sxswi 2008: day 2, Stories, Games and Your Brand

Rachel Clarke Bibrik Ltd
Jeremy Ettinghausen Digital Publisher, Penguin Books

Roo Reynolds Metaverse Evangelist, IBM
Dan Hon
CEO, Six to Start
Dan Heaf,
BBC, moderator

Heaf: How can games, stories, puzzles etc. help engage users with your brand? We’ve seen in film and tv that these techniques have been put in place to great effect. Outside of those genres, can such tactics be effective?

Hon: Who here knows about Cloverfield? (many) Seen it? (many) Knew about online campaign? (fewer) Felt a bit let down? (a few) There’s a way that stories can be used to extend brands across multiple platforms. With Cloverfield, JJ Abrams has seen that there’s a way to extend a story across a wide universe, and the people who are your most passionate fans will evangelize your content.

Clarke: Honda are using straightforward puzzles across all their media atm. On their website, everything’s about problems (Rubik’s cube, mazes, puzzles) to engage people. These take you more and more into what Honda’s about and what they’re selling (hybrid car).

Reynolds: I love ARGs! Everyone knows about ilovebees. Perplex City has a nice backstory to drop into, and an amazing wiki, and community of people solving it. Doing puzzley things for kids now and I love all that stuff. in my work in virtual worlds I’m in some ways disappointed not to see the same level of depth inside VWs. There have been great examples of participation by consumers, like Second Life – CSI: narrative story there, not a puzzle as such but stories and games going on. ‘virtual worlds are the next wave of a tool for storytelling’ and I think we’re just beginning to scratch the surface.

Ettinghausen: Why might brands be interested in games and stories? Traditional marketing (tv ad, poster) engages people for about 30 secs max; games provide a much longer and more in-depth interaction between brand and potential consumer, and give many more opportunities to interact with consumers. That’s probably why more and more brands are interested in having conversations with and interacting with consumers.

Clarke: The O’Reilly Games book in swag bag is a perfect example of getting people to engage.

Heaf: The obvious question is: where would you say you find deeper immersive techniques, and why do you find them there?

Clarke: The drugs company making Aleve decided that interaction is good, so they put together a game campaign. Everything is totally controlled though, and there’s no interaction – it’s just a journey across fake websites. There have been lots of negative comments about what they’re doing.

Ettinghausen: We did a puzzle solving book, and it was easy to find answers on Google. It didn’t help to sell books but was a good learning experience. As a game and method of deepening interaction it didn’t work well.

Hon: With Cloverfield there’s an existing ARG audience that likes the interaction and discovery, but CF wasn’t a game at all. Just like easter eggs on DVD, you can’t talk back to the characters. It’s more traditional than broadcast marketing with no conversation. That’s not a disaster, but you have to remember that your audience has expectations. lonelygirl15 was interesting to the ARG community and they added content. You really need to be able to listen and react appropriately to audience, or the chances of a train wreck increase exponentially.

One subset of people who use the internet will find everything and break everything first, and you have to be ready to react. You can try to prevent these things from happening but they will happen and your reaction will determine the success of the game.

Reynolds: People will be doing a lot more of these games, and in the next couple years there are bound to be more trainwrecks.

Heaf: Do you feel that whatever the interaction, it’s the same group of people consuming these?

Reynolds: It’s certainly a challenge to involve mainstream; Dan is addressing this now.

Hon: Everyone is trying to use techniques to broaden appeal and ensure that they’re hitting a very large base of casual players as well as hardcores and evangelists. I believe there are ways to satisfy these different levels of users and interactions. What we’re building for penguin is v different from Perplex City; it’s very story based.

Clarke: As big companies get involved (Guinness) you’ll get more and more people invoved who have never participated before. You have to take this into account and not aim a game at just a core audience, so everyone gets something out of it.

Hon: Here’s an interesting parallel: a hardcore audience of gamers has been identified (male teenagers stereotypically), but nobody talks about hardcore tv audience – like people who are really into soaps or Lost. There’s no distinction between casual and hardcore tv consumers. The level of involvement that we see crosses media now; Lost fans are doing stuff online, there are Heroes blogs, etc. It’s very important to note the distinction and know what you mean when someone says hardcore, casual etc.

Ettinghausen: There will always be people following companies like Dan’s to see what they’re doing next, but there are also people who’ve never heard of ilovebees and never will, so we try to introduce games to them by bringing games into other places where they’re looking. We have audience [at Penguin] who like books and stories and we hope they’ll broaden their interaction.

