NowPublic @ Vidfest: The Future of Interactive Entertainment

NowPublic is here at Vidfest liveblogging the conference events.

You can follow my updates on Twitter here on my member channel here and on the Vidfest blog here.

Here are my notes from the final session of the afternoon, which featured Susan Bonds and Alex Lieu of 42 Entertainment. They discussed their incredibly complex and fascinating work developing an Alternate Reality Game (ARG) as part of the launch of Trent Reznor/NIN’s high-concept album Year Zero. Truly fascinating stuff. If you haven’t checked out the project, I encourage you to dig in and enjoy.

Here are my notes from the session:

– Q: First of all, incredible work. I’m curious as to any insights you
can provide about how to plan something like this — how did you plan
for something as significant as this?

A: We’re an entertainment company and we have the ability to
produce content across all of these different platforms – and you have
to be able to produce all of these different kinds of content.

There was a core group of about 40 people working on Year
Zero. The design team was about 12 people. We kept an 80/20 rule in
terms of what we created and designed because we wanted to respond to
the audience’s experience.

Lieu: I think it ultimately comes down to respecting and
understanding your audience. The experience has to be entertaining and
rewarding on its own.

05:04pm – Q: As a frequent visitor of Digg and Reddit, I can see
that there’s a massive hunger for artists to engage their audiences in
the way that Trent Reznor has. Why aren’t more artists doing projects
like these?

A: It’s a great challenge to break down the barrier between audience
and artist. It’s a lot of responsibility to take on as a group. The
reason why Year Zero happened was because Reznor made it happen. It was
his commitment to the vision of the project about how he wanted to
engage his audience.

We really see innovators and early adopters as being at the
forefront of embracing technology rather than being scared of it.
Reznor is fortunate enough to have an established fan base in order to
be able to do this, but this doesn’t necessarily work for everybody.

05:02pm – Q: When engaging so many users around real-world acts, how do you navigate issues of liability?

A: When we do live events like this, a lot of effort goes into
ensuring that they’re fun but also safe. We bring in our own security
forces, we make sure that everything has been scouted in advance and
can be controlled.

05:01pm – Q&A, time for only 2 questions.

04:56pm – If you invite the audience in, then validating their participation becomes a very big part of this.

In Year Zero, the final clue was a spectrograph of the community’s
own avatars — each associated with a number, which all ended up being
part of a fictional government case file (that included all of the
elements of the ARG).

04:51pm – [On screen: playing video of what happened when led onto
the bus.] Sent audience to a private room where ‘the real resistance
movement meeting’ was taking place. After they’re led to an actual NIN
concert which, part way through the set, is shut down by riot police.

We’re always looking for new and unique ways to engage our audiences
as long as your constantly respecting them and designing an experience
that is meaningful and powerful to them — and incorporating them into
the experience.

04:40pm – Our experiences are designed to proliferate across the
web. The community took many of the ideas we created and ran with them:
producing their own videos, comic books, etc. Took the opportunity to
involve the audience even further by creating the “Open Source
Resistance” — a new channel opened up to the community to create their
own content. Took this one step further and published a handful of the
best art pieces in the major weekly newspapers across the U.S. 42’s
goal has been to empower the audience to do what they love.

Then we took the same group of street artists and made a 60+ foot
mural in Los Angeles – and made it a meeting place for those interested
in the Open Source Resistance. Those that arrived at scheduled event
received a resistance kit, some included cellphones. Then rang the
cellphones and asked if users were available on a set day.

Sent users to a park in L.A. and gave set of instructions to the
group of people — led them to a parking lot with a dilapidated bus,
stripped them of their cellphones and technology, and had everyone
board the bus.

04:37pm – We take every opportunity to embed ARG-related content in
traditional media — such as DVD, music videos, etc. It all helps to
build out the world of the alternate reality game. [On screen: playing
video of multiple surveillance video feeds that, when composited,
morphed into NIN music video.]

When CD came out, 42 Ent. embedded ARG content into the packaging:
fake FBI warning sticker with telephone number, heat sensitive CD that
changed colour and revealed binary code messages. [Amazing!]

