Welcome to 'The Esoteric Beat', the news report that provides new and unusual ways to think about games and culture. This week's column looks at open ends and escapist moneymen.
Holy GrailsDavid Braben, the man who brought us space-trading classic Elite, has been revealing a little about his new game, The Outsider. He's written a little about what he thinks will constitute 'Fifth Generation' games, with the current bonanza of shinier shooters making up the 'Fourth Generation'. Braben's belief is that games are about to make a paradigmatic leap in story-telling, delivering something non-linear and open-ended enough to get us off the rails and into the realms of realistic repercussions. Such games have long been hinted at by the likes of Elite and GTA, but their potential has yet to be fully realised. He explains:
"Story-telling in games in most cases is little different to the stories of those Harold Lloyd films of the 1920s. The player is stuck on pre-defined railway lines, forced to follow their character's pre-determined adventures, much as in a book or a film. In story-telling terms at least, games have not yet broken free of their non-interactive roots. The Holy Grail we are looking for in fifth generation gaming is the ability to have freedom, and to have truly open-ended stories."
This certainly seems to articulate what a lot of people have been thinking about the current trend towards 'sandbox' gaming. It could indeed be true that the next generation are to be open ended, or it could the case that the likes of Valve will continue to hide the linearity by creating even more convincing illusions. Their art is making you believe that there is only one decision to be made. And isn't that the real trick - not allowing the gamer's imagination to wander too far? Surely if he's not pulled out of thinking that next event is indeed the logical step, then the linearity is never obvious and the story works? It's tricky terrain for anyone, even development Gods like Braben. Perhaps the question I should really be asking is: does this mean Braben is going for the Camus franchise? Gaming does need a touch more French existentialism, n'est pas?
Meanwhile the Wall Street Journal looks at a very different aspect of game development - the financial viability of Microsoft's move towards all things online with the Xbox 360. As we've previously noted, the community features provided by the new Live! systems are superb, but can they really make the company wealthy enough to please the fat cats?
Financial journalist David Kesmodel rounds up some opinions and notes that "It is not clear that companies like Microsoft and Sony will be able to lure large numbers of players -- each has attracted a small fraction of users to online play with their previous consoles." This is true, and there is that sneaking suspicion that online gaming is being touted as cure-all, when really publishers should be looking at making single player games more compulsive and more stimulating for their hungry and experienced audience. Kesmodel goes on to quote Michael Pachter, an analyst with Wedbush Morgan Securities, who says: "At the end of the day, we don't play games for social interaction ... We play games to escape."
Is Pachter right? I think not: even when I'm not chatting I'm playing online games to compete against other human minds because. Despite all the cleverness of AI and the inarticulacy of some Quake players, they're still more interesting opponents than a computer. I recall a study of online Mah-Jong earlier in the year, which noted that players don't use the chat facility - but they nevertheless want to play against other people. Pachter seems to be conflating 'social interaction' with player vs player competition, which seems to be the biggest boon of online gaming. We might not want to talk to Mad Barry from Cardiff, but we do want to kick his ass at Spacewar. That aside, can you really argue that five million World Of Warcraft players really play without any thought for there being other players in the game? Hmm, on second thoughts, don't answer that.
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