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Game Design

He Knows Where You Live

'Majestic' pulls out all the stops to draw players into its web, but designers also tried not to let things get overwhelming.

February 22, 2001|SCOTT STEINBERG | steinbergs@hotmail.com

At what point does entertainment become something much, much more? Neil Young, executive in charge of production for Electronic Arts, is determined to find out. His pet project, the episodic online thriller "Majestic," draws users into the story by calling them on real-world phones and sending them faxes, e-mails and instant messages. The game is even smart enough to verbally "threaten" players' spouses. Is the man a mad genius or a visionary?

Question: Can games blur the borders of fantasy and reality?

Answer: I believe they can, and I hope our product shows people just how in a way that's still entertaining and also signals users that they are in a fictional experience versus reality. One of the things we found is that sometimes players with games like this . . . want it to either be real or are worried that it might become real. This provides interesting insight into human nature and how users protect their reality. Based on these principles, we decided early on to ask people to suspend their disbelief and to switch into story mode in reaction to a signal cue, whether it's a phone call or icon flashing on the screen or a fax from a familiar game.

Q: How do you tailor a massively multi-player game to the individual?

A: That part's handled by the technologies behind "Majestic." Consider the database of information we collect from users at registration. Later on, the database is interrogated, and the program personalizes the content of a text message or telephone call based on the set of information we've been given on the user. We might know their name, address, screen name, and then we use those as devices to connect them more personally with that experience. It's all about heightening the user's connection with the scenario. When you see your name or address, or the product's calling you on your phone, it really boosts the emotional-attachment factor.

Q: What special challenges were involved in putting this project together?

A: Technology was, of course, the biggest obstacle. There's a whole host of different technologies integrated into the game, some proprietary, some licensed, and they need to be sequenced to given moments. Plus, there was also a big production challenge since we're trying to do things that haven't been done before. Furthermore, we're doing things episodically, so you need the same kind of discipline that's applied to making a TV show. We also need to connect people with characters; therefore we also need to be expert storytellers. Then, we need to be great game designers as well. People in these roles haven't traditionally come in contact with each other, so you end up having to evolve an entire working process that's on a tight timeline.

Q: Will the experience be overwhelming for some people?

A: I hope it's emotionally overwhelming in a good way, like how a great film makes you cry or makes your heart pound. We're just delivering those experiences in some new places, places that you usually wouldn't associate them with. But for the people who fear they might be overwhelmed, there are mechanisms and barriers that will help them feel more comfortable.

Q: Have you considered the consequences of messing with people's heads?

A: I spent a lot of time thinking about that and making sure that we're operating creatively in a way that's consistent with how I want to be treated as a user. When you touch on the subject of conspiracies, you can get into some pretty hairy areas very quickly.

Let's say there's an airline disaster. There's some people who immediately associate it with a conspiracy. Our creative team has been operating under some pretty clear guidelines as to what we can bring into the picture. A subject like this couldn't be brought in because it would enmesh a tragedy in an entertainment experience. Those kinds of things shouldn't be in the same place. Heart-pounding suspense, uneasiness, scary moments, feelings of success--these are what need to be in the experience.

Q: One simple question: Why?

A: For our medium to evolve beyond mustached plumbers collecting stars, we need to tackle different subjects and command the emotions of our audience. The best designers should be as adept at this art as the finest filmmakers today. We're committed to this principle.

Q: Developed any paranoid tendencies then?

A: If anything, I'm less paranoid, having gone through this process. Go out on the Internet, search for "conspiracy," and begin to look at that stuff. If even 1% of that stuff were true, you'd probably look at the world a whole lot differently.

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Scott Steinberg is a freelance writer specializing in video games.

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