In early February, in a chilly forest 100 miles north of London, park rangers were dismayed to spot dozens of young people tramping through the trees carrying shovels and digging holes in the soggy ground. Turned out, it was the tail end of a 15-month-long global treasure hunt staged by the makers of an online game called Perplex City. The game had sucked in more than 50,000 players from 92 countries. Some of them teamed up to pool their resources, and the teams that deciphered clues leading to the location of a buried talisman called the Receda Cube dispatched pals who lived nearby to find it. The Cube was ultimately dug up by Londoner Andy Darley, who worked alone. His prize: $200,000.
Perplex City is the handiwork of a British startup called Mind Candy Inc. that designs so-called alternative-reality games. These games typically take place both on the Internet and in real locations. (One real-world Perplex City event featured a menacing black helicopter that spirited off an actor who left behind a knapsack full of clues.)
The games' details trickle out through an array of media pipes—from social-networking Web sites, to homemade videos, to wikis, to blogs, to mobile-phone messaging, to clues planted in newspaper classified ads. A number of players even collaborated to write a book, Tales from Earth, which has sold more than 100,000 copies in electronic and paperback versions.
Alternative-reality games are crafted to appeal to a sizable population of digitally savvy, puzzle-loving young people who are scattered worldwide. The core audience ranges from 16 years of age up to the late 20s. Marketing experts believe entertainment like this could provide rich opportunities for brands to cement relationships. "It's a very exciting new area," says James Cherkoff, director at London consultancy Collaborate Marketing. "In the big picture, it's still very geeky, but it will be constantly evolving as the network and Web culture grows."
The idea undergirding Perplex City is that consumers are most engaged when they're involved in entertainment as participants, not just passive recipients, and that level of immersion will draw them back over and over again. "We believe the interactive experiences we're providing will be an important part of entertainment and advertising going forward," says Mind Candy Chief Executive Michael Smith, a two-time Internet entrepreneur who always seems to look as if he just rolled out of bed.
Mind Candy made money on the first Perplex City game by selling clue cards and fan magazines. Its second-generation games, designed to last a more manageable one to six weeks, are to be supported by corporate sponsors and subscriptions. The BBC sponsored a mystery game that just ended, and Smith says he's in sponsorship talks with a wide variety of global brands, including Microsoft (MSFT ), Google (GOOG ), Sprint Nextel (S ), and Sony (SNE ).
For hardcore Perplex City players, who call themselves Perplexians, the games are addictive. One of the most avid players is Oliver Keers, a 16-year-old student from London. In spite of all the hours he logs online, Keers belies the classic stereotype of the computer nerd. He's a rock climber and member of the Combined Cadet Force, a British national defense youth group. He had been eyeing a career as a physics or chemistry professor but is now considering going to work for an online game company. In the meantime, he's spending much of his free time in Perplex City.
By Steve Hamm