Alternate Reality Games: Engage Your Audience with Viral Marketing

I’ll be the first to admit that I am a bit of a Nine Inch Nails fanboy. I will also freely admit that I love Batman movies and video games, specially if we are talking about the LOL Boosting services from P4rgaming. While seemingly random, these things all actually something in common: over the course of the last few years, they’ve all used alternate reality games in marketing campaigns to build anticipation for upcoming releases.

You can think of an alternate reality game as a combination of viral marketing and role-playing games (RPG’s) where aspects of the product (the album, the game, the movie, etc.) are mingled and mixed with reality to give the audience a sense of involvement, and to add an additional sense of realism to the piece. So how exactly did these campaigns work?

Nine Inch Nails

Year Zero

While most rock albums don’t usually involve much more than an iTunes promotion and some fancy graphics on a single landing page, Year Zero used 17 websites and 3 phone numbers. Trent and the band left information and notes on the walls of the bathrooms at Nine Inch Nails shows and even a cryptic note hidden in the t-shirt that was sold on that tour that read “iamtryingtobelieve.” The band also left flash drives at concerts containing songs from the yet-to-be-released album.

The idea was to build up this story of the album being sent back in time as a way to warn people of a future where the Unite States had become a police state with virtually no civil liberties. The band continued building anticipation by scheduling a “resistance” meeting that turned out to be an actual live Nine Inch Nails concert, which was cut short by (without a word of warning) a SWAT team entering the venue and shut it down.

A little far-fetched? Certainly, but it got the entire Nine Inch Nails fanbase behind the concept of the album and provided for one of the largest releases in the band’s history thanks to all of the press that it got.


The Dark Knight

The game surrounding the release of The Dark Knight started at the 2007 Comic-Con where fake money with the Joker (the movie’s villain) was left lying around with a URL on it ( The site was advertising jobs for Joker henchmen. All interested parties were told to meet at a certain location near the convention at a certain time the next day, where they saw a telephone number written in the sky.

Upon calling the number, a voice was being forced to read instructions for the next step of the Joker’s plan: a scavenger hunt. Fans had to work in unison with online fans to decode the puzzles surrounding the hunt to finally be rewarded that night with the first trailer for the film. The game finally ended a week before the film’s release, when the Joker “hacked” and vandalized all the websites and telephone numbers in the game. One final puzzle provided the winners with free IMAX tickets to early screenings of the film.

Again, definitely far-fetched. But even marketing-savvy companies like AdWeek see the value in truly engaging an audience.


Halo 2

The Halo 2 viral marketing campaign was arguably one of the best, as it started with no apparent connection to the game whatsoever. It started back in 2004 when members of the gaming community received jars of honey for no apparent reason at all. The jars all had web addresses on them (see the pattern there?) to

Around the time the honey was received, the first trailer for Halo 2 was released. It wasn’t until the end of the trailer that fans began to notice, for a split second, the appearance of a web address. What web address? You guessed it.

At first glance, it appeared to be a legitimate blog for an actual bee enthusiast named Dana, which had recently been hacked and filled with strange warnings and messages and countdowns. It was later made clear that the website had been hacked by an artificial intelligence named Melissa. Finally, “Melissa” plastered the website with real GPS coordinates leading to real pay phones all over the country. One fan actually stood beside a pay phone while Hurricane Frances was only minutes away. Finally, Melissa accidentally turned over Earth’s location to the evil alien race “The Covenant” (the antagonist) of the Halo series, thus kicking off the events for Halo 2.

Almost without a doubt impossible to be real, but how many marketing campaigns have you seen make someone stand in a hurricane for a phone call?