Which hat will you wear?
At last year’s New York Comic Con, the HBO Westworld offsite marketing event (known as an “activation” in the industry) consisted of a hybrid physical/virtual experience. [See: “Entering Westworld: VR Marketing at New York Comic Con.”] Visitors who scored one of the coveted appointments entered a reconstruction of the offices of the fictional Delos corporation, where an actor portraying one of the show’s synthetic human hosts greeted you. You were then led into a room to don an HTC Vive VR headset and enter a virtual simulation of Westworld.
According to Steve Coulson, a Partner at Campfire who worked with HBO to develop this year’s activation, people who went through the 2016 experience were particularly excited about interacting with the live actors in the physical environment. When planning for this year, HBO and Campfire decided to forego the virtual in favor the actual. This follows a recent trend favoring real-world experiences over virtual simulations in these large scale marketing experiences. [See: “Marketing at Comic-Con Gets Real (Again)“] This updated version of Westworld: The Experience debuted at Comic-Con International’s San Diego event over the summer and came to ReedPop’s New York Comic Con earlier this month.
As at San Diego, it was an exclusive event. The experience accommodated only six people at a time for each 30-minute appointment. The activation was open for ten hours a day, allowing only 120 guests to visit Westworld each of the four days of the convention.
The location to sign up for an appointment changed each day, with clues hinting at the spot appearing in tweets each morning.
The lucky few who obtained a slot were told the location of the installation, several blocks from the convention’s home at the Javits Center.
Upon entering, guests are greeted by an actor portraying a synthetic human host. You and your five companions are then led into a room displaying weapons and clothing from the show. A wall-sized video screen provides a visual introduction to Westworld.
The comprehensive interview includes a raft of questions. Some are focused on your psychology, such as: “What percentage of your dreams are nightmares?”
Others are moral conundrums, akin to the Trolley Problem:
“If someone invented a device that would bring happiness to everyone in the world, but would also eliminate half the population, would you: (1) use it or (2) destroy the device and its creator?”
“A band of criminals comes into a bar and shoots everyone. You have a gun. Do you: (1) kill them, (2) join them, or (3) do nothing?”
The interrogation is oddly effective. If you answer the questions honestly, you inevitably begin to think about which hat you’re likely to receive. Are you, truly, a white hat person or a black hat person?
Once you’ve been given your hat, you’re led into a narrow room displaying eerie life-mask heads.
As you move through the corridors of the Westworld Experience, there are details worth noting. One door — through which you do not go — is identified by a circular SW logo. Samurai World, perhaps?
The saloon, dimly lit in a soft yellow light, is a small but credible reconstruction of the establishment seen in the HBO series. The show’s iconic player piano is positioned on a wall opposite the bar. Working behind the bar are two bartenders — one male, one female — who prepare you a series of three drinks. And, yes, they are real drinks. A post by Michael Leventhal on Hi-Def Ninja includes the recipe for each of the three rounds. The flaming Blue Blazer is particularly striking to see being prepared.
As you enjoy your beverage, women portraying hosts working in the bar alluringly converse with you.
Even though we entered as a group of six, after being interviewed and escorted to the Mariposa, I realized there were only three of us in attendance. By carefully timing the introductory segments — the initial exhibits and the interview — the experience moves the initial group of six through the saloon in two cohorts, making for a very intimate experience.
Other groups that attended the experience reported that it ended with a flurry of drama. An alarm sounds, guests are told there is a problem with the system, and the hosts show signs of glitching. Attendees are then briskly escorted to the elevators to escape. Alas, when I was there, the experience ended more sedately, with the hosts simply telling us it was time to leave.
One final note: The hat. You get to keep the cowboy hat you were assigned, which I knew going into the experience. I had assumed, however, that it would be an inexpensive costume hat. It’s not. It’s a high quality hat made by Serratelli, a company that traces its roots back to 1878 and has been manufacturing Western hats since 1997. This unexpected bit of quality is emblematic of the attention to detail of the entire Westworld Experience, and is a prime example of how to recruit brand advocates by delighting fans.
For a photo gallery from the event, see: Westworld Experience: New York Comic Con 2017