04:34pm – Created a world of grassroots resistance movement:
stickers, art, posters, graphics, t-shirts, etc. But people went out
and covered entire cities. Community began to develop and spread the
message. One of 42’s ideas was to get street artists, in London for
example, to paint a mural that references events that took place during
Year Zero.

04:30pm – In one version of the spectrograph, a number appeared with
an embedded audio clip — a disturbing snippet of the world’s narrative.
This was just one of the many ways that helped to build out the world.
42 Ent. really takes a holistic approach to distributing content.

04:29pm – In first track on USB leaked album, embedded in the first
track there was a bit of static that, when run through a spectrograph,
showed the silhouette of a hand — the encroachment of “the presence”
which was part of the Year Zero world.

04:27pm – Reznor then wanted to leak the album himself. Talked about
different ways of getting it out there. Somehow ended up on the idea of
dropping USB flash drives in men’s bathrooms (on top of urinals!) in
key concert venues of NIN tour.

04:24pm – The question then became, how to establish the rabbit
holes: points of entry into this world. Reznor was about to head out on
the road to tour and we embedded the first clue on the NIN tour
t-shirt: a message that said “IAmTryingToBelieve”. Once they found this
first website, the audience tumbled down the rabbit hole — and found
out about all kinds of other sites that were part of this world.

04:22pm – Through the ARG, 42 Ent. built out the setting: a “world
built out of fragments”. We thought of the concept of taking a chunk,
’slice’, or snapshot of the internet at a specific moment: phone calls,
blogs, message boards, email, spam, videos, VOIP video calls, etc.

04:19pm – Reznor wanted to completely re-define the concept of a concept album.
Discussed Pink Floyd’s The Wall as a reference point. The idea of an
album cover has been lost; the band’s actual imagery of the music has
been lost. 42 Ent’s question was how to leverage the internet and
current technology to do a concept album for today.

04:18pm – Bonds: Let’s get into the Year Zero case study — which was an experiment with Trent Reznor
of NIN. Initial idea for the album was looking 15-20 years in the
future and to imagine what might happen; it was a decidely dystopian
vision — “the world was in crisis and something had happened”.

04:17pm – Lieu: It’s really important to respect our audiences and
we strive not to interfere with their experience of the narrative and
the entertainment experience.

04:15pm – Generally, our experiences are very narrative and
story-driven. We distribute those story pieces out over different
platforms and allow the audience to go out, collect these pieces, and
reassemble the narrative. This gives them a lot of ownership over the
content itself. It facilitates an investment in the content and a
desire to share it with others.

04:13pm – Key Ingredients of an ARG:

• unique rabbit holes (look / whisper / discovery)

• unique storytelling (distributive narrative)

• unusual platforms (cross-media / the world)

• evokes collective intelligence / hive mind / social networking

• inspires participation, collaboration, and user-generated content (by respecting the audience)

04:12pm – Alex Lieu: what is it that really reaches off the screen
and starts to connect with you in your everyday life. Physical objects,
conversations between people — various intersection points. Our
challenge is to deliver something compelling and entertaining.

04:09pm – 42 Ent. has blended storytelling and game play to innovate
a powerful new entertainment form that has evolved into Alternate
Reality Games (ARGs) — which are experiences native to the wired

ARGs offer “an interactive experience that immerses the audience in
story via the content platforms that intersect their daily lives”.

04:07pm – Bonds: Audiences no longer distinguish between platforms
for consuming content; they are willing and empowered to create and
interact; and they are willing to come together in collaborative groups
and communities — especially to solve problems together using a giant
collaborative “hive mind”. It’s both a great opportunity and a great
challenge, when you’re designing content for this kind of audience

04:05pm – The World Has Shifted: audience expectations have changed
dramatically in recent years. Audience wants more of a participatory
role. They consider content very differently. Audiences are now primed
to ignore traditional forms of advertising.

04:03pm – ARGs and the future of interactive entertainment. First time they’ve ever discussed Year Zero case study in public.

04:02pm – Introduction of Alex Lieu and Susan Bonds of 42 Entertainment, by Catherine Warren of FanTrust.

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