On Saturday, January 27, 2007, at 5:59 p.m. Pacific Standard Time, a sizable crowd of two to three hundred people had gathered on the hill at Gas Works Park in Seattle, Washington, across from the brilliantly lit gas works. An enormous projection screen had been erected on the flat ground between the structure and Lake Union, where colored lights strobed atop police boats that formed a cordon around a darkened barge floating in the lake. As the clock ticked over to the top of the hour, hundreds of eyes aimed themselves at the video now winking into existence on the screen.
This was Loki’s final message to those few of the hundreds of thousands of players of the Vanishing Point Game – a promotion for Microsoft’s upcoming release of the next version of its Windows operating system, Vista – who had managed to be present for the final live event of the game…and to witness the final clues to the identity of “Loki” and her secret to winning, among other things, the grand prize trip into space.
In the video, Loki recounted her mission and praised the progress of the players so far. Photographs from previous live events flashed across the screen, along with screen shots of web sites and message boards that had been involved in the campaign. As the video ended, a single white flare shot out over the lake from behind the screen, music swelled from strategically placed loudspeakers, and the crowd was bathed in bright hues as broad brush strokes of flame painted the sky, synchronized to the wicked techno beats tumbling their way up the hill.
The volume of the fireworks display was only briefly rivaled upon the finale, as the crowd burst into cheers and applause.
Vanishing Point Game was perhaps the most successful puzzle competition to date, with available prizes worth half a million dollars. It was produced by 42 Entertainment for Microsoft and apparently co-sponsored (or at least co-branded) by AMD, a microprocessor and graphics chip manufacturer and Intel’s largest rival. By all reports, the volume of active participants in the game exceeded the producers’ expectations by a handy margin.
The campaign consisted of four online virtual puzzle boxes, the opening of each coinciding with live events in locations around the world. Clues were projected on the faces of buildings, written in the sky with smoke, and the whole shindig was kicked off by a video projected on the waterspouts in front of the Bellagio Casino and Hotel in Las Vegas, Nevada. As each box opened, players attacked the dozen puzzles revealed, collaborating in online chats and message forums. In addition to the puzzles released each week, an over-arching meta-puzzle challenged players to find Loki.
In Seattle, both the video and fireworks contained some of the final clues participants required in order to solve the twelve puzzles revealed in the final box that evening. Keen-eyed players searched for patterns in the shapes and sequences produced by the exploding shells.
After the display, the milling crowd was directed to a stand of waiting buses, which had been outfitted with butcher paper lining the side windows so as to obscure the view. As they boarded, riders were admonished by an irascible gent to “look straight ahead, and don’t try to peek out the windows.”
The trip was short to Fremont Studios, where an after-party was prepared for attendees, hosted by Microsoft. They pulled out all the stops, with catered food, hosted bars, a live DJ, pinball games, and wi-fi all provided gratis. T-shirts were available, printed on the front with “I disappeared on 01.27.07” above a Vanishing Point logo wreathed in smoke, the back listing the “tour dates” of the campaign’s live events.
Performance artists depicted famous people who had vanished – the theme of the evening – and in some cases managed to convince players that they held clues to the Vanishing Point puzzles (they didn’t).
The evening’s success was only slightly marred by production problems related to the high-definition video of the final clues at the park, as the media company contracted for the purpose had trouble uploading their video to the game’s server. But some players were able to use the hosted wi-fi and laptops to post their own versions later in the evening. Other players were perhaps less altruistic, as this reporter spied one individual attempting to email himself clues from an unattended personal laptop at one point during the evening.
Although the contest and prizes were unavailable to Microsoft employees, those intrepid programmers were not left out in the cold by Vanishing Point. The character Loki, ostensibly the “puzzle master” behind the entire campaign, had an actual office on the Microsoft campus, according to Steve Peters of 42 Entertainment, one of the actual puppet masters behind the puzzle master. Stickers were placed around the campus to attract the attention of employees, and provided directions to the curious that were intended to lead them to Loki’s office. There, the observant might have noticed some strange patterns of tape stuck to the office window. In fact, if lined up at just the right angle, one could match up the tape with the Seattle skyline, and a bullseye marking the spot. Solving this puzzle would have provided the successful employee with an invitation to attend the endgame festivities, but only one individual was reported to have done so.
The final meta puzzle revolving around the identification of Loki’s identity was solved by players late in the evening of January 30th, though the name of the player who will step into homes everywhere with their name engraved on the AMD chip has yet to be revealed. According to the Vanishing Point Game website, the sweepstakes winners will be drawn February 1-2, and the winners for both the sweepstakes and the AMD chips will be announced publicly on the game’s website beginning on March 1st.