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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."

So 42 Entertainment approached the problem by deciding to build a game that was interesting enough on its own to lure players and get bloggers and others to talk about it, Lee said.

"We had to start with the puzzles and the real-world spectacle," he said, "and had to start with the opening statement that one of you is going to fly into space."

To Marr, the space flight prize is the closest tie-in to Vista he could come up with.

"When we thought about what would be a phenomenal prize, the idea (was) taking someone to an ultimate vista," Marr said. "So we jokingly said, 'Maybe we could take someone into space.' And it ultimately turned out it was something we could do."

The story of Vanishing Point revolves around a fictional character named Loki, and tasks players with figuring out who she is. Marr said that the character "works" for Microsoft, has an office there, and reports to an executive there.

Your name on chips
The first person to solve the many puzzles and clues that lead to Loki's identity will win what Lee termed "a geek's dream:" having their name laser-etched on a production run of AMD chips.

The first clues to Loki's identity, and to the series of real-life events, started with a video available on the Vanishing Point Web site. Players who examined the video noticed many clues, including a magazine with a picture of the Bellagio fountain. Ultimately, many figured out that the first event would take place January 8 at that site.

Lee said 42 Entertainment planned to put its own video of the fountain spectacle on its site about an hour after it ended to give the 200 or so people who attended a bit of a head start in solving the puzzles.

But he said that there were so many bloggers in attendance, there was no way to keep the video from going online immediately.

"As soon as the event ended, I looked around to see people's reactions," Lee said, "and within five seconds, I heard (several say), 'Oh, my God, I have to go blog this.'"

Indeed, within minutes, people had posted videos of the event on YouTube.

In addition to the Las Vegas event, 42 and Microsoft plan more spectacles on the same scale throughout January in Miami, Sydney, San Francisco, Singapore, Berlin, Los Angeles and other locales.

But even before the Vegas event and before the game had really officially begun, bloggers like Scott Beale were getting packages in the mail filled with puzzles, clues and videos connected to Vanishing Point.

Beale quickly . Before he knew it, his readers were running with it.

"Since my blog is visual, I put the photos up and the video up," Beale said, "so I had all the pieces laid out so people had the information, and within hours, people were working on the clues in my comments section."

And to players like Waite, the game was impressive.

"I've played the first series of puzzles, and I was happy," Waite said. "There's a lot of really cool Web elements to it. I'm not a puzzle guy, but I really enjoyed the creativity behind them."

And even though no one may ultimately remember that the game was linked to Vista, stories like that are music to Lee's and Marr's ears.