ARGs hit mainstream with 'Cloverfield'

LOS ANGELES: It's been almost a month since moviegoers first experienced Cloverfield [], the code name for Paramount Pictures/JJ Abrams' untitled monster-disaster feature.

LOS ANGELES: It's been almost a month since moviegoers first experienced Cloverfield [], the code name for Paramount Pictures/JJ Abrams' untitled monster-disaster feature.

The introduction came via a grainy, home video-style trailer screening prior to Transformers. Though mainstream media information has been sparse -- and for the most part, unverified -- at last weekend's annual Comic Con, an official Cloverfield poster was unveiled; along with the trailer, now online at Paramount's Web site. Still, more than four months from the movie's scheduled 1-18-08 release, word-of-mouth publicity only continues to grow.

The majority of that WOM relates directly to Cloverfield's initial teaser, footage that spawned two parallel yet (allegedly) unconnected alternate reality games (ARGs). Each has hijacked the imaginations of players both male and female, casual and hardcore; some, to the obvious consternation of their online peers, don't even realize they're playing a game. In less than 30 days, these games have become both addictive diversions and a viral marketing campaign of plague-like proportions. And perhaps more remarkable than the movie itself, these Cloverfield ARGs are now poised to catapult this just-under-the-radar tactic into the mainstream, for players and marketers alike.

The almost instantaneous commotion around the Cloverfield game shouldn't come as a surprise to those familiar with Abrams' resume. As executive producer of ABC's Lost, he previously oversaw that series' obsessively popular "The Lost Experience," an ARG as multi-layered as the program itself. Beyond serving as a guerilla-like promotional tool for the program, the Lost ARG also incorporated real-life brands including Sprite, Jeep,, and Verizon.

The beginnings of the still-nascent field have been well documented. Pioneered by promotional efforts, including Warner Bros.' 2001 campaign on behalf of Steven Spielberg's A.I., and Microsoft's 2004 "I Love Bees" campaign for video-game Halo 2, ARGs are essentially virtual-world-meets-real-world, tag-team treasure hunts. After slipping - at times, accidentally - through Web-based "rabbit holes," players are challenged by cloaked-identity "PuppetMasters" to quests bound by no media platform. These can range from solving puzzles and deciphering cryptic e-mails online, to - in real life - answering middle-of-the-night phone calls and signing for unexpected packages.

Some call ARGs this century's answer to traditional role-playing games. Others compare them to viral marketing hoaxes, and cite 1999's The Blair Witch Project as a genre precursor. But in terms of popular culture precedents, ARGs seem more closely tied to 1966's Paul Is Dead phenomenon than anything else. Whether or not the Beatles concocted that now-legendary rumor as a strategic marketing ploy, it immediately tapped into fans' craving for information, subsequently leading millions to engage in passionate clue-chasing and sharing -- and, ultimately, record buying. If only the Internet had been around then ...

Market trend-consulting firm The Intelligence Group had its eye on ARGs as far back as September 2004, and in February 2005, CNET reporter John Borland called the genre possibly "one of the most powerful guerrilla marketing mechanisms ever invented." In hindsight, both were right -- just slightly ahead of the curve.

In terms of brand immersion, a marketer seeking to establish long-lasting, emotional connections with consumers would be hard-pressed to find a better vehicle than an ARG. In the past two years, efforts by brands including Audi, General Motors, Hasbro, and Sprite have captivated highly targeted market segments, even if it meant shower-less days and sleepless nights. As players obsessively searched for clues, the brands were always there.

More recently, the player pool has begun to expand to a more diverse (and casual) player demographic.

In November 2006, for example, Procter & Gamble's CoverGirl sponsored "Cathy's Book," a teen-oriented ARG spread across Web sites and MySpace pages, as well as a diary-style book. And in April, in one of the genre's first socially responsible games, ITVS/PBS urged players to consider how they would live in a "World Without Oil," then document their scenarios with blogs, photos, videos, and podcasts collected on the ARG.

Like any viral marketing effort, ARGs come with their own set of challenges, especially in terms of ROI. Game creators have a general idea of how many players are involved, but it's practically impossible to determine the number who are truly active, and how many more are lurking in the cybershadows. And while ARGs can be cost efficient, they do take a tremendous amount of immersion on the part of developers: Someone's got to keep the game moving, day and night.

But for brands that do integrate an ARG into their marketing, there are standard measurables: traffic and visit time to Web sites, forums and chat rooms posts, and certainly media coverage. Above all, the potential for emotional engagement can impact players on levels far greater than even the most innovative of viral video clips.

So why is now the time for ARGs to go mainstream? And why Cloverfield?

Longtime social networkers are finally beginning to tire of rearranging friends on My Space, and they're looking to interact on deeper, more meaningful levels. ARGs demand that kind of interaction: Few players have the skill sets needed to solve games alone; even if they could, relationships often must be forged with key players in order to access critical puzzle-solving information.

Cloverfield itself was perfectly positioned, intended to appeal exactly to the Web-savvy crowd of social networkers in search of something new. First-time players were encouraged to get involved, with demo-diverse "rabbit holes," discussion of the ARG on mainstream movie sites like Ain't It Cool News, and JJ Abrams' name recognition alone.

What will happen when whatever-it's-called is released, on 1-18-08? It might be a cinematical masterpiece; perhaps it will not. But unless something goes horribly awry, Cloverfield the ARG will actively immerse millions of potential ticket buyers for the next four months, and raise the bar for games to come.

Just imagine what they could have done with The Simpsons.

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