Heaf: We’ve talked about what we can do – people in this room feel passionate about what they can create. The money to commission these things tends to rest in mktg and I’d guess that not all marketers are as educated as they might be in this area. Jeremy, how do you convince those within Penguin who are traditional marketers to spend in this area?

Ettinghausen: Our money for these projects doesn’t come from marketing, but from an ‘innovations fund’. The reason we’re doing this is as much proof of concept as it is marketing; we want to see if authors can tell these stories successfully and if there’s an audience for them. We want to examine the future of the story, and see where we can go with it.

Reynolds: It’s interesting that you have that innovations budget. What marketing depts are looking for might not be what the interactive experience is delivering. They’re probably using traditional metrics: eyeballs, page views – these things are stil meaningful, but not as much as measuring the depth of user interaction. If you have 100 people so deeply immersed that it’s changed their lives vs 1000 who’ve seen a logo, how can you compare those?

Hon: With ilovebees, the number of people who’ve got married as a result of his campaigns is his success rate. That’s a deep experience that people have undergone. The numbers are actually pretty high: 4 for Beast, 3 for ilovebees. Of course, agencies don’t traditionally track stuff like this.

Clarke: I asked the same question to Honda: how do you convince clients? Their answer was that these projects need to be relevant to the core of the brand. The approach shouldn’t be ‘ARGs are hot, we should do one’ but ‘is it relevant?’ – which brings it back to metrics. With tv ads, you still have quantitative methods – which are garbage but everyone accepts that ‘cos it’s the same garbage it’s always been.

Hon: One example is the interest broadcasters have, especially in education. You know you can reach a lot of people, but you don’t know what they’ve learned from watching, whereas if you include a cross-media campaign with playful media where people are asked to do quests or complete tasks, each of those can be mapped to a url and measured, so you can see how many players are ticking off objectives. You know that’s been satisfied.

Heaf: What do you have to do to get these projects beyond r&d? Where do you feel the real success criteria lie?

Ettinghausen: Happily there are quite a few criteria. Penguin has value just as a brand, so if people are talking about us (in blogs etc.) that’s good! We want to sell books, so we’re thinking about what happens after the project. Do we create a book (product?), use what we’ve learnt in the game in the future? That’s the most interesting bit. Can we get sponsored projects as a result? Learning stuff is an important metric of success; we learn stuff by failing as well.

Heaf: We all know games and puzzles have been used successfullly in the past. What would you say are the key characteristics that make these types of experiences better than more traditional types?

Clarke: Collaboration. If you look at Masquerade (a treasure hunt book), that took over 2 years to solve before someone found the treasure. They say it would take 2 weeks now with the web.

Hon: Definitely working together. Relationships between people; a community you can foster. Encourage people to collaborate and you’ve got something very powerful. The web provides instantaneous communication and feedback. We see with tv shows that people may or may not contact [the producers] with feedback, but in ARGs the time to production is much shorter, so we can respond faster to make changes. This makes the experience more compelling.

Clarke: The Dancing Elves [ElfYourself] are a perfect example of this phenomenon; the web spreads things much faster. From a brand perspective, when you get something that does hit home, then the benefits to the brand are huge.

Hon: Traditionally ARG campaigns run, are solved and die. This is confusing, because you’ve created a passionate audience but you’ve killed their sites. Microsoft and WB didn’t fund the Beast sites and didn’t keep the domains active. The same thing happens with other ARGs, and it’s confusing that people are willing to just write them off.

Heaf: Is there a way to effectively kill an ARG? One could argue it’s up to the audience whether they want to consume the brand or not.

Hon: Nobody’s really killed off an ARG yet. That’s a good question.

Clarke: An ARG is extreme – it’s the limit of the spectrum. The experience can’t be repeated, but you can think about multiple ways of using these tools.

Hon: Episodic content is something ARG people have been thinking about.

Reynolds: You can have a game that’s successful with a niche, and that’ll have an impact. It doesn’t have to reach mass appeal to have an effect. The idea of having lots of things out there, with each taking off differently, is interesting.

Clarke: Cheap viral effects are pervasive, but you can put good flash games out there that are branded to give people 30 seconds of fun.

Ettinghausen: Games and stories have always had a powerful culture in education, and there’s more and more research being done about game-based education. Someone’s opening a school in NY that teaches through gameplay and game design. Games and stories have always been around and will continue to be, whether ARGs are a thing of the moment, we’ll find out over the next few years. We’ll always be looking for new ways to encourage people to play and share stories. ARGs are just one way.

