Aiming beyond the game boys

Armed with its new generation of consoles, the video-game industry will rely on beauty, emotion and real storytelling to convert those outside its traditional young-male market, Scott Colbourne writes

Globe and Mail
June 7, 2005
by Scott Colbourne

LOS ANGELES -- The video-game industry is targeting your living room. If you're reading this paper in the comfy confines of that oasis of home entertainment, look for the crosshairs in the vicinity of the television.

The Electronic Entertainment Expo, or E3, is the gaming world's version of an international film festival -- a lot of business with a dash of art. At this year's show, held late last month in Los Angeles, executive after executive talked about expanding gaming's share of the entertainment pie. Here is a typical bit of bluster from Microsoft's resident prophet of gaming, J Allard, on that company's hopes for its next-generation home console, the Xbox 360.

"Our revenues keep growing faster than music, than movies, than television. . . . But today we're relying mainly on one type of consumer," said Allard, a corporate vice-president who heads up the Microsoft division that provides game developers with software. "Now, don't get me wrong, we love that guy -- the 18-to-34-year-old male, he's the backbone of the industry. . . . But 360 is also the product that's going to push gaming back into the mainstream, the product that will fill that couch up with people from every demographic and every market."

Allard has set a goal of having one billion people identify themselves as gamers in the coming years. Sony, which also unveiled its next-gen console, the Playstation 3, and Nintendo, with a mysterious new system to be called the Revolution, sang a similar tune to Microsoft's. While hordes of 18-to-34-year-old males walked the E3 show floor, the men who lead all three console contenders talked about reaching beyond that dedicated core with more games and applications for women, for the young and for the old.

For those who don't dream in pie charts, the ramifications of these plans go beyond market share and the bottom lines of already flush companies. Played on increasingly powerful machines using high-density discs capable of storing a small library's worth of data, video games can now compete with films in terms of visual fidelity and the size and complexity of their virtual worlds. Anyone watching the demo of Fight Night that Electronic Arts showed off during Sony's press conference, for example, would be hard pressed to tell its digitized boxers from the real deal. The next step, say many in the industry, is to approach the depth of expression and emotional connection found in other art forms, such as movies and novels. (emphasis added)

At E3, the clarion call on this front came from a somewhat unlikely source. Doug Lowenstein is the president of the Electronic Software Association, which represents the interests of video-game publishers and organizes the trade show. In a remarkable speech to open E3, he challenged the companies that pay his salary.

He began by deflating an oft-repeated statistic that video games currently outpace movies financially. This is true of theatre box office versus game and hardware sales, he said.

When you factor in DVDs and videos, the movies hold a substantial lead (for you pie-charters, films take in about $45-billion [U.S.] worldwide; video games, after 30 years in existence, rake in around $28-billion). He then laid out a plan for bridging that gap, not just in dollars but in artistic terms as well.

"We need games with better stories, more interesting and complex characters, games that keep you up in the middle of the night wrestling with whether you made the right ethical or moral choices, games that stay with you when you're done with them," Lowenstein said. "We cannot let the lure of onrushing technology blind us to the essence of what makes games great entertainment.

"Great entertainment, whether books, films, or games, must engage us on some emotional level."

Lowenstein said there is also a need for simple games that anyone can pick up and play, but noted the financial reason why all this innovation is so rare in today's video games: When publishers have to pay millions of dollars to create a game, they need sure bets. Hence the large number of sequels and titles built around movie licences, such as The Godfather, Peter Jackson's King Kong and Scarface, all games currently in development and all showcased to much fanfare at E3. Those games have a ready-and-waiting audience, with fewer risks than venturing outside the genres -- war, sports and fantasy -- that currently dominate gaming.

Many developers say they would be happy with a larger audience, but, as Josh Holmes of Propaganda Games put it, "in the current market, success travels from the core out."

Holmes spent years working for the world's largest game publisher, Electronic Arts, and recently co-founded Propaganda, a studio that Disney's interactive publishing arm is establishing in Vancouver. He says future innovation will have to begin with Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo, which all have a vested interest in expanding the current definition of video games and the number of people playing them. All three companies publish games for their various platforms. Nintendo, with a stable of popular characters such as Mario and Donkey Kong, is one of the world's leading game-makers in addition to producing hardware.

"If Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo want to reach out to non-gamers, they need to make the games that lead the way," Holmes says. "It's going to come down to people taking risks. Games provide such a narrow vocabulary of interactive experiences and they tend to appeal to a very narrow audience who understand that vocabulary."

All three companies have so far shown very different approaches to spreading the word about the next generation, which Holmes very succinctly summed up as E3 wound down: "Nintendo has said that it is not visual quality, it's play experiences; Sony is setting the bar for visual quality for the next generation; and Microsoft is trying to move away from the hard-core gaming crowd."

To those ends, Sony showed off photorealistic graphics last week and highlighted the supercomputer-like power of the PS3, which will land a year from now. Microsoft hyped the 360's community-building features, including simple on-line games that can be played using a TV remote control, and said the next Xbox is expected by the end of this year.

Nintendo didn't have many specifics about its Revolution, but it did add new vocabulary -- as in sit! stay! roll over! -- to the gaming dictionary with something called Nintendogs. Developed for the company's hand-held DS system, it allows users to create virtual puppy dogs and then care for them, teach them tricks and let them walk with other digital canines wirelessly. That game is already a huge hit in Japan, and Nintendo is hoping it and other creative oddities will translate into fun for gamers -- and non-gamers -- around the world as the next-gen systems begin to hit stores.

All three approaches may work or perhaps none will, but the gaming world's emphasis on testing artistic and demographic boundaries guarantees an intriguing 12 months between now and the next E3.