Immersive game goes beyond the PC

Forget Survivor and the Sopranos. Why would you want to watch a TV show when you could live one? That's the pitch for Electronic Arts Inc.'s groundbreaking adventure game, Majestic.

Due to ship this spring, Majestic makes you the star of a thriller that unfolds around you--and not just when you're seated at your PC. The game's characters will call you on your telephone, send you faxes and e-mail, or summon you via AOL Instant Messaging. It's up to you to advance the story by solving puzzles using the clues you get in various media.

"We're trying to put you at the very heart of your own suspense thriller," says Neil Young, vice president and executive in charge of production at EA. "You play you."

The game is to the Internet what Orson Welles' War of the Worlds was to radio in its day, Young says: a convincing fantasy that exploits its medium to the fullest. "In some ways, it's a reinvention of the category of the adventure game," he says.

You've got mail, but from whom?

Majestic will be available only to subscribers of EA's online gaming service, which costs US$9.95 monthly. To play, you'll have to download a small application and specify how and when you'd like to be contacted. After that, you wait to hear from the game.

In a demonstration, an unidentified male caller told Young that Electronic Arts' Majestic server had been destroyed in a mysterious fire at a studio outside Portland, Oregon. The report was subsequently confirmed in a fax from EA that pointed to a Web site of a fictitious newspaper with an account of the blaze.

Later, a character sent Young an instant message telling him to look in his Majestic folder for more about the fire. Sure enough, a video of a newscast about the fire showed up in the folder. A subsequent fax advised Young that an additional video would provide clues to finding the "new" Majestic Web site. And in a later phone call, an anxious-sounding woman said she'd seen a suspicious-looking man at the scene of the fire--in a policeman's uniform.

While the faxes, e-mail, phone calls, and instant messages in the demo arrived in fairly rapid succession, Young says the actual game will make contact more intermittently. And unlike most computer and video games, where a day in game time could be over in a few minutes, Majestic will unfold in real time. If a caller promises to make contact the next day, he means it literally.

Group game is in real time

You'll play Majestic alone, but you'll have a group of 20 or so "allies" to help you. Most, however, will be fictional game characters who send you the faxes, phone calls, and messages. Young says that in tests of the game, 85 percent of the players didn't know if they were talking to a real person or a fictional person for the first three days of the game.

The game will kick off with a free pilot that plays out over five days. After that, paying subscribers will have access to one new game episode over each of the next eight months to complete the show's first season. Each episode will play out over 15 days of real time to complete if you log in every day, but EA is assuming players won't be logging in every single day. On any given day, the game will likely only take about 15 to 20 minutes to play.

Young stresses that Majestic is not intended for children or even younger teens. You'll have to be 18 or older to play.

While EA will support Majestic with a massive marketing campaign, Young says he believes interest will spread mostly via word of mouth.

"It'll be at the water cooler, when the phone rings and somebody says, 'Excuse me a second, the game is calling me,'" he says.

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