2004 was only a scant 15 years ago, but so much has changed since then that certain events from the era seem completely alien. A new retrospective look at the launch of Halo 2 and I Love Bees, the popular alternate reality game (ARG) that preceded it, contains a detail that might make your head spin: while it's been widely cited that millions participated in the ARG online, between fifteen and twenty thousand of those people actually went out of their way to go answer payphones.
At The Ringer, Anthony John Angello's new feature on Halo 2's 15th anniversary illustrates how many aspects of the game, from the ARG marketing to its multiplayer parties, pioneered trends and features we take for granted in games today.
While some areas Halo 2 innovated in have since been iterated on and eclipsed, the buzz generated by 42 Entertainments' I Love Bees campaign still stands out for how it engaged people who weren't into Halo. Payphones were key to the ARG's structure: important story nuggets were doled out at select payphones (mostly in the U.S.) at certain times, which players located with GPS coordinates.
I Love Bees set a 777 payphone goal for completion, but the number of people that went out to find them was much, much larger. "We know that the group [answering phones] was somewhere between 15,000 and 20,000 people who really physically got out into the world and did something," 42 Entertainment CEO and co-founder Susan Bonds tells Agnello.
For context, there were once over 2.6 million payphones in America: in 2018, the FCC reported that there were only 100,000 payphones left in the country. About a fifth of those—or, apparently, about as many payphones as individuals sought out calls from I Love Bees—are clustered in New York.
Sure: millions of people watched all of Fortnite temporarily blip out of existence and Pokemon Go, a game that's all about going out into the real world, has been downloaded over a billion times. In terms of raw engagement numbers, I Love Bees' thousands of payphone hunters and 3 million online participants pale in comparison, but c'mon—the ARG also took advantage of infrastructure that simply doesn't exist any more.
Halo 2 and I Love Bees trained people to look for hidden meaning in every nook and cranny of games and their marketing. Even if the approach can't literally be recreated, Halo Infinite already hid a clue in one of its trailers that it took fans more than a month to discover. Who knows—maybe 15 years from now, we'll look back on how Infinite or some other game reminds us of yet another once-ubiquitous piece of communication technology.