Gaming Gotham: The Minds Behind the Dark Knight ARG Speak

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What was the apex of the campaign? It seemed at Comic-Con last year the fervor was pretty high—what do you guys think the high water mark was?

SB: In ARG is there are different levels of engagement for different levels of consumers. So I believe if you ask the audience that question they might have different answers. The idea was basically to create Gotham in real-time from the end of Batman Begins right up until the beginning of The Dark Knight. A year and a half out you have the opportunity to explore the characters, the strong themes. Those were punctuated by activities that "eventize" the web, like Comic-Con, like the first image of the Joker revealed, or the ringing cakes or campaigning for Harvey Dent or the scavenger hunt to get to go see the third trailer.

There was always something going on in Gotham City, whether you just wanted to be someone very casual who read an edition the Gotham Times or got a campaign button for Harvey Dent. Or whether you wanted to drill down and take place in an oncoming story that paid off when you saw the film.

AL: We had an elaborate plan to roll out the campaign in multiple phases that each tried to accomplish a different objective. The first thing that we did was the Joker reveal, not only start the general awareness but also to get out the first imagery of the Joker in a unique way that audience owned. It involved them branching out from that core comic book group into friends, families and online communities to help them uncover that picture. The idea behind Comic-Con was to build a much higher level of awareness. We had hundreds of people put on Joker makeup and walk around all day. 100,000 people were exposed to them and realized a movie was coming out connected with the Joker. Simultaneously we had three quarters of a million people online. Those were the pre-phases. When we got into the first official ARG chunk phase we focused on really showing the rise of the Joker and who this person was, and started hinting at Harvey Dent. That was sort of to give a flavor to the epicness of the themes on the film, and let people realize they could be citizens of Gotham and play in that world.

SB: But we didn't leave Batman out. He was around and doing things. The interesting thing with Harvey Dent, in the film he refers to going after corrupt cops, his election and the slogan "I Believe in Harvey Dent" and his relationship with Rachel. The players saw all those thing play out and they actually even helped Harvey Dent pursue corrupt cops. They even got Gotham City voter registration cards and they all got to cast their vote for him in an election. Harvey Dent called people, there was this smear campaign and the players actually got to clear his name. I think that it's really a chance to be a part of that fiction.
Bonds, left, and Lieu
Bonds, left, and Lieu
AL: We try to design out these experiences that engage people at multiple levels. There's something for everyone. When we put the cell phones in the cakes there were two things we were doing, one is that we were trying to lead people to unlock tickets to go to special prologue screenings. And we also had a request from Warner Brothers, to try to figure out a cool way to integrate Nokia. From a buzz point of view there was a big enough story about the Joker sending people to bakeries and finding the phones in cakes and calling and unlocking these tickets online. Hardcore enthusiast players, actually, in the course of going to pick up those cakes, helped steal a District 22 school bus, from Gotham City. They weren't sure why. But in the prologue, when the Joker, after the bank robbery, makes his escape, that same school bus crashes into the bank and he gets on it and takes off. In that way we're actually having the players become part of the fiction and the film themselves.
So what came next?

AL: In phase two we really wanted to focus on tasking that core audience and really broadening it. One of the objectives there was to appeal not only to the broader moviegoer but also specifically to women. So we focused on Harvey Dent and his election and sort of tied in to the current buzz and fervor that was going on in relation to the primaries for the national election.

SB: The idea had always been to introduce Harvey Dent as an assistant district attorney, and Rachel Dawes, who's an assistant district attorney. Dent had been making a name for himself by going after corrupt cops. Aaron Eckhart, the actor who played the character, recorded a phone call for us that said he really wanted to know if the citizens of Gotham really wanted change. He really threw down the challenge, said if you can demonstrate to me you really want change and really want to take back our city from the corrupt then I'll consider running for district attorney. That launched a multiple-week experience where players got to go out and make videos and show their support for Harvey Dent. We got some really great stuff; a whole high school had done a video and got their teachers involved. We got thousands of submissions from over 70 countries. And then he announced his candidacy and that kicked off a 33 city tour in the U.S. of official campaigning for Harvey Dent. We like to call those street teams meet flash mobs. We announced where we were going to be and had our crew out there with campaign materials, and players met up with them, and did rallies. There's some great footage on Gotham Cable News. We couldn't have predicted how popular it would be but we saw a 38% increase in participation, mostly among women. I'm sure some of that had to do with the appeal of Aaron Eckhart, but also, I think, it was kind of fun. The presidential primaries were going on the entire time. The race didn't really end until June. The election actually happened at the beginning of the final phase, that's how we kicked off the final phase, we began with the election of Harvey Dent, and then we coordinated with the guys who did Gotham Tonight for Comcast, and on the first episode of Gotham Tonight they announced that he won. And, of course, when you see him in the film, he's been elected.
The Gotham Tonight stuff, you guys didn't do that, right?

