Way back in the days of dial-up internet connections, Electronic Arts debuted an innovative multiplayer alternate reality game called Majestic. Designed to immerse players in a massive online conspiracy theory, the game was perfect for its time, basically allowing players to join a real-time version of the X-Files, then at the height of its popularity. It was less of a game than a fully engrossing multimedia mindfuck. Yet for all of its potential, the Majestic experiment proved to be short-lived, the victim of poor reviews, limited in technology, and just plain ol’ bad timing.
Launched in July of 2001, Majestic was perhaps the most ambitious attempt at interactive entertainment in the history of the genre. With a $20 million budget, the game was played across the platforms of the day. After a brief online registration process, players were sent an email claiming that Majestic had been suspended due to a fire at Anim-X — a fictitious game studio — and encouraged players to track the progress by clicking a link to the Portland Chronicle, an equally fictitious online newspaper.
Once the player went down the proverbial rabbit hole, they were eventually directed to an online interface in which players could track the game’s progress and also collaborate with randomly selected “teammates” through a group messaging service. In the preceding episodes, non-player characters and even actors hired to portray some of the game’s main characters would then contact the players through instant messaging, phone calls, emails, and even faxes in an attempt to aid or thwart the players’ attempts to solve a series of puzzles.
The real genius of Majestic was the way it meshed real and fictitious events into the story. The game led players on a journey across the internet, bouncing back and forth from completely legitimate websites to one of the dozens of fake URLs created to support the game (at the height of its popularity, it’s estimated that EA had created more than 80 dummy sites). EA also relied on its hardcore fans to create real-time content based on current events. Fake EA news sources would often include valid news articles ranging from political debates to local interest stories. It was up to the players to explore and analyze for themselves which events were red herrings and which were crucial to the game.
While it should no doubt get credit for its innovations, the game had more than its fair share of problems. Its creator Neil Young (no, not that Neil Young) designed the game for casual players who wanted a collaborative online experience but didn’t have the time to dedicate to the massively multiplayer online (MMO) games of the time, e.g. EverQuest. Subsequently, players panned Majestic’s puzzles, especially those in the early episodes, as way too easy. The pace frustrated serious gamers who often had to wait a week at a time for the game to issue the next email, phone call, or fax needed to advance to the next challenge.
The execution was clearly a turn-off to many of the 800,000 players who signed up for the debut episode of Majestic, as only 71,200 ended up completing the first free installment. When the EA paywall kicked in for the second episode, that number dropped below 15,000. It’s important to note that back in 2001, paid online services were in their infancy. Streaming music services like Spotify and Apple Music didn’t exist, and while there were some online games already charging a monthly fee, it would be another five years before World of Warcraft went mainstream. Most folks were paying less than $20 a month for internet service (and sometimes free if you knew how to properly leverage all those free trial AOL dial-up CDs), so asking for an additional 10 bucks a month to play a computer game was well outside the comfort zone of the casual players EA targeted.
Commercially, the game was just too far ahead of its time. But it also ran hard into the news of the day. About a month after Majestic debuted, 9/11 changed the culture overnight. In the face of the “jet fuel can’t melt steel beams” paranoia that followed, suddenly the thought of uncovering nefarious government conspiracies by answering impromptu, often threatening phone calls from voice actors became a bit too real for the casual player. Game writers found themselves hamstrung. For a game that relied so heavily on current events, there was no way to incorporate the fallout of 9/11 in the immediate aftermath.
And yet, even in the face of a $10 million loss, Majestic’s creators were sure they’d hit on a winning multimedia MMO formula. After EA shuttered the game in 2002, Jeff Brown, the president of corporate communications, proclaimed: “Maybe the consumer didn’t get it, but in five years, everyone’s going to be making games based on this engine. I’m not apologizing for anything!”
In hindsight? Not so much.
Majestic’s failures seemingly doomed the casual alternate reality genre. Even though there have been some decent attempts at immersive alternate reality games, or ARGs, since EA shuttered Majestic, most have been quick pops as a part of marketing campaigns like the Why So Serious campaign for The Dark Knight. Independent developers have steadily tried to emulate and improve upon the Majestic experience; most recently, the Black Watchmen has provided gamers with an engaging interactive story but nothing close to the same scope (or bankroll) as Majestic.
As the line between “casual” and “hardcore” gaming continues to blur, is it time to give a large scale, Majestic-style ARG another shot?
One of the knocks against Majestic was that it nested insultingly simple puzzles into an over complicated concept. Players unfamiliar with the genre literally couldn’t figure out how to play. While potential players today are a lot more computer savvy than they were 15 years ago, a large-scale, massively multiplayer ARG would have balanced an immersive experience against the need to engage casual players, and weigh challenges against the attrition of making the game inaccessibly tricky.
Pacing will always be an issue. Majestic was created to emulate the feel of a weekly TV show: Players could expect about an hour or so of game play followed by a cool-down period of three to five days. The challenge for the next large-scale ARG will be letting dedicated gamers move at their own clip, but keeping the flow of the game manageable for the less-active players who might worry about getting left behind.
While Majestic developers made amazing use of their available technology, they were still relying on 26.6k internet connections and fax machines. Today, enterprising devs have a much bigger playground in which to create an ARG world: social media, text messages, and Skype could supplement the occasional fax or phone call. Game writers could develop more complex puzzles and story lines without worrying about the user confusion that acted as a barrier to entry for potential Majestic players.
Oh, and that paywall thing? While folks in 2001 gave all sorts of digital side-eye being asked for $10 a month, online gaming now rakes in $5.5 billion a year. The World of Warcraft subscription model made Activision more than $1 billion last year. Dedicated mobile gamers blow $200 to $400 a year the likes of Game of War and Farmville. Casual or hardcore, gamers across the spectrum shell out serious ducats for games they enjoy.
As we head into 2016, let’s hope that somewhere there are game studios willing to take the risk on rebooting an ARG with an ambition and boldness befitting what Majestic attempted in the early days of the web. The available communication technology has caught up with the high concept, independent developers have spent the past 15 years working out the major kinks that plagued Majestic, and there is no doubt the market is ripe for bigger, badder, fully immersive game experience. The timing finally is right.