Elan Lee buys a wrench.
Lenore Henry picks up the phone.
Elan Lee changes the channel.
Microsoft gets richer.
Elan Lee throws toast.
Never stop searching.
The clues are there.
Alex Handy is missing; find him.
You just need to know where to look, dear Watson.
Stop reading for a moment and scan your surroundings for anything that might be lying to you: Strangers. Classified ads. Billboards. Phones. Radio shows. The Internet. Games. Classified ads? Be warned, this isn’t an article. This isn’t a newspaper. And it sure as hell isn’t a game. Lies, all lies.
One day last fall, Lenore Henry stood by a pay phone on San Francisco’s Market Street. She cupped the thick black shell of the receiver to one ear and plugged the other with an errant finger to block out street noise. Behind her, a man clicked on a recording device and poked a microphone at the telephone mouthpiece. A familiar female voice was on the line. It wasn’t a recorded voice as before. This one was live. It was “Melissa,” and Lenore needed to make her cry.
This much she knew: Sometime in the distant future, a six-year-old girl had been abducted by the government and her personality uploaded into a computer as the foundation for an artificial intelligence — Melissa — aboard the spaceship Apocalypso. As a result of some strange events on board, Melissa somehow was thrown back through time to 2004, and was now trapped on the hard drive of a Napa Valley woman’s Internet server. That woman was a beekeeper named Margaret Efendi, who maintained a Web site, ILoveBees.com, which someone, or something, recently had hijacked.
Lenore and millions of others had been keeping close track of the site. That’s where she’d discovered the latitudes and longitudes of this and other pay phones, and the dates and times they would ring. Now here she was, conversing with Melissa and, without really knowing it, participating in a completely novel type of marketing campaign, one in which the campaign is an end in itself. Lenore had not yet heard of Elan Lee, but she was doing his will nonetheless.
Roughly 650 miles to the north, Elan flips through the TV channels, blending the disembodied words into one unintelligible sentence. His face is boyish and mischievous for a man of thirty, and his tendency to fidget and switch body positions incessantly would give any third-grade teacher fits. Working out of his Seattle apartment, he maintains a hacker’s habits, staying up until 4 a.m. and sleeping till noon. The TV stays on while he works — he’s ignoring Ed Wood at the moment. It satisfies his peripheral vision as he types furiously, letting the random ideas, fragments, puzzles, and hypotheses spill from his hyperactive brain out through his fingers and onto his computer monitor. Elan fancies himself a sort of funnel for mass communications — the background sounds and symbols infuse his projects with knowledge of the masses. He knows the will of the hive mind.
Breaking up the TV programs is advertising, that antithesis of art. At one time, these commercials proclaimed product features and benefits. You’ll wonder where the yellow went when you brush your teeth with Pepsodent. Lucky Strike means fine tobacco. Today, ads must entertain or die. The straight sales pitches of yore have been replaced by attempts at brand association: Nike is an attitude; Budweiser is big breasts and talking lizards between innings; Volkswagen is catchy synth-pop and emo twentysomethings. Over the past two decades, the merger of the marketing world with the entertainment business has been made complete. Modern advertising is all subversion and coercion, seldom straightforward, often dishonest.
Elan and his team embrace this reality. They lie for a living. They make everything up. The hive mind understands, and with any luck, it will like their product.
Their product is a game.
The unstated goal of which is to make you purchase their client’s product.
Which is also a game.
Perhaps you’ve heard of their client.
At precisely midnight last November 9, the video game Halo 2 went on sale for the first time. Within 24 hours, the Microsoft Xbox shoot-’em-up had clocked in as the most successful media launch ever. By midnight the next day, 2.4 million copies had been sold nationwide, reaping $125 million in sales. It took Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, a popular PlayStation 2 game released almost two months earlier, thirty days to hit that number. The record haul for a blockbuster film on opening day, set by Shrek 2 last May, was $44.8 million. Halo 2 nearly tripled that.
At least part of the credit — and it is impossible to measure how much — lies with the small, innovative Emeryville-based outfit 4orty 2wo. That’s Elan’s baby. He’s one of its three cofounders, and its day-to-day creative mastermind.
