CommanderVideo: We Barely Knew Ye
Four days before Christmas, fans of alternate reality games got an early present. A member on the Unfiction forums noticed a strange new video and from there, it seemed that a new ARG had begun. The video, an eerie clip that showed a group of German explorers discovering and being attacked by a partially buried television, got the attention of the message board members who looked towards commandervideo.com for answers.
At the apparent trailhead web site, the rabbit hole wound further down as players began getting correspondence from a being named CommanderVideo, a professed alien life form approaching earth and in need of help. Just as it appeared that the puppet masters were prepared to reveal to gamers the reason for the viral campaign and the ARG that grew out of it, a player found a scan of a recently released Nintendo Power article that did the job for them.
While the Internet gives life to ARGs, it also has the power to take that life away, and the scanned article contributed to this game’s premature end. The Nintendo Power article killed the ARG as it exposed the game CommanderVideo was marketing, Bit.Trip: Beat, and this left players upset and frustrated. The players were not alone in their disappointment as Gaijin Games, the game’s creators, were also frustrated with the premature reveal. With the game effectively over, players questioned what went wrong.
Alex Neuse, the CEO of Gaijin Games, was kind enough to answer those questions and discus the promising ARG, its abrupt demise, and the upcoming release of Bit.Trip: Beat for ARGNet.
Robbie Smith: Thank you for your time Alex on behalf of ARGNet, First off, for the readers who may not be familiar with CommanderVideo or Bit.Trip: Beat, would you mind describing the WiiWare game that CommanderVideo was marketing so cleverly?
Alex Neuse: BIT.TRIP BEAT is a WiiWare title debuting in early 2009 that marks the beginning of CommanderVideo’s journeys and introduces gamers around the world to the character. BEAT is the beginning of it all–the beginning of life as we know it. Whether it’s the beginning of life as CommanderVideo knows it, though, is still a mystery. Just as a heartbeat is the first step toward human life, Pong was the first step toward video game life. Since we’re telling the story of CommanderVideo’s life through a series of games, we felt it appropriate to use Pong as inspiration.
Since the gameplay in BIT.TRIP BEAT is based off of what we consider to be the ultimate classic game, we wanted to compliment that gameplay with art and music that’s based off of classic games as well. This led us to a chiptune-inspired soundtrack and 3D graphics that expand on the idea of retro.
All the action takes place to the beat of the music and the story is told through the imagery constantly bombarding the player as they go.
RS: Why did Gaijin Games decide to use viral marketing for the game?
AN: The primary reason that we chose to go the “viral” route is because we are a small developer without much of a marketing budget at all, and we needed something cheap to get the word out about our game. The secondary reason is because we think that viral advertising can be pretty fun and creative. There’s something about people advertising things in their own way that stands out from everything else, and we believe that there’s worth in that.
RS: What was the inspiration behind the CommanderVideo character?
AN: “CommanderVideo” has a long history. The short version is that the name has been my video gaming handle for years, and when we started looking for a character for one of the BIT.TRIP series’ later games I asked Mike Roush, our Artist, for a human and he returned to me with CommanderVideo as you know him. And he was perfect.
We didn’t actually realize that he was CommanderVideo until Chris Osborn, our Engineer, and I were trying to figure out who he might be and it became evident that we had discovered who The Commander actually is.
RS: How was Gaijin’s experience with the CommanderVideo ARG? Where there any unexpected surprises or problems, other than Nintendo Power’s article that is?
AN: The experience was very positive for all of us at Gaijin Games. The more we worked on the campaign and what eventually blossomed into a small ARG, the more fun we had. At the end of the day, we are in the business of making “fun”. Games are the means toward that end, so when the marketing campaign turned ARG on us, it just seemed right. So we ran with it. Being able to turn our marketing into an extension of the game was something that, quite frankly, we weren’t expecting.
