Follow the clues to a marketing payoff

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Imagine tearing through Chinatown, pursued by sinister figures, on a live scavenger hunt, while frantically using your cell phone to decode puzzles that ultimately reveal the location of an exclusive live performance by a fictional celebrity glam rock band. This is an actual scenario from the game X POD, launched this spring to extend the Douglas Coupland novel and TV series, JPOD, all set in the world of a fictional video game company.

Immersive game play such as this is beginning to attract the serious attention of advertisers and sponsors as these player-focused experiences rise to a new level of prominence and provide a whole new degree of active involvement for consumers.

Immersive games, better known as alternate reality games (ARG), are a still-evolving and self-defining genre. ARGs, notes Dave Szulborski, an immersive marketing consultant, author and puzzle designer, are often called "platformless narratives" because they aren't restricted to a single delivery mechanism or platform.

"But others find that slightly misleading, as most ARGs do indeed rely upon a single platform -- the internet -- to deploy 99 percent of their content, in whatever media format it might be in," Szulborski says. "The narrative pieces distributed outside the internet, in the form of such things as real world items, live interactive events and even payphone telephone calls, for example, usually represent only a very small piece of the overall story."

Rob Enderle, who heads up market research firm Enderle Group, adds that ARGs lend themselves to anything that can develop a fan base -- movies, TV shows, video games -- where players can imagine themselves inside the promoted property. 

"Audi might use the movie 'Iron Man' as the basis for a game promoting one of its cars, but I'll bet it would actually end up being more effective at driving movie revenue for 'Iron Man,'" he says. 

Like all forms of entertainment, ARGs work best when they engage the audience with the right elements of immersive storytelling matched with the right delivery mechanisms that allow suspension of disbelief and active participation in the experience, notes Susan Bonds, president of 42 Entertainment, a Pasadena, CA-based independent producer of immersive marketing campaigns.

"Fertile ground for ARGs includes movies, books, TV shows and game/console properties that already have a built-in fan base," Bonds said. "However, product companies can -- and are -- using the format to great effect (e.g., Windows Vista's 'The Vanishing Point'). ARGs for social awareness, charities and action are being executed and gaining attention as well (e.g., 'World Without Oil')." 

Bonds adds that ARGs as standalone entertainment are also in development because the power of the art form is one that vividly captures the audience's imagination and allows those who comprise it to have a "starring role" in their entertainment. ARGs can also attract equal numbers of men and women -- largely due to the investigative element of participating in piecing the story together. "This appeals greatly to women who love mystery, crime and evidence-based entertainment," she says.

So what does it take to create and execute a successful campaign? Do the results justify the investment? Do immersive games really help brand a company's products and/or services?

Let's find out.

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