Forty Two, as it shall henceforth appear, got its name straight off the jersey of Jackie Robinson, the black player who shattered major-league baseball’s race barrier. To boot, in the geek novella (and recent film) Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, a supercomputer called Deep Thought calculated for 7.5 million years to come up with “The Ultimate Answer to Life, the Universe and Everything,” which was — you guessed it — 42. What Forty Two, the company, provides its corporate clients may well reside at the remote fringes of the marketing universe, but it already has an acronym: ARG. That’s short for Alternate Reality Game, something that didn’t truly exist until the company’s founders put it in play.
Ask Forty Two cofounder Jordan Weisman, the company’s resident guru on the hill, where the concept originated, and he’ll probably mention the Beatles. While Paul McCartney didn’t really die in a car crash on Abbey Road, the band’s distribution of “clues” to his death throughout its album art and songs laid the groundwork for amazing possibilities. Feed Elan the same question and he’ll cite David Fincher’s 1997 movie The Game, in which the protagonist played by Michael Douglas gets drawn into a life-threatening adventure that never gives up, and never admits it’s a game. It’s one of Elan’s favorite movies, and a key inspiration in his work.
Alternative marketing schemes are nothing new, of course. They went downright mainstream during the dot-com boom, with major ad agencies spinning off units to engage in guerrilla marketing and the hot new fad of viral marketing. Guerrilla marketing involves in-your-face street stunts of the type long used by radio stations: Career site HotJobs.com, to cite just one example, hired actors who posed as soapbox preachers to tout the site’s virtues on the streets of big city financial centers. Viral marketing, meanwhile, involves strategies such as recruiting teen tastemakers to fan out across Internet chat rooms and talk up the latest sneakers to give ’em street cred. These methods were seen by clients as mainstream as Sony, Lexus, Kraft, and Colgate-Palmolive as ways to accomplish the elusive goal of generating “buzz” about their products.
But those tactics are so 2000. Forty Two has taken alt-marketing to an entirely new level. Imagine, if you will, a campaign so covert that it mentions neither the product nor the client, one in which none of those responsible acknowledge the campaign exists until after the product is launched, in which packs of random people run all over America to answer ringing pay phones in order to piece together a futuristic radio drama that ends where Halo 2 takes off. All this is the work of a marketing firm that swears it will never use the same tactics twice, and whose services so closely resemble art that it is represented by one of Hollywood’s top talent agencies.
Does such secret salesmanship sell widgets? Difficult to say. Nor does it particularly matter. Because when clients like Microsoft and Warner Bros. like what you do, other big names beat a path to your door. Forty Two is in talks with Coca-Cola and other companies it isn’t at liberty to mention, and is in the process of beefing up its staff in anticipation of new campaigns. It certainly hasn’t hurt that the company’s Halo 2 campaign landed it a prestigious Innovation Award at the 2005 Game Developers Conference, as well as this year’s Webby in the Games-Related category. The company has been profitable from day one, says CEO Joe DiNunzio, who in practice functions as chief financial officer and glad-hander. While he won’t cite revenue figures — few private companies do — he says Forty Two’s business has doubled in the past twelve months and he expects the same over the next twelve. “We have been fortunate in that many of our clients have heard about us before we ever meet with them,” he says.
Paths of Glory
Selling the world’s largest software corporation on an untested marketing approach might have been damn near impossible had it not been for the death of Stanley Kubrick.
When the renowned director died unexpectedly in March 1999, he had just finished Eyes Wide Shut and was preparing to film his next project, AI, under contract with Warner Bros. When Kubrick died, Steven Spielberg took over as director, but refused to share any part of the unfinished product with those outside his inner circle — including the studio. Warner Bros. couldn’t advance-market a film it knew nothing about, so out of desperation it turned to Microsoft.
It wasn’t an entirely ridiculous request. When the Spielberg project was first announced, Microsoft Game Studios bought the video-game rights for a ludicrous sum without first reviewing the script, and set Jordan Weisman, then creative director for the software giant’s entertainment division, the task of building a game around the film. He wasn’t pleased. From a game designer’s perspective, the script was a dog. “I mean, it’s a great movie,” he now recalls, “but it’s not the type of film people leave saying, ‘Hey, I can’t wait to play the game!'” This was, after all, a movie about a robotic boy programmed to love.
