Last year, Microsoft intrigued some and infuriated many with a viral marketing campaign to help hype its now-multiplatinum Xbox shooter, Halo 2. The software behemoth tapped 4orty2wo Entertainment, a company that specializes in "immersive, entertainment-based alternative marketing campaigns."
In particular, 4orty2wo's forte is alternate reality games (ARGs)--what it alternately calls "search operas"--a form of interactive mystery which draws people into a narrative via hidden clues and cryptic messages. The first major ARG was called "The Beast," and was used to hype Steven Spielberg's film A.I. in 2001. It was cooked up by Jordan Weisman, then a creative director at Microsoft, his fellow employee Elan Lee, and novelist Sean Stewart.
The Beast centered on a murder of one Evan Chan, a mystery that could be solved by a series of clues. These clues were scattered across "Web sites, faxed documents, phone calls, e-mails, newspaper clippings, TV ads, clues from celebrities, and physical locations," according to 4orty2wo. The company claims that eventually three million people participated in The Beast, which earned its makers numerous plaudits in marketing and advertisement circles. Details of the thought process behind The Beast and ARGs in general can be found on Stewart's Web site and in 4orty2wo's case studies section.
So successful was the Beast at reaching consumers through the clutter of advertising that, in 2002, Weisman and Lee left Microsoft--to form 4orty2wo Entertainment. Their first major project was to help their former employer promote Halo 2. The result was Ilovebees.com, a Web phenomenon that grabbed headlines and caused headaches throughout the summer of 2004.
The Ilovebees.com ARG centered on its titular URL, which appeared at the end of the theatrical Halo 2 trailer. Though it only flashed across the bottom of the screen for a split second, the URL drew millions of visitors to a site for a California bee farm that appeared to have been the victim of a bizarre hacker attack. However, over the course of a few weeks, the site began to
The most noticeable feature on the Ilovebees.com site was a large timer on the page that was counting down to August 24. In the weeks leading up to that day, it began spitting out GPS coordinates to payphones, where small crowds of diehard ARG players gathered at the appointed hour. They were treated to a recorded message that drew them further into the ARG. Those who worked their way through the entire ARG eventually congregated at a series of events on November 4, where Microsoft officials thanked them for participating in easily the most cost-effective marketing campaign in game history.
Given the success of Ilovebees.com--which won 4orty2wo Entertainment an innovation award at the 2005 Game Developers Conference--it wouldn't be much of a surprise if Microsoft tried a similar trick in the future.
Well, it appears "the future" is "now."
This week, word began to spread in the forums of various Xbox sites about a new Web site called Ourcolony.net. Though the URL is registered to one "U Enzo" at a Chicago PO box--much like Ilovebees.com was registered to a rented San Francisco mailbox--the copy on the site's front page certainly bears the pretensions of prior 4orty2wo campaigns. "You made it to our colony, this is where the game lives, breathes and evolves," read the page. "Colony isn't about alternate reality gaming it *is* reality" (emphasis in the original).
Then there's the site's logo--an ant, which, like a bee, is an insect that lives in a hive or colony. As evidenced in a photo gallery on the Ourcolony.net site, fliers that sport the ant and the word "colony" have been appearing all over various major American and English cities, often by game stores. Several such fliers were also plastered around the Sony Metreon in San Francisco right around the time of the PSP launch. The fliers are a classic example of a "teaser" campaign, where a cryptic billboard or flier stirs interest in a product or service--in this case, Ourcolony.net.
Another similarity between Ourcolony.net and Ilovebees.com is the prominent countdown clock on its home page. The countdown will end at 8pm PDT on Thursday, May 12, nearly four days to the hour before Microsoft's pre-E3 presentation on the evening of May 16. What will happen on May 12 remains unclear. But, during his keynote at GDC last month, Chief XNA architect and corporate vice president J Allard confirmed Microsoft would use the May 16 presentation to unveil its next-generation Xbox.
Allard's presentation also featured a picture of Allard in a T-shirt bearing the ourcolony.net logo, a distinctive ant with a mark on its abdomen that resembled an "X." Microsoft downplayed this direct connection, saying Allard was merely a fan of the ourcolony.net ARG.
That said, there does appear to be other direct connections between Ourcolony.net and Microsoft. First, one of the distorted images on the Ourcolony.net home page features an Xbox power button. When compared to a current-generation Xbox's power button, the pattern is unmistakable, although it is now set against a silvery background.
But whereas Ilovebees.com was a narrative-driven mystery, Ourcolony.net appears to be a competition. After successfully guessing the password to enter the site (Hint: it rhymes with "hay") a message from someone called the "Gamem8ker" asks visitors to form a "colony" or team. "It's colony against colony and to the winner, well, the winner gets all," reads a message from the Gamem8ker.
How does one win? Do the still-unnamed viral-marketing firm's legwork and spread the word about Ourcolony.net. After starting a colony, players of the not-an-alternate reality who recruit five to the colony game will get their first "challenge," and will receive more challenges as they recruit more members to join the ad campaign/game. "You're not going to make it to the end if you try to solo this, there's strength in numbers," reads Gamem8ker's message.
The second connection to Microsoft has to do with the rewards doled out to colonies that win challenges. According to posts in the Ourcolony.net forums, challenge winners receive partial pictures of what looks like a white version of a redesigned Xbox controller. Currently, only two images are available--both in a folder marked "thesecret" on the site's directory. The first looks like a thumbstick above a D pad. The second shows the D pad in more detail, just above a curved edge in what appears to be the middle of a controller. When combined and compared to a current-generation S-controller, the images exhibit a distinctly Xbox-ian layout and feel, although the start and back buttons appear to be missing. As the Ourcolony.net competition progresses, it is almost certain that more pictures of the controller--and perhaps its console--will surface.
The Ourcolony.net-Microsoft connection is also circumstantially backed up by the fact that most colonies already involved in the game are linked to the Xbox in some way, either in the form of Xbox Live clans or Xbox fan sites.
While obvious, the connection between Ourcolony.net and Microsoft is not official--and likely won't be before E3. When presented with the images from Ourcolony.net and the site's similarities with Ilovebees.com, a Microsoft spokesperson would only give the following statement: "We're aware of the fact that Ourcolony.net has captured the imagination of thousands of gamers across the world, and that these gamers have taken control of the site and are making it their own."