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Camp Matrix
Employees of The Matrix Online take the blue pill

In the original Matrix films, humanity found itself trapped in tubes and wired into a simulated world that entertained them while machines sucked away their bioenergy; after much struggle and kung fu, a few of them escaped. Now, Warner Brothers Interactive, with no apparent sense of irony, has launched an online massively-multiplayer game based on the Matrix franchise, to give players around the world a chance to plug into the Matrix.

To make it more real, Warner Brothers has hired an entire cast of performers to play key characters inside the game. While other games hire moderators and Game Masters, or take other steps to set up story arcs and events for their players, The Matrix Online’s story actually extends the original movies. And their events team – whose members are part actor, part storyteller, and part camp counselor – wants to pull the players as deeply into that story as possible.

So who are these people who get paid for what’s literally a virtual job? The Matrix team refers to its performers as "event implementers," or "imps" for short, and they report to community events manager Troy Hewitt. A life-long gamer, Hewitt actually came to the team from a background in human services. "I started working in the nonprofit industry, working for the Y and doing camp stuff," says Hewitt. "And it’s really very similar in this regard. We want to keep people entertained and have lots of activities for varying levels of folks."

There’s no industry standard job description for an "imp," and most of the 13 men and women on the team come from what Hewitt calls "unorthodox backgrounds." But he explains some of the necessary skills: they should have online gaming and community experience, although it’s not mandatory; they should write, and act – "because that’s really what this is, is theater" – and, naturally, they should be fast typists.

Once on staff, the imps work in shifts around the clock, to keep the events rolling for players in all time zones and sleep patterns. To keep up, each imp has to know how to play every character, and then hand them off after every shift. When they’re in character, they’re treated like rock stars: whenever they pop up, the human players – friend or foe – usually swarm, which used to cause server load problems. Naturally, Morpheus – one of the biggest characters from the film, where he was played by Lawrence Fishburne – draws a crowd, but according to Hewitt, "what really surprised us is there is a huge popularity for Seraph" – the Oracle’s bodyguard, played in the film by Sing Ngai. "Players, no matter who they are, love to interact with Seraph. They all respect him and they all really defer to him, and when he’s around, they watch what he’s doing and they’re very respectful. Whereas, Morpheus pops in game and there are people who will – I don’t want to say ‘harassment,’ but create a kind of friction, which we enjoy as well."

But what does Hollywood think of the performances? "We received a phone call from our friends at Warner Brothers that Lawrence Fishburne wanted to jump in game and see Morpheus do his thing." They invited him to enter the game incognito and watch his old character in action, and reportedly, Fishburne was impressed. "When I told all the assembled imps who that was, people were just like, ‘WHAAAA?’ and covering their mouths."

The implementers work with a team of writers, who have planned a year’s worth of content for the game. Their storyline passes through an approval process: "We work with [Matrix Online writer] Paul Chadwick, who works very closely with the Wachowski brothers, and we have of course an internal group of folks that approve content and delivery mechanisms." The imps receive, not so much a line-by-line script, but "sort of a talking points structure. The reality is that we want out players to engage in the story ... and for them to feel as though they’re not just getting a prefab script, because really you don’t need people to do that."

During their shifts, the staff shares a room in Monolith’s offices in Seattle, Washington. "There’s so much that depends upon instant communication, and basically we have an area within the building that is set up so that we can all sit together and coordinate events. There are times that we have ten people working on one event, and they all need to be able to communicate where they are, what’s going on, or that we need to implement Plan B because Plan A has been pushed to the side because of a player choice. And that happens quite a bit."

The events so far, which are chronicled for posterity on the Matrix official website, play off of large-scale political conflicts, and battles between and within the three established powers – Zion (the last bastion of humanity), the Machines, and the French crime lord, the Merovingian. "The last event actually was put together in an effort to introduce some new members to the Merovingian’s team," says Hewitt. "We introduced a lupine [werewolf] character, and her name is Ookami, and then a blooddrinker character named Malphas. And so there was a political uprising among the Merovingian’s quote-unquote ‘loyal’ servants, and in a power play, they tried to take over some of the Merovingian’s territory. And lost. And so now they’re in total servitude to the Merovingian, and we’ll be able to utilize them in future events." It’s too soon to tell how important these new characters will become – but nobody’s ever lost money adding a hot werewolf to a sci-fi franchise.

Even with the Matrix world to support the game, the live events may be crucial to it success. The first reviews of The Matrix Online were lukewarm, and games like World of Warcraft or EverQuest II already have a significant lead. The events are also a challenge as well as an asset. The imps can only interact meaningfully with so many players, and on the message boards, feedback runs the gamut from players who post screenshots of themselves standing next to Niobe or Agent Grey, to newcomers who think they’ll never interact with the events team. To quote one of the more wistful posts: "I have not really gotten to speak with ‘real’ characters i probably never will seeing as how i am not a member of a major faction and that i run on my own mostly. I know i will probably never meet any of them because i am the small insignificant guy who plays at the worst times ... but i am ok with that i mean i still get to be around for the story (thats what i am here for) and i still get to play the game ... if i never interact with the major players maybe someone i know will .... ."

While the broad stories can reach a larger crowd of players, only so many people can fit in an area or attend a meeting at once. The story also has to keep running even as players log in and out of the game. As Hewitt says, "Folks will be waiting so patiently and have been a big part of an event, and then real life takes over and they’ve got to go to work, and they come home in time to find that something really big had happened without them."

But for those who put in the time, the rewards are significant. The Matrix Online picks up after the third and so far, final Matrix movie, and to Warner Brothers, the game now owns the storyline: for all intents and purposes, this is the fourth movie, and the players can impact – or at least nudge - the future of the entire franchise. "Players are really the star of this installment of the Matrix," says Hewitt. "Our intention is that players who play a really big role, or make a key decision, become part of the Matrix canon, and they become part of the story."

Every massively-multiplayer game gives players a chance to make their mark in a community, but game designers are still learning how to create a sense of permanence – to give their worlds a history, and help the players shape that history and establish their legacies. To tie a player into a worldwide story gives them an even deeper commitment to the game. In fact, the most dedicated players may rack up more accomplishments, which touch more people, in the Matrix than they do in their real lives. It’s too bad that Warner Brothers can’t find a way to feed and shelter them; they would probably never want to leave.

Issue Date: May 6 - 12, 2005
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