A World's Fair Mystery

I just finished reading Erik Larson's great book, Devil in the White City and have been planning a summer excursion to the various sites still extant in Chicago (see this list), and now there's a video game set in the same locale. Strange thing, synchronicity.

The Goods: A Game With a Low Body Count:

Peter Nepstad, a former technology trainer at Arthur Andersen, the firm most recently known as Enron's auditor. Like many other professionals who had nothing to do with the Enron mess, Mr. Nepstad was let go when Andersen collapsed in 2002.

But buoyed by his severance pay, Mr. Nepstad spent eight jobless months completing “1893: A World's Fair Mystery,” a “text adventure” game set at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Like some of the earliest hits of the personal-computer era, including “Zork” and “Planetfall,” his game is devoid of animated graphics. That means the main character's actions are controlled by typed commands like “go north” or “examine glass,” not by a joystick or a mouse....
Mr. Nepstad, an amateur historian and a longtime Chicago resident, was inspired to create “1893” after hearing of a text adventure set in turn-of-the-century New York. He started designing his game in 1999. Sketching out the story line - a diamond theft at the Chicago fair, which commemorated the 400th anniversary of Columbus's voyage - was the easy part. Much harder was the research into the fairgrounds' layout. Mr. Nepstad spent many hours squinting into a microfiche reader at the Chicago Public Library, reviewing old articles from Scientific American.

“Out of the hundreds and hundreds of exhibits in each building, I had to pick the 10 or 20 that a player would be most interested in exploring,” Mr. Nepstad said. “In the agricultural building, there were 100 different kinds of plows. That wasn't very interesting.” Instead, he wrapped the plot around oddities like the knight on horseback that was the star attraction of the California agricultural exhibit (and was made entirely from prunes). Or the machine-gun exhibit from Germany that foreshadowed the mayhem of World War I
What Mr. Nepstad initially didn't understand was how to market the game, which retails for $19.95. When it was released two years ago, he envisioned at least marginal interest from video game retailers. “That turned out to be, uh, not so much,” he said. And he couldn't convert positive reviews from game magazines into many online sales at his Web site, illuminatedlantern.com/1893.

So Mr. Nepstad turned to Plan B: selling the game in museum shops, where it could be displayed as a quasi-educational tool about Chicago history. He also engaged in a bit of guerrilla marketing, printing a bevy of “1893” bookmarks and distributing them to bookstores carrying “The Devil in the White City,” a National Book Award nominee by Erik Larson; its story also takes place at the Chicago fair. Mr. Nepstad said he slipped bookmarks into hundreds of copies of the novel.

MORE than 2,000 copies of “1893” have been sold. That is just 0.084 percent of the sales that “Halo 2,” a smash Xbox game, rang up in its first 24 hours on the market. But “1893” is still a hit by text-adventure standards, and Mr. Nepstad, who now works at Kirkland & Ellis, the law firm, says he has already broken even.

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This page contains a single entry by Seth A. published on January 30, 2005 10:30 AM.

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