Augmented reality games existed before Pokemon Go. Majestic was one of the first.
Pokemon Go released last week, and it has become a gaming sensation. Pokemon Go, and other games like it, are augmented reality games (ARGs). ARGs are games that take place simultaneously in the real world and in a virtual space. For the uninitiated, Pokemon Go hides Pokemon virtually at real world locations. Once your mobile device detects that you’re within a certain range, you can attempt to capture them. There are also Pokestops, which are real world locations you can interact with in the game. Once you “collect them all,” you can battle other players.
Pokemon Go was released by Nintendo and Niantic. Niantic had previously released another science fiction ARG called Ingress. Much of the technology used in Pokemon Go was based on Ingress.
Pokemon Go is taking the world by storm, but there was a high profile ARG that was released way back in July 2001 by Electronic Arts (EA). Majestic was a big budget release that was meant to revolutionize the massively multiplayer online (MMO) games. Everquest released in 1999, and it was successful enough that other software developers wanted a hit MMO game.
Many MMO games took a crack at success. FunCom’s Anarchy Online (AO) had released just one month prior to Majestic in June of 2001, and it was a highly anticipated technologically impressive game. Unfortunately, AO went down in the history books as one of the very worst MMO launches of all time. Although Dark Age of Camelot would find success a few months later, the MMO community was getting jaded by bad game launches and broken games.
Enter Majestic, which was truly trying something unique for a mass-market game. The game’s plot centered around government conspiracies, aliens, and other X-Files style stuff. However, there really wasn’t a game to play in the traditional sense. Majestic would e-mail you, fax you, and call you on the phone with prerecorded messages pertinent to the plot. There were faux websites to visit, and videos to watch. All of these things provided plot points and clues to solve puzzles. Once you had exhausted the days content, you were done until EA released something else.
The game received middling reviews that admitted the game was groundbreaking. No one really knew what to make of this game. It managed to snag some innovation awards at E3 and with the Game Developers Choice Awards, but subscriptions (at $9.95 per month) were sluggish.
The game shut down in April of 2002 due to a lack of subscribers. 2001 was a complicated year, so it’s probably unfair to say that the games unconventional systems were its downfall. Only 2 months after the game released, the terrible attacks occurred on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001; EA paused the game as a result. September 11th changed America substantially, and, while it’s not the only reason, US gamers were not clamoring for government conspiracy narratives after the attacks. American consumers were looking for escapism in fantasy, science fiction, and comic books. The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Rings film released in December of 2001, and it was a massive success; this was unheard of for a fantasy film. The aforementioned Dark Age of Camelot released in October, and also found an audience. A few years later World of Warcraft would become a phenomenon.
Who knows what could have happened with Majestic had things gone differently. It was definitely a curious game that was probably ahead of its time. But, it started forging the path that has resulted in Pokemon Go. It’s apropos now to remember the game that was responsible for many augmented reality games concepts.