Since the first online RPGs and MUDs, games have existed as services as much as physical products. Persistent updates and tightly integrated social elements can open new frontiers for interactivity, but they also signpost an inevitable end when those games will go offline and become effectively unplayable. Gaming at-large tends to view those endpoints as extremely undesirable, and from a preservation perspective, game closure is a massive loss. But like live theater or performance art, some games are designed as experiences, transient participatory events that, no matter how long they run, are never meant to last generations.
The most fascinating ephemeral game is Majestic, an experimental, X-Files-inspired alternate reality game about the chaos of the information age that ran for less than a year before its publisher pulled the plug. Majestic still stands as one of the most ambitious interactive entertainment projects ever undertaken. Intended as a personalized ongoing event for adult audiences that didn’t enjoy gaming’s typical epic-sized power fantasies, the game might have heralded a new direction for the entire medium had it succeeded. Instead, it imploded almost immediately. Majestic cratered despite launching at a time primed for an evolution in cross-media entertainment, and although no one has attempted anything in its scope again for good reason, many ideas it tackled have become almost fundamental in digital media.
We can’t play Majestic now, so from a slew of articles and anecdotes, I’ve tried to assemble its history and offer a glimpse of what it was, why it failed, and what it could have been.
As producer Neil Young (not the musician) told Salon, Majestic started from a desire to create a new type of interactive entertainment that could be experienced in small portions and with casual investment from players. In contrast to the extensive, bottomless role-playing worlds that existed at the time in Ultima Online or EverQuest, Young sought to create a game for people with jobs and families who wanted to enjoy the same powerful interactive storytelling. He found his muse in famed ufology radio host Art Bell: his show’s mix of an elaborate mythology and unstable audience participation created a unique listening experience that melded fact and fiction. Beyond the allure of digital reality intruding on life, unreliable communication and conspiracy proved resonant for his chosen medium, and Majestic was born.
The game’s highly meta-aware story begins when Majestic developer Anim-X (not a real company, naturally) closes as a result of a studio fire. Players received an email from publisher Electronic Arts announcing the game’s suspension and offering players access to purported local news site The Portland Chronicle to follow new developments. Anim-X was apparently sabotaged after stumbling upon a deep government conspiracy, and as a patron of their new conspiracy-themed game, you find yourself tangled in that web. Like in other alternate reality games, players revealed more of the story by solving puzzles based on the game’s clues and communications. The web also played a significant role in these challenges, with both real and fake sites used as information sources. The wall between fictional, digital conspiracy and real-world activity appears to have been as thin as Young intended when he drew from Art Bell; web information’s inherent unreliability plays directly into Majestic‘s themes of uncertain truth.
Young’s game debuted in July 2001, nearly the same time as The Beast, one of the other first notable, large-budget ARGs. The Beast was an event staged across a number of digital and physical platforms in the months building to the release of the film A.I.: Artificial Intelligence. If you didn’t join the fan discussions groups, you would never know it happened, and after A.I. hit theaters, it was done. Most ARGs since have followed a similar template.
Majestic was instead designed to be experienced from start-to-finish by any number of individual participants. At the outset, new subscribers disclosed their phone number, fax number, email, instant messenger names, and other personal contact information. The Majestic team would then interact with players through those outlets to guide them through the game’s available “episodes.” (Majestic leaned on television terminology to make these concepts more accessible.) The game combined interactive and pre-written communication depending on the medium and situation. Instant message conversations were probably easier to conduct than live, improvised phone calls, for instance, but at least one user remembers an actor responding to his voicemail.
(Cautious players could enable warnings ahead of game content to alert themselves, their family, or their co-workers that incoming messages weren’t real. Other options allowed you to disable communication at certain times if you weren’t keen on being bothered during work or, as could happen, while sleeping. The game also drew the line at in-person appearances for security reasons.)
This decentralized approach with personalized communication probably required some serious upkeep from Electronic Arts. For the intended non-game-playing audience, it would have been a chore to follow too. To this end, players installed the Majestic Navigation System, a standalone application that would help participants track their progress. The MNS included a built-in messaging system for interacting with other players at roughly the same section in the story to replicate the community aspect key to many alternate reality games. The program also housed other game-specific functions for viewing evidence documents and videos, inputting solutions, or reading about the Majestic mythology.
