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Video-game industry mulls over the future beyond shoot-'em-ups

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 3, 2005



LOS ANGELES

Video games are no longer the geeky stepchild of popular entertainment. Last year, US sales of what is now called "interactive entertainment" topped $7 billion, closing in on the $9 billion film industry. Throw in a host of other measurements, say those who study popular media, and what used to be the noisy baby in the backseat is now helping steer the entire culture, technologically and creatively.

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Nearly half of all US homes own one game-playing machine, and 23 percent own more than three, according to Nielsen Entertainment. The technical requirements for video games are pushing the most popular technologies - including cellphones, Palm Pilots, computers, and TV - to become more versatile and powerful. College grads are now more likely to head into interactive software than moviemaking, and most big films such as "Spider-Man" and "Star Wars" are created simultaneously with interactive games that are released at the same time.

Perhaps most important, interactive entertainment is changing the way an entire generation sees itself in relation to the world, expanding popular storytelling beyond passive consumption to include involvement in the development and outcome of an experience. This relatively young industry - only three decades old - is now so pervasive that each person has a stake in how it evolves.

"We have a whole new generation of game players who are going to be the prime engine of our economy and society," says Robert Andersen of the College for Creative Studies in Detroit. "These are the people who will be writing our books, interpreting history, becoming scholars and doctors. It's too late to marginalize the gamer now; the industry is imbedded in the fabric of our society."

This industry is now at an important crossroads, say experts, largely due to its explosive growth. With the costs to develop a hit new game now topping $10 million, major game companies such as Sony and Microsoft are in danger of favoring profits over the innovative spirit that brought them to this point.

"We need games with better stories, more interesting and complex characters; games that keep you up at night wrestling with whether you made the right ethical or moral choices," says Doug Lowenstein, president of the Entertainment Software Association (ESA).

"We are seeing [interactive entertainment] in its infancy right now," says Rob Adams of Orbital Media, which publishes family games. "It's like being at the dawn of television," he says. "What happens now is going to affect how everyone is entertained in the future."

Take a walk through the industry's annual trade show known as E3, which ended in May, and it's obvious that much of the serious development money goes for games based on movies ("Harry Potter," "King Kong," "Spider-man," to name a few); sequels to popular franchises ("Final Fantasy XII," "Sims 2," "Halo 2"); and knockoffs of the most popular genres - fantasy and war games.

Much like the film industry, an overemphasis on blockbusters is one of the industry's biggest weaknesses as far as encouraging innovation and creativity, say observers. "Future titles need to offer more than wild shootouts, violent explosions, and the wholesale cheapening of life," says game designer Howard Sherman.

"We've been moving in the wrong direction," says Steve Meretsky, a designer and industry veteran, "toward bigger budgets, centralized decisionmaking by fewer big companies that has led to more licensed games [based on movies and books], and fewer experimental games."

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