But Jordan was the right man for the job. In the ’80s, he had created pen-and-paper role-playing games of the sort that didn’t involve dragons and dungeons. His games broke the mold. MechWarrior was about massive robotic death machines fighting like tanks. Shadowrun focused on a dystopian future of hackers, magicians, elves, dwarves, and bionic implants. And Crimson Skies was about 1930s air pirates launching fighters from massive blimps and chasing riches across America. He became a Microsoft employee when the software king purchased a game development company he had founded.
The master designer pulled in Elan Lee, a close friend working at Microsoft Game Studios, to help him figure out what to do with the AI license. Over sushi, the pair began brainstorming whatever wacky ideas came to mind. At some point Jordan’s cell phone rang. That was the spark. “Wouldn’t it be cool,” he mused before answering, “if this was the game calling me?” Elan’s eyes lit up. Without waiting for Jordan to finish his call, Elan later recalled, he blurted out, “Yeah, and someone on the other end instructs you to go meet a guy on the corner out there and give him a scrap of the menu!”
Soon after, Warner Bros. called seeking help marketing the film. Elan became obsessed, and Jordan started laying the groundwork for the world’s first alternate reality game. First he needed a wordsmith. He wanted Neal Stephenson, author of the now-classic 1991 cyberpunk novel Snowcrash, but the writer was tied up. Stephenson recommended Sean Stewart, a fantasy writer with several award-winning novels under his belt, and who happened to be available. “The point was initially to market the film and to create a world big enough for later video games to make sense in,” Stewart recalls.
Within a few months, Jordan, Elan, and Sean had crafted a complex timeline that spanned from the modern day up through the distant dates in which AI would be set. Future citizens were about to discover the hardships associated with sentient robots.
While Sean worked out the plotlines, Elan got busy devising puzzles for the game. He designed hundreds, to be buried in Web sites, phony ads, faxes, e-mails, and outgoing voicemail messages. The three recruited an artist to draw up a list of elements — illustrations, pictures, logos — they would need to flesh out all the puzzles. The list contained 666 items, so they dubbed their game The Beast — aptly, it turns out, since the sheer volume of work required to keep it running quickly overwhelmed its creators.
The Beast was an elaborate murder mystery in which players took on the role of Sherlock Holmes. Their goal was to answer the question: “Who killed Evan Chan?” The deceased was an engineer who lived during the time the film’s events take place. Details of his life were documented in Web sites that had ostensibly trickled back through time. From Bangalore University to DonuTech (Evan’s employer) to the personal Web sites of Chan’s wife and children, The Beast was spread out across the entire sphere of modern information technology. Send an e-mail to one of the characters in the story and you’d receive a reply filled with clues about new Web sites and characters. Put your fax number into a text box on the DonuTech Web site and you’d be faxed an incriminating document related to Chan’s death.
Every week, new twists and clues were added. Some were buried under layers of history and information, but no matter how difficult the puzzle, how obscure the knowledge needed to solve it, The Beast‘s players did so with a rapidity that shocked the game’s designers. “Our theory was if we posed the question in the right way, and inspired a group of people — a small group initially — to try to find the answers, they would organically start to enlist a larger and larger group,” Jordan explains. “As that group grew, it would come to quickly represent every knowledge base, and every skill base you could imagine, plus a virtually unlimited amount of time, energy, and resources.
“And we were right,” he continues, “but by an order of magnitude we were off. Because that group formed — you know we had around three million people on the AI project and about three million people on ILoveBees as well. Damn, there is nothing they can’t solve; there is nothing they can’t solve instantly.”
The designers, in fact, concluded they were no longer building games for individuals, but for a “hive mind” composed of millions of walking, talking neurotransmitters. Rather than diffusing across nerve synapses, these transmitters processed information via cell phones, chat rooms, and Web forums. While each puzzle had to be defeated by each individual player, solutions were shared. To this day, the players maintain online replicas of all the game’s Web sites, and listings of solutions for all its puzzles. The movie itself may be a long-forgotten box office disappointment, but four years after The Beast came to an end, the hive mind it created still pulses with life.