Majestic was designed for people seeking a gaming experience that could fit into their otherwise busy lives, like a serialized television show. Fittingly, each segment of the game lasted in the half-hour range, and a single episode could be completed over about two weeks of active play. To prevent power users and speedrunners from blowing through the entire game in one sitting – and maybe to spare the Electronic Arts employees managing the game – players could only progress so far each day until they had to wait for further information from the game’s characters. This kept everyone at an even pace for the sake of forming a community, and in Majestic‘s most intriguing and frightening hook, it often forced involvement on the game’s terms. If a character had a plot-relevant reason to disappear for a while, they might be out of touch for the rest of the day, but you could expect them to contact you tomorrow on their own clock. Electronic Arts’s marketing campaign heavily and wisely featured the phrase “It Plays You.”
Many including Electronic Arts’s Jeff Brown blame this pacing decision for the game’s failure; it may have upset players expecting a more traditionally completable game. The reasons behind Majestic‘s closure are more complicated than that, but this is a spot where the game was designed for a too-distant future. Gaming communities still react angrily to mechanics that limit or slow daily progress.
Majestic was a new type of game for a new audience, a digital story that could be fully experienced in small chunks with a changing community, made for people with less time on their hands and tiring of science fiction and fantasy tropes. And in a moment of brilliant design, it told its story of digital paranoia through the paranoia’s instruments. The new, uncertain digital information age awaiting the 21st century made Majestic a perfect match for its time, and even with its confusing premise, it was among the first games to acknowledge the software and platforms everyday people were now using and the convenience they expected.
The game understandably shocked audiences in previews, building intense press interest and earning some early critical awards for its take on the alternate reality genre. In 2001, this was an untapped concept, and most coverage focused on its cross-media innovation. But a few saw its potential as a digital role-playing experience for a mature audience. Most notably, media critic Kate Stables covered the game in acclaimed film magazine Sight & Sound, and her impressions are worth quoting here at length (emphasis added):
Developers and their necessarily hardcore public had become locked in a not-very-virtuous circle, producing and consuming product that only young male players had the leisure time and testosterone to enjoy. […] Dense, graphically stunning titles such as Sega’s explorable mystery Shenmue or Capcom’s survival-horror shoot-’em-up Resident Evil: Code Veronica are the result, their undeniable good looks still yoked to genres, formal properties and user demands only hardcore gamers can master. So where are the games that anyone could play?
Don’t look now, but it sounds as if one has just arrived. Majestic, an internet-based interactive conspiracy game, is generating a huge buzz across the US this month. Creator Neil Young has been admitting freely that he designed it expressly for a time-crunched adult audience looking for more than adolescent male fantasies from their entertainment. […]
What should fascinate media wonks […] is how despite being the brainchild of games giant Electronic Arts, [Majestic] apparently routs games-industry shibboleths. For instance, it largely eschews representation – Majestic doesn’t create an obligatory virtual world but relies on players’ imaginations, just as it relies on their everyday deductive skills to advance the story rather than requiring shoot-’em-up, beat-’em-up or strategy proficiencies. It uses the web not just as a distribution system, but as an integral part of both story and gameplay. And most radical of all, anyone who’s got a modem, $9.99 a month and the willingness to sacrifice their coffeebreak might get into it. So whether it turns out to be a nine-days wonder or changes the face of computer gaming as we know it, Majestic marks the spot where gaming, the Peter Pan of media, began to grow up.
Those are shockingly prescient thoughts about the changing state of games (naturally, coming from outside the gaming sphere). Stables saw significant potential innovation in Majestic, not solely from its alternate-reality features but in how it might find space for gaming experiences made for everyone else.
What went wrong
Majestic drew a decent crowd early in its lifecycle, with 800,000 people expressing interest in the initial free episode. About 70,000 of those players stuck around for the full version, and an audience that size could still have sustained the game.
But in a startlingly awful coincidence, Majestic debuted only two months before September 11. In the wake of the attacks, absolutely nobody wanted to play a game about a distrustful government where you receive random panicked phone calls. Electronic Arts suspended the service within days. By the time it resumed, subscribers had dwindled to around 10,000.
