Early in the millennium, I was the first (and, eventually, the last) web developer for EA’s short-lived, ambitious commercial failure, Majestic. Delivered via a blend of technologies — web, email, phone, fax, video, and IM — Majestic guided players through a government conspiracy thriller, with a bit of sci-fi added in.
Before Majestic was released, most of the press coverage focused on our mix of technologies, our introduction of episodic content into a game, and our attempt to usher in a new genre with the first big-budget, high-profile Alternate Reality Game (ARG).
The funny thing is, none of those was our primary goal in creating the game. They were just a means to the end mentioned in this paragraph [from the Deus Ex Machinatio post that inspired me to write this article]:
It looks at first like a trade-off, of course; do you provide a shallow but pleasant experience or do you provide an all-encompassing one? My hope is to structure games where that’s a false dichotomy. Games where a player can spend ten minutes a week, or every waking hour, and in either case come away with an enjoyable experience. Multiple levels of content available to suit your lifestyle.
That’s exactly what we wanted to do. In fact, that paragraph could have been taken from one of our early design documents.
Our goal was, simply, this: create an online, story-driven game to satisfy the most casual of gamers: people who could only play in short bursts every now and then. At the same time, try to keep the hardcore gamers satisfied. After considering different game genre options and combinations, Executive in Charge of Production Neil Young (the brains behind the project) convinced EA that an ARG would be the best format for achieving that goal. It was a bold choice by Neil — and a uncharacteristically risky move for EA.
As a gaming company, EA was most experienced in promoting PC and console games to the serious gaming community, and not online titles to the mass market consumers that the company ultimately sought. Because EA had no precedent for successfully leapfrogging the serious gamers and gaming press to get directly to the casual audience, we would still have to first win the approval of that hardcore crowd.
For serious players, Majestic’s gameplay was too easy. It could be fun if you just wanted to play a role in the story; it wasn’t so good if you wanted to wrestle with gnarly puzzles. The first chapters of the game — while well-designed and balanced for casual gamers — were a breeze for the hardcore crowd. For them, the puzzles were too simple.
The main gameplay of Majestic fit into the “shallow but pleasant” category. In fact, this was enforced. Once you had accomplished a few goals (e.g., find a clue at a website and have an AIM conversation with a character from the game), which took anywhere from 10 minutes to an hour per day, you often couldn’t progress any further until the game contacted you or updated its content for you. You could wait longer than was necessary to engage the game again, but you couldn’t speed things up.
Having to wait for someone to return an email or phone call may have added a layer of realism, but it took away the player’s power (almost always a bad idea!) to choose how long to play each day. We could have — probably should have — allowed hardcore players to let the game progress at an accelerated pace if they wanted. Sure, each monthly episode might only take a player a couple of days. But if it were a satisfying experience, the player would probably participate the next month, too.
Late in the game’s development, some of us worked on an optional, web-only sidequest, which was much tougher and more time-consuming than the mission critical parts of Majestic. But it was added too late, and some of the hardcore gamers who played it wound up preferring the sidequest to the main game itself. (Maybe we should have developed it sooner and used it as an ARG to promote our ARG!)
Our problems with balancing for different player types didn’t end with gameplay. Our storytelling was a culprit, too. I’m not talking about writing quality; our writers did a great job with the overarching plot and dialogue. I’m talking about how that story was presented.
Whereas Majestic’s gameplay erred on the side of being too simple, our storytelling was probably too demanding. We called Majestic episodic, but really, it was much more serialized. Though Majestic’s episodes were designed with beginning and ending points, I don’t think any one of them alone worked as a fully encapsulated story.
I think story- and media-heavy ARGs are as much interactive TV shows as they are videogames. And, at the time of Majestic, serialized storytelling wasn’t a standard method of delivering TV narratives. After Twin Peaks fizzled in 1991, TV networks had — except for soap opera fare like Melrose Place and 90210 — avoided true serialized primetime entertainment for the past decade. Though HBO had produced a season or two of The Sopranos, we still had a bit of a wait before breakthrough serials like Lost and 24.
Being serialized before the mass market had re-internalized it as a storytelling method probably made Majestic a harder sell. Had we come out with the game four or five years later, we may have had an easier time catching on. (And that’s not even considering the technology advances, like broadband and Ajax-capable browsers, that would have helped my cause as a web developer.)