Recognizing the novelty of what they’d accomplished in the marketing realm, the three men set out to form their own company. Unlike most start-ups, however, they had the advantage of a built-in client, one of the world’s richest at that. In the words of its CEO, Forty Two was “bootstrapped.” In practice, that meant Chris Di Cesare, director of marketing at Microsoft Game Studios and the man in charge of the Halo 2 launch, was a fan of The Beast. “Two years ago, I was outlining what I thought was critical,” he recalls. “We wanted an event-style campaign and to do something with mass-market media, but I didn’t have the budget of a Spider-Man 2. The thing that I really wanted to rely on was the event-style approach. I wanted to do an overt campaign and a covert campaign. The covert was a little more risky, but had the potential to explode.”
Give Them a Show
Four months after that explosive launch, Forty Two’s founders and several of its creative worker bees sit around a conference table at the company’s Emeryville headquarters to talk about what they do for a living. The team is constantly in touch by phone and e-mail, but only rarely do its members come face to face. Jordan and Elan spend much of their time in the Seattle region, Sean is often found in Los Angeles, and the rest are here and there and everywhere.
This is hardly your daddy’s button-down advertising establishment. Weisman set the tone for his new company by mandating a work environment where people park their egos at the door and where there’s no such thing as a stupid idea. Since the company was birthed in 2002, after all, its creators have been sailing uncharted territories. “What marketing means to most people is tricking people into buying some piece of crap that they don’t want to buy,” says Sean Stewart, sitting alongside his fellow gamesters. “So let’s reverse that equation and say, ‘I, the consumer, have a remote control. I can skip your commercial, I can flip past your ad in the magazine, I don’t want to be tricked into buying crap I don’t need. My time, my attention is valuable. If you want me to spend my attention on having anything to do with you, gimme a show.'”
For the Halo 2 campaign, code-named The Haunted Apiary, a show is exactly what Microsoft’s prospective customers got. Stewart penned a five-hour radio drama based in 2552, which followed six characters in a future soap opera set to the backdrop of an imminent alien invasion — which is where Halo 2 begins. But it went further than that. To piece together the drama, players of The Haunted Apiary needed to get physically involved in the game — even alter it. That kind of personal involvement is Forty Two’s trademark.
“We saw the Internet was creating a kind of try-before-you-buy mentality,” Jordan explains. “People expect to receive some value in advance of having to hand over their hard-earned cash. And so this whole concept was about how to create that emotional kind of attachment and demonstrate the value and quality of that experience before you buy the video game or a ticket to the movie.”
To craft that experience, Forty Two acts more like Xerox PARC than Madison Avenue during the planning phase of its campaigns. Elan’s full-time job is to sit on park benches, or wherever, and come up with ideas. Sometimes he’ll get up and do handstands, then sit back down and scribble notes on his tablet PC. He might go to a cafe and listen in on conversations, which he incorporates into his brainstorming. Sometimes he uses a similar strategy with his TV.
Then he calls Sean. The two spend much of their workday on the phone, mulling wacky ideas, postulating plot points, and generally brainstorming. Elan has no shortage of wacky ideas. Sometimes they’re downright foolhardy: Last time he was in Paris, he visited the top of the Eiffel Tower. Disgusted by the elevator fee, he rode back to ground level with an idea for a new game: Let’s Steal Bolts. He purchased a monkey wrench and a trench coat, then paid and rode again to the top of the tower, where he tried to extricate a steel rivet. Tourists began hollering and security pounced. Paris police confiscated Elan’s wrench and shoved him back down to the street, scratching their heads. Lucky for him it was pre-9/11.
Have Elan name his favorite games, and he’ll say Tetris, The Incredible Machine, and Toast. He and his friends invented Toast in high school. They would lie down in the back of a pickup truck waiting for a pedestrian to walk by, then sit bolt upright and scream “Toast!” and throw pieces of toast at the poor sap’s head as the driver peeled away.
Elan, Sean says, is utterly dedicated to creating something cool, but the thing itself is the goal, not cash or personal aggrandizement. It’s the hacker mindset: For a hacker, taking credit means getting caught, or, in Forty Two’s case, admitting it’s a marketing campaign, something Elan is loath to do: “There are two ways to tell a story, we think. There’s all the very traditional ways — you put it on the screen, you put it in a book — or you can hide it and then sort of thumb your nose at everyone and say, ‘I know something you don’t know!’ And that excites and encourages and empowers an audience in a way that traditional advertising and traditional storytelling is not able to.” When Sean and Elan settle on an idea, they call Jordan, who rips it apart. Only when the ideas have really been nailed down and the contracts signed do they call in the infantry: Jim Stewartson is staff geek, officially chief technical officer, whose job it is to make these crackpot ideas work. He has been building online games for nearly a decade, and his knowledge spans the media spectrum.
