For many fans of Lost, the guessing games don’t stop when the TV show’s credits roll. Forget your bog-standard ‘Cast Bio’ websites: Lost has an innovative online game called The Lost Experience where players have to follow clues, crack codes and swap information in an attempt to discover just what the jeepers the show is all about.
It’s not the first time a broadcaster has used viral online marketing and fake websites to promote a TV show, but it’s probably the most ambitious. We talked to Steven Forde, who’s in charge of The Lost Experience at Channel 4, to find out where the idea came from, how it all works, and why ‘the wisdom of crowds’ has been a key element in its success.
The Lost Experience launched this May to tie in with the second series of Lost, following Channel 4’s BAFTA-nominated Lost Untold site for last year’s first series. For the second series, the broadcaster wanted to go one better.
“We talked to ABC who distribute the programme and deal directly with the writers, and realised that the writers had an additional story to tell that couldn’t be fitted into the linear broadcasts,” says Forde.
The result is The Lost Experience, an online treasure-hunt which explores the background to Lost, digging into the shadowy Hanso Foundation. It’s complicated to explain, but Channel 4 has a catch-up guide on its site, while there’s also an informative Wikipedia entry. The game’s first phase launched in May this year, and involved cracking codes.
“The key to this experience is it plays to the wisdom of the crowds, which is a key strength of online,” says Forde. “We have a hardcore group of users who were cracking all the codes and putting them online. So if you were a passive user, you could still take part even if you weren’t actually breaking the codes yourself.”
The second phase launched in mid-June and ran for a month, consisting mainly of a video diary and blog by a new character called Rachel Blake, who was investigating the Hanso Foundation. By now, a global community of blogs, websites and podcasts had sprung up to discuss the Experience and its latest developments. Phase 3 of the game has just launched – there will be five in all – and is again video-based.
“We wanted to make it feel a bit more international,” says Forde. “A piece of video has been shot, and we’re breaking it up into a set number of fragments, and each one has a code associated with it. You have to find the codes, which appear in lots of different places, online, offline, and on TV.”
Whenever players find a code, they go to the Hanso Exposed website, and enter their details and the code to watch the video fragment. Once again, the online community has been sharing codes around so even less dedicated fans can join in the fun.
“We’ve done this to keep people engaged,” says Forde. “Lost delivers more questions than answers sometimes, so what’s great about the Experience is that there will be some answers delivered at the end of it. People will get quite a big revelation about what’s behind Lost, so they’ll get a payoff.”
Forde says the Lost Experience community includes mathematicians, computer programmers and a wealth of other experts, which is why so many of the codes and clues are solved so quickly.
“We’ll often put something out there, and within 2-3 minutes it’ll be solved and someone will have put up the code,” says Forde. “It sometimes took me longer to explain to people what the clue was going to be than it took the community to solve it!”
Because the Experience is online, Channel 4 has been able to react quickly to feedback from the community, particularly when it comes to difficulty levels. In the first phase, Forde says he thought the clues were quite difficult, but after people on blogs and forums said they were too easy, the broadcaster started thinking more inventively about where to hide them.
“I think the longest time it took for a clue to be worked out was 22 hours,” he laughs. “We were quite pleased about that one! It’s been an amazing learning experience.”
So will this sort of online game become more common in the future? Forde says that the blogging aspect has been great, but that Channel 4 would only run similar games when it suits a programme, rather than spinning them off for no reason – pointing out that Lost has such a rich vein of storytelling, it lends itself to this kind of thing.
“New media is a great place to blur the lines between fact and fiction,” he says. “If you see something on Google or Wikipedia, you take it as truth because it’s on a computer screen. We’re really tapping into that mentality of how people feel about what they read online.”
Forde says that phases four and five of the Lost Experience will be the most ambitious yet, with codes being hidden online, offline, on-air and within podcasts. One thing that’s not on the cards is mobile though.
“We’re very interested in bringing all different kinds of new media in,” he says. “Mobile, video-on-demand… we even talked about doing something with voice-over-IP, but we could think how we could make it work. Anything that makes this feel like it’s got a life in new media, we’ll bring that into it.”