The terrible timing certainly doomed Majestic, but the game would have collapsed regardless. Electronic Arts never reached the alternative audience Majestic needed, and most players appear to have been from the stereotypical gaming crowd that did not want a parceled experience. In a 2003 issue of the journal Information, Communication & Society, Taylor and Kolko’s article “Boundary Spaces” – really the best, most complete summary and analysis of Majestic – studied players’ reactions to the game; they found that its casual pacing left the community restless, and forum posters found its dissimilarity to other online games uncomfortable rather than exciting. Worse, beyond conceptual concerns, Majestic may just not have been well-made apart from its puzzles. Reviews criticized the game’s sub-par writing quality and overall low-budget cheese, acceptable maybe for genre television but not for an experience intended to bleed into real life. Some communications from the game relied on automated messages or instant messaging bots, further cheapening players’ involvement by admitting that the game was not as authentic as it pretended.
UPDATE (7/29/18): According to a former Electronic Arts employee close to the development of Majestic, who reached out with more information, another contributing factor to the game’s demise was a shift in EA’s resources and strategy. Majestic came out in 2001, which was also the year that the first Lord of the Rings film hit theaters. Sensing that the franchise would be a hit and wanting to ramp up production of their games based on the movies, EA reallocated resources from their online game division, EA.com, to their development group EA Studio. As part of the shift, Young was reassigned to the game adaptation of The Two Towers, leading to the abandonment of Majestic.
Well-executed or not, this massive gamble of a game struggled to click with any audience at the time. The cocktail of unconventional play, blurred reality across mediums, relaxed pace, and community-driven engagement – from the publisher of Medal of Honor – appealed to seemingly no one. Soon after service resumed, Electronic Arts CFO Stan McKee publicly downplayed the game’s importance, but its collapse spoke for itself. Majestic was an unwieldy, costly boondoggle, and despite waiving the subscription free in an attempt to draw more active players, Electronic Arts lost at least an estimated $5 million on the game before shuttering it on April 30, 2002.
What can we learn?
Majestic‘s failure inspires some dread about innovation in games, both then and now. At a moment when audiences and critics both wanted something future-looking and mature, the highest-profile attempt at such a game – one with critical accolades and a strong marriage of relevant theme and function – ran its course in a under a year. External scapegoats like the September 11 attacks and the pricing model can insulate it from some criticism, but handicapped or otherwise, the concept flopped with intended players. So how do you assess a bold idea that was rejected?
Even before the end of 2001, Electronic Arts executives and analysts defended Majestic as an early bloomer that debuted before most would accept its unconventional gameplay. In a CNN Money article, Jeff Brown blamed the market for not “get[ting] it,” declaring that “in five years, everyone’s going to be making games based on this engine. I’m not apologizing for anything!” Market researcher P. J. McNealy agreed that the game arrived years too early for consumers, comparing it to “offering driving lessons to 10-year-olds. They’re going to need it, but it’s just too soon.” (That’s such a great quote.)
It’s difficult to disagree with that. How ironic that a game so in-tune with contemporary media was still mistimed for its audience.
But writing off Majestic as an anachronistic experiment doesn’t give it credit for its successes. Although the game was never the viable narrative alternative Young wanted (in spite of its timeliness), those who played Majestic experienced a then-revolutionary redefinition of the space between a game’s content and its players. Taylor and Kolko’s community study noticed that many subscribers, confused by and uncertain about the extent to which they were meant to play the game, had to reconstruct their sense of what gameplay meant, especially in relation to other participants. (Many players’ insistence not to drop their role-playing characters and intentionally giving newcomers false information added to the confusion as well as, arguably, the game’s mystique.) Very little like Majestic existed yet, and the communal disruption of typical game-playing behavior was one of the game’s unique triumphs.
There’s a lot out there today that shares Majestic‘s DNA. Alternate reality games and related cross-media entertainment rose in popularity after the game’s closure, now being almost universal. The success of reality-blurring experiences like Ingress and the Junko Junsui project show we are increasingly eager to try experimental modes of play. Major narrative-driven games like Life is Strange tell less fantastical stories. Most significantly, more games now cater to the busy audience with broader interests that Majestic was intended for; a blockbuster game like Destiny, though a potential massive time-sink, allows players to partake in a collaborative story in smaller pieces. (The New York Times also rightly predicted in a Majestic post-mortem that simple browser- and phone-friendly games would fill that niche too.) These are major changes since the turn of the century.
