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The game’s afoot

The next step in reviving the gaming industry is to make games as engaging as a classic novel. Insights hed: The game’s afoot dek: the next step is to make games as engaging as a classic novel. dek: games can’t progress without old-fashioned virtues like plot and character development. by James Mathewson

Two months ago in this space I argued that we need to get software innovation going again by increasing competition. The theory is that software drives the industry both by improving productivity and by forcing more frequent hardware upgrades. This month I want to qualify my comments: Office software innovation alone probably won’t jump-start the hardware business. But a rejuvenated gaming sector will.

Though consistently underestimated by business technology analysts, games are just as responsible for a healthy PC industry as office productivity software. Let’s face it, we could all get by with thinner clients if office and Web software was all we did. But a growing number of users need cutting-edge PC power to fuel multimedia applications, especially games.

Yet the gaming sector has not grown as fast as expected recently. Why? Unlike office productivity software, there is plenty of competition from the likes of Electronic Arts and Havas Interactive. The gaming market is leveling out along with the rest of the industry because the crop of games out there is saturating its target market. In order for games to appeal to new markets, the medium has to grow. Games must become richer experiences–on a par with books, movies, and TV–in order to attract new audiences and gain market share.

Many of the games on store shelves are variations on the Doom theme: Blast as many villains as you can in your allotted time. While this satisfies a portion of our population, most of us need more. I would prefer to read “In Love and War” than play “Warcraft”; I’d rather watch “The Matrix” than play “Marathon.” Sports games are the other popular theme in the industry. But I still prefer to spend my limited free time watching or listening to live action than playing simulated games.

So how do games differ from my other more preferred media? Well, take the case of “Wolfenstein” versus the film “Where Eagles Dare.” The two share common elements in setting and story, but the game lacks a plot line; after you play it once, there is no suspense or surprise; and there is no pathos–I don’t care about what happens to the characters, besides knowing that my score will be higher if I kill all the Nazis.

Some have said the reason games don’t have mass appeal is because of their gratuitous violence. If that were the case, “The Odyssey,” The Bible, and “Hamlet” would never have gained popular appeal. No, it’s not the violence itself, but the context of the violence that determines how we come to grips with it. I wasn’t comfortable with Odysseus’s vengeance when he returned from his journeys, but I understand it in context. I can’t understand much of the violence I encounter in today’s games. And I am the kind of person the gaming market needs to attract if it is to continue to fuel the PC industry.

These facts are nothing new to the gaming industry. And gaming developers are trying to introduce character development, plot lines, and pathos into their games, and have had limited success. Games like “The Sims” are aimed at consumers like me who want to care about the lives of the characters, and not merely about the details of their deaths. But “The Sims” is more of a creativity exercise than a game that takes the player on an adventure, complete with narrative elements common to books or movies.

The main stumbling block seems to be interactivity. How do you take players on an adventure and allow them to choose their paths? What would an interactive “Odyssey” be like? Do you allow the player to experience the Sirens on a more intimate level? Game over. Do you allow the player to have mercy on the suitors upon his return from Troy? Perhaps, but that would change the whole point of the story–its ethos. The question is, how much interactivity can you allow without ruining the story? I have more questions than answers here.

Certain stories will be better suited to games. I can easily see a PC game version of “Gladiator,” for example. (I’m a little surprised DreamWorks hasn’t made a deal with Entertainment Arts for “Gladiator” similar to the “Star Wars” games.) The movie is full of fighting, and the gladiator himself has several choices to make, not all of which disrupt the flow of the plot. For example, he can choose to show mercy or vengeance, and his choice will only marginally change the way things work out. In those cases, it would be interesting to see how all the subtle things a character could do affects side plots and how the character is treated thereafter, increasing the entertainment value.

But many good stories are so intricately woven that pulling on one thread would cause the whole thing to unravel. I guess this is the limit of the medium. You could never design a game with a story as complex as “War and Peace” and allow for sufficient interactivity. Ultimately, game designers will have to balance interactivity against plot complexity. And the story itself will dictate how much interactivity they could introduce.

But we’re not even close to this limit. We haven’t even taken the first steps. The whole way games are developed and the human resources needed to develop them will have to change radically before games have more mass appeal. Similar to movies, games will have to start with a script with character development, plot lines, scene structures, etc. In other words, writers will have to drive the process, and developers will have to adapt the game to fit the story.

The ultimate goal is to write a Pulitzer Prize-winning story and adapt the game medium to it. If the gaming industry gets there, folks like me would start buying games by the cart load and upgrading our PCs to run them. The buzz from the industry is that they’re serious about getting there in the near future. Even one such game would jump-start the PC industry.

James Mathewson is editorial director of ComputerUser. Check out his ReleVents column, published three times a week on ComputerUser.com.

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