The Mouse and the MMORPG

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First published, Future Media, June 2006: Disney launched its first massively multiplayer online role-playing game back in 2003, the success of which has inspired the company to devise similar propositions around Lost and Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest. Just what does the Mouse see in the MMORPG? Mike Butcher reports.

You can imagine the scene. Having recorded that must-watch show on the PVR, you are now painstakingly slow-mo-ing trough the ad-breaks for those tell-tale clues to the next steps in the game. Forget the show – this is the entertainment!

Incredibly this is virtually the scenario being played out around the world right now, as viewers stop fast-fowarding the ads inside hit show “Lost” and start paying attention.

So how did we get to this idealistic – but apparently real-world – situation?

It’s not possible to ignore the enormous success of Lost, which in the UK alone attracted six million viewers for its first episode on Channel 4 (it’s biggest-ever audience for a U.S. series launch), and has polled consistently well ever since.

Along with the clearly ground-breaking drama and non-linear nature of the plot, came some innovative marketing. Part of the original viral marketing for the show included a full-blown web site for the Oceanic Airlines upon which the hapless Lost passengers flew.

That site’s success in part lead Disney and ABC to launch the Lost Experience – a so-called Alternative Reality Game (ARG) in April this year. The move was preceded by Disney’s history in setting up similar online gaming communities around other brands using Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games (MMORPGs).

But what exactly are these games?

The difference between a MMORPG and an ARG, is that the latter is not built as a virtual world. Instead, it is more like a detective game with clues appearing anywhere online, and the players must collaborate to hunt them down. ARGs were first linked to media brands in 2001 when pre-promotion for the WarnerBros film A.I. spawned an ARG called The Beast, designed ultimately as a marketing vehicle for Microsoft.

A MMORPG is an online computer role-playing game in which a large number of players interact with one another in a virtual world. Both MMORPGs and ARGs are immensely popular online, with several commercial games reporting millions of subscribers, especially in South Korea.

Now these games are changing from games purely designed for hardcore gamers to entertainment tools that appeal to more casual gamers and as such have a wider audience. Disney launched the MMORPG Toontown Online in 2003, and Virtual Magic Kingdom last year in order to build relationships between Disney characters and the audience.

Toontown Online (Toontown.com) was the film industry’s first three-dimensional MMORPG designed for kids and families. Launched in 2003 Toontown combines elements of traditional video games, online community and strategic role playing games. It success has lead to an expansion, with the addition recently of greater functionality for more intense gameplay.

Virtual Magic Kingdom is a free chat-based game run by Disney Parks and Resorts with the intention to allow people to experience the fun of a theme park online. It’s more a social game based on chatting and small mini games.

But the Lost Experience dwarfs other Disney projects to date – outside of its plans for Pirates of the Caribbean (of which more later).

The Lost Experience is not one web site or media platform, but a drip-feed to clues mostly seeded online but often triggered by fake adverts aired during the show. These link to mysterious web sites which might contain odd sound files and cryptic email newsletters.

Sometime the content is more overt. “Bad Twin” a novel supposedly written by one of the passengers on the doomed Lost plane is currently among the top 50 best-selling books on both Amazon.com, and published by Hyperion (owner: Walt Disney).

But far from being an exclusive game, inhabited by Lost obssesives and online geeks, the Lost Experience follows a parallel storyline not featured in the TV broadcast and is designed – says Disney and ABC – so that both fans and outsiders can join in. Clues first appeared during broadcasts on May 2nd in the UK, May 3rd in the U.S. and May 4th in Australia.

At the Experience launch ABC, Channel 4 and Australia’s Seven Network described it as “a revolutionary interactive marketing endeavor” which was “designed to further enhance viewers’ relationship with the program.” Over twenty other broadcasters are also signed up to participate.

Steve McPherson, president, ABC Entertainment said the initiative was driven by the fact that “audiences are demanding greater depth of content and more creative ways of storytelling”.

“The ‘Lost Experience’ gives the mystery, intrigue, twist and turns that ‘Lost’ provides as a television series,” said Mike Benson, senior vice president, Marketing, ABC Entertainment. “It’s like a giant, mysterious jigsaw puzzle that will come to life for all the world to solve, whether you are a fan of the TV series, or not.”

Tracy Blacher, head of New Media Marketing at Channel 4, said: “We wanted to find a way of allowing ‘Lost’ viewers to engage with Season Two in a genuinely innovative and creative way.”

Now Disney’s experience in those innovative online game communities is set to extend into film this year with “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest” also employing an MMORPG.

Launched at the E3 gaming festival, Disney Online’s Pirates Of The Caribbean MMORPG is slated for release in 2007. Players will be able to create and customise their own pirate, form a crew, interact with the film characters, forge alliances with thousands of other players and even hunt for buried treasure. To access the game players will need to pay a monthly charging monthly subscription fee, making it a useful revenue stream when the film itself has long since closed at the box office.

