Cutting the Cake: a critical look at the cake event
The other day, I wrote about the lack of criticism. I happened to mention that I had written a piece on Why So Serious but had never posted it. Perhaps the number of people who wanted to see it shouldn’t have surprised me, but it did – of course, I always have this feeling that only three people actually read my tiny little blog. So, I am taking the plunge and posting it for all to read. I have slightly revised it to remove references to things like “last week” and added a description of the event so that we can all remember what it was.
The Cake Event, a description.
One day in December 2007, a new page asking people to Step Right Up appeared on the Why So Serious website with instructions to go to a location and pick up a “very special treat” left for Robin Banks. That package turned out to be a cake, with a phone number written on the top in icing. You were instructed to call the phone number and, in doing so, the cake would ring because, you see, there was a phone buried within. When you dug it out of the cake, not only did you get a phone that the Joker could call you on whenever he wanted, but you also got an evidence bag with various items including a note asking you to use the phone to call a number. Calling it activated the phone, which updated the website to show that the cake had been received, knocking “your” bear off the wall and taking the lights on the carnival game one step closer to the top. Anticipation built throughout the day as the cakes were claimed…. what would happen when all the lights were lit? Finally it happened and, if you hit the hammer, a new page appeared linking folks to a poster and a listing of five IMAX locations showing the premier of the six-minute prologue for the Dark Knight. If you lived at one of those locations, you could register for tickets.
All in all, it was very cool and fantastically creative. And it was a success – heck, on a single forum, there were over 4200 posts about this event alone, not to mention other forums, dozens of blog posts, press coverage, and so on. But, as always, when looking at something after it’s all played out, it’s easy to do a bit of armchair quarterbacking and, perhaps because I became so personally involved in the event, I felt more compelled to write about it than I usually do. This is what I wrote…
My Experience… my mom? an ARGer?
I considered going to the bakery in Atlanta, but it was about a 45 minute drive and I really wanted someone else to have the experience of calling the cake – such events are defining moment in an ARG and I’ve had plenty of my own already. That didn’t stop me from wanting to get my hands on a “joker phone”, though. So, the moment that I saw a bakery listed near my hometown, I picked up the phone and called my mom. She barely grasps what it is that I do and has never felt compelled to play an alternate reality game, but the thought of her going to a bakery and picking up a cake that would ring when she called the number sent me into a fit of laughter.
Mom was surprised by the midday call and even more so when I implored her to go to a bakery downtown Cleveland. I relayed the task – she was to walk in and say that she was picking up a cake for Robin Banks. There would be a phone number on the cake, I explained, and she would have to call it for me. Through nervous laughter, perhaps because she knows my evil side, she asked me what was going to happen. I told her that it was nothing scary, that she’d love it and I wasn’t about to ruin the surprise. After that, her voice rose in excitement and I knew that she’d be heading down there. She even attempted to do a reverse lookup (I had given her the address, but not the phone number) in order to call the bakery and let them know she was on the way and maybe find out more about the cake – a research leap for her. Even if it was against the rules or maybe because it was (go mom! you rule breaker you!), that made me proud – she’d be a great ARG player.
I watched as the bear representing the Cleveland bakery came off the page and knew it had been too soon for her to get there. I called her anyway and excitedly asked if she got the cake. She hadn’t, she was just on her way. I told her that she didn’t have to go as someone else had already retrieved it. Somewhat disappointed and curious as to what would have happened, she asked for more information. As I explained that the cake would have a phone number that she was to call and that when she did the cake, itself, would ring because the phone she was calling was inside of it, she laughed in a way that made her sound much younger than she really is, “That would have been so cool!”
I had known the power that this event would have on players, but hearing her excitement made it very real for me. Before I knew it, I found myself drawn into the experience as a player. I clung to the computer throughout the day and hit refresh on the superherohype forums, where most of the online participants were gathered, more times than I would care to admit. As the day progressed, so did my feeling of disappointment. While there were some things that made me genuinely excited, I noticed a number of things that I would have done differently and, ultimately, finished the day wondering just why I wasn’t more excited by the entire thing.
After the event was over, I found myself going back through the day and thinking about the event not only from a production standpoint but also from a design one. What follows are the points that caused me the most trouble. Some of these things were rather difficult to put into words not only because I deeply admire 42 Entertainment’s work, but I have two good friends and collaborators working on the project. Fortunately, I know them well enough to know that they’ll understand the nature of this criticism. It is meant to be constructive… a learning process for me and, perhaps, others working in the field.
Preparing the Bakeries:
Several reports from players implied that the bakeries were not informed of the nature of the event. One player called a bakery and was placed on speaker phone so that the staff could listen in as the caller explained to them what was going on. A few reported confusion over whether people were allowed to leave the bakeries with the cakes. Others reported that the staff at the bakeries appeared frustrated by the activity. I don’t know if the attitude is typical or not, but if they were not prepared for the onslaught of attention it is no wonder that some were short with callers and cold with walk-in customers. However, by simply explaining to them what they might be in for, the event could have gone much smoother for them and, instead of making them feel used or frustrated, they could have been made to feel as though they were a part of something special.