We only really ran into two surprises along the way. I had created a YouTube profile about a hundred years ago that I hadn’t done anything with and had forgotten about. On that profile, there was a direct link to Gaijin Games. Because of this, people discovered our involvement earlier than we had wanted, and through a different means than we had expected. But we ran with that and kept having fun and progressing the mystery even so.
The other surprise was how the timing of the Nintendo Power article lined up with our marketing campaign/ARG. We knew there was going to be a write up in Nintendo Power, but we didn’t know the exact street date of the magazine, so we were just cruisin’ along, assigning missions and having fun when the article popped up and sort of took the wind out of our ARG sails.
Still, though, being in Nintendo Power is very exciting for us.
RS: How did Gaijin Games take it when players discovered the article? Did the premature release of the review affect the ARG in any way?
AN: We had mixed feelings about the article being discovered. We were just starting to get really into the ARG aspect of the marketing campaign and had lots of ideas for where to take it next (one that was going to be really awesome, but probably out of our scope anyway, so it’s probably for the better that it ended when it did).
We were really excited to have a write up in Nintendo Power for our first game as a brand new studio, so I think the excitement of that outweighed the disappointment of the reveal. The ARG pretty much died when that article came out. We have continued to ad fan art to the commandervideo website as it rolls in, though, and there’s some great stuff up there. If anyone feels compelled to contribute, please submit fanart to us or to ARGN and we’ll coordinate getting it up on the site!
AN: There hasn’t been any direct contact between Gaijin Games and Nintendo Power at all, but I’d love some! Any Nintendo Power folks reading this shoot me an email! And thanks for the write up!
RS: Did Nintendo offer any marketing support for Bit.Trip: Beat or did Gaijin Games have to take it upon itself to create the viral campaign?
AN: Since we’re working with a publisher Aksys Games gave us the majority of our support rather than Nintendo. They have been very excited about helping us to realize our vision. And it is right now that I will shamelessly plug Aksys Games. They have been absolutely fantastic to work with. I’ve worked with a LOT of publishers over the years, and Aksys ranks among the best that I’ve worked with in terms of enjoying our relationship and maintaining a sense of creative freedom. Thanks Aksys crew!
Anyway, Nintendo doesn’t really have much to do with 3rd party developers like ourselves in regards to marketing (but I’d love to get their attention and get some assistance Smiley ). Aksys took the ideas that we came up with for the viral campaign and helped us to realize the vision. We conceptualized it, storyboarded the video, and gave them assets when they needed them, but they shot the footage, edited it, and delivered us the viral vid. From there, we took over on the viral front and Aksys took over on the more mainstream stuff.
RS: Was there a coordinated effort between Gaijin Games, Nintendo, and the various forms of media (print and web) in regards to the CommanderVideo ARG? Was Nintendo Power ever aware of the viral?
AN: Since this was our first viral campaign, we were winging it the whole way. There was no coordination among the parties. Had there been, we might have been able to get really nutty with this thing, but as it was, we ended up being very pleased with the experience as a whole. I believe that Nintendo Power was unaware of the viral campaign.
RS: What is the next project for Gaijin Games now that Bit Trip Beat is about to be released? Do you think Gaijin will utilize viral marketing again in future titles?
AN: Our next project is Episode 2 of the BIT.TRIP series. We may use viral marketing again in the future, but whether we use it for any more of the BIT.TRIP games is undecided. There is a lot of content in the first viral campaign that won’t make sense until sometime well into the future. Everything in that video has meaning in CommanderVideo’s world. The viral thing was fun, though, and we would consider doing it again. Hopefully when you least expect it.
RS: With the viral campaign coming to an end can players expect to run into CommanderVideo again?
AN: Absolutely. Just take a look around the next time you’re out and about. He’s everywhere.
Once again, a special thank you to Alex Neuse of Gaijin Games on behalf of ARGNet. For our readers who are CommanderVideo fans you can get more information on the WiiWare title Bit.Trip: Beat here. Nintendo Wii owners can purchase the game via WiiWare in the very near future.
All images courtesy of Alex Neuse