Exocog’s Jim Miller

We cornered Jim Miller and asked him about life behind the curtain. After we let him out of the corner, he agreed to answer our questions.

While Exocog was set in the universe of the latest Spielberg movie, the alternate reality game was not produced by DreamWorks. It was a volunteer project by a small group of puppetmasters who decided one day to ask themselves, "Suppose we were asked to run a web event for an upcoming movie, say, Minority Report. What would we do, and how would we do it?"

What they did was create an intriguing combination of site and story that some players feel wrapped up a little too soon. We cornered Jim Miller and asked him about life behind the curtain. After we let him out of the corner, he even agreed to answer our questions.

How did you get interested in the alternate reality gaming genre? Had you played along with any previous alternate reality games?

I followed The Beast and some of the other movie promotional games last year, mostly from the perspective of my day job as an interaction designer and user interface researcher. It was clear that these games were breaking some new ground in how people interact with and through computers, so my interest was definitely caught. All of us who worked on Exocog were certainly familiar with The Beast and the others, but I can't say that we played them to the extent that some people did.

Why did you choose Minority Report as your subject matter?

A combination of factors. We wanted to get some experience in building these kinds of games as promotional activities for movies and other entertainment properties, and decided that there was no better way to get this experience than to just do it. So we estimated how long it would take us to get a game ready, added five or six weeks for the game itself, and that put us in the middle of June. So we went looking for movies scheduled to open in that time frame, and Minority Report sort of jumped out at us. The topic of the movie seemed like one that would fit the conspiratorial tone that many AR games have taken, and the more we worked on story ideas, focused on a world related to but not the same as the one in the original story, the more it made sense.

What kind of research did you do in order to connect your story with Minority Report? Had you read the original Philip K. Dick novel for background?

Reading the DIck story was essential, of course. From the general press coverage of the movie and a bit of web browsing, we knew that the screenplay was going to diverge from the story, most likely from the second act on. But that was fine with us, because we didn't want to tell the same story that the movie was going to tell — giving away the end to a movie would be a terrible way to promote it! We stayed away from any plot points involving the use of precogs for crime detection, put ourselves forty years before the time frame of the movie, and focused on the existence of precogs and how they fit (and don't fit) into society. Then, we just had to make sure that our story ended in a way that was consistent with how the movie would begin. There are obviously some places where our story and the final Minority Report screenplay don't quite line up, but, overall, I think the fit between the two came out quite well.

Did you have any contact from anybody who was involved with the Minority Report movie or website?

No, we didn't. We had played out various scenarios in which we received phone calls of various degrees of friendliness from Fox or Dreamworks, but those never arrived.

How much development time did you put in before you launched Exocog?

I started thinking seriously about doing the game in mid-March, and spent about a month putting together a reasonably complete version of the story. The next month was spent refining the story, breaking it out into weekly episodes, and figuring out how to tell the story through specific events on web sites, e-mail, and the like. So there were two months of planning for the five-week game (not counting all the real-time planning taking place after the game had started, of course).

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