On Pixels, and Puzzles, and Pi

Are you familiar with a game called "Majestic?" It was billed as "the game that plays you."

Right. It was a quasi-ARG that started up just as the Beast was finishing.

It had a huge marketing push, and a lot of enthusiastic beta-testers, but ultimately it didn't succeed.

…Because it was geared towards a mass-audience. The puzzles were dumbed down; the ability for players to progress in the story was stifled. You couldn't play at your own pace unless you were really slow.

It generated a LOT of interest and a lot of the players stuck with it through the end, hoping it would get better. In fact a lot of the player community that formed around Majestic started making their own mini-puzzles for each other.

And then it was completely axed when September 11th came along, as I recall.

It was put on hiatus after Sept. 11 for a few weeks, then came back up for a couple of more months.

Ah, and then what happened?

I'm not exactly sure, but I know they were unprofitable with it, which was why it was axed. There were problems with the way the game started (the company has been burned to the ground so you can't play – an in-game ruse), which generated a LOT of customer service calls that they weren't prepared to handle. They built a lot of their own clue delivery tools, rather than utilizing existing resources. And when it wasn't interesting or motivating enough to even the hard-core players who wanted it to succeed, they didn't get very much word of mouth advertising to bring in new players.

That must have been enormously frustrating for your community, to see something with so much potential.

It was for the people who played it.

Were the designers of "Majestic" originally from your community?

You have to understand this community is a baby. I think the true first of this type of game was the Beast, which ran from April to July of last year. There have been very few wholly successful efforts and none on a really large scale.

When did unfiction start?

Hmmm, I think I created it in May of this year, during LockJaw. It was starting to become apparent that one of the obstacles to the genre developing, was that there was no way to easily explain any of it. Lockjaw was the second game I got really involved in playing, and I started to get tired of trying to explain this nebulous concept to people. But at the same time it was in the forefront of my mind to want to talk and gush about this game I was playing.

So I started unfiction to just have something to point people to and say "read this."

Did you try using the movie "The Game" with Michael Douglas?

How do you mean? (I actually have only heard about it, haven't seen it.)

It's a reality-bending adventure.

Oh I getcha, use it to explain the genre to people….

I hear you though, on making a website with an FAQ. I've made many many webpages for exactly the same reason. Because I was tired of explaining the same thing over and over!

Exactly! And it really is hard to explain: "well there are these websites and there are clues hidden in them and then you sign up here and suddenly you get a phone call from a character at 3 in the morning." People are like, "And this is fun?"

Heh. I've got so much stuff hidden through my webpages. The tutorial, and my personal site. It's a blast to write, and fun to hear about people that find things. Like look at the bottom of my "press" page someday.

The website for the movie "Operation Swordfish" had a bunch of hidden clues. I enjoyed poking through that one.

I remember that…there were some codes or something you had to find to unlock areas weren't there?

Yup. It used Flash animation extensively, and had speed-brakes built in so that the final code was actually included in the credits of the movie itself. It was "vernam" as I recall.

I think someone decompiled the flash and ripped the code early though.

Yeah, but that was as much fun as the code itself, for learning about how to rip open my computer's cache.

Heh. There's actually a section in the player tutorial about that now. (I didn't write any of that, it's developed by some of the players in the community.)

See you're exactly the type of person this genre appeals to the most…people who look at a site and say, "Hmm, that's odd right there," and then continue to investigate and get obsessed and can't stop.

Ayup.

So you never really answered my question about whether Simutronics would be interested in developing an ARG.

Well, if someone had an idea about to make such a product commercially viable, we'd listen. But the Majestic experiment didn't look promising. Then again, we do have people who would love to do something ARG-like. They just have to figure out how to make the case that we'd make more money on it than we'd lose. At this time though, no, we have no plans for ARG.

That is the big question…how can it be profitable or can it even? I think that eventually it could support a subscription model, but right now there aren't enough people interested in this type of gaming.

What are the statistics from your own experience? How many different storylines have run via unfiction, and which one had the highest number of players? Do you ever give out prizes for "most played" or "players' choice?" Those could be powerful incentives to improve quality.

Well first off, I haven't run any games personally…the site just catalogs them as we find them. I know that Microsoft saw an audience in the hundreds of thousands for the Beast, although the largest player community that developed was only about 7,000. If you count Push, NV, as an ARG (which is a stretch since the online element was entirely superfluous), they saw a hundred thousand or so unique online hosts.

There's a rule of thumb we use called "PSU" – Peak Simultaneous Users. Like, if you go into a multiplayer game, and see X number of people, the total subscriber base is probably going to be like 1-10 times X, depending on the type of game, and the "stickiness" of the community.

That makes sense. Some of the smaller, independent games probably see in the thousands or ten thousands of visitors to sites but nowhere near that amount of dedicated players. I don't see this genre taking off overnight, more like building over years before it becomes something that powerhouse gaming companies want to get into. And I doubt that anyone will really want to develop it as a loss-leader in this economy.

That makes sense, yes.

But there are models that could be supported through other means, rather than through profiting off of the players. Such as the Alias web game that provides story-depth to the Alias TV show (although it's suffering for lack of budget as well).

Heh. Ad-based? You get a call at 3 a.m., and it starts off with, "This clue brought to you by Micro$oft…*beep*."

It's conceivable that a game could be advertising supported, but I think the players would rebel against it, unless it were done in a fairly invisible way.

Like in the series "Taken," where every soda seen or referred to was a Pepsi.

For instance some sites like an "online news site" would run ads if they were real..so it would make sense to have them in a game version as well.

Yes, that would work.

The Push Times site (Push, NV) was like that. It had some obviously fake ads and then a couple for Sprint and Toyota (who were real-life sponsors). It kind of worked, kind of didn't in that they stood out as ads because they were real ads.

I wonder how much Sprint and Toyota paid.

Millions I'm sure. That game had a large audience because of the million dollar prize. But again, it was dumbed-down for the masses and frustrated the true gamers.

By the way, before we wrap up, I do want to mention again that I'd love to see your community focus on another "real-life puzzle" – The Kryptos Sculpture. I had some pictures taken of me by a CIA photographer, and they just sent them to me last week.


Kryptos Sculpture

Oooo neat! Are they up anywhere yet?

So I've got them up on my website at http://elonka.com/kryptos. There might be some new information there that would help somebody working on it. I'm not entirely happy with the quality of the scans…I did a quick job right before leaving for Xmas. I'll probably post better quality ones after the holidays.

Do you know if anyone is offering any kind of bounty for a complete public solution to that?

There's no cash prize that I know of, but the fame and publicity would be immense.

True.

International media attention. If there's a thread in your fora on it, let me know and I'll pop in so people can grill me for more details. I'd love to see even a thread solving the first sections. Try to duplicate Gillogly's work.

Don't look at me…his brain is about twelve times the size of mine. :P

Well hey, thanks for taking the time out for this and me.

Thank you very much for inviting me! This was fun, and I look forward to hearing more from your community.

Elonka Dunin is the General Manager of Online Community for Simutronics Corporation, and sits on the Online Games Committee of the International Game Developers Association. She is an accomplished amateur cryptographer, and a frequent presenter at technology, gaming, and hacker conventions around the U.S. and the world.

SpaceBass is an avid breather. He takes time out from attending to his various rashes to update this site.

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