Ridiculous Fishing, Byrdr and Vlambeer's creative approach to indie marketing
'We had no clue what we were doing'
For many independent developers raising awareness and generating buzz around a game is a tricky proposition, especially in the increasingly crowded mobile marketplace.
For Dutch indie studio Vlambeer the solution to this problem was a hastily cobbled together Alternate Reality Game (ARG), designed to promote its upcoming title, Ridiculous Fishing.
Built around Ridiculous Fishing's in-game social network - and the misadventures of its fictional CEO James Eagler- the ARG managed to propel Vlambeer's title beyond its core market and into the Twitter feeds and forum threads of thousands of potential new players.
Here, Vlambeer's head of business and development Rami Ismail and Byrdr ARG creator Davey Wreden share their thoughts on the makings of a mini Twitter phenomenon and the marketing of an indie smash.
Ridiculous Fishing's marketing campaign began nine days before the launch of the game, with a micro-trailer published on Vine, the Twitter-owned service that allows users to upload six second videos.
The first of its kind, the novelty of Ridiculous Fishing's Vine trailer saw it explode over social networks, gaining extensive coverage from major gaming blogs and websites.
But with that out of the way, there was a problem.
"We only had enough content for four of the nine days before launch and we were like, 'We need something substantial to fill up this last stretch,'" says Ismail.
Thoughts quickly turned to Byrdr, Ridiculous Fishing's in-game social network.
The team had already bought the Byrdr.com domain and encouraged fans to sign up, with the intention of creating an actual working network to mirror that of the game itself.
But they abandoned the idea when they realised it was too ambitious.
"All of a sudden we thought, what if instead of launching a social network, we fake fake launched a social network?," says Ismail.
Immediately the team contacted indie developer Davey Wreden, largely due to their admiration for his The Stanley Parables dev blog. "We all agreed that we needed him," says Ismail.
"I think the pitch was, We need the world's shorted ARG.'"
Despite the daunting nature of the task, Wreden's reply was immediate.
"When Rami calls you and asks if you want to spend the next five days working in a blur of insanity," says Wreden, "you don't ask silly questions like what you'll be working on or if it's possible or will we all be alive after this. You say yes."
Initially, however, Wreden and the team didn't know what form the ARG should take.
"We thought if we made it mainly text-based that would be like the easiest way to be able to manage it," offers Wreden.
"And then we realised we could do a phone line, we could use the email addresses of the people that signed up to Byrdr, we could use the Twilio service somehow - and oh it records voice messages, what could we do with that?
"It just started with these options and went from there. Ultimately, we decided that something really effective could be done by offering a peek into the bureaucracy of Byrdr and there was a really genuine way to tie that into the narrative of the game."
So Wreden began five days of feverish work.
The ARG began with an email sent to every Byrdr subscriber from CEO James Eagler, encouraging users to show their enthusiasm for the new social network.
"Why don't you spread the word by tweeting some of the roadblocks in your own life that you look forward to Byrdr resolving!," wrote Eagler.
"Like 'video rental stores don't seem to exist any more #ByrdrWillSolveIt' or 'Ouch! Just impaled myself on my own elbows! #ByrdrWillSolveIt'."
Arguably one of the most successful aspects of the ARG, the hashtag grew beyond those on the mailing list as Twitter users began tweeting their own amusing problems for Byrdr to solve.
But then Eagler's messages took a strange turn, as the fictional CEO accidentally emailed the entire mailing list with a memo intended for his secretary. Byrdr was a scam, and it was about to unravel in an increasingly bizarre and amusing way.
"When considering whether or not Byrdr is real, Byrdr advises that you first ask whether you yourself are real, and work backward from there," said one of the emails.
It was here that the ARG itself properly took off, as players attempted to find Eagler's telephone extension number by scrutinizing website backends and cryptic images, emailing the Eagler and the "Internal Investigations Department," and following character Twitter accounts.
As the Twitter discussions expanded and the forum posts piled up, Wreden sat and watched it all unfold.
"It was terrifying!," he says. "As a writer I often become pretty attached to my work, if I think it's great I'll want everyone to see it, but that's not how ARGs work.
"You have to deal with players searching down avenues that lead nowhere and accept that certain bits of content will only ever be seen by a few people. It actually made me really anxious to watch, I had to step away from the computer for most of it.
"But it felt like whenever players did put in the effort to read all the emails, dig a little bit for details, and really engage with the game, they got a lot out of it!"
"I had more than a few people tell me that just watching the emails come in was a blast and that the whole thing felt really fresh and fun. Of course we also had people complaining about the number of emails we were sending them, but I guess you have to be cool with not pleasing everyone."
Those that did track down Eagler's extension number were treated to a phone-based mini-game in which listeners were offered various choices as the prelude to a number of gags.
At one point callers were also encouraged to leave voice messages for Eagler's son, who had been left at school, alone, waiting. And while many stayed silent, over 100 did just that, from locations are far flung as Lesotho, South Africa.
Ismail played me a recording of one enthusiastic caller bellowing, "You hang in there, son!"
But among the laughs, sprinkled throughout every one of the ARG's voice messages, emails and Twitter accounts were some revelatory details about Ridiculous Fishing's story - details that many players would never understand.
"I don't know how many people realised how integrated it all was," Wreden says. "I think some people got it, it's all there. We knew that it was all meant to convey a story, at the end of the day."
Pleasingly, just like Ridiculous Fishing itself, the Byrdr ARG rewarded players according to how deep they were willing to look. Some secrets remain uncovered.
The Byrdr ARG was an unconventional campaign, in may ways.
Ridiculous Fishing itself was never directly mentioned and the allusions to the game's narrative would only become apparent to those that beat the game.
However, with popularity of the #ByrdrWillSolveIt hashtag, the forum discussion that sprang up around Byrdr and the ARG fans that were drawn in without prior knowledge of the game, it did enjoy some measure of success.
"I think the ARG definitely helped us reach people that we wouldn't have usually," says Ismail. "Usually people that appear in our feed on Twitter, people that discuss our games, they have the word 'games' somewhere in their profile. They're often developers or journalists.
"But so many more people were discussing Byrdr and what I meant. I think it helped a lot."
Just how much the Byrdr ARG contributed to Ridiculous Fishing's success is unquantifiable.
But with the game currently sitting in top five Paid App Store charts in countries across the world, it would be nice to think that Vlambeer and Davey Wreden's feverishly assembled, creative approach to indie marketing is at least partly responsible.