered, the most creative

consumers the opportunity to live in a world that extends stories and brands

and efficient ideas were the ARGs. The winning idea was a James Bond-style

in a unique, personal way,” she says. “Quality entertainment can connect

ARG called Diamond Reef which sees players use fake Amex cards to buy

with a community in a powerful way, whether to achieve a shift in brand

clues like DNA testing kits to track down a stolen diamond. Jackie Turnure,

perception, generate rampant awareness, provoke discussion of serious

the game’s creator, has experience of script writing and game design and is

issues or just be fun.”

an expert in cross-media storytelling at the Australian Film TV and Radio

Successful games are more than just exercises in product placement.

School. Turnure is currently in talks with Ogilvy about possible future games.

They’re fun, rewarding, and interesting. When it comes to film or TV tie-ins,

The beauty of the Diamond Reef game is that it cleverly combines a

the rewards for players are pretty obvious. In the run up to the release of

glamorous, exciting plot and ingenious use of ‘real life’ clues with a means of

Batman: Dark Knight, the Joker has been running riot on the internet,

familiarising players with the product, just as all the best ARGs do. Susan

scrawling his trademark grin over pictures of Gotham lawyer Harvey Dent

Bonds is executive producer at 42 Entertainment, the company behind high-

and inviting wannabe henchmen on a race round San Diego. Which fans

profile ARGs such as JJ Abram’s Cloverfield and The Beast. “ARGs give

wouldn’t want to run with the Joker?

(Left) Bellagio Hotel, Las Vegas. (below) Palace of Fine Art, San Francisco

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That’s not to say they can’t be serious. Adrian Hon, co-founder of ARG

When done right, the games can inspire and excite. But they can just as

production company Six To Start, is masterminding a competition on behalf

easily go horribly wrong. Especially in the hands of ad agencies that are

of Cancer Research UK to encourage grass roots game designers to submit

attracted by the novelty of the idea but have no real understanding of the

ARG pitches. And in February 2007, a very political ARG was created for the

genre or the potential audience.

launch of the Nine Inch Nails album Year Zero. Zip drives uncovered in a

The first potential trap is assuming that people are motivated to play ARGs

Portugal bathroom after a gig led fans into a story about a dystopian future.

by cash prizes or flashy trinkets alone. The reality is that successful games

Players were inspired to form local communities, campaign about issues

marry sophisticated plots, rewarding puzzles and fun. This isn’t the time of

important to them and submit satirical artwork. Lead singer Trent Reznor

Willy Wonka and the public are looking for more than just five golden tickets.

saw the game experience as an extension of the concept album. “What you

“People don’t work for money in their spare time, otherwise it’s just work.

are now starting to experience is Year Zero. It’s not some kind of gimmick to

That’s why people pay to go to the cinema – to be entertained,” explains Six

get you to buy a record – it is the art form. And we’re just getting started,”

To Start’s Hon. “If an ARG isn’t fun to play, then why will they do it?”

he declares.

Patronising the players isn’t a smart move either. “It’s important to feed the hardcore audience – they’re the ones who are going to start the fan websites

Fallen heroine Faith Arella leads a global scavenger hunt

months before it launches. They create the international buzz and help to develop the story,” says Patrick Crowe of Xenophile, the Canadian company behind Emmy-winning ARGs Regenesis and Fallen. Admittedly the reason that the games often remain under the radar for so long is that usually the puzzles are just so damn hard – clues embedded in the html coding of fake websites are considered fairly straightforward by inveterate riddle-nerds, but less so by the rest of the world. But thanks to the power of what can be visualised as ‘the global hive mind’, even the most baffling puzzle can potentially be solved in minutes on interweaving networks. Another ARG pitfall is characterisation that follows stereotypes. Successful ARGs give depth to the main characters and avoid lazy gender or cultural assumptions. For example, the aforementioned SJP ARG is clearly aimed at encouraging women to play the games. It’s full of perfume and pretty dresses, which is the only way to get gals online isn’t it? Err, no. One thing that experts from Patrick Crowe to Susan Bond and Jackie Turnure agree on is that in most cases women make up half of ARG players already, so simplistic personas will turn a large potential audience away. Ogilvy’s Ferguson is looking forward to the challenges ahead. “I get very excited about it – It’s so big, it’s almost daunting – there’s 100 people involved in a nine-month development process. It’s like working on a Spielberg production,” he says. “The core of our business is the idea: we’ve always been about telling a story.”

“It’s important to feed the hardcore audience – they’re the ones who are going to start the fan websites months before it launches. They create the international buzz and help to develop the story.”

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Reality Attack  

2007 feature on alternate reality games, including the Batman Why So Serious game that went on to win Cyber Grand Prix at the 2009 Cannes Li...

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