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I Love Bees

Project type:
Videogame promotion
In support of:
Halo 2 (Bungie / Microsoft)
Date:
July 2004
Description:
It's a little too soon to tell, but it appears that some of the people involved in The Beast -- the groundbreaking immersive event created to support Steven Spielberg's Artificial Intelligence -- are back. This time, it looks like they are creating a web event in support of the impending release of the XBox game Halo 2 by Bungie, a Microsoft subsidiary. The first sites appeared in July 2004, the and the hunt is on.

The event is centered around an innocent-looking site purportedly run by a Napa Valley honey company, I Love Bees. This URL first surfaced in a theatrical trailer for Halo 2, a rather odd place for a honey company to be advertising. In any case, a quick visit to the site reveals that something rather odd is happening with the site -- some other entity seems to be taking it over and using it for its own purposes. What those purposes are, we're just now finding out. Right now, (27 July) the leading theory is that a ship from the Halo 2 world has crash-landed on Earth, and the takeover of the website is part of its attempt to re-contact its comrades. If this ship belongs to the rather nasty aliens we've been told about in pre-release information about the game, it would be a very bad thing it the ship were to succeed....

As with The Beast, clues to the story underlying this site (and presumably others to come) are found everywhere -- on the page, to be sure, but also hidden in the binary code of images, e-mail from the "owners" of the site, responses to instant messages, chat rooms, voicemail systems, and so on. Already, websites have sprung up to support the gathering of evidence and discussion of theories (see below); it'll be most interesting to see how this plays out.

My predictions:
  • Some very creative things will happen in the course of the event, some of which may be appropriate for more mainstream events. There is probably quite a bit to be learned here; if you're interested enough in immersive events to have reached this page, you would probably be well-served to stop in at the unfiction site every so often and see what's going on.
  • These creative things will also be exceedingly complex, and will require more time and effort to resolve than most people are willing to expend. It's only been running for a week, and already the complexity of it makes my head hurt.
  • As a result of this complexity, there will be a relatively small number of people -- a few thousand? maybe only a few hundred? -- that will spend more than a little bit of time trying to figure this thing out. And, of those, the number of people who really understand what finally happens in this event will be considerably smaller. (Who did kill Evan Chen, anyway?) But more will follow the event through second-hand sites providing summaries of the event's progress (see the links below), so the event's reach will be greater than simple server logs from the event sites would suggest. (See the writeup on Beta-7 for more examples of the disparity between site activity and campaign impact.) In addition, the target market for the campaign -- gamers -- are known to be willing to spend amazing amounts of time working through obscure, arcane information, so the fit here is better than that between a mass-market movie like AI and its comparable immersive campaign.

  • Meanwhile, Bungie will get (indeed, has already gotten) a lot of press out of the fact that they're doing this unusual campaign. And, as with The Beast, far more people will hear about the campaign than will ever actively take part in it. But, from a promotional perspective, that may be okay.
Is it worth it? Will it sell more copies of the game? I guess we'll see....

Update, 22 August 2004: The ilovebees sites have continued to evolve, although more slowly than many of the "players" on the unfiction forum might have liked. (See our Exocog report for details on our experiences with players hungry for new content.) At this point, it will be a major surprise if all of this is not a promotion for Halo 2, but we will still have to see. The story about the damaged ship has continued to develop, with references to such characters as the Sleeping Princess, the Pious Flea, the Widow, and the Queen, who may or or may not be artificial intelligences associated with the ship; details are available at unfiction. A few player names from the unfiction forum have showed up in-game, and players have received e-mail from the Sleeping Princess, who is inviting them to collectively ask her a single question about what's going on, which she will then answer. Both of these have led to substantial player interest and chatter on the forum (cf. our experiences with Exocog in getting players to create their own activity around the event.

The most significant twist in the event has been the appearance of what appears to be GPS coordinates and times, which coincide with the general time -- Tuesday, August 24 -- when, according to the hacked site's home page, someone or something will become "wide awake and physical". There are several hundred of these coordinates, pointing to locations all over the United States. An entry on a game-related blog includes a not-very-subtle suggestion that people might want to show up at those locations, and that something involving DVDs may be involved. One of them isn't far from me, so I'll probably wander by and the appropriate time and see what, if anything, is going on.

Update, 24 August 2004: The ilovebees links page now shows the locations grouped into clusters of seven locations, each with a name (e.g., "our_hoodlums"). As it happens, there are pay phones at the locations indicated by the coordinate pairs, and phone calls are arriving at the times designated on the links page.

The voice in the (automated) call asks the person receiving the call to identify the caller ("Operator") and the receiver (the name of the target cluster). If this is done successfully, the "axon" (location) is marked as "hot"; if two axons in a group are connected, then a sound file for the cluster becomes available via the links page. These sound files appear to be telling a story, so the whole story will be clear only if all the clusters succeed in making their connections. There's some indication that the calls to "non-hot" axons will continue until they're successfully activated, or perhaps until just until all the clusters are activated (thus making all the story bits available, and giving the players half a chance to figure out what's going on).

A few observations at this point:
  • Some simple statistics: There were about 15 people at the Palo Alto location this morning, and there are currently over 400 people pounding the beejesus out of the unfiction forum, looking for clues and reporting their findings.
  • All of this is a good example of the importance of a forum in these kinds of events: The "proper" way to respond to the call is far from self-evident, so finding out what has (and hasn't) worked for others is a huge help. The forum also played a critical role in distributing the translations of GPS coordinates to physical addresses, and in helping players coordinate the coverage of the various locations.
  • The game designers were wise to build some redundancy into the event -- seven locations per cluster -- because the players are bumping up against the limitations of present-day voice recognition technology. Being able to do good recognition outside, in a noisy area, over a possibly-dated pay phone is anything but certain.
I'll report back in as developments warrant, but the full status of the event, as always, can best be followed on the unfiction forum.

Update, 25 August 2004: All the "axons" have gone live, and the unfiction forum is busy with players reporting on their visits to the phone call sites and making guesses about the meaning(s) of the newly-assembled sound files retrieved from the ilovebees links page.

Two other things worthy of mention today:
  • Dana's blog now includes a concise description of "the game so far", mentioning the various AIs, the phone event, and possible places to look for clues and game-related information. This is a nice way of handling the point we raised in our Exocog project: since many of the players in these kinds of events first encounter you after the event has been running for awhile, it's important to have some way to help them get up to speed. Otherwise, the details that preceded their participation will swamp them, and they'll stumble away in confusion.
  • As of Wednesday evening, 36 hours after the phone call event -- the unfiction forum's section devoted to this "axon coordination" game has logged well over 100,000 page views. Surely some people are more active on the board than others, but these are certainly good numbers. The number of hits I've received on this page have also gone up considerably. This is all in the way of saying that ilovebees has generated more than a little interest, and continues to be worth watching as an example of immersive marketing.