A recently leaked article, supposedly posted to Microsoft’s internal news site, appears to verify the dreaded truth — Halo 3’s Iris “spiral marketing campaign” has come to its official end. The article, which was posted to the Unfiction forums with permission from the author, reveals the end date of August 16th, which coincides with the opening of Iris’ fifth and final server, or “episode”. It also details the campaign’s goals, achievements, challenges and failures. Undoubtedly, the primary point of dissension this article raises is the challenge undertaken to provide a “low-key, low budget campaign [which] does more with less, whetting the appetite of the blockbuster video game’s fanatical followers.”
The article reveals that Iris was developed by “more than 50 people from 20 Microsoft teams [who] contributed time, coding expertise, and industry contacts.” The attempt was ultimately to provide a grand marketing scheme incurring little cost while attaining “critical mass” — defined in the article as getting “interview requests from The Wall Street Journal”. “It’s about breaking out of the hardcore and getting into the mainstream,” said Aaron Elliott, online marketing manager for Xbox Global Marketing (also listed as one of the ‘founders’ of the Society of the Ancients, an in-game organization that appeared at the beginning, but was never heard from again).
Strictly speaking, given the resources used to produce the campaign and the costs (or lack thereof) incurred, Iris may be considered an impressive success. However, if one includes the overall sentiment of the demographic that was actually actively playing or following Iris, one might say that their reach had exceeded their grasp. They seem to have ignored (or miscalculated) an inherent factor in the kind of campaign they were hoping to produce – most players had expectations, whether misplaced or not, of another I Love Bees. That potential was lost, and while the production may have been impressive to some, it failed dramatically in achieving what could have been achieved quite easily.
Riddled with problems (some unavoidable, some sloppy), the campaign ran far from smoothly. The article lists some difficulties the teams faced, including:
- “Content from an external publisher caused technical problems with the Xbox 360 kiosk demo disc, delaying delivery and pushing the second episode back”
- “During episode one, an executive e-mail sent to employees leaked to game bloggers, and parts of an internal Q&A document were inadvertently distributed with a press release”
- “A paperboy with a user account on Bungie.net leaked the content of the Best Buy ad circular before the papers hit the newsstands.” (The article reveals that the site was found prematurely and was still being tested, and that the response from the game designers was to slow people down with a countdown.)
Despite mentioning some of the game’s shortfalls, the article fails to mention issues such as:
- inconsistent programming in regards to the membership application process for Society of the Ancients
- difficulties with the toll free number for the Flood Containment Control
- routine server errors during the unlocking of servers igniting fury in players who felt they were swindled out of rewards they deserved
- sloppy asset control where source material was found, raising questions and causing stress for those who ended up swarmed by hordes of strangers (Iris players) who thought they were in-game
- most bothersome: the correction of GPS locations people actually travelled to, after the fact, in the unlocking of the final episode
On a more positive note, the creators do feel they achieved the challenge set before them – to offer a marketing campaign using a nearly entirely in-house team, with little cost (and much donation), to reach the mass market. They achieved the goal of expanding the Halo story into the distant past, offering hints and tidbits of information about the Forerunners, the Ark, the Flood, and the last firing of the Halo rings. They undoubtedly achieved the traffic and market penetration they were hoping for through word of mouth and hype. They managed to offer a contest that got gamers literally fighting for a spot in the winners’ circle, and drummed up press and presence in the blog-o-sphere, both positive and negative, further boosting their market penetration.
I find myself wondering how much of the buzz surrounding the game was due to the game itself, and how much was due to an existing foundational fan base, waiting patiently for the day they could experience something similar to I Love Bees? With an undercut plan for a campaign intended to appeal to this very audience, one might say that they ended up shooting themselves in the foot. Yes, there are players who appreciate the campaign, the answers that were given, the exploring and research they were led to do, the mind-opening things that had been discussed in rampant speculation, and much more. But these people are undoubtedly few and far between, compared to the raging hardcore fan base who may feel swindled out of their swag (legitimately and arguably), or feel cut off by an insufficient ending, lack of closure, and numerous dangling threads.
Any way you look at it, the success of Iris relies on one’s own ability to accept what was offered and produced, and enjoy it for what it’s worth – a bit of Halo back story, in the fashion of a web-based competition, without the intent of approaching the scale of an ARG, let alone of I Love Bees. But more significantly, the occasional positivity shown in each Iris community was inspiring and hopeful, and a great demonstration of the kind of community that Alternate Reality Games can produce, and in which they thrive.
This is a clear example, however, in demonstrating how hype can be a dangerous machine. In the case of Iris, hype was its biggest enemy.