As reported previously at ARGNet, sexy Formula 1 racer Lewis Hamilton had been leading a double life: when he’s not out leaving his competitors in the dust, he’s recovering stolen art and returning them to their rightful owners. According to Hamilton, he just can’t “resist a challenge,” and after his first recovery heist, he was hooked. Soon he assembled a crack support squad, including logistics expert Anna Chao, professional lookalike Lenny Rose, and his trainer Joe . . . and about 637,000 enthusiastic players from all over the world.
Lewis Hamilton: Secret Life was the epic international game created by nDreams for Reebok. Building on nDreams’ experience creating the Xi, the highly regarded alternate reality game for the PlayStation Home, Secret Lewis ran from March to November 2010, included numerous online assets, and entertained players from London to Abu Dhabi. Based on the reactions of players, some of whom flung themselves full-speed into the game world, Secret Lewis was one of the most engaging, interactive, and exciting games of 2010.
But what accounted for this success? Looking over the whole campaign, this article will try to figure out what made the game tick and explore how Secret Lewis can serve as a model for future alternate reality games.
At the game’s outset, the scale and scope of Secret Lewis was incredibly inclusive. In a genre that is accustomed to transmedia experiences that might last, at best, a few months, the truly long-form ARG is a rare creature indeed. Because the campaign played for the better part of a year, Secret Lewis was able to gather a sustainable playerbase. Keeping momentum and engagement up was achieved in several ways, including an almost overwhelming number of drops and live events, approachable characters serving as points of entry for new players, a constantly evolving storyline, and, importantly, multiple points of entry for players to engage in different forms of gameplay.
In addition to gathering steam through the long form, amazingly Lewis Hamilton: Secret Life brought together a truly international audience. There were drops and events in a dozen cities: from a shopping mall in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, to a public square in Barcelona, Spain, to scavenger hunts in the Middle East and India, all culminating in a finale in London in November. Even the various in-game websites were available in nine languages, including Chinese, Korean, and Turkish. Sometimes there would be simultaneous drops in one country to cover the most ground (for example, three drops on the same day in three different cities in India). There was also a targeted, in-game recruitment drive to get players in from Egypt, Lebanon, and the United Arab Emirates.
According to nDreams writer and producer David Varela,
The countries and languages we covered were largely down to Reebok: they had particular markets they wanted to target, and within that, we needed buy-in from the national Reebok managers to agree to support any local activity.Similarly, Beirut was chosen for an event because the local Reebok guys were eager to be part of the campaign. I don’t think many global campaigns go to places like Lebanon, and I know that it really helped raise Reebok’s profile over there – they tripled their Facebook fans during the week of the event. Relatively modest numbers, but a big impact in a small market.
Interestingly, although the campaign was overtly expressed as a promotion for Reebok, Secret Lewis was not heavy-handed in its implementation of product placement and other marketing tactics. One way that Reebok sneakers were integrated into the game was through Trainer Joe’s in-character training videos, where he advises Hamilton (and us) on the best model of Reeboks to wear depending on where we’re . . . I mean, Hamilton, is breaking into. Of course, Hamilton is sporting proper Reeboks in all the videos, but all of this was delicately spun into the story: even the fact that some live events started at Reebok retail locations was narratively accounted for through the in-character blog.
Alternate reality games and other transmedia productions are accustomed to tapping into existing intellectual properties or creating new ones from scratch. But Lewis Hamilton isn’t a fictional hero in a fictional universe. Rather compellingly, Hamilton is a real person in a fictionalized (but still very real) world. Thus, some of the game’s events were scheduled to coincide with his F1 racing schedule; for example, after Hamilton raced in the Hungarian Grand Prix, he pulled off a heist using a remote controlled car in Budapest that night. Even though he had a professional lookalike, tying in-game developments to Hamilton’s real-world schedule enhanced the plausibility of the game, supported the “this is not a game” aesthetic, and also added to the approachability of this mega-celebrity.
