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SkyCaptain

Project type:
Movie promotion
In support of:
SkyCaptain and the World of Tomorrow (Paramount)
Agency:
Blitz DS Games (Combat Challenge game, at least)
Date:
Summer 2004
Description:
The site for SkyCaptain is pretty traditional in terms of its offerings, with little of what anyone would think of as truly immersive. But there are a few things we might take note of here.

The SkyCaptain site can be viewed with several different "themes" -- background images, fonts, menu styles, and the like. (The cynic in me thinks that these were the original proposals that the design firm brought to the studio so they could make their final choice, but, rather than just choosing one, they decided to keep them all. Whatever.) Four themes are available, and there is a fifth slot reserved for the winner of a design contest being run on the site. This is much like the poster design contest in Alien vs. Predator: interested visitors could come to the site, download some visual and text elements, build their own version of the site, and submit it to the competition. The studio chose 15 submissions as finalists, and Internet-based voting on them proceeded. As of today (7 September 2004), the contest is closed; the site's "news" page thanks the "hundreds of fans" who entered, and promises that the winner will be announced soon.

The interface designer in me notes that there's much more to designing a theme for a site than the static screenshot of the homepage that the contest was asking for (How does the theme spread through the other pages? How do menus and other navigation tools work? What sorts of Flash-based background animations are happening?), but this is almost certainly overthinking the matter. As I noted in discussing the Alien vs. Predator contest, there shouldn't be a lot of overhead in running a contest like this, so if they attract a few hundred dedicated fans, each of whom ask their friends to go to the site and vote for their creations (giving each of them a personal connection to the site and the movie as well), that may not be so bad. Some of the submitted designs are pretty good; it would be interesting to see if people could reliably tell the difference between the contest submissions and the "official" site themes. (If I were the agency who built this site, nice though it is, I'm not sure I'd want to take that bet.) And, again, I'm a sucker for campaigns that encourage people to be creative.

It's interesting to note how much this site assumes that its audience has a broadband Internet connection. That's become a much safer bet recently, as residential broadband adoption rates in the US have just passed 50% (and that's 50% of everybody -- adoption rates are considerably higher in younger demographics). This assumption plays out in a couple of different ways on the SkyCaptain site, and its design is probably illustrative of where promotional sites like this one will be going:
  • Downloads can be big. This isn't a just matter of having pages built around one-or-two megabyte Flash downloads, as many sites have done, even in more dialup-oriented times. SkyCaptain goes well beyond this by offering its visitors the SkyCaptain Air Combat Challenge, which is a full-blown downloadable 3D flying-and-shooting-bad-guys game that takes up 40 (PC) or 50 (Mac) megabytes. This game isn't an end in itself, but the basis for a contest being run on the site: you're encouraged to play the game's levels as many times as you like to improve your score, and the player with the highest total score at the end of the game period (the Monday before the movie is released) wins a trip to the London movie premiere. So, broadband is a gating technology for participation in this part of the site, and the designers felt confident that they wouldn't lose many people by making such an assumption. They're probably right.
  • People are always connected.This assumption flows through the Combat Challenge game in a variety of ways. Players are required to log in at the beginning of each game, so that their scores can be automatically updated on their server. This means that you can't play if you're not on the network, even though there's nothing about the game itself that requires a network. Another assumption, and again probably a safe one -- about the only time I'm without a network connection these days is when I'm on an airplane. But this consideration of technical viability is a different matter than the question of whether having to identify yourself before you play a game is overly snoopy and invasive, which, to be honest, is how I reacted to it. Yeah, I know the game is free and I should be happy to have it at all, but, still...

    In addition, visitors can "join the Flying Legion Dispatch" and "... stay in close contact with the Flying Legion community, and keep abreast of the latest SkyCaptain updates." To join, you download a small, heavily-themed application that, when launched, hovers over your desktop and offers you direct access to downloads and news about the movie. It also offers to let you "receive challenges" for race-against-the-clock Combat Challenge games with similarly-skilled players who have found you through their copy of the game and the player rankings held on the SkyCaptain server. This is another part of the site -- especially the game invitation component -- that simply wouldn't make sense in a dialup world. I expect we'll see a lot more of these kinds of two-way interactions as the broadband assumption becomes more widely held.

    Nevertheless, a word or two of concern: Will these kinds of connections -- especially those where the business behind a promotion reaches over the network towards someone's computer -- will work as people, Internet service providers, software developers, and computer companies finally get their respective acts together about security, and start locking down the networks to prevent the kinds of spammer/hacker abuse we've all been suffering through for the past few years. Will people be willing to open up a port on their computers just so they can get some PR about a movie? Will they be able to figure out how to do this, even if they want to? I wonder. If I were building such an event, I'd worry about this a lot.
I don't want to end this overview in an overly-cranky mood -- I've been looking forward to SkyCaptain since I saw the trailer earlier in the year, when the movie was slotted for a summer release. Still, I need to report on one of my main questions about these kinds of events -- are they working? Are they getting traction among the public? Sadly, I'm not seeing a lot of evidence that the SkyCaptain campaign is -- the interactive components, anyway. You can visit the "leaderboard" of the Combat Challenge game to check on the status of the competition, and at the moment, there are only slightly over 100 people on it. Certainly, more people have played the game than this; you don't get on the leaderboard until you've completed the first level of the game. But, unless there's something else going on that I've missed here, this can't be the kind of response they were hoping for. I've also visited the site's chat room a number of times, and have never found evidence of more than one person in it, looking around forlornly for someone to chat with before giving up and leaving. Obviously the studio and the agency behind this site know the real story and whether they're happy with them, but, from here, the participation numbers of all this could look a lot better.

A final whine: This site has been incredibly slow almost every time I've been to it. For instance, most attempts to retrieve the leaderboard pages have ended with timeout failures or incomplete page loads. There may be good reasons for this -- maybe the site is incredibly popular? -- but it's not making for a very good experience.