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Mystery game lures players with cash

Plenty of companies have tried and failed to attract a broader audience for pay-to-play online gaming, but a former pharmaceuticals exec thinks he has the answer--money.

Plenty of companies have tried and failed to attract a broader audience for pay-to-play online gaming, but Keith Griffin thinks he has the answer--money.

The former pharmaceuticals executive on Monday will launch the first installment of "TerraQuest," an online game with a plot designed to appeal to anyone who enjoys a good mystery and a jackpot of at least $250,000 for whoever solves the case first.

With a tagline of "It's what you play when you grow up," the game is intended to appeal to customers who aren't interested in most of what the game industry offers, said Griffin, founder of Henderson, Nev.-based start-up MindQuest Entertainment.

"This isn't for 12- to 18-year-old kids who like to blow up buildings and run over pedestrians," Griffin said. "This is for people who want to use their brains rather than hand-eye reflexes."

The game will unfold in a series of six monthly installments. Players will be presented with a story of international intrigue and a wealth of clues to help them figure out who did what. Each installment will have a monthly challenge, with a $25,000 prize for the first player who solves it.

The final challenge is to deduce the name, bank account number and other key data for one of the main characters. The first to figure it out gets a jackpot that will start at $250,000 and grow with the addition of 10 percent of the $25 each player must pay to download the software and access online content.

Subscription-based online gaming currently is dominated by fantasy role-playing games such as "EverQuest"--a genre whose appeal is limited by the subject matter and the significant amount of time required for players to succeed.

Top game publisher Electronic Arts hopes to expand the online game audience with the upcoming "The Sims Online," a multiplayer version of the PC game. EA had similar hopes last year for "Majestic," a conspiracy mystery similar to "TerraQuest" that flopped after a few months on the market.

Griffin said he's confident he and his development team have avoided some of the mistakes in "Majestic," such as making the game too intrusive, while giving players a substantial incentive to keep coming back to the game.

"There's cash involved--it's going to be a game of skill where the best mind wins big," he said, adding that he expects the game to inspire lively online discussion forums. "I think it'll create its own subculture of people and make the game more challenging. If I really wanted to win, I'd be putting out as much disinformation as I could."