The future of online gaming -- ''Majestic'' is hardly the smash its makers had hoped for, but it could still be huge

”We know who you are, and we’re watching you….” The threatening phone calls started soon after I signed up to play Majestic ( Then came the declassified faxes, and e-mail from strangers trying to recruit me into the ”Alliance” — a coalition of game designers and shadowy ”deep throat” figures who had been drawn into a government mind-control conspiracy. Now I’m aiding their investigation by hacking into satellites and passing secrets on to field operatives.

Majestic could be called an online game, but mind-job might be more apt: playing it requires surfing the Web as well as fielding phone calls, deciphering video feeds, and chatting with fellow Alliance members. And as Majestic infiltrated my life after its July debut, forcing me to chase clues from one medium to the next, it came to resemble a hybrid strain of entertainment. And it’s still mutating: The William Morris Agency is trying to turn the concept into a TV series. The pitch is compelling since the show, combined with the aforementioned gaming elements, could feature the star flipping open his cell phone and calling you at home.

But even with all that honey, and a cameo by Joe Pantoliano (The Matrix) in web-episode 4, this $8 million experiment isn’t attracting many flies. Hundreds of thousands of would-be Alliance members played the free pilot episode. But Electronic Arts, Majestic‘s backers, say that a mere 13,000 people signed up, at $9.99 per month, for four additional episodes. Now EA is coming in from the cold and putting Majestic on store shelves for $39.99. (The impact this will have on — the $130 million online-gaming project for which Majestic was a centerpiece title — remains to be seen.) Meanwhile, dedicated gamers are panning Majestic for a different reason: It’s too easy. But Majestic‘s creators counter that they didn’t set out to make the usual videogame. ”We view Majestic as being a story with some puzzles mixed into it,” says Ralph Guggenheim, Majestic‘s executive producer and a founding member of Pixar Animation Studios. ”Most games are the other way around.” And by dispensing with some elements of traditional videogames, Majestic could attract a wider, non-game-geek audience.

Majestic‘s real flaw may be that the concept is too new to have been perfected. The good-guys-who-turn-out-to-be-bad-guys plot seems at pains to harness the Net’s truth-bending qualities, and takes itself so seriously that it verges on absurdity. By episode 3, when one of my co-conspirators planted a secret sign language message in a coerced video confession, I sorely needed humoring. Because by then it was clear that my vital role as an armchair hero wasn’t affecting the outcome at all. And at that point, fiddling with the game itself — posing weird questions to Majestic‘s AOL chat robots to see how they answered — became as interesting as the story line.

But I’m not quitting the Alliance yet. Because despite the missteps, Majestic‘s story-telling paradigm and underlying engine is too good not to survive in some form. ”To me,” J.J. Abrams, creator of the new ABC series Alias, said recently, ”Majestic linked with Alias is the dream.” And if EA can’t make it come true, another company certainly will.