Heaf: You talked about Wrigley’s – I wonder how many people visited the url, and whether Wrigley’s has the right brand value?

Clarke: They bought the portal and took it over for the brand. Its popularity has declined recently but it’s still fairly large and people use it.

Heaf: Do you think there are companies where it’s a given that these experiences wouldn’t work? Tropicana? Domestos? Are some brands not suitable?

Hon: Yes. we’ve turned down quite a few people who’ve come to us simply because we couldn’t see why they wanted to work with us. I think you have to tailor the campaign to the brand.

Ettinghausen: Last year Second Life was what everyone was talking about at sxsw – everyone wanted an SL strategy. It’s the same with ARGs now perhaps, and some companies really shouldn’t get involved. You have to offer something to players and consumers. Consumers arent stupid, and with a bad campaign you’ll lose credibility.

Reynolds: You won’t do yourself any favors if you do something like this to be trendy. The valuable campaigns give something to the community. Sometimes good candidates aren’t obvious; a brand may have a deeper identity than the thing it makes. For instance Volvo isn’t about cars, it’s about families and safety etc.

Q: Based on your expertise, would you prioritise good storytellers or good puzzle-makers?

Hon: I wouldn’t pick one or the other; it depends on the kind of audience you want to get. Different people are there for different things. It was the mix of content available that led to such a wide demographic in Perplex City.

Q: I’m very interested in the intersection of VWs and casual games on the web. With a lot of adults in the US, “game” is a bad word. How do you deal with this?

Reynolds: There’s danger, when you’re trying to do something serious, in making it appear trivial; fun but not educational. There’s a number of different approaches, like using the term ‘serious games’ to underscore the educational value of a project. I don’t know the answer, but i think there’s scope for using games and learning from them without scaring people off (investors, IT dept etc).

Clarke: The brand objective is to get those people to engage.

Hon: There’s a perception in UK that games are what teen boys play before they go and kill everyone in the classroom; there are bad connotations with Hitman, GTA, hot coffee mod etc. But what we’re able to do now is point to specific examples of what games can teach, which is becoming harder and harder for broadcasters and brands to ignore. It’s an uphill struggle, but the evidence is there and it’s just a matter of time.

Clarke: Marketers like online games. Middle-aged women in casual games hits home.

Q: I’m currently working on a game with a couple of hi-traffic partners. What happens when they figure it all out? How can we scale up fast? Server backups/security? Do you have concrete examples of this?

Reynolds: None of that is really different from the web. There will be panels about scaling this week.

Hon: I’d suggest going to the Velocity conference, which is all about back-end stuff. That’s outside the panel’s scope, sorry.

Q: In my spare time I’m a novelist. I’ve released a podcast and got a book contract out of it. There’s some dead time between now and publishing to bring new listeners in and keep current ones interested. Do you have any advice on creating a game when resources are limited and you only have good will?

Hon: Totally solicit help from your current audience. It’s a very young genre and very hard to explain, but once people have experienced it they want more. I can guarantee people will want to help. Some will be crap but you can deal with that. The wonderful thing about the web now is it’s easy to publish and produce content; the hard part is creativity. Tools are out there and free; people don’t judge the experience by how many servers you’ve got, or tech implementations. They’ll judge it by its narrative, gameplay etc.

Q: I’m an 8th grade math teacher and a big gamer, so I see learning potential in games. I’ve found that gaming and learning don’t work well together though; how do you solve those issues?

Reynolds: You’re in an interesting position, straddling two worlds. Get help. [laughter] There are people out there who can help you, walking the same line. In IBM we’re doing lots of work with educators, making edugames and stuff. Those things have a point, outcomes, measurable objectives and so on. If youve got those things in mind and you’ve got measurable outputs, you’re talking about a different delivery method. Dan’s working with a broadcast media company now; you can know that someone’s learned something cos they reach a certain point. if you can measurably demonstrate that you’ll be OK.

Q: Do you think that male casual gamers are as needy for an overarcing brand story as females?

Hon: I think it’s a question like ‘do boys like watching 24 (or tv) more than girls’. Having a long story arc and social relationships in storylines meant we attracted more women, but that’s a broad brush generalization. Try putting the story arc in.

Heaf: One minute left, no more questions – that’s a wrap!

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