A friend of a friend links to a website where a strange series of numbers is scribbled onto a torn piece of paper, which also appears to be on the side of a storage building. Clicking on the paper reveals a door, and behind that door is another series of numbers and what would appear to be a dead body. “Strange, I didn’t leave this here,” you think, when suddenly a wild video appears! Is this a window into the oppressed world of some foreign regime? No, it’s just Capcom’s way of hooking you with its next big project : Resident Evil 6.
“Going viral” is one of those phrases that have been added to our common language in a very subtle way. Often, a game or mystery appears in seemingly random fashion, and is then linked to by various people who study these things as if they were being graded for it. The Halo series is notable for its “I Love Bees” campaign, wherein secrets of the Halo universe were uncovered by patient and observant fans. But for Resident Evil, going viral is as easy as flipping the president into a zombie.
Beginning with the website NoHopeLeft.com, which worked much like a simple blog updated by one lonely writer, readers were given hints at a large-scale horror taking place (and being completely covered up) with images of desolate communities, videos of pleading survivors and, of course, clues. These clues would eventually lead to the unveiling of a long and very detailed trailer for the upcoming Resident Evil sequel.
For fans of the series, very familiar characters will be returning: Leon Kennedy, protagonist of Resident Evil 2 and 4; Chris Redfield, beefcake soldier from Resident Evil 1 and 5 and a few new characters, one of whom appears to be Sherry Birken, the daughter of the mutant zombie scientist from the second installment. Players will shift from the original walk/aim/shoot perspective (with Leon) to the more action-oriented next gen abilities of Chris Redfield.
But why do companies feel the need to go viral on franchises that should already have a large following? It’s all about the word viral; once you’ve been touched, there is no going back.
Following Batman Begins, everyone knew Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight would be huge, but it wasn’t enough. Taking clues from J. J. Abrams and his Cloverfield, for which a massive viral undertaking resulted in a larger-than-expected box office, Nolan and his team produced a viral storyline that had real-life nerds like you and me (especially me) chasing down bowling balls across the nation, picking up custom-made cakes, and taking part in gruesome death scenes, all for the benefit of building up a mythology that would lead into the two-and-a-half-hour film.
Did it work? The Dark Knight went on to become the highest-grossing film of all time, perhaps thanks in part to the viral aspect of it. Capcom is hoping that its early warning system of faux rebellions and government secrets can do the same for its struggling series, which this year will see at least three different releases spanning the Nintendo 3DS (Resident Evil: Revelations) and the next gen consoles PS3 and Xbox 360 (Operation Raccoon City and 6).
It doesn’t always work, though. Burger King gave it a shot with its Subservient Chicken campaign, wherein users could visit a website and have a man dressed as a chicken do whatever they wanted him to do. This eventually lead to the birth of the Burger King King, that creepy plastic humanoid that exists somewhere in the uncanny valley, waiting for the perfect moment to jump out and molest you with a hamburger.
Viral marketing is a powerful tool, but always keep in mind that no matter how real it feels, in the end, marketing is marketing.
Resident Evil 6, Operation Raccoon City and Revelations will be released over the next few months for various systems.
Chris O’Neal is an author, dream weaver, visionary and actor. Follow him on Twitter @AgentONeal.