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Changing game plan

EA gives online hybrid Majestic royal treatment

HOLLYWOOD — “Pac-Man” was never this scary.

Seemingly inspired by the Michael Douglas thriller “The Game,” a new offering from gaming giant Electronic Arts promises to blend Hollywood production values with Internet exploration and a healthy dose of realism to change the way vidgames are played.

The tagline: “It Plays You.”

Called Majestic, the suspense thriller asks players signing on to enter personal information about themselves, which is then used to place the players at the center of their own unique mystery.

The game hits realistic levels when players receive random and mysterious phone calls, faxes, e-mails or instant messages on AOL with info about the game — and the player’s role in it.

In development for more than two years and costing between $5 million and $9 million to launch and an additional $1 million a month for every month of operation, Majestic is being backed by a multimillion-dollar marketing blitz beginning in July. In addition to a national print campaign in mainstream publications, the marketing will target street and radio promotions in four key markets: Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco and Washington, D.C.

‘The game plays you’

“The idea is that if you live in one of these markets, you won’t be able to avoid the Majestic campaign,” says Neil Young, VP and executive in charge of production at Electronic Arts. “We’ll capture the essence of the game with the marketing: The game plays you.”

EA.com is aiming Majestic at an 18- to 35-year-old demographic that’s 70% male. The campaign will drive consumers to Majestic.com, where they sign up for a free trial episode. Young also expects the online marketing to reach out to a broader audience, as players can e-mail friends about the game.

“We had to put together a pretty diverse team of people to tackle this,” says Ralph Guggenheim, exec producer at Electronic Arts. After starting his career as director of editing research at Lucasfilm, Guggenheim was one of the founding members of Pixar Animation Studios, where he produced “Toy Story.”

“In many ways, what we’re doing with Majestic is similar to the work we did with the first computer-animated movie,” Guggenheim says. “The Internet provides new storytelling techniques like audio, phone calls, faxes and e-mails, but this is still a live-action production which uses live actors and location shoots throughout the San Francisco Bay Area.”

Since each episode is about two hours in length, production is more like making a movie than a TV show, although the team plots the game out as a season and then breaks it into eight episodes. The pilot and first two episodes are in the can.

Players pay $9.99 per month to play the installments, which roll out monthly as part of the EA Platinum Service on EA.com.

Potential TV tie-in

Adding a twist to the merging of TV and Internet, a Majestic TV show could bow as early as June 2002, providing standard linear entertainment to viewers while unveiling hints and interacting with Majestic game subscribers.

That would coincide with the debut of Majestic’s second online season. The series would represent EA’s first foray into TV.

“We could bring the TV show into the story at any point,” says Hollywood screenwriter John Danza, head writer and creative director for Majestic. “The TV show can go in many different directions.”

Once the show is introduced, the actors from the TV series would be integrated into the game. The TV show would serve as an anchor to the interactive experience, retaining a tight integration with the game.

“The crossover between TV and the Internet already exists; a huge number of people watch TV and surf the Internet at the same time,” Guggenheim says. “This is a new genre of entertainment, but it’s still entertainment.”

Showbiz streams

The William Morris Agency is working with EA to package the project with TV production partners, develop a marketing strategy for selling the project and service the project with writers, directors and on-air talent.

WMA’s Mark Itkin, who packaged such recent network reality fare as “The Mole,” “Big Brother” and “Popstars,” is working on bringing Majestic to television.

Young says TV was part of his Majestic plan from the get-go.

“The future of online entertainment needs to embrace TV,” Young says. “Entertainment experiences should include TV, the Internet, fax, phone and messaging. The whole can be much bigger than the parts if they’re used together.”

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