To fully enjoy Majestic’s story, which was a convoluted puzzle in its own right, you had to be fully invested in it. While that’s not too much to ask from someone who will spend hours combing the Web for minutiae and looking for clues and patterns in that information, it doesn’t work for the people who are happy with their 10 minutes of content per day. It’s good to reward those who would go the extra mile, but you shouldn’t punish those who do no more than is required.
Again, this makes me think of Lost. For all of its shitty dialogue (everything is an argument, a question that never gets answered directly, or a “Dude/Freckles/WAAALT!” catchphrase), dangling plot threads, predictable twist-ending flashbacks, and unlikable characters, Lost does a very good job of spoonfeeding its smart-but-casual viewers enough of the right information to follow the main story. And the hardcore fans have plenty of extra information to dissect and discuss, ad infinitum, until the next episode airs. Lost works as a high-concept ensemble show with the world’s biggest collection of easter egg extras. That’s not a bad recipe for succeeding with both serious and casual consumers.
Though serialized entertainment is now more mainstream, I still think the episodic (or an episodic-serial hybrid) method makes for a viable, sometimes preferable, way of delivering ARG content. To maintain audience interest, each episode must be a complete and satisfying experience. Of course, within that framework, you’ll want to add continuity and long-term story arcs. But for a casual audience, the story must be enjoyable in smaller segments, and people should feel welcome to tune in at any time.
Think of hybrid shows like The X-Files or Buffy. While serious fans crave the plot advancement of the mythology episodes, both they and casual viewers can enjoy the standalones. More recently, Veronica Mars and Supernatural have aced the balance between episodic and serialized content. On those shows, each episode works on its own, but there are always well-integrated scenes that advance the full-season arcs. And even Lost (one final time), though its island story is almost completely serialized, has the flashbacks to give each episode some sense of beginning and ending.
Because Majestic was one of the only games of its kind, it was as much an experiment as it was a game. And, in that experiment, we did get some things right. As flawed as Majestic was, it wasn’t all that far off from succeeding.
The game designers were brilliant people who nailed some things, like seamlessly integrating the puzzles and minigames into the story. Because the gameplay and the plot were conceived — and then evolved — together, nothing felt tacked on. Except for some of the old Infocom text adventures, I can’t think of another game where the puzzles fit so naturally. The gameplay was part of the story, and vice versa.
Majestic’s writing quality was high, especially considering the massive volumes of text we needed generated by just a few people. Aside from head honcho Neil, the creative team mostly comprised people with backgrounds in film, TV, and theater. And it showed.
Finally, I still have no idea how the tech team got all our different technologies to cooperate and communicate with the game’s main database. Though Majestic never made it big, it was a triumph that the platform worked at all.
So the project was a success, in some ways. And where we went wrong, I think we learned lessons that would have helped us develop future projects that could have worked as a shallow/deep experience for gamers of all stripes.
Unfortunately for those of us who worked on Majestic, there were no follow-ups, and we never got to apply these lessons to another ARG. Development on the project was killed about four months after launch, and EA turned off the servers another few months after that.
The company refocused on churning out sequels and gobbling up established publishers and intellectual properties. Most of the Majestic staff returned to their previous lives, either within EA or back in the film, TV, and tech industries. A few of us tried pitching similar projects for a while. But, understandably, no big-budget studio wanted to risk losing money the way EA did on Majestic.
Hopefully, someday soon, that’ll change. I still feel guilty for my part in crippling an entire genre, just as it was getting started. Our success could have brought about (better) copycat games from every major game studio — as well as new games from our own team.
But our failure pretty much scared the studios away from anything of the sort. It’s probably up to the independent developers to come up with a superhit that makes the genre viable, once more. In the meantime, ARGs will continue to exist most successfully as viral marketing for TV shows, movies, and other videogames.
One of the saddest aspects of Majestic’s demise is that it’s gone forever. For other games (like movies, TV shows, and books), there is an afterlife. Titles may fail to catch an audience upon release, but they can be rediscovered years later: in used game bins, through emulation, or via download from an abandonware site. But because Majestic lived only on EA’s servers, it’s inaccessible, for good. If it weren’t for Wikipedia and Google, it’d be hard to find any evidence it ever existed at all.