Images courtesy of Campfire
On Sunday, April 24th, HBO’s newest show, Game of Thrones, brought viewers into the world of Westeros, a land flush with political machinations and magic. Based on George R.R. Martin’s highly acclaimed Song of Ice and Fire book series, the franchise came pre-packaged with a committed fan base that has been somewhat patiently waiting for the next installment for six years. With Game of Thrones, HBO hopes to replicate the success of True Blood, their previous foray in fantasy adaptations. To help that along, the studio turned to Campfire, the advertising agency behind True Blood‘s Blood Copy alternate reality game.
With True Blood, Campfire introduced the town of Bon Temps to audiences through a narrative that guided them through the introduction of vampires to human society. However, a similar tactic was out of the question for Game of Thrones, due to Martin’s openly protective stance towards the characters and worlds he creates. Since one of the goals of the campaign was to reassure fan communities that Game of Thrones was staying true to its source material, Campfire chose to focus on the world of Westeros itself through The Maester’s Path. As Campfire’s Executive Creative Director Mike Monello explains,
The work we did with True Blood was really an exercise with building a fan culture for the show, [and] what HBO has seen is how that really helped sustain the show. For Game of Thrones, a lot of this work was designed to facilitate the fan culture that was growing around the show and have HBO be a part of that, to have the fans know that HBO respected that . . . there’s more to fan culture than just “put the show on the air.”
The result of this thinking was a five-week long sensory exploration of the world that brought the rich lore of Martin’s stories to the forefront in “Stark” relief.
The Scents of Westeros
Campfire’s fan engagement marketing campaign launched on February 25th with the mailing of carefully crafted scent boxes containing fifteen different scents mailed to a number of bloggers. Inside each box, recipients found a map of Westeros, six vials of wax-stoppered scents, and illuminated scrolls describing the contents. Fan communities and websites were contacted and provided additional scent boxes to give away to their readers.
In addition to the sensory experience itself, each week featured a different puzzle housed at TheMaestersPath.com. Completing each puzzle would unlock a clip from the series, add a link to your maester’s chain, and provide a GetGlue badge. The sensory puzzle required players to locate the symbols associated with each of the fifteen different scents before aligning a wheel to indicate their origins.
Listening Inn at the Crossroads
The second installment was a “spatial audio experience” that transplanted players into The Inn at the Crossroads. By navigating a sigil over the six different tables at the Inn, snippets of conversation could be overheard that provided numerous references to the various Houses of Westeros through gossip and rumor.
Solving the second puzzle required both keen observation and an encyclopedic knowledge of the heraldic symbols underlying Martin’s world. As Monello explained, “the puzzles and the challenges were very clearly geared to the hardcore fans, and steeped in the stories…we wanted the fans to understand that HBO really did have a passion for Game of Thrones, and we needed to express through the marketing that . . . the people working at HBO read this stuff, and they were all loving it.”
Joining the Night Watch to See the Wall
One of the most compelling locations in Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series is the Wall. Guarded by the Night Watch, the Wall stands as the only line of defense between Westeros and destruction at the hands of the mysterious Others. For the third experience, players entered an online flash game that let them assume the role of a member of the Night’s Watch, waiting to signal an attack. The game’s wall was created based on concept sketches, providing the first glimpse at HBO’s vision of the iconic fortress. Spotting the invading horde was enough to complete this challenge, making it the easiest of the five challenges to complete.
Touching the Weather of Westeros
With its fourth installment, The Maester’s Path went mobile with the introduction of the Game of Thrones: Ice and Fire app at the iTunes Store. The app provided a closer look at some of the actual locations used in filming Game of Thrones. Entering a location in the real world would bring up information about the region in Westeros experiencing comparable weather. The fourth puzzle was by far the most challenging, requiring players to reassemble a book, page-by-page. Some enterprising fans completed this task by decrypting the ciphered text, using the heraldic symbols as a key. Others tackled the symbols representing years at the bottom of each page. Alternatively, the temperatures indicated in the mobile app provided a rough guide towards ordering the pages.
Campfire hid an Easter egg for the most dedicated followers of The Maester’s Path experience in the fourth puzzle. On the back of one of the maps mailed out in the scent box, the phrase “Always Support the Bottom” was faintly visible. Although players initially thought this was a clue, Steve Coulson, the campaign’s creative lead and “in-house Maester,” let players know that was a red herring. The phrase became a rallying cry for many players, so Coulson worked the words into the fourth puzzle as Campfire’s response to the fans.
A Taste of Westeros by Tom Colicchio
The final installment in The Maester’s Path captured the hearts and taste buds of fans in New York and Los Angeles, as they were treated to culinary delicacies from a traveling food truck serving up 300 servings a day of delicacies ranging from venison to head cheese. Campfire enlisted the aid of Top Chef judge and Gramercy Tavern co-founder Tom Colicchio. As Monello explained, “we wanted to tell the story through food . . . we could have just done a carnival and offered giant turkey legs, but it was about expressing the kind of detail that was going to be in the show.”So Coulson briefed Colicchio on the Game of Thrones universe, and Colicchio developed five menus. Since his third son was born mere days before the food trucks went live, Colicchio’s executive chef Damon Wise ran the New York and Los Angeles food trucks. Colicchio did manage to make an appearance in New York.
Locations were released on the@gameofthrones twitter account every day, with fans waiting patiently in line for the free food. The food carts served as an opportunity to bring together Song of Ice and Fire fans: “you talk passionately online, but you don’t always have an excuse to get together,” Monello explained. “My proudest moment in the whole campaign was at the end of the first day when we were reading the feedback and [participants] said as much fun as the food was, [they] had more fun standing in line.” In Los Angeles, George R.R. Martin himself made a surprise appearance to try some of the Westeros-inspired delicacies. Monello joined fans after the food truck’s final day in New York City, hitting up a nearby bar to share experiences over a beer. While waiting in line, attendees might have noticed the final puzzle hidden on the menus they were provided. Folding the menu just right revealed the final puzzle’s solution, unlocking one last scene from the series.
Finding Friends for the Final Reward
In order to complete the maester’s chain, one final task had to be completed: players had to invite at least five friends to register for The Maester’s Path. Completing this final task unlocked a special video from George R.R. Martin, thanking the true fans who saw their way through the campaign in its entirety. All told, 37,000 users registered for the site, 12,000 people downloaded the Ice and Fire app, and 190,000 visitors interacted with one of the campaign’s digital elements.
The show’s first episode managed to bring in 2.2 million viewers for the premiere. Those numbers held steady on Easter Sunday for the second episode, and increased this past Sunday for the third. While these figures fell short of Boardwalk Empire‘s premiere, it was more than the number of viewers True Blood‘s premiere generated, and enough for HBO to renew the show for a second season.
The Maester’s Path did not add anything new to George R.R. Martin’s world of Westeros. All of the information conveyed throughout the experience was familiar material to fans of the series. What sets the experience apart was the lavish attention to detail taken in transforming words on a page into each of the five modular sensory experiences that comprised HBO’s interpretation of the story. Before playing through The Maester’s Path, I thought I knew Martin’s story well. After seeing the world through Campfire’s perspective, I think it’s time to give the series another read-through before A Dance With Dragons comes out July 12th.