Puppetmaster. Rabbit-hole. The Curtain. Trailhead.
Those are some of the terms encountered in alternate reality games (ARGs), which have become an increasingly important piece of the marketing plan for Hollywood studios and TV nets looking to promote properties to game-oriented auds.
The games take place in elaborate online universes that immerse players in transmedia storytelling, often moving into the real world on treasure hunts and quests.
It’s a way for studios to let their characters and storylines live on in many ways beyond the film, which is the aim of the transmedia approach.
The niche has its own confab: the ARGfest, which kicks off its ninth edition in Atlanta this week.
A wide-ranging ARG game called “Flynn Lives” launched at Comic-Con a year ago in advance of Disney’s release of “Tron: Legacy” on Dec. 17, with more than 3 million players joining the game.
Warner Bros. is employing some of the tactics popular in ARG to market Christopher Nolan’s “Inception,” opening July 16, though the mysterious plotline meant not many tidbits could be doled out.
Promos for “Inception” included the Mind Crime game and use of quick response codes (bar codes readable by cell phones) on posters that pointed fans to websites, such as one that instructed players how to build the Inception device.
Movies and TV shows aren’t the only properties using games — brands from the Smithsonian Institution to Dos Equis, Audi and Volvo have also introduced them.
The games are based on websites, but require players to use everything from text messages and phone calls to GPS coordinates to broaden the play.
For the game based around “The Dark Knight,” one of the most elaborate ARGs to date, some players were texted GPS coordinates leading them to bakeries, where they had to actually dig through cakes for clues.
“That’s the beauty of ARG, you let the audiences put the pieces together. They start to feel an ownership,” says Susan Bonds, prexy-CEO of Pasadena-based 42 Entertainment.
One of the high profile companies among a handful that develop ARGs, 42 worked on the “Tron” game and “Dark Knight’s” innovative “Why So Serious” ARG for Warner Bros.
Along with WB and Disney, Sony has promoted properties with variations of ARGs for titles including “District 9” and the upcoming Angelina Jolie starrer “Salt.”
The TV biz is also taking advantage of the opportunity afforded by ARGs to involve their viewers more actively, with games for “Heroes” and “Push, Nevada.”
Developing the narrative for an ARG is a carefully coordinated effort with the filmmakers and studios.
In the case of “Tron,” it’s been 28 years since the original film was in theaters, so there’s a wealth of fiction to fill in. “Flynn Lives” revolves around answering the question of whether Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges’ character in the original film) is alive, and where he might be.
When the game kicked off at Comic-Con last summer, 600 players were handed a marker, a map and a black light and told to scour San Diego for posters. The posters had coordinates eventually leading to a location where Disney had built a full-sized replica of Flynn’s Arcade.
At Wonder-Con in April, the character of Kevin’s son, Sam Flynn, was introduced at a mock press conference where Bruce Boxleitner, who will reprise his role as Alan Bradley in “Tron: Legacy,” appeared in character to promote a new “Space Paranoids” game from Encom.
Protestors stormed the stage, followed by the character of Sam Flynn parachuting out of a helicopter above. News of the event quickly cascaded across the Internet.
More recently, a 12-week story arc concluded in which players collectively tracked down Sam at a remote spot in Brazil. They just missed Sam but found his locker, which they got to break into online and rummage through the contents. They found a book authored by Kevin Flynn (it’s the first public glimpse of the book, which is featured in the movie) and other items.
Bigscreen properties like “Tron” and “Dark Knight” are ideal for ARGs because there’s so much mythology to draw upon. But developing the games takes a major commitment of time and money from a studio. As with the advance rollout of “Why So Serious” ahead of “The Dark Knight,” “Flynn Lives” launched 18 months before “Tron: Legacy’s” release.
“The Dark Knight” game created major buzz: It began with 100,000 players and ended up with 10 million. There were 300 real-world events tied to the game, with stunts weaving texting, phone calls and web video into the storyline.
“It’s not just for original fans; you use their enthusiasm to evangelize a story. You bet they’ve told everyone they know. That’s how it spreads, and that’s the beauty of cross-platform,” says Bonds.
Her company’s client list extends well beyond Hollywood, including the development of a game for the launch of Windows Vista that culminated in the winner receiving a rocket ride. The firm also built a game for the launch of Nine Inch Nails’ album “Year Zero,” and “ilovebees,” the prequel to the Xbox game “Halo 2.”
While it’s hard to quantify how much a popular ARG can add to a film’s grosses, the fanbase for “Dark Knight” helped drive the pic to become what was then the second top-grossing title of all time after “Titanic” (a record it held until 20th Century Fox’s “Avatar” bumped “Titanic” to No. 2).
As movie marketers continue to lament the tens of millions they put into television advertising, ARGs provide a way to target the mostly young, videogame enthusiasts that are also pic fans.
Marketers say that costly ARGs are best suited for franchise or event titles. But when they work, it’s worth it for the attention they bring to a property.
“It’s really a treat for the fan,” says one publicity exec. “In return, the studio counts on the player to make noise.”