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Interactive Gaming Grows Up

Here comes the next-generation game: Majestic combines AI, fake Web sites and other tech tricks to surprise you where you least expect it.

Part interactive X-Files, part Internet scavenger hunt, Majestic is an ambitious new subscription-based online game from industry heavyweight Electronic Arts. Breaking the boundaries of traditional computer games, Majestic interacts with players by e-mail, instant messaging, fax and phone calls. Majestic’s slogan: It Plays You.

Debuting this spring, the game is a suspense thriller steeped in that most modern of American myths-the conspiracy theory. The Majestic Documents, you see, are recently uncovered, classified papers revealing U.S. government efforts to recover crashed UFOs. Players are put in the middle of an ongoing, episodic story in which a technology company’s new Internet game appears to interfere with the agenda of an entity known as the “Majestic 12.”

Is that new game Majestic itself? Who knows? The sense of a far-reaching conspiracy is heightened by a detailed background story assembled by Majestic’s creative team, complete with online dossiers and “secret” documents scattered throughout the Web.

“The interesting thing about the game is the different techniques we use to communicate the suspense,” says Majestic’s director of technology, Rich Moore. “We allow players to determine the degree of interactivity they want. If, for example, you think frantic phone calls might spook your roommate or spouse, you can turn that option off.” But for the full effect, Moore says players should opt for the fully interactive version. The phone calls, faxes, e-mails and so forth are all generated and triggered automatically as the player advances in the game. What’s more, Majestic is a true real-time experience. If a character says he will e-mail you tomorrow, he will literally e-mail you tomorrow.

Majestic also has the ability to learn about a player and customize later story elements with that information, Moore says. A key component is a natural-language artificial-intelligence interpreter that reads a player’s e-mails and instant messaging.

If this raises spooky privacy concerns in your suspicious mind, well, that’s part of the fun. Electronic Arts, the actual company, claims to have a very real, thorough and upfront privacy policy.

A World Imagined

Unlike the huge “virtual worlds” of online games such as Ultima or EverQuest, Majestic doesn’t demand much of the player’s computer. The game module itself is only a 1 megabyte download, but players will need a well-equipped Web browser to acquire the various video, audio and print documents as the game progresses.

To support the game, Electronic Arts is currently assembling a large array of computer hardware, including several clusters of Sun enterprise-class Internet servers. How many? “A lot,” Moore says, laughing. “A lot of pretty powerful machines.”

The Majestic team has also set up phony Web sites, purchased hundreds of phone numbers from all over the U.S. and even founded dummy companies-all to keep the line between fact and fiction properly blurred. Ideally, players hunting for evidence online won’t be able to tell when a Web site is real or not.

“One of the things we do is editorialize general news stories or current events and sort of thread those into-or give the appearance of threading those into-the story line,” Moore says.

About 80 percent of the game experience occurs within the scripted environment, says Moore. “But the creative team has also developed story tangents, or what we call ‘story spurs,’ which players can investigate as well. Using the Majestic search engine leads to different story elements, different tangents or character backgrounds.”

The game structure itself, according to Moore, is aimed at accommodating the more “grown-up” player-someone who doesn’t have six hours a day to crack the latest puzzle.

“We’ve organized the interaction points into packets of maybe 20 or 30 or 40 minutes’ duration,” he says. “If you have that length of time, you can get the information you need to solve the puzzle. Then real time kicks in when you trigger an instant message or phone call that comes the next morning.”

No Boundaries

Currently in final testing, Majestic’s demo is due for launch sometime this spring. Players can register for the free demo at the Electronic Arts Web site.

Asked whether the Majestic team has other ideas for erasing the boundary between fact and fiction, Moore politely demurs. “I’ve had friends and coworkers asking about the story, and we’re just being deliberately vague with them,” he says. “There are some great moments in the experience where, if you know it ahead of time, it’s just not as rewarding.”

Hmm. Sounds like a cover-up.

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