SB: The six videos up on that site were actually done by Comcast, working with a production team. They were written by one of the associate producers of The Dark Knight. We worked with them on the script but Comcast actually paid for those. We did the online presence of Gotham Cable News, but those were made for television.
How difficult is it to gather stuff from people like Eckhart? Aren't there clips of Heath Ledger as the Joker that aren't from the movie around? What are the legal hurdles you have to hop in getting that source material?

SB: All the materials, we worked with the filmmakers and Warner Brothers, but it was really a question of whether it worked in the fiction. If you look at the Gotham Times, we have almost every character represented multiple times. But it really depended on what was happening in Gotham City at the time. Jim Gordon got promoted to the head of MCU, the major crime unit, and then in the film he gets promoted to commissioner. That happened after the end of Batman Begins, so it was really more of a question of finding, treating everything in the film as if it really happened, so it was a matter of finding the right asset or opportunity to incorporate those assets.

I think the real win for the way we worked with Warner Brothers is doing the push and pull between nontraditional and traditional marketing. Take Comic-Con. That was a very nontraditional approach to generating buzz for the film but the payoff was Warner Brothers let us release the teaser trailer. There you have a very traditional asset but it's released in an unconventional way that allows all the people who are participating to feel a lot of ownership in that asset, and they feel very evangelistic about it.

We were able to extend that relationship all the way through, whether it was through images that Warner allowed us to release as the rewards for elaborate puzzles or pre-screenings or, at one point in the last phase, we did release a little piece of the film, where you don't really see Harvey Dent after his accident but you see a glimpse of him. That was a reward for players who participated in the final location-based puzzle that played out over 225 Domino's locations.
At what point in the process of making the film did you get the stuff from Eckhart?

SB: We had him do it; most of the stuff that Aaron and Gary and Maggie did for us was after principal photography was completed. So it was a special ask. Other than the stuff that was provided by the filmmakers and Warner Brothers.
Back to Domino's, how do you guys collaborate with the standard elements of the marketing? I saw game-related graffiti in the Crispin commercials.

SB: We actually worked with Domino's through Warner Brothers promotions, both Domino's and Nokia and Comcast all wanted to participate in the fictional world of Gotham City. We were able to setup Gotham Cable News for Comcast, Gotham City Pizzeria for Domino's . The idea behind that was to cleverly, within the fiction, give Domino's a presence, but also use Domino's' distribution network to get out to different players. We've been doing location-based puzzles in the U.S. and around the world in about 25 or 50 locations, and by collaborating with Domino's we were able to get it up to 225-250 locations. We had to work together on it, because we used their custom ordering, they did a custom ordering system for us.

So you don't really deal with the main agencies?

SB:Only in the sense of ensuring, when you do non-traditional and traditional marketing you want to ensure the line is maintained. There are a set of rules that apply to the alternate reality game, and we were in a lot of meetings with a lot of people, going over that, explaining that.

AL: With reference to the specific Domino's commercial, we did supply them with all of that art, we gave them signage art for Rent-a-clown, we gave them Citizens for Batman and Harvey Dent materials, newspaper stands and the Gotham Times. They were excited about what we were doing and wanted it to feel like it was coming from the same world. In that sense we worked with them, to make sure we could extend that out.

SB: It was interesting, by the time we go to the final phase there were actually a lot of physical artifacts we'd created, as part of building out Gotham City. There are over 40 websites. Just a lot of visual look and feel that people have been associating with it.

AL: Other ways that we tied in with the traditional marketing assets, in addition to giving them out, there was an example around when the first one-sheet came out, the one with the brick wall and the circles and the eyes and the mouth that was made out of the bat logo. On the bottom of that poster there is a little puzzle that's just basically turned letters, that are rotated, flipped sideways or turned upside down. We wanted to create a puzzle for people who had heard about The Dark Knight and who, if they walked by this poster, would see these letters, this mysterious little puzzle there. So it wasn't a difficult one, it was one we wanted people to accomplish in a few minutes staring at it in the theater. So when you rearrange the letters in the correct order it spells out 'A taste for the theatrical,' which released the first official trailer for the movie. In doing those kinds of things we see we can integrate with the traditional marketing materials, by hiding something in plain sight or doing something within it. And once the people discover them and find them, all of a sudden they're scouring through all of the traditional marketing materials anticipating them and sharing them with each other. We tend to try to do as many things like that [as we can] when we have opportunities.

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