Jane McGonigal is Forty Two’s resident blogger and sneak. It was her job to monitor the players and know what the hive mind thought of all that was happening within The Haunted Apiary. Then there are Bob Fagan and Susan Bonds. Bob produced the radio drama, and project manager Susan, Forty Two’s “den mother,” makes sure things get done, bills get paid, and that people remember to eat and sleep. Altogether, Forty Two has just nine full-time employees, plus hordes of freelancers it recruits for specific campaigns — in all, about eighty people took part in the Halo 2 campaign.
Running these games is a Herculean undertaking. For starters, there’s no way to test them in advance, or to accurately predict how tens of thousands of people will behave out in the real world. If something goes wrong while the game is in play, there are no time-outs, no pause button. As a result, Forty Two functions a bit like an improvisational theater troupe whose actors are constantly struggling to stay one step ahead of the hive mind. If you view the overall puzzle as an onion, Elan’s crew often gets a layer in place only minutes before players peel off the one above it. Sometimes the crew helps them peel, but on occasion, the players get too smart — they dig up the roots and scare the hell out of the gardener. Fortunately, most aren’t out to spoil things. They simply make themselves known to the company in the same covert way that Forty Two doles out clues. “I can say with no irony whatsoever that these games have done more to restore my faith in humanity than anything else,” Stewart says.
Near the start of the AI campaign, however, a player began sending directives to the fledgling community, pretending to be someone in charge and demanding that players compete rather than collaborate — a demand anathema to Forty Two’s philosophy. The real puppetmasters sweated bullets, but decided not to interfere. To do so would be to admit they had something to do with the game, and that it was indeed a game. So Elan’s crew sat back and waited. It was the right decision — it didn’t take the hive mind long to debunk the guy. Rule number one, Elan notes: “The game must never admit that it’s a game.” When it’s over, the creators can come out and take a bow, but as long as the curtain is up, the show must go on.
The Haunted Apiary
Last July, ILoveBees.com went live, ostensibly a site for a smalltime beekeeper to sell her honey online. It was registered to one Margaret Efendi, owner of Margaret’s House of Bees, complete with a Napa Valley address, e-mail address, and phone number. But the site apparently had been hacked — much of the home page was obscured by a large black box containing ominous computer jargon and a string of numbers counting down to something.
No one knew the Web site existed until the recent movie I, Robot hit theaters. The film was preceded by a thirty-second trailer for Halo 2. At the very end, for perhaps a couple of seconds, “ILoveBees.com” appeared in tiny green text beneath the Xbox logo — the only public link ever made between Halo 2 and the Web site. The address was too small to read on the cinema screen. Two days later, however, the trailer was released online and Forty Two’s game kicked into gear. Prior to that, all of two people reached the Web site — house techie Jim Stewartson suspects they were taping in the theater.
In time, however, more than three million individuals gravitated to ILoveBees, and many of them checked in regularly to keep tabs on the enigmatic countdown. It lasted for weeks, and the Internet was abuzz with anticipation. Lenore Henry heard about it from her then-boyfriend, and was soon hooked. She had no interest in video games, but nonetheless began to speculate about the site with others in online chat rooms and message boards.
To compound matters, Cal doctoral student Jane McGonigal, who had recently joined Elan’s team, began posting messages at ilovebees.blogspot.com under the assumed name of Dana. Dana was ostensibly Margaret Efendi’s niece, and the de facto Webmistress for ILoveBees.com. She quickly gathered a following as she posted messages about her aunt’s technical trials and tribulations: “The hijacked countdown has definitely gotten under Aunt M’s skin. ‘Strong intrusive inclination’ gives her the ‘heeby jeebies’ (her words). She asked me if ‘the medium will metastasize’ means that her computer is going to explode. I’m pretty sure it doesn’t, but unfortunately for now, I don’t have a more optimistic interpretation to offer her.”
