C: Describe the various elements of the campaign.
Lee: We recorded a six-hour War of the Worlds-style radio drama which had a plot directly leading into the game Halo2. Instead of airing it over traditional radio waves, we broadcast our story over thousands of ringing payphones around the world. Each time a phone was answered, that portion of the audio was then unlocked on a website. (www.ilovebees.com, in fiction, was a retired beekeeper's website hacked by a strange intelligence to broadcast the bits of audio to the payphone network.) Players could then visit the website to get a realtime update of the pieces of the story that had been collected, and then work as a global team to piece together the fragments of the story into a cohesive narrative.
Each week, as more of the story was delivered, players became more immersed in a fiction that was unwilling to admit it was fake. The game jumped out of its box by challenging players to leave the comfort of their homes and interact with the game and each other in the real world. The game eventually called them on their personal cell phones, sent them email, and arranged live meetings between players and characters.
C: Why undertake this kind of alternate reality game?
Di Cesare: While the battle in the original Halo took place in space, the dramatic setup of Halo2 involves the long feared detection and invasion of Earth by the Covenant. Intrigued by this opening premise, I was fascinated by the parallels with War of the Worlds and the idea of telling a modern day version of War of the Worlds as a setup to the Halo2 story was the original creative inspiration.
While the "I Love Bees" story evolved from this original War of the Worlds premise, it remains true to the radio drama tradition of Orson Welles that we were shooting for and also allowed us to tell the story in an unorthodox way, with payphones, blogs, audio files, live chat, embedded HTML messages and the like, which created further intrigue.
C: What was the planning process like?
Lee: Hectic, and rethought minute by minute. One of the most exciting parts about a project like this is also the largest obstacle. Turns out no one has ever used payphones as a largescale story delivery platform. (And for their own sanity, I hope no one ever does again.) To build this, we had to send out scouts to every payphone in our system (several thousand of them around the world) to verify their location, function, and GPS coordinates (which were used to tell the players where to find the phones). Aside from the logistic nightmare that was the scouting process, we still ran into all kinds of issues we didn't plan on. Phones that worked one day would stop working the next, some phones got washed away by hurricanes, or demolished when gas stations got renovated. Some GPS devices had glitches that placed phones in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, and some long distance networks would cut off our calls after only a few seconds of transmission.
C: We read that ilovebees.com had two million unique visitors-how many people actually participated? How have you measured success?
Lee: We saw about two million people stick around the website long enough to actually play. About 600,000 of those monitored the message boards and tuned back in regularly, and about 10,000 were actively answering payphones, contributing to the community, and ensuring that we never slept at night. Measuring success is a bit more abstract. Sometimes our success is measured in website hits, sometimes it's in column inches, but usually we're hired to make something "cool." While we've heard countless stories of fans who purchased an Xbox and Halo2 because of the campaign, our goal for Microsoft was to broaden their exposure and to get them to show up in places they wouldn't normally have access to. When we started to see stories about Halo fans in bee costumes throwing parties around public payphones in the newspaper, we knew that we'd succeeded.
C: What were your goals with the campaign?
Di Cesare: We truly wanted to make the release of Halo2 a pop culture event similar to blockbuster films like Spiderman or LOTR. The challenge was that the Halo2 marketing budget was nowhere close to the budget of these other entertainment properties. In addition, while video games are becoming increasing popular, they traditionally do not generate broad base consumer interest like many event films. The Halo2 campaign was supported with many of the tactics you would expect from a major entertainment release, including cinema advertising, out of home, and broadcast TV, but at a smaller scale given the budget limitations. Thus, "I Love Bees" was seen as a calculated risk in that the uniqueness of the marketing program had the potential to generate mass market coverage you do not normally see for a videogame launch. With the significant consumer coverage generated and Halo2's phenomenal sales, we were very happy with the results.
C: What is the potential of games like this as a marketing vehicle? Why did it work so well with this audience?
Lee: We're becoming a culture of marketing immune. This is probably a good thing as it forces companies to be more and more creative if they want to get their message out there. It's amazing how many times you see a Coke sign in your day to day life and even more amazing how few times you notice it. The goal of our games is to transform marketing from "push" to "pull". Pushing a product message to a consumer is losing its effectiveness because consumers have such great armor. Our games build a thriving universe around a product. (Either an expansion of one they bring to us, or in the case of products without story, we build our own.) As word about the universe starts to spread, players start to pull the advertising messages in. They start to seek out print ads to find the hidden text. They find out when a commercial is going to air so that they can record it and analyze it frame by frame. They become meticulous sleuths because there is a promise of jewels buried among debris. In a larger sense, they start to become more accepting of a marketing message that treats them with respect and challenges them to shine.
C: Is there any risk or downside with immersive entertainment? Could there be a backlash against the blurring of lines, against content in which it's not made explicit that it's brand-related?
Di Cesare: Given that immersive entertainment is largely driven by the power of word of mouth recognizing that there is always a possibility of backlash is essential. This is specifically important when a brand is clearly connected. While participants have grown to accept that a brand is an integral part of immersive entertainment, the marketing message can not be pushed too hard or you risk alienating consumers. First and foremost, you need to strive to entertain and engage versus force feeding a brand message. If this is accomplished, participants are willing to look past the branding and will evaluate the campaign on face value versus penalizing it for its marketing message.