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Just because it's a game doesn't mean they're not

Out to Get You

February 22, 2001|ALEX PHAM |

The phone call comes in the middle of the day. An unfamiliar voice is frantic--maybe a little frightened--as it draws you deeper into a virtual conspiracy that grows wider with each cryptic fax, each taunting e-mail.

Welcome to the world of "Majestic," one of the most eagerly anticipated video games in years--despite having nothing to shoot or dodge and no fancy graphics.

That's because in "Majestic," life itself becomes the game--and players find themselves stalked by mysterious phone calls, threatening e-mails and unsolicited faxes as the game infiltrates every aspect of their everyday lives.

Developed by Electronic Arts and set to be released in late March, "Majestic" stands out in an industry of copycats and clones because it aims to blur the line between fantasy and reality in a way that no other game has dared.

EA "is rolling the dice on a game that the public has never seen before," said Henry Jenkins, director of comparative media studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "It'll either have buzz or it will sink without a trace. There's no middle ground, which is what makes it a real gamble."

And it comes at a pivotal time for the game industry. With sales stumbling for the first time in five years, game publishers look to grow by reaching out to a more mainstream crowd. "Majestic" is EA's $10-million gambit to change the notion that video games appeal only to adolescent boys. Instead, "Majestic" caters to adults--it will carry a Mature rating from the Entertainment Software Ratings Board--and requires minimal but regular interaction from players.

Whether "Majestic" will revolutionize video games or sputter as a curious footnote is tough to predict because it has no peer. That, and almost no one outside the development team has played it.

Technically, "Majestic" is an online adventure, but it plays out over cell phones and fax machines as well as the Web. Players pay $9.99 a month for access to servers that let them play "Majestic" and six other games. They then download a 1-megabyte application that enables them to connect to the "Majestic" Web site and interact with the game and other players.

Soon after, they start receiving faxes and mysterious phone calls that urge them to check out Web sites or make calls that set them on a course to unravel a nefarious government conspiracy. To facilitate this, EA created dozens of fake Web sites and subscribed to more than 200 phone numbers around the country.

Several years ago, such a game could not have existed. But today, with a population wired to the hilt and Internet access widely available, a game like "Majestic" makes both technical and commercial sense. In addition, the software used to run the game and customize the content to individual players is largely based on customer relationship management technology developed over the last two years. EA calls its software the "experience server" because it hyper-tailors the messages that players receive in order to maximize the game's spook factor.

"Majestic" is designed to get under the skin. Players don't know when they will be contacted--although they can set parameters on when the game is allowed to call. Movements within the game are tracked by "Majestic's" computers, which customize the story according to how the players are likely to react. They are lured into instant-message sessions that innocently elicit personal information, such as the name of a spouse. Weeks later, the player might get a frantic message or threatening phone call that refers to the spouse. (EA stresses that personal information will be used only in the game and will not be sold or called upon for marketing purposes.)

"Majestic" also tries to get players to question what is real. Its Web sites for bogus companies look so legitimate that they have drawn resumes from real job applicants.

So far, few outside EA have played the game, making it impossible for reviewers to render a judgment.

"A lot of games have promised big and delivered small," said Amir Ajami, editor of GameSpot magazine in San Francisco. "Not having played the game, I can only be cautiously optimistic."

To succeed, gamers say, "Majestic" must have an irresistible plot to lure players along four episodes, each taking about two weeks to play. Developers at Redwood City, Calif.-based EA, the world's largest independent game developer, know this.

"The novelty will ultimately wear off," said Neil Young, EA's vice president and "Majestic's" lead designer. "We can't rely upon the novelty. It's going to have to depend on the strength of the story and the quality of the game design. The game will ultimately have to get into people's hearts and minds with great characters and great game play."

To pull that off, EA hired a team drawn from television, movies, advertising, theater and animation as well as gaming to craft the story and fill it with believable characters.

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