Scientist murdered by sexbot?

Los Angeles - Evan Chan, a biothermal scientist and a mediocre poet, has been murdered. He was bludgeoned to death off the Carolina coast during a sailing trip with a kinky ôsexbotö.

What is a sexbot? The solution to that - and to the mystery over Chan's death - is found not in the pages of a thriller, but by navigating hundreds of websites and poring over clues in e-mail, voice mail and hidden Internet links.

Thousands of cybersurfers are following the intrigue, which was apparently created to promote Steven Spielberg's new movie, A.I. Artificial Intelligence.

Set in 2142, the game features artificially intelligent houses, grisly murders, and, of course, the sexbots - robots created for intimate companionship.

But neither the movie studio, Warner Brothers, nor the game's rumoured developer, Microsoft, is talking about the game, hoping the buzz will build to a climax near the movie's debut in late June.

Marketing movies on the Web is nothing new. The Blair Witch Project, which had a very low budget, relied heavily on Internet marketing and racked up $140 million in domestic box office sales in 1999.

But using Net-based games is fast becoming the hippest way to create buzz about movies among teenagers and young adults. Marketing experts say the question facing studios today is no longer, ôDo we create a website for our movie?ö but ôHow many bells and whistles do we add to it?ö

ôWe're in a period of time where consumers are expecting big Web experiences,ö said Dwight Caines, vice president of Internet marketing strategy at Columbia Pictures. ôIt's as important to immerse them as to be there.ö

Columbia saw a fierce line-up of summer movie blockbusters and decided it needed an unusual hook to promote its medieval jousting movie, Knight's Tale. So it created a graphic of knights jousting to music, which can be downloaded for free, and a jousting game where players challenge each other to duels.

ôWe thought the Web was a way to get the eyeballs of young male gamers, who also tend to be opening weekend moviegoers.ö Caines said.

The result for Knight's Tale, which premiered around the country this weekend, was that 21 percent of audiences attending sneak previews said they heard about the movie via the Net.

Sentient machine therapist

Some players were reportedly hooked by a Web address on the back of some posters for the movie. Others noticed an intriguing credit in the trailer for the movie: Sentient Machine Therapist-Jeanine Salla.

A bit of surfing, starting with a search for ôJeanine Sallaö, soon turns up Salla's home page, a pro-robot website, a sexbot site and the site of an anti-robot militia.

Phone numbers on some of the sites lead to messages containing riddles, e-mail links and slews of bogus Internet sites.

Game creators also held events in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago earlier in the month, where a core of about 75 fans got another clue to the mystery, according to the websites.

It may seem like an expensive way to sell movie tickets, but in fact setting up Web games can be fairly cheap, especially for a big budget movie or a deep-pocketed Hollywood studio.

ôTo build Web pages is not so complex and not so expensive,ö said Neil Young, who designed the game Majestic and who is a vice president at video game publisher Electronic Arts. ôI'm sure someone looked at the marketing budget for a Spielberg summer movie and wanted something to get the press talking about A.I

Majestic has a similar mystery feel, but involves more personalised instant messaging, faxes and phone calls, to contact players with clues to ensure they follow the plot.

Unlike the A.I. game, Majestic will charge a monthly fee for Web gamers after its launch in coming months. Developers have been crafting the game for two years and have patents pending on some technology incorporated in it.

The A.I. Web game marketing has been more discreet than traditional film publicity, and it's easy to forget when cruising the fictional future of pro- and anti-robot forces.

The websites for Knight's Tale, by contrast, have banners featuring the movie's name in every image and the star's face featured prominently.

But the secrecy capitalises on the mystique surrounding the entire history of A.I., which was picked up by Spielberg after legendary director Stanley Kubrick died in 1999.

Throughout the movie's production, the set was closed. About the only thing moviegoers know is that Haley Joel Osment portrays a young robot who longs to be human.

But experts say immersing players in a game can more subtly ôsellö a movie and create the buzz that Hollywood promoters so desperately seek.

Columbia's Caines said to expect Web-based games for the sequel to Men in Black, and Spiderman and Ali, currently planned for release in 2002.

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