Be the game

Some very creative people are turning right when they hit the West Coast, bypassing Hollywood and heading for the video game capitals of the world to...

Danny Bilson has a question for anyone who's ever watched a movie: "Which is better: To watch James Bond or be James Bond?" He's known his answer to that question since he was 9 years old. Throughout his 20 years as a Hollywood writer, he's dreamed of being in his movies, not as an actor but as the actual character.

Now, technology has caught up to his dreams. This 40-something TV executive has taken a job in the interactive game world, hoping to use that technology to allow people to inhabit the stories he creates.

"The old Walter Mitty concept has always been my favorite," says the baby boomer, referring to the classic Hollywood figure who lives out his fantasies. "I've always wanted to go to other worlds and have different experiences. Interactive gaming gets closer and closer with every technical advance to making that possible."

For those who lost track of videogames during the Atari era, the latest advances may be nearly unrecognizable in their ability to render human reactions and deliver dramatic storylines to multiple scenarios chosen in split-second decisions.

But for the kind of talent that typically fuels creative breakthroughs, these possibilities are an irresistible invitation to help redefine the nature of storytelling for the 21st century. Instead of heading for Hollywood, ambitious young storytellers are going interactive.

Think of film in the 1920s

"We're on the cusp right now," says Microsoft's John Howard. "Its just like the point almost a century ago when film became art." The Nebraska native says in an earlier day he would have headed off to be a director in Hollywood. Instead, this 26-year-old game developer packed up his bags two and half years ago and went to Seattle to help Microsoft launch its ambitious new console, X-Box. "I just said to myself, I've got to go. This is where the vision is. The people with something to say are driving this industry."

That momentum is taking the interactive gaming industry straight past Hollywood in drawing audiences as well. Analysts predict the industry will pull in some $10 billion by the year 2005 compared with the film and TV industries' (combined) estimated $7 billion.

And contrary to the commonly held perception, videogames are reaching a more diverse audience as well. "The demographic for gaming has broadened dramatically beyond the traditional teenage boy audience," says Doug Lowenstein, president of the Interactive Digital Software Association (IDSA). Seventy percent of the most frequent players of video games are over 18, and 56 percent of the most frequent players of console games are over 18. "This industry is appealing to people of all ages and all tastes," he adds.

One of the most important new statistics tracked by the IDSA shows that 43 percent of all gamers are women. The effort to develop games for women and girls is one of the most important steps taken by the industry to broaden its appeal. It has significantly expanded the subject matter and approach used by game developers. "Women like strategies and relationships more than they do shoot-em ups," says Jaimee Wolf, head of Xicat Interactive and one of the few female executives in the industry.

Games such as the wildly successful "Sims" and the new release "Cultures," about the development of a Viking culture, are what Ms. Wolf calls "God games." "Women like to see relationships develop and pursue missions with the characters." This, she says, has sped the development of more complex, story-driven games, in contrast to the many first person shooter games that have dominated the industry from its early arcade days.

As an indication of the sea change now under way in her industry, Wolf says she recently received a screenplay from a Hollywood writer. "He brought it to us first," she says. "He wanted us to develop it as a game."

This was the first time, but she expects this trend toward more storytelling to expand. "The games have gotten more sophisticated, and the technology has come closer than ever to simulating real life," she says. "This will just draw the most creative types to us."

While some diehards scoff at the notion that audiences will ever turn their backs on traditional linear storytelling, Bilson suggests that a new kind of storytelling is emerging, one that combines interactivity with the traditional requirements of drama.

Even with an interactive game, he points out, "you still have to create the pace and the tempo," he says. "Drama is all about moments. Now, you can build this big world and you can force dramatic moments by the way you build it."

Harry Potter: Jewel in the crown

As one of the developers working on the four different games that will be released to coincide with the November release of "Harry Potter and the Sorcerers Stone," Bilson says these games will be the jewels in the crown of the Harry Potter spinoffs. "That's where this new storytelling comes in," says Bilson. "You give them the whole world [of Hogwarts] and as much structure as the game calls for," he says. "I'm watching the Potter world develop, and I'm looking at massive quantities of creativity and information and its so much more than the movie."

"This industry is like Hollywood in the '20s," says Andrew House, Sony's senior vice-president of Computer Entertainment. "It's very young, and we're at a point where all entertainment technology is converging." He points to the film industry. "Show me a film now without digital content. You can't find one." Not to mention, two of the most anticipated summer film releases are based on popular video games, Lara Kroft and Final Fantasy.

"This is where the creative edge is right now," agrees Sony game developer Hunter Luisi, who also says that before the possibilities offered by interactive game technology, he would have headed for Hollywood for a directing career. "This is the next logical step."

The biggest obstacle to complete mainstream acceptance of interactive gaming is the technology intimidation factor. "The next generation of consoles will penetrate the culture better because the technology is getting better," Bilson says. "As younger people grow up and have the vision, this will be everywhere." He points to later this year, when all the major hardware manufacturers will have their latest consoles on the market. "There are 70 million machines [in homes] now. After these come out, who knows?"

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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