Alternate Reality is Not Enough
Posted: December 12, 2011 | 9:00 ET by Nick Parish
After years of die-hard fans piecing together the plot from bits and pieces carefully architected by cunning gamesmasters, maybe the Alternate Reality Game's seminal epoch has passed.
This isn't easy to say. At Contagious HQ we've been a fan of experiences that properly create tension around a story by involving fans in a side story for a long time--back to I Love Bees, in 2004, right around when we launched. And since then, there have been a number of groundbreaking campaigns that blurred the line between advertising and entertainment, and kept us glued to all the twists and turns drawn out by mischievous puppet masters. The Year Zero campaign for the Nine Inch Nails' album of the same name. The crazy backstory-building that went on between the first few seasons of Lost. Why So Serious, the precursor to the Dark Knight movie. These were great, exciting experiences that deserved the high praise they received because, partly, they took a topic people were already interested in--Nine Inch Nails, Lost, a Batman movie--and gave them a chance to connect the dots around a spur of the story to build into interesting stories in that universe.
Fatigue, though, has set in, as more and more efforts demand more and more participation, to the extent that it feels more a matter of fan participation creating the brunt of the experience than uncovering it. Early successes beget an explosion of interest, and understanding, and the ever-present 'get me one of those' cycle sets in. We've also seen a lot of efforts around alternate-reality that take a different tack, a sort of ARG-lite, that doesn't so much as activate an existing fan base as it tries to build one, for a film or movie that's yet to debut.
Even the Hunger Games, a desperately adored franchise, requires authentication through Facebook and Twitter to start playing around with its official thecapitol.pn page (as opposed to the fan-made ARG, Panem October), where all you're able to do at the moment is create an avatar and join one of Panem's districts. It hasn't gotten near the fun level it should be at for film that's to be released in March.
Paring down the passion
But never mind the shallow ARGs. With a bevy of them available for those who have the time and persistence to get hooked, we're seeing a few efforts taking one of the best elements of the form--the scavenger hunt--and keying in on it, without the lengthy reveal or necessary audience buy-in. None of them have got the potential for group problem solving, mystery, surprise and spookiness that the best ARGs brought about (and hopefully will continue to bring) but they're at least easy to participate in.
Allergy medication Zyrtec's Parks Unleashed, through JWT, New York, is a series of super clean YouTube videos melded together with games and a simple navigation. The mission is simple--find a lost dog. The prize is a new Samsung Galaxy Tab. Players move through the videos, gathering clues, playing simple games--not much of a barrier to entry. JWT claims the response has been huge, with 1.2 million views within 48 hours of launch, and an average playing time over 14 minutes during the first day of play. The connection to Zyrtec is a bit heavyhanded--that you can play in this virtual park for the whole day without sneezing--but the game is simple.
The Searchers, Redux
Dodge, meanwhile, has put on the most impressive effort, in terms of scale. To push its family crossover Journey model, it hid three of them throughout the United States, then pushed TV audiences to find the cars--the tagline being that the Journey is the 'Search Engine for the Real World'. The response to the promotion was huge, with blogs reaching far across the spectrum from web geeks to Mopar freaks and entire families heading out to search for the cars. There was such interest that a controversy arose when an Oklahoma Highway Patrol member claimed the second Journey, then rescinded his claim after a public outcry about the likelihood of his having insider information about road closures from the commercial shoot caused searchers from the region to lose the plot.
Most recently, in Australia, Virgin Mobile is offering intrepid searchers some holiday wheels. In promising a 'fair ride for all' in its most recent promotion in the telecoms provider is making that a peddle-powered ride, hiding a series of sixteen bicycles across five territories.
The brand is encouraging fans to engage via social media to suss out the location of each bike as they're unveiled daily. A Like to the bike and the brand's page gets you in the door, but then you have to pay attention enough to actually find the thing. BMX, road, city and mountain bikes are all part of the mix. Once the clues begin coming down, hint at locations and offering the combination lock code should you find the bike, it's a race to see who can figure out the location, get to the bike first and ride it away.
This feels like a great halfway point in accessibility, between Zyrtec and Dodge. It's not as intense as driving hundreds of miles to look for a car, and it's not as sedentary as clicking through YouTube for hours to rack up points to enter a contest. It's the right fit with the Virgin 'fair ride for all' positioning.
While we’re still waiting for the next landmark ARG to sweep us in, it’s clear some of the founding principles—mainly adventure—are alive and well. At least when a free truck or bike is concerned.
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