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Getting serious about gaming

Electronic Arts Vice President Neil Young helped establish online gaming as a business model with "Ultima." Now he wants to up the stakes with "Majestic."

The truth is out there. Just don't go looking for much of it surrounding "Majestic," the new online adventure game launched recently by video and computer games giant Electronic Arts.

The game, which draws obvious inspiration from "The X-Files" and the 1997 thriller "The Game," guides players through an interactive mystery based on actual conspiracy theories involving alien contacts and government cover-ups.

Instead of just plugging away at a PC, though, players will advance through the game using a variety of media. Clues will come disguised as phone calls from anonymous tipsters, confidential documents sent by fax, e-mail messages from characters and more. Contacts may or may not be identified as being connected with the game, leaving the player to figure out the exact source and meaning of telephoned death threats or bizarre e-mail entreaties.

The goal, as described by the game's creator, EA Vice President Neil Young, is to mess with the player's head in a fun but sneaky way. "Once you begin to associate an entertainment experience with your telephone ringing, every time that phone rings, it could be from the game," he said. "That serves to build a sense of anticipation, and we play off that."

Besides its use of various media--the game will also rely heavily on America Online's instant messaging service--"Majestic" boasts a novel delivery and business model. The game will unfold in monthly episodes, with players working through the story bit by bit. Like a TV show, episodes will be grouped into eight-month seasons.

The pilot episode is available for free now for players who register and download a small application from the game's Web site. Future episodes will be available only to players who sign up for the $9.95-a-month "platinum service" at, the software company's online gaming offshoot.

Young, who helped establish online gaming as a business as producer of "Ultima," EA's popular subscription role-playing game, told CNET's David Becker how "Majestic" works.

Q: Can you give a capsule description of what "Majestic" is?
A: Sure. What were trying to do with "Majestic" is put the player at the center of their very own suspense thriller. So we use the Internet and devices that are connected to the Internet to put you at the heart of an evolving mystery, For games to evolve to interactive entertainment, we need to do more than just the equivalent of adolescent action movies. where you've stumbled into a conspiracy that slowly begins to infiltrate your life through all these different mechanisms. The game will call you on the phone, send you faxes, instant message you and send you e-mails, and use all those different devices to make you feel you're implicated in this story.

I imagine some people aren't ready for anonymous death threats as entertainment. Can you choose the level of interaction?
Absolutely. You can choose not to have the game call you on the phone or send you faxes. You can choose to receive telephone calls with a leader that identifies the call as a message from the game. You can choose to have it call different numbers at different times, so you can sort of schedule yourself around it a little bit.

And what level of realism are players choosing?
It really depends on the player. The hardcore users turn off all of the safety measures and really throw themselves into the experience. My sense is that as we broaden the audience that's playing "Majestic," people will join the game with a little trepidation and more of the controls turned on. And as they get into it, they'll start turning them off. When we tested the game, 50 percent of the users on sign-up opted not to have phone calls made to them. By the end of the episode, 80 percent had turned on the phone feature.

This sounds like it might not be a good idea for people who really believe in conspiracies.
I think the vast majority of people are able to differentiate between fantasy and reality. What "Majestic" has is a really novel way for the story to connect with you. Once you've gone past the novelty of's more about being engaged at the center of the story than fooling you into thinking this is real. If a player calling up and threatening you were the only element the game had, that would grow stale very quickly.

Besides dealing with characters, will players be interacting with each other?
There is user-to-user collaboration right now. We leverage instant messaging pretty heavily. When you start the game, you're grouped with about 20 other players--some of them are real players, some of them are fictional characters. You communicate by instant message and trade clues and get help from each other.

What was the inspiration for the story?
The plot is about conspiracy theory, but the story is about responsibility of knowledge. We propose that 50 years ago, we came into contact with technology we had never seen before. We weren't as a race capable morally or ethically of dealing with it, and it has corrupted the course of the following 50 years, leading us to where we live today.

There's a lot of myths and legends on the Internet surrounding this Majestic 12 conspiracy. What really inspired me about that is that it was really hard for me to tell whether the documents that supported that conspiracy were real or fake. I find it compelling that there actually seems to be some sort of historic basis for this.

Are you one of those Art Bell conspiracy buffs, then?
If you look at the definition of what makes an M-rated game and a PG-13 movie, you'll see they're pretty similar. We just wanted to be able to explore some adult themes in a way you might in an R-rated movie. Not really. I'm intrigued by conspiracies...but I wouldn't call myself a conspiracy theorist or a hard-core "X-Files" fan. To me, it's just a great place to set a story and cast an experience. Having said that, in the process of researching this stuff, your eyes really get opened to some of the stuff that happened in this country, especially after World War II and through the '70s.

This isn't your typical guns-and-monsters game. What kind of audience are you looking at with this?
What I wanted to do is build an experience for someone like me, a generation that's grown up with interactivity but has grown out of developing their dexterity or at the very least doesn't have six hours a night to play a game anymore.

"Majestic," in terms of the overhead to interact with it, is very straightforward. You can connect with "Majestic" for 15 to 30 minutes every other day and progress through it and have a wonderful time.

It was important for me to start developing experiences for that generation of grown-up gamers. For games to evolve to interactive entertainment, we need to do more than just the equivalent of adolescent action movies. I wanted to create something that would take elements of interactive storytelling and game play and bring those together through the Internet.

Aside from the creative aspect, I imagine the subscription model was pretty attractive to EA's businesspeople.
When you subscribe, you don't actually subscribe to "Majestic," you subscribe to's platinum service, so you get "Majestic" and a bunch of other products for $9.95 a month. It's sort of like EA's version of HBO, and Majestic is like "The Sopranos"--it's one of the anchor experiences.

I didn't come up with the business model and sell it to EA as much as we developed together an experience created specifically for the medium that really anchored that service.

You're asking people to give out a lot of personal information. What are the privacy protections?
The information that we capture from people, we're fairly explicit about the fact that we're not selling that to anyone. We're only using it to enhance the overall entertainment experience for the player.

I think our users understand that. And you can make choices. You don't have to give us your telephone number of fax number if you don't want that part of the experience.

It seems like this could also be a great prank, to sign someone up for the experience without telling them, and then they start getting weird phone calls.
You can't really harass someone with the experience. I wouldn't say it's impossible, but it's very hard to use it as a harassment tool. The game requires users to engage with it. You don't just sign up for it and it starts threatening you on the telephone. There's an experience that you move through that triggers various events.

We've really tried to act very responsibly. We try to put as many safeguards into the experience as possible. And we ask our users to act responsibly and legally. In the event they don't, they're removed from the game. And if they act illegally, we'll pursue it with the proper authorities.

The game has an M (mature) rating, yet the content so far seems pretty PG, like an "X-Files" episode. What prompted that rating?
It's an opportunity for us to explore some creative things, and there is some adult language already.

If you look at the definition of what makes an M-rated game and a PG-13 movie, you'll see they're pretty similar. We just wanted to be able to explore some adult themes in a way you might in an R-rated movie.

How would you compare working on this to "Ultima"?
They're fundamentally different types of experiences. There aren't a great deal of similarities between the two--with the exception of community and communication and the sense of progression.

In "Ultima," your progression is really through things and objects; you acquire things over time. In "Majestic," it's more about where you are in the story compared to everyone else, and how immersed in the story you've become. But the structure of the games is very different.