Building Vista buzz with a puzzle

A new game may or may not give a boost to sales of the OS, but it could send the winner nearly into orbit. Photos: A puzzling publicity push

It started with a cryptic ad on an official Internet Explorer blog, and it quickly led curious puzzle players to what may be one of the most ambitious interactive sweepstakes in history.

The ad, which appeared on December 21, was comprised of a small black box with a long numerical and alphabetical code and was surrounded by the words, "Most of you won't figure this out," as well as a URL.

This was the beginning of , the newest large-scale project from 42 Entertainment, the firm behind popular alternate-reality games such as I Love Bees, The Beast and Last Call Poker.

Vanishing Point is a hybrid game--part alternate-reality game, or ARG, part traditional sweepstakes--that's actually a marketing vehicle for Microsoft's Windows Vista. As a lure, Microsoft is giving away a $220,000 suborbital flight on a four-seat plane that can reach altitudes of up to 330,000 feet and that provides several minutes of weightlessness. Neither 42 Entertainment executives nor Microsoft would say how much the software giant is paying 42 to create and manage the contest.

There appears to be significant buzz surrounding Vanishing Point and its ambitious series of scheduled events in cities around the world. The first occurred January 8 at Las Vegas' Bellagio resort, during the giant Consumer Electronics Show, when organizers projected a lengthy puzzle-filled video onto the mist from the venue's famous fountains. The game is expected to conclude before Vista's January 30 consumer launch.

Despite that opening splash during CES, however, some question whether anyone will remember the link between the game and Vista.

"I'm not much interested in who's putting on the contest, as long as I have a chance to win," said Jonathan Waite, a senior editor at ARGNet, an online news and community site devoted to ARGs. "The next big question is will (people) buy Vista because they enjoyed Vanishing Point? I don't think there's going to be a big swing in Vista sales because of (the) game."

While it's difficult for game developers to measure a hard return on their investment in time and money, creating buzz may well be enough for them.

"This is a puzzle challenge embedded in the planet. There are clues written in water, and clues etched in the skies above cities."
--Elan Lee, vice president of design, 42 Entertainment

"It's definitely a lot less expensive than people have assumed," said Brian Marr, Microsoft's group marketing manager for Windows Vista. "I don't know what a Super Bowl ad costs (last year's ads reportedly cost $2.6 million for a 30-second spot). You get a month's worth of entertainment for the same price."

Unlike previous 42 Entertainment projects, Vanishing Point is not a pure ARG. According to Elan Lee, 42's vice president of design, it's quite different structurally from an ARG, but it does have some of the elements of that genre.

"Vanishing Point is an online puzzle challenge game with clues and hints embedded in the real world," Lee said. "It's this massive puzzle game, but you have to scour your real life looking for spectacular events that we publicize in order to solve the puzzles online."

The first event, the Vegas fountain production, will be followed up in other cities this month. Lee said the game's creators decided to pursue a design scale unlike anything that has been tried before.

"This is a puzzle challenge embedded in the planet," Lee said. "There are clues written in water, and clues etched in the skies above cities. To me a very exciting part of this is that this is the first game ever to use the actual Earth as a resource for delivering content."

Lee said one key difference between an ARG and Vanishing Point is the fact that Vista has no inherent story line to link to. By comparison, the narrative of I Love Bees was woven into the larger story line of Microsoft's Halo 2, and Last Call Poker was loosely tied to the story behind Activision's Gun.

"This was the exact problem we tried to tackle," Lee said. "There are no characters (in Vista). How do we make people care? We approached it in the exact opposite way we usually do. Most products come with at least a small built-in audience that care about a narrative, and you can expand that narrative...and (you can) encourage them to bring in their friends."

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