To provide a bit of contrast – just a few weeks prior to the cake event, a live event for Eldritch Errors utilized want ads in a small local newspaper. While the ads were fairly tame and wouldn’t have received much notice in a larger city, they were an off the wall request – a want ad version of asking a baker to insert a working cell phone into a cake. The person who reviewed the ads initially declined them explaining that they were so strange they would have to be approved by the editor, meaning they wouldn’t appear until the next week. We explained what it was for and that it was a part of a game similar to a murder mystery event. Instantly, the tone changed. Instead of being worried about having to handle the confusing phone calls that the paper would receive, they were excited to be a part of this fun event. The details that we provided them were minimal but honest and put the paper at ease while preparing them for any strange behavior or worried phone calls that they may receive. Instead of feeling as if they were tricked or used, they were now a part of the team.
I can’t help but wonder how different the bakery experience would have been if bakeries were properly prepared and how much more exciting it would have been for all involved. Instead of asking callers what this was about, thus taking them out of the story of the event, they may have been more likely to respond by saying “oh, yes Mr./Ms. Banks, we have a very special cake waiting for you.” Instead of expressing frustration by the increased traffic, they would have been prepared for it and may have been better able to staff the bakery to handle the increased calls and walk-in traffic.
To be fair, I do not know how much or what information the bakeries were given. This could have been an issue of the manager or owner not informing the employees. However, as the complaints and inquiries came from several different bakeries, it is clear that at least some of them, if not most or all, were not as informed about the event as well as they should have been and the experience suffered as a result.
The take home lesson: Prepare your third parties – especially if they are going to be a point of interaction.
Providing a Consolation Cookie:
This was a first come first served event and, so, many players arrived at the bakeries after the cakes had been picked up. Some of these players drove great distances, giving up their lunch hour and braving winter weather. Imagine their disappointment, then, when they arrive and the cake has already been picked up. No amount of online coordination can completely avoid such things from happening – people play at different communities and some will ignore notifications that others are going.
A simple and easy gesture would have been to ask the bakeries to create a dozen or so consolation cookies as a special thank you treat for all of those that made the journey. Many bakeries that make cakes have an assortment of different shaped cookies that can be frosted. Imagine if you’d gone and the cake was already taken, but you got a t-shirt shaped cookie that said, “I went to the bakery, but all I got was this lousy t-shirt (cookie)!” your disappointment at missing the cake would have been eased. Better still, by using a more thematic cookie design the narrative could have been enhanced while allowing those that arrived later feel as if they contributed even though they did not get the primary piece.
Not only would the consolation cookie be useful for the player experience, but also for the experience that the bakeries had. The request to create all these cookies would not only have prepared the bakeries for the walk-in traffic (if they’re asking us to create all these cookies, we could be busy tomorrow!), it might have reduced some of the phone calls as those that knew that a cookie was waiting for them, even if they were late, might not have attempted to call the bakeries to “reserve” the cake or find out if it had already been picked up. Plus, it would have provided the bakeries with a bit of free marketing, which they would certainly have appreciated. If I got a great cookie from a bakery tied to such a positive event, I’d be more likely to return to them the next time I’d need a cake or cookies.
Cost wise, this would have been easily justified and provided a valuable return on the investment in the form of goodwill, content, and promotion. A dozen decorated cookies at the bakery used in Atlanta, for example, costs $9.00. Assuming that they had a dozen cookies created for each of the 22 cities that would have run them in the neighborhood of $200-$300. A small price to pay for the additional content in the form of photos, reports, and word of mouth promotional opportunities… you know people would have told their roommates and coworkers about the free cookie that they received for playing this crazy “Dark Knight viral thing” – especially if they were caught taking and uploading a picture of a cookie.
The take home lesson: When you expect a number of people to compete for a first come first served prize, ease disappointment by providing an alternative
Adding Redundancy into the System:
Once players picked up a cake, they were provided with a series of instructions. First of all, the cake had a number printed on it with instructions to call it now. This made the cake ring letting them know to cut into the cake to find a phone. When they cut into the cake, they discovered an evidence bag that contained the phone, a phone charger, a joker card, and a note. The note told them to use that phone to call another number and by doing this they heard a recording that told them that the Joker now knew how to get in touch. Presumably, it was by calling that number that the website knew that cake had been picked up. Thus, in order for the website to be updated and inform others that the cake had already been picked up, players had to make two phone calls one of which could not be made until the cake had been cut open.
Every time that you add a step to a process, you increase the complexity and introduce a failure point. This is one of the reasons why redundancy is so important. In this case, a failure could lead to players believe that they should take action and go to a bakery to pick up a cake or the failure could create an extended delay in the conclusion of the event, both of which happened. In one city, a cake was retrieved almost immediately but left in tact for a few hours so that a roommate could participate in the fun. In another city, someone had his wife pick up the cake but it took several hours before she got the cake to him due to a combination of work, distance, and weather. In both cases, people unaware that the cakes had been picked up continued to travel to the bakeries and in one case it meant that players online, once aware that the cake had been picked up, had to wait anxiously for the computer to update and the final reveal to be made.