The games also need not be limited to the darkened rooms of PC players. mDisney, a mobile publishing unit of the Walt Disney Internet Group, is to launch a Pirates of the Caribbean “Multiplayer” mobile game enabling players to interact with eachother make friends and form guilds.

And if you get the game right, any subscriptions fees are not trifling. “World of Warcraft” (WOW), currently the most popular MMORPG, recently hit 6 million players who must each buy the game for $50 and then pay a monthly fee of about $15. Game researcher DFC Intelligence estimates that WOW brought in about $300 million last year in sales and subscriptions for Vivendi Universal. Other business models for MMORPGs include offering the game for free, but selling both advertising and virtual items inside it, such as different tools, weapons or even clothes for the player’s character. Some are even spawning their own currencies, creating secondary markets where real-world money is traded in exchange for virtual world currency.

Although MMORPGs are just 7% of the $28 billion game market, they may be the most addictive niche according to research from Stanford University. It found that while the average console gamer might spend seven to eight hours playing, players in MMORPGs spent 20 hours a week, potentially rivaling TV viewing figures.

But while an ongoing online presence – with subscription fees – seems like a no-brainer for a film, what are the benefits of MMOs to TV brands? Can MMORPGs help programme brands hang on to straying TV viewers or can they really help build communities around brands?

Michael Smith, CEO of Mind Candy which has launched it’s own ARG Perplex City (PerplexCity.com) says: “TV networks are increasingly adding depth to their shows to enhance the experience for the viewer but also to generate additional revenue streams. This might take the form of an MMO or something more akin to an Alternate Reality Game where part of the universe is fleshed out via websites, emails, phone messages, podcasts and so on.”

He says blogs, fan sites, and discussion forums already provide a venue for fans where they can spend time at when the show isn’t on. “It makes the whole experience far more engaging and immersive than a traditional TV show,” he says. Add an ongoing game which also plays out when the show is not airing and you have a heady cocktail which cost a fraction compared to traditional marketing, both among fans and newcomers to the show.

This seems to be the case with Lost Experience. In the US, Lost has already ended its second season leaving plenty of questions were unanswered, with viewers having to wait until September for new episodes. Meanwhile the game will undoubtedly act as the carrot to keep the core viewers interested and new viewers can be attracted outside of the promotional window – an aspect confirmed by Disney’s Benson.

Indeed, a reviewer on the ARG News web site said the Experience was “giving players the sense that the game is something they should be watching every day “.

It’s hard t by that kind of word-of-mouth-marketing, and Disney knows it – and, according to sources, is even telling broadcast partners not to talk too much about the game, lest the punters awake from their slumber in this alternative reality.

But how do you measure success with this kind of project? A Disney spokesperson in the UK says: “This is difficult as it’s still relatively early days for a lot of these initiatives. But using web traffic measurement to see how many people are visiting sites/playing games, how often they do, how long they play for etc is something we do. Tracking media migration is more difficult and might need specific campaign metric tools in place.”

But this game is more than just a way for Lost nerds to keep busy. It’s also keeping viewers from fast-forwarding through commercials.

Adverts for the fictitious Hanso Foundation – linked to the show via one of the characters – featured phone numbers and Web sites which viewers needed to visit for more clues about the game.

On closer inspection, links with marketing campaigns are starting to appear. Hanso “commercials” feature small print saying they are paid for by well-known brands including (in US shows) Coca-Cola’s Sprite, DaimlerChrysler’s Jeep, Verizon Wireless and Monster.com.

One of the “Lost Experience” sites is called subLYMONal, which is a reference to the so-called lemon-lime (hence lymon) taste of Sprite. Once on the site, the word “Obey”- as in “Obey Your Thirst with Sprite” – is surrounded by glowing blue TV screens that the user must turn into glowing green TV screens to unlock a message.

The Hanso commercial shown during the US episode on May 17, 2006 contained a Jeep copyright message and directed players to a Jeep video commercial hosted on YouTube, which contains game clues at the end.

And during the May 24 US episode The Hanso Foundation advert was shown with a disclaimer indicating that it was “paid for by Monster.com.”

Indeed, Benson recently admitted that the Lost Experience is – at least in part – also a marketing vehicle for marketers who are looking for need new methods to reach viewers.

The ideas in Lost Experience have already caught on. AOL recently announced a promotion called Gold Rush this Autumn will feature a game where viewers can find clues during CBS shows and commercials, to help them identify where more than $2 million’s worth of gold is hidden in the U.S.

And in the US Imagine Entertainment, the company that created “24”, is among a group pf firms developing a sci-fi reality show called Xquest. Contestants will occupy a cramped “spaceship” for a month, following a rough plot while online gamers follow the action on the TV and in a shared, simulated space online. The best gamers then get to go on the next season’s show.

If the Lost Experience is anything to go by, it looks like we’ll be seeing a lot more of MMORPGs.

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