When the countdown hit zero, the rabbit hole only went deeper. A new link appeared, leading to a messy conglomeration of words and numbers. Without any explanation, this new page contained dates, times, and 220 sets of what appeared to be global positioning system coordinates. Again, the community forming around the Web site was agog with anticipation. The hive mind was taking shape, and it absorbed Lenore and all her chat-room buddies.
When Elan’s crew was conceiving The Haunted Apiary, they called random pay phones around the country to see what would happen. The experiment didn’t go very well. It might have worked better twenty years ago — the number of pay phones in the United States has dwindled substantially since cell phones became popular, and relatively few of the surviving landlines accept incoming calls.
The challenge, then, was to root out pay phones that did. The team put friends and family on the prowl: Every time someone found a phone that accepted incoming calls for free, they’d send its number and coordinates back to Forty Two. This process took months — the team was adding new phones right up until the final weeks of the game — but in the end, the phone hunters managed to track down nearly a thousand working outlets. Forty Two dubbed them “axons” — collectively, they served as the playing field for The Haunted Apiary, the medium through which the game’s hive mind would flourish.
When the very first of those phones rang last August 24 in San Francisco, Lenore was there, along with more than twenty others. The players didn’t know they were looking for pay phones. Some were hoping for free stuff; others expected actors dressed as Halo 2 characters. So when the phone rang, reactions were mixed. “One guy answered the phone and listened,” Lenore recalls. “He said, ‘You’re the Operator,’ then listened some more. When he was done, he said, ‘Repeat,’ and handed the phone off to the next person.”
It was Melissa calling, really just a recording and some voice recognition software. The first thing she asked the caller was “Who am I?” Melissa’s nickname back on the Apocalypso spaceship had been “The Operator.” For stating the correct answer — which players had discovered within fragments of backstory hidden in images on the ILoveBees site — the listener was rewarded with a one-minute portion of the radio drama, which was then uploaded to the Web site for anyone to hear. In game parlance, the axon had been “enhottenated.” In this way, through a team effort by players across the country, the story slowly came together. If a phone wasn’t found in time, or nobody answered Melissa’s question correctly, it would ring once a day until someone provided the right answer.
According to Forty Two, between ten thousand and twenty thousand players became seriously committed to solving the game’s puzzles. The most avid would drive for hours to catch Melissa. Others would meet up online to coordinate schedules so they could hunt phones in packs. They became flash mobs, player squads that would materialize as if by magic just before a phone rang, and vanish just as quickly once the receiver was nestled back into its silvery cradle. One axon in Juneau, Alaska, went unanswered for weeks. Out of desperation, players tracked down the phone number of a nearby Blockbuster video store and persuaded a clerk to wander outside and answer Melissa’s question, bringing that axon online.
The Haunted Apiary, writer Stewart says, played out like War of the Worlds meets Short Cuts — except that the players were providing the twists. As the game progressed, they demanded more attention, more puzzles, and more interaction. They liked the radio drama, and shared their own tangential stories from the future, but some griped the game wasn’t interactive enough — so Forty Two decided to give them what they wanted.
In September, about a month into the campaign, Melissa went live. Sitting in a room in Washington state with some Forty Two folks, voice actress Kristen Rutherford, who played the role in the recording studio, began calling the pay phones herself and engaging with the players who answered. She would make them identify themselves and announce their ranks and duties on board the Apocalypso. She asked what they would do to help the crew, and demanded demonstrations of their loyalty.
Some players gathered like platoons with made-up signal-corps chants, which they would together yell into the phone. Others told her they’d play guitar for the troops, and she would demand to hear them. In one call, Melissa asked Lenore Henry to photograph her crewmates. Lenore hauled out a digital camera, corralled a bunch of tourists waiting for a cable car, persuaded them to salute, then sent the photo to Margaret Efendi’s Hotmail address, which Melissa also had hijacked.
Through such live interactions, the story’s plot evolved: The six-year-old girl’s personality — Stewart called it the “sleeping princess” — still existed deep within Melissa’s programming, and began surfacing on occasion to demand that players make her peanut-butter sandwiches, sing their favorite songs, and generally behave like a child. Tormented by this capricious voice, the artificial intelligence sought to purge her.