Majestic is not responsible for that transformation. The game tanked. Its developers saw a future of online participatory storytelling, but their game was not its starting point for a litany of reasons. The revolution was gradual instead, fueled by dozens of later games that chipped away at parallel ideas.
Still, consider how thoroughly it rattled the norms of its small community. Imagine if Majestic had attained the impact and stature to shake the entire scene like that – to usher in shared experiences and games built to fit into daily life years before it was commonplace. How different would games look today with that head start? To get there, the game would have needed to mobilize hundreds of thousands of new players who had never considered the medium, an almost comically distant goal for such a single oddball title. The world wasn’t ready for Majestic, but Majestic wasn’t ready to take on the world either.
I realize it’s incredibly un-scholarly not to have cited my references in-text; this article was the result of a deep dive where I filled in gaps and lost track of specific sources. Below is a list of every article, website, or resource I used to compile this article. If you’re interested in reading more about Majestic, consider going through list (especially the Taylor and Kolko piece).
Abbott, M. (2008, June 10). Are we ready for Majestic now? Brainy Gamer. Retrieved from http://www.brainygamer.com/the_brainy_gamer/2008/06/are-we-ready-fo.html
Arar, Y. (2001, June). Majestic: You don’t just play this game, you live it. PC World, 19, 52. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/231411170?accountid=8285
Brown, J. (2001, August 1). Paranoia for fun and profit. Salon. Retrieved from http://www.salon.com/2001/08/10/majestic/
EA suspends Majestic. (2001, September 13). Geek. Retrieved from http://www.geek.com/games/ea-suspends-majestic-546965/
Gerardi, M. (2005, June 5). Readers agree that the world of The Witcher 3 is harsh, but just how harsh is it? Gameological. Retrieved http://www.avclub.com/article/readers-agree-world-witcher-3-harsh-just-how-harsh-220453
King, B. (2001, August 30). Whodunit? Only webmaster knows. Wired. Retrieved from http://archive.wired.com/culture/lifestyle/news/2001/08/46340
Kushner, D. (2002, March 7). So what, exactly, do online gamers want? The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2002/03/07/technology/so-what-exactly-do-online-gamers-want.html
Jaded Viewer Rewind: EA’s Majestic Plays YOU!!! (2011, February). The Jaded Gamer. Retrieved from http://jadedviewer.blogspot.com/2011/02/jaded-viewer-rewind-eas-majestic-plays.html
Lackluster Net sales lead to Majestic CD-ROM. (2001, September 27). USA Today. Retrieved from http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/life/cyber/tech/review/games/2001/09/26/majestic-cd.htm
Mercury Multimedia. (n.d.) EA Majestic [Video file]. Retrieved from https://vimeo.com/6946038
Morris, C. (2001, December 19). Innovation at risk? CNN Money. Retrieved from http://money.cnn.com/2001/12/19/technology/column_gaming/
Olivetti, J. (2013, January 26). The Game Archaeologist: EA’s Majestic. Massively. Retrieved from http://massively.joystiq.com/2013/01/26/the-game-archaeologist-eas-majestic/
Stables, K. (2001). Routine fun. Sight & Sound, 11(10), 5. Retrieved from http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=asu&AN=504972125&site=ehost-live&scope=site
Taylor, T. L., & Kolko, B. E. (2003). Majestic and the uncertain status of knowledge, community and self in a digital age. Information, Communication & Society, 6(4), 497-522. doi:10.1080/1369118032000163231
tim. (2012, October 10). Are we ready for Majestic now? [blog comment] Retrieved from http://www.brainygamer.com/the_brainy_gamer/2008/06/are-we-ready-fo.html#comment-6a00e3982444028833017ee414cfb3970d
Zwink, J. (2013, December 16). Are we ready for Majestic now? [blog comment] Retrieved from http://www.brainygamer.com/the_brainy_gamer/2008/06/are-we-ready-fo.html#comment-6a00e3982444028833019b030dae95970d