To solve this problem while keeping the event, essentially, identical, the bakeries could have been informed to call a number which would have had the effect of informing the website that the cake had been picked up and/or, if a number of reports appeared online stating that a cake had been picked up, someone from 42 Entertainment could have confirmed this with the bakery and updated the site themselves. While this slightly changes the narrative wrapper of the event and appears to remove the player’s responsibility to call the number, a simple change to the website including separate thematic signals showing the difference between a cake being picked up and the player checking in with the Joker could have actually increased that sense of duty.
The take home lesson: Build redundancy into your relay systems and prepare yourself and your players for potential delays
Entertaining the Online Audience:
This event originated online with a countdown prior to its start, presumably to increase awareness and build expectations. At the start of the day, the website updated with a fun carnival theme that informed people of where to go (providing addresses) and showing whether or not the cake had been picked up. With each cake that was picked up, the website changed and you could see that something would happen once all of the cakes had been claimed.
So, what was online audience to do throughout the day while sitting and watching as bears (the thematic symbol) fell from the site? Nothing. There was nothing for them to do other than gather on their respective forums and speculate at what awesome thing would happen at the end of the day. While speculation is great, there was little narrative for them to speculate upon. So, it frequently turned to complaining – about waiting, about the lack of events in their cities, about nothing for them to do. To lift their spirits, they would talk about all of the wonderful things that would happen at the end of the day, building their expectations as the day went on.
While there is nothing wrong with location specific live events, when they originate online and take place throughout the day, you need to expect and prepare for people sitting anxiously at their computer and wanting to take part in some related activity. There are a number of approaches to this but the most fulfilling is providing narrative to occupy the online audience with super bonus points if the narrative blends both the on- and off-line elements. For less narrative games, an alternative is to provide a simple online activity that the online audience can do to help the offline participants achieve their goal. In this case, perhaps, one of the bears that led to the various cities could have led to a simple flash game where, if enough points had been achieved or players participated, it could have added to the count of cakes being claimed. A bonus here is that it could have provided some redundancy and if there had been a delay in a cake being called in, the online players would have been able to count for that cake on their own through their actions.
The take home lesson: When you have a large online audience eager but unable to participate in an offline event, find other ways to allow them to participate
Reducing the Ovaltine Factor:
After all of the cakes had been claimed, the website changed, a teaser poster for The Dark Knight was revealed and, for those fortunate to live in a select few cities, players were able to claim tickets to see the six-minute prologue to The Dark Knight. After a day spent eagerly speculating about the amazing awesome wonderness that this super cool event must lead to, there was some inevitable disappointment and a number of “#@%$ this!” and “#@%$ WB!” posts. The audience for Why So Serious was, perhaps, a bit more understanding of the Ovaltine Factor than most – they consistently hoped that things would lead to Dark Knight posters and trailers. Even so, for some, this crossed that line and there were a number of players left upset by the lack of online pay off – a poster for the movie that would be otherwise revealed in a matter of days. For them, the effort (and increasing expectations) did not match the reward.
The solutions to this are varied. Managing expectations and balancing effort and reward are often difficult but especially so when you have such a creative, fun, and unique buildup. In this case, with little narrative to follow after the event, the best solution may have been to manage expectations by better occupying the online audience. A day spent sitting on your hands watching and waiting and hoping for something made them feel teased. However, if the online audience had participated in making the reveal happen (as mentioned above), they would have been left feeling as if they had a part in making it possible for others to have this great opportunity to go and see the prologue – even if they could not. Instead of passively waiting for something, they would have been actively involved and could be proud of what they had helped to achieve.
The take home lesson: Manage expectations, match effort to reward, and minimize the Ovaltine Factor.
Sitting here in 2010 and looking back at both what I wrote and my memories of it all, it really was an outstanding event – even considering my considering my initial disappointment. It was fun. It was creative. It fit the story. It’s easy to understand and to talk about. It has an incredible “wow” moment. Really, it’s about everything I every hope for in an event. The criticisms that I’ve made do not change those things. I post them not to put down the event, but to show that there are lessons to learn from even the most successful campaigns and that we can always challenge ourselves to be better. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, Why So Serious was brilliant and I think it’s some of 42 Entertainment’s best work, the cake event included. I say this not to apologize for the picking at it that I just did, but because it’s true. If you’re curious to see other ways in which they engaged millions of fans by bringing Gotham to life, check out their page on the entire Why So Serious campaign.
A disclaimer… Several months after this was written, I went to work for 42 Entertainment. I was contracted on another project with them and, while I did occasionally help out with Why So Serious (as did everyone in the office – it was a huge campaign, nobody was spared!) none of what was said here was informed by my time there. Nor has it been informed, in any way, by anyone who was involved with the event.