How Virtual Game Play Becomes Reality for Consumers

In 38 days, the 2008 Summer Olympics will be underway in Beijing. When competitions between the world’s best athletes kick off, the world’s leading brands will simultaneously compete for the attention of consumers via marketing campaigns tailored to Olympic messaging.

One of the biggest official sponsors, McDonald’s, has already launched an Olympic sponsorship program via a digital game. The biggest differences between this game and others: you don’t need a console and everyone can join the game at any point.

How is this possible? Well, McDonald’s created an alternate reality game (ARG). Basically, ARGs challenge players to move the game from their televisions, consoles, and computers to their real-life environment.

The game started in March when a select group of gamers received a mysterious package that included a ball of yarn, a poster, and postcards from the 1920 Olympics. Each item contained cryptic messages that hinted at the ARG’s story and drove the recipient to the game’s Web site.

In the game, the characters wake up with amnesia in various locations throughout the world with a tattoo on their arm that reads, in the global Esperanto language, “Find the lost ring.” Players try to help uncover the mystery by partnering with other players around the globe. All characters speak in their native language, which requires global collaboration for the story. More than 2 million players registered at the site within the first few weeks, according to USA Today.

While this may be one of the largest ARGs to date, and will undoubtedly raise awareness of the genre, the following paved the way for the success of The Lost Ring:

  • The Beast, launched in 2001 to support Stephen Spielberg’s film “A.I.: Artificial Intelligence,” is thought to be the ARG that legitimized this genre. Over 3 million consumers are estimated to have interacted with the game through Web sites, e-mail, faxes, voicemail, and fake advertisements. Several dedicated members created a team, The Cloudmakers, and worked together to solve the puzzle. Their dedication to the game caused the developers to constantly update the plot and even add new subplots to meet the demand for more details.
  • In 2004, Microsoft looked to ARGs to help launch the second installment of its “Halo” series. I Love Bees drove consumers to Web sites with subliminal messages included in “Halo 2” advertising. The sites were thought to be taken over by mysterious intelligence and challenged consumers to solve puzzles that unlocked story details. I Love Bees was considered a success: more than 3 million consumers visited the site, with thousands actually playing through the entire game. The campaign also received recognition in the advertising industry for innovation, which helped further highlight the world of ARGs.
  • In 2005, a breakthrough ARG was at the center of Audi’s A3campaign launch. Audi created a story, “The Art of the Heist,” which centered around six A3s that contained secure digital memory cards with information tied to the largest art heist in history. Consumers were challenged to help solve the story as the characters raced across the country looking for the information located in the A3s. The campaign touched all media, from TV commercials to live events to direct mail. The real-time campaign leveraged popular events for major industries such as the New York International Auto Show, the Coachella Music and Arts Festival, the E3 Expo, and AFI film parties.

The community of ARG enthusiasts has grown significantly as more companies look to interactive storytelling to engage their consumers. Sites such as AGRNet and allow these fans to come together and share information on their favorite ARGs or learn about the latest ARG. These two sites have even joined forces to host ARGFest-O-Con, a conference dedicated to ARGs and gamers who love them.

Based on these and many other examples in the past year, ARGs seem like a great way to engage consumers with your brand assets. However, advertisers should heed the following warnings when exploring these types of activations:

  • Consumers engage with ARGs that offer an engaging story but that also keep them coming back with easter eggs (define). While a brand message can be included in the plot, it can’t be the only story component, as true ARG fans will be quickly turned off if the branding is too heavy. Marketers should work with experts in this field to build an intricate story that will keep the consumer engaged for the life of the campaign.
  • As with other game advertising opportunities, marketers must release control of their assets to the consumers. An ARG’s viral nature is solely based on core fans sharing with their peer groups. Authentic ARGs can’t be marketed.
  • ARGs shouldn’t be viewed as a mass-reaching tool. The true value lies in the ability to create a relationship with consumers that will last two to three months. The structure is built to leverage your brand advocates to drive program awareness.
  • An effective ARG requires significant preparation time and investment costs. It can’t be executed on short turnaround times, given the need for story integration into all media elements. While the cost will vary based on scope, creating all elements on a test budget is highly unlikely.

With all this in mind, I look forward to the next ARG that allows me to play the game in my world. Will your brand help build my adventure?

Related reading