In addition to Hamilton’s very approachable celebrity, Secret Lewis was packed with memorable characters, from the pink-shirted architect in Malaysia, to Anna’s adorable crooner Uncle Meynard, to the totally non-fictional footballer Thierry Henry whose bizarre sculpture made of sentimental personal objects was stolen. These characters, real and unreal, were all lively points of contact and interaction for the players. For example, one challenge asked players to submit love songs so that Brian, the brain-addled hockey player in Montreal, could win back his girlfriend. The community of players then voted on their favorite songs, resulting in some hauntingly lovely songs.
But beyond the time-sensitive events and challenges central to the game, Secret Lewis also had a significant number of pervasive web-based games that were well-integrated into the overall narrative. In numerous “heist simulator” games, players controlled a virtual Lewis as he snuck into various luxurious locations to recover stolen artworks, all rendered beautifully in 3D with straightforward but challenging gameplay. Another “photo fit” game asked players to solve a facial recognition puzzle to identify an unknown operative. Many of these games were also available for free on mobile phones and are available to play at the Secret Lewis site, which serves as an archive for the full campaign.
Unlike many ARGs with online games as pervasive assets, these games were well-integrated into the overall narrative. For example, after participants played the heist simulators, Lewis Hamilton himself would act out the heist, with Anna Chao’s assistance, in a video. Several of the games had to be completed to advance the story because they would only reveal clues upon completion, and they were all in-game and part of the fictional landscape. Easter eggs embedded into the online assets provided further clues important to the game in addition to cheat codes to improve the players’ scores. This encouraged “gaming the games” and added yet another element to the online assets.
Although the pervasive web-based games made it possible for new players to immediately start playing without waiting for a live update, throughout the almost year-long campaign, player interest was also maintained through the strategic use of prizes tied to live events and time-sensitive challenges. Smaller gifts, such as Amazon gift cards and signed Lewis Hamilton pin-ups, were sent to the most active and successful players throughout the campaign. Even when material rewards weren’t involved, the common use of shout-outs to recognize player contributions as rewards happened fairly often, and this kind of recognition served to increase player loyalty and make the game inclusive and fun.
Another aspect of Lewis Hamilton: Secret Life that kept players coming back for more was how the storyline evolved and escalated, culminating in a final event in London. Over the course of the game, it was slowly revealed that Lewis Hamilton had a nemesis named Alexander Hawker, who, it turns out, had a hand in all of the previous heists. To prevent Hawker from spying on Hamilton and the players, the entire game had to move over to a different website, Super Secret Lewis. Hawker was not just some armchair thief: as a final denouement, the nefarious Hawker broke into Hamilton’s own house in Switzerland and stole one of his trophies.
For the London finale, participants were gathered in a London movie theater where a video of Lewis Hamilton revealed that the clues to the safe holding his trophy were to be found under their seats. This was followed by a mad dash to find the safe and figure out the combination to unlock it. The winner, PS3 enthusiast and Unfiction member Chaziboy (who, incidentally, created video walkthroughs archiving the entire Secret Lewis experience) managed to get to the safe first and recover Hamilton’s trophy. As a prize, Chaziboy kept the trophy and will participate in a special training session with Lewis Hamilton himself.
As evident in this finale video, Chaziboy is simply ecstatic, and catching up with him recently, he had this to say:
the experience of doing something completely different was what made it even better . . . . It seems like it’s better to have the community work together and go out into the real world to solve a game than it is to sit at home on a console. I’m really looking forward to what nDreams have in store next.
In sum, nDreams may have found a solution to many of the issues that have plagued the ARG genre with Lewis Hamilton: Secret Life. With a playerbase of over half a million participants scattered around the world, Secret Lewis seems to defy the problems of scalability common to so many ARGs without creating an entirely impersonal experience. In fact, judging by the passion exhibited by the game’s participants, Lewis Hamilton: Secret Life pulled off an intimately personal experience despite its massive scale. Bringing together the power of celebrity through Lewis Hamilton himself, the infrastructure of a global corporate sponsor like Reebok, and the narrative skill and game design expertise that nDreams is known for, Lewis Hamilton: Secret Life may very well hold the keys to solving many of the genre’s systemic, and oftentimes seemingly insurmountable, deficiencies.