Greg Shaw wanted game play for The Citadel to feel cinematic for the players, as though they were the stars of a spy-adventure movie. He got a filmmaker's take when a friend from the Phoenix Independent Filmmakers Group (and an actor in The Citadel), Gino Calabro, introduced him to Webb Pickersgill at a restaurant one night.

Pickersgill, a stout, bald fellow with glasses and a thick goatee, was named 2009 Arizona Filmmaker of the Year at the Phoenix Film Festival and won a Rocky Mountain Emmy Award last year for cinematography. His film credits include the 2009 thriller Match.Dead (a.k.a. The Abducted) and the 2007 comedy short Room 602.

"As soon as he started talking about it, I don't know why, but I got to the edge of my seat," Pickersgill says. "I thought it was the coolest concept I've ever heard of. It's an immersion-based film. It's kind of a new form of entertainment that's just coming out."

Pickersgill volunteered for a test game and spent the next several months working with the Shaws on game development, donating his time and feedback. Greg Shaw also brought his daughter, Meghan Rehm, on board to write most of the game's storyline. Rehm works in retail — "in fine fragrance," she deadpans — but has written several screenplays.

Rehm volunteered 40 hours a week for a year to work on the storyline and help develop computer animation. "I got locked into trying to impose any kind of continuity on this story, but it happened eventually," Rehm says. "It was a great experience, but there is that sort of Russian-submarine flashback. But it was definitely worth it."

Greg had all sorts of things crammed into the original story, from a dead body in the back of a U-Haul to a simulated assassination on a Phoenix street that actually got them questioned by the cops during a test game. (Now, fake fight scenes take place in controlled environments.)

In its early stages, there was so much in the game that test runs were lasting 10 to 12 hours. "People were dropping like flies," Greg says. "It was just not realistic."

So Sonja, Meghan Rehm, and local screenwriter Sean Lee started streamlining the story. "Everything had to relate to the story and move the story along," Lee says. "So if something didn't work story-wise, it was out."

"No matter how cool or eye-candy it was," Sonja adds.

Greg uses the phrase "one of the challenges is . . ." a lot when referring to The Citadel. For starters, once players have played a chapter, they know the secrets of the game. But Shaw plans for The Citadel to be an ongoing story with multiple games (or chapters), and even a single chapter can be a little different each time it's played.

But the biggest challenge, now that the game is finished, is getting people to pay for it. The game requires four players and costs $95 per player, or $380 per team. Paying almost a hundred bucks to invest six hours of their night to play a game doesn't immediately appeal to a lot of people, but when they play the game, it's obvious where that money has gone: the equipment players use, the meal they eat, paychecks for the actors they encounter, and, in some cases, location rentals, like "Citadel headquarters," which Shaw rents from Regis Business Centers in the evenings.

"We've gone to the edge with this. We've definitely taken this to the point of insanity, believing in this," Shaw says. "A big part of me hopes you won't quote me on this, but it's what keeps me going internally: I want to be the next Walt Disney, with a new kind of entertainment experience."

As soon as he says this, Shaw scoffs and sits back. "That sounds so pretentious when it comes out of my mouth. Like, forget it. Walt Disney's the king. But that's been my internal drive and goal."

The team originally considered Old Town Scottsdale for the game location but found that, "with all the trolleys and fake breasts," it had more of an Austin Powers-type spy vibe than the James Bond feel they were going for. But downtown Phoenix at night, with its juxtaposition of brightly lit, towering high-rises and empty warehouses and dark alleys, would be perfect.

"I've always loved downtown Phoenix," Greg Shaw says. "I have a picture of the Phoenix skyline at home, and the more I looked at it, I said, 'The game's got to take place there.'"


Most kids pretend to be cowboys, doctors, or soldiers; some grow up and pretend to be medieval warriors, space pirates, or dungeon masters.

The idea of organized role-playing in a storyline really became popular in the late 1970s after the introduction of tabletop role-playing games, like Dungeons & Dragons in 1974. In D&D, players basically sit around a table and imagine their characters doing whatever the game storyteller (known as the "Dungeon Master") says they're doing in a particular setting. The players are passive, the action imagined.

"Live-action" role playing requires players to physically participate in the game, sometimes wearing costumes, changing locations during play, or enacting battles. The idea was mentioned as early as 1905, in G.K. Chesterton's book The Club of Queer Trades, about a company that stages live-action adventures for customers' entertainment.

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7 comments
J.M.
J.M.

I found this article because I was just sitting in my house thinking up the same idea and googled to see if anyone else had done it yet. Dam.

Greg Shaw
Greg Shaw

Hi Marcia. The game is designed for four players, but you could play it with one, two, or three players if you like. The per game cost is $380 regardless of team size. We would consider 5 players in certain situations (4 students and an adult) but our testing showed us that teams larger than that had a hard time keeping things together throughout the mission. Our contact info is in the article if you'd like to book a game with us. Thanks!

Marcia Heitz
Marcia Heitz

Sounds a little scary for kids... but my husband and I would love it! How many can play?

George
George

Cool idea! Paying to be a spy for a night. Awesome!

Mike Wells
Mike Wells

Wow, this sounds pretty damned cool. If this becomes a viable business, I might just have to play next time I come to Phoenix to visit family. Great story, too, gives background on role-playing, LARPS and alot of other stuff.

Good Luck with The Citadel, I hope it works for you guys.

Gotta try this
Gotta try this

It sounds like virtual reality without all the computers. I can't wait to play this game. Sign me up.

Julie Coleman
Julie Coleman

This sounds like a totally fun night out...something definately different than dinner and a movie. My husband is such a geek, he'll love it too.

 
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