Alternate Reality Games: More Marketing Lessons from Nine Inch Nails

Art is Resistance logo.This is the second part of my piece on the marketing efforts behind the recent Nine Inch Nails release, Year Zero. Here is part one.

In part one we talked about making your work or products or intellectual property or services available to your rabid fans for them to modify, extend and remix. Now I want to delve a bit into how the album was gradually promoted over several months using a concept called an alternative reality game.

What is an Alternate Reality Game?

An alternate reality game or ARG uses bits of media and internet flotsam to blur the real world and the world of a particular work of art (music, book, movie, game) and invite fans to investigate for themselves and even affect the outome of a narrative. I first heard about ARGs during the rollout of the Spielberg/Kubrick movie A.I. : Artificial Intelligence where the marketing campaign included a trail of puzzles littered over thirty websites and other media formats. A Yahoo! group called The Cloudmakers took up the task to figure out what it all meant (sometimes participants were even called or emailed by the fictional characters in the game!). The game was dubbed ‘the Beast’ because it was so mammoth and eventually captivated over 3 million people. If you remember the Blair Witch Project marketing campaign, that was an early precursor to this type of engagement.

It is like a distributed detective story.

ARGs hit the super-big time during the release of the Xbox game Halo 2 that had a huge game called I Love Bees. The game started when players of previous games received plastic honey bears in the mail containing letters spelling out I LOVE BEES (and eagle-eyes noticed a Halo 2 trailer including the site As they investigated this harmless-looking site encrypted data and images started to spill in, bringing the world of the game into focus. At the end of the game, the players were invited to several locations for ‘training sessions’ that were really demos of the Halo 2 game and a thank you for helping to stoke the buzz of the Halo 2 launch.

Other ARGs have helped promote the Audi A3 and the TV shows Lost and Heroes.

Primary elements of alternate reality games are:

  • Puzzles and ‘storytelling as archaeology.’ <= I LOVE THIS
  • Group/hivemind problem solving
  • ‘Rabbit holes’ or entry points into the game/narrative.
  • Platformless design allowing engagement in multiple formats, the medium is ‘reality’ and the players are not role-playing, they are themselves.
  • The distributors of the game’s content and clues are called puppetmasters.
  • Pulling the participants into the game (rather than pushing it at them).
  • Indications and boundaries that while the story ‘is not a game’ it is not a hoax.

Upping the Ante with Year Zero

Which brings us back to Trent Reznor, Nine Inch Nails and their album Year Zero. The album’s tracks detail the world in 2022 after a church-police state has taken over the US. Lyrics include such gems as:

Well I use to stand for something
Now I’m on my hands and knees

Turning in my god for this one
and he signs his name with a capital G


Some say it was a warning
Some say it was a sign
I was standing right there
When it came down from the sky

The alternate reality game for Year Zero (which is actually considered to be part of the overall art-work, not ‘just’ a buzz marketing campaign) began when NIN fans pieced together messages on the back of T-shirts sending them to a website, Fans then found USB keydrives in the bathroom stalls at concert venues containing a leaked track and encrypted images. Websites started to reveal themselves and the dystopian Orwell/Huxley thoughtcontrol world of the album began to emerge – it was like the future was trying to echo back into the present with distorted websites like and Fans pieced together the timeline from the present to the future world of the album including a manufactured pathogen, mind-control drugs in water supplies, heavenly interventions, in-the-streets resistance, information control, microchip implants, militant fundamentalism, and, my favorite, the United States Bureau of Morality (call the phone number!). Oh and the CD changes colors when it gets warm in your CD player!

The game is still in progress with active leads being pursued every day. Here’s a complete overview.

Further involvement has come in the form of encouraging fans to create artwork inspired by the world of Year Zero. So far they’ve created some startling artwork.

And it comes down to you

So what does this all mean in the context of the future of your marketing?

I’m not totally sure. This was on my radar and I wanted you to know about it.

  • What if your product or service were less about a complete unveiling and more about gradual assembly?
  • What if you considered your book or widget to not be complete until it had been fully enjoyed, engaged or expounded by your customers?
  • What if it wasn’t the content and design by the context and community that could make your business truly great?

What juices get flowing for you? Please comment, expand, riff or rebutt.






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