Over the course of the game, the princess — whose whereabouts were known to the hive mind — had succeeded in eluding Melissa’s watchful eye. But during one live call, when Melissa asked a player known as Weephun where the girl was hiding, he betrayed her location on the ILoveBees Web site. Forty Two was astonished he’d given her up: The players loved the cherub who, after all, was just an innocent kid. But instead of killing off the little girl, the team turned the problem into a new game: Free the sleeping princess.
When Lenore answered an axon on the afternoon of the day this new puzzle began, she was expecting just another chunk of the radio drama. Instead, she got an irate Melissa demanding to know her favorite song. Lenore had read about this puzzle earlier in the day; other players had encountered the problem and now understood what was expected.
Lenore had to make Melissa cry. With her guard down, it would then be possible to contact the sleeping princess and lure her to safety by correctly answering three multiple-choice questions. Lenore began to sweat, and her hands shook. This was her first live call. She had prepared a song about bees, on the recommendation of fellow players, but when the artificial intelligence popped the question, Lenore froze. “Amazing Grace,” she said.
“Sing it,” Melissa demanded. So Lenore did. And Melissa joined her. The two harmonized their way through the first verse. Lenore felt silly and wanted to stop, but Melissa plowed into the second verse, and Lenore followed.
“Why is that your favorite song?” Melissa asked.
“Because it’s about hope, and carrying on. I’m forty now, and both my parents are dead, so I feel like an orphan,” Lenore responded.
Melissa burst into tears. The three questions came next, and Lenore already knew the answer to two; they’d been posted online by those who had failed earlier. On the third, Lenore guessed and got lucky. The sleeping princess was freed, and Lenore was catapulted to fame within the Haunted Apiary community.
The Apiary was not just successful as a marketing campaign. It was successful as a game. It was intriguing, kept its players’ attention, and drew in people who’d never played anything like it before. Because there never was anything like it before.
When the pay phones first began ringing, some people were disappointed. Many were rabid Halo fans, who simply wandered off and out of the game. But just as many others stayed for the ride. Alienating the Halo junkies wasn’t a problem. Those guys were going to buy the game on the day it hit stores no matter what, and the fact that a bunch of newbies were pounding the streets looking for pay phones didn’t change that.
But those phone hunters became irrationally devoted to their cause. Elan’s people can rattle off tales of players going to great lengths for the game. When a pay phone in San Francisco was removed by the phone company, J. Christopher Williams, a player who frequented SF axons on his lunch breaks, attached a linesman’s set to the wires sticking out where the phone had been and answered the Operator’s call. When players began attacking a voicemail system used by Forty Two, the rest of the Apiary stopped the culprits with massive guilt trips and lectures. The players created their own rules, and policed one another.
And they loved to communicate. Jane McGonigal’s alter ego, Dana, saw thousands of comments posted to her blog. For a time, McGonigal operated in stealth mode, spying on the players’ street-level interactions. But the hive mind soon discovered her; when word spread that a fire-haired puppetmaster was bouncing around Bay Area axons, she had to cease and desist. The truly hardcore ILoveBees fans are still communicating. Their real-world meetings have led to lasting relationships, and the folks at Forty Two were even invited to weddings of players who’d met at pay phones.
In the end, the concept Forty Two has created is that of a marketing campaign so captivating to those it attracts that it far supersedes the product being marketed. It’s a level of consumer commitment few, if any, traditional marketers have been able to accomplish.
But what do advertisers know, really? The fact is most people don’t like to be marketed to. In an era where it seems everyone has something to sell, many folks are simply weary of any sort of sales pitch, and skeptical of the claims companies make in their ads. Perhaps that’s what makes Forty Two’s tactics refreshing. They save the hard sell, and instead invite people to suspend disbelief in exchange for a good story, perhaps a new community of friends. Hell, maybe they’ll even buy the product in the end.
What’s next, then, for these Emeryville game designers? Well, they can’t tell you the details, because then they’d have to kill you. But they’re still doing stuff for Microsoft. The company also is designing its own clothing line with a built-in game. You heard right. But that mystery won’t be fully revealed until the fashions hit the streets this summer.
So next time you turn to the classified ads in a newspaper, or hear a ringing pay phone at a Concord strip mall, or stumble upon an odd Web site from the future, just remember: This is not a game. No matter how deep the rabbit hole goes, no matter how unlikely the clues, no matter how difficult it is to believe you’re chasing down a missing writer. This is not a game.