In 2020 Rogue Beacon was commissioned to develop and deliver an eight week alternate reality game, Escape! 404, as a marketing activation for Boomtown Fair, a leading summer music festival with a focus on immersive and gamified theatrical experiences.
Escape! 404 ran between February and April 2020.
Boomtown’s theatrical world, built up over the twelve-year lifespan of the festival, features hundreds of characters, dozens of settings and has, for years, delivered storyline and narrative in a way that responds to audience interaction. Its narratives span years and its characters develop and change, with new additions informing themes that have been established over a decade.
Boomtown Fair attracts an audience of more than sixty thousand attendees for its annual climax across more than a hundred and twenty richly themed stages and theatrical venues. Two thousand actors work in shifts to bring life to hundreds of characters for the duration of the celebration as plotlines are developed, mysteries uncovered and new characters and themes introduced before a final, revelatory multimedia spectacle at the main stages following the headlining acts.
Rogue Beacon aimed to work alongside Bristol nightclub Area 404, a Boomtown subsidiary named and themed for a District at Boomtown Fair, to expand the storyline and theatrical experience year-round.
Boomtown’s established alternate universe was designed and built around on-site delivery in the festival’s theatrical venues and walk-about performances. Rogue Beacon’s challenge was to develop and build elements of the Boomtown universe beyond these site-specific limitations to provide storyline content that could engage the audience 365 days of the year and in their own homes via digital storytelling and online community building.
In order to do this, a bridge between real-space and the Boomtown universe was required that provided, online and at home, the intrigue and investigation that the audience had come to expect on-site.
Rogue Beacon designed and constructed a functional board game of production quality, called Escape! 404, adhered to an early-90s aesthetic with the specific directive to evoke nostalgia, both real and artificial. Images and video footage of the physical copy of the game were delivered to the audience through a 90s board-game themed blog run by one of the in-world characters.
The board game was used within the wider Escape! 404 ARG narrative to foreshadow and predict the plot by a novel mechanism - leveraging the Mandela Effect and collective memory to generate curiosity around the fictional product’s veracity. This was enhanced by support from the upper echelons of Boomtown management, who shared the viral images of the board game on their social media with the supposition that it might be real.
This element of the ARG fostered a significant increase in engagement with the alternate reality content, both from within the established community of storyline fans and among the wider Boomtown audience, through client-led activations.
Speculation ensued that the board-game was real and that it preceded Boomtown, who used it as inspiration for their District, Area 404. People from outside of Rogue Beacon claimed to have memories of the board game. These events indicated to the players that the storyline was active off-site and led to a notable increase in audience engagement with the ARG.
Boomtown’s established cast of characters were developed around on-site audience interaction defined by the actors embodying the characters.
Rogue Beacon was faced with the challenge of developing characters that were consistent with and additive to Boomtown’s alternate universe. These characters had to be compelling and lore-friendly whilst fostering audience engagement and affection.
Rogue Beacon researched the wider entertainment media environment at the end of 2019 and start of 2020 and concluded that current trends were favouring cute, child-like characters with hidden power that belied their apparent helplessness.
A theatrical crew with a strong track record for immersive performance on-site at Boomtown, OneCor, had a design in the wings for an all-purpose reconnaissance drone with a whimsical personality called IZZI. Working in partnership with OneCor, Rogue Beacon were able to characterise and develop IZZI to the point where she became a primary point of communication between the players and the ARG world.
Fan engagement with IZZI was through the roof. Among a significant portion of the playerbase IZZI became a fan-favourite character, with concern for her wellbeing overriding many other plot concerns. Players created fan-art and found ways to communicate with IZZI despite her not answering direct messages or comments. Significant desire was shown for IZZI merchandise.
Rogue Beacon recognised that plot exposition via textual found documents and visual art and design could only fulfill part of the audience’s hope and expectation. Compelling mystery and puzzle content was also required to motivate the players to engage with the world. Gamification was necessary to distinguish Escape! 404 from an online prose fiction or non-narrative promotional exercise.
Escape! 404 needed to be designed to engage with its audience in ways that changed the course of the narrative and provided dramatic irony, conflict and suspense.
Escape! 404 began as an action search-and-rescue story concerning a missing child, Charlie, who vanished while searching for their dog, Romeo. The mystery of what happened to this pair provided the inciting incident for the narrative.
As the story progressed, further puzzle-based interactions were introduced. Solutions could be found hidden in website source code and data, within the text of found documents, within the art and design produced to supplement the narrative and through audience trial-and-error in a collaborative environment.
This culminated in challenging meta-puzzles delivered in April that saw the players utilising all the tools and knowledge they had acquired through the course of the game to find solutions, leading them to final troves of information required to elucidate the deeper mysteries of the narrative.
The puzzle elements of the ARG created deeply committed superfans who dedicated a lot of time and energy into solving the puzzles.
The real impact, however, was in the development of the community surrounding the ARG. The need to work in collaboration to solve puzzles, with more advanced players assisting those who were struggling, fostered a community that saw, in the months of the ARG, tens of thousands of comments and interactions.
Following interest in the puzzles and story by major content creators in the field, Escape! 404 developed a following overseas, particularly in America. Friendships were formed across national and cultural boundaries far beyond the community of festival attendees.
Escape! 404 inspired the ARG-focused YouTube content creator Night Mind, with a subscriber-base of over 430,000, to produce a half-hour video essay analysing the alternate reality elements of Boomtown’s theming. This video has more than 100,000 views.
Players created a fan-run, 204 page wiki detailing the story of Boomtown:
Players also created a fan-produced podcast analyzing Escape! 404:
Boomtown Storyline Facebook Group
Members on 6th Feb: 5,975
Members on 10th April: 7,723 (increase of 29.3%)
Posts: 566 (911% increase)
Comments: 10,527 (1000%+ increase)
Reactions: 20,326 (872% increase)
Posts to Comments & Reactions ratio: 1:54
Average duration: 5:59 mins
Average duration: 5:13 mins
Board In The 90s
Romeo Is Missing
Poster Downloads: 900
Average duration: 1:25 mins
Escape! 404 achieved an even gender balance and captured the traditional 18-25 markets alongside a large 25+ contingent.