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The explosive growth of games mean more and more crossover with other media such as music (Guitar Hero/Rock Band) and movies (Brash Entertainment). But is it good for games? In a two-part opinion piece, Gamasutra's Leigh Alexander starts with the c

Leigh Alexander, Contributor

January 28, 2008

7 Min Read

[The explosive growth of games mean more and more crossover with other media such as music (Guitar Hero/Rock Band) and movies (Brash Entertainment). But is it good for games? In a two-part opinion piece, Gamasutra's Leigh Alexander starts with the case in favor.] 2007 saw many of the boundaries to which the industry has become accustomed begin to dissolve: the distinction between "casual" and "hardcore" gamers, the distinction between games and social media, the distinction between MMOs and virtual worlds, and perhaps most significantly, the line that has historically segregated games from other forms of entertainment. Never were these malleable lines more evident than it seems they were at 2007's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Just some of the things we heard about: A licensed toy based on Guitar Hero. A robot dinosaur whose makers plan to solicit user-contributed behavior programming. Paul Otellini, CEO of chip giant Intel, gave his keynote address during a "virtual jam session" -- distinct overtones of the rock video game sensation there -- during which the members of the band were present virtually, as 3D avatars in a virtual garage. The hot thing to do at CES this year was to make gadgets that can do anything -- like phones you can watch TV on, or tiny portable computers that let you text message and play games. That's not surprising, but the other hot thing to do at CES was to make an abundance of Guitar Hero peripherals. Bill Gates played GH on stage. Slash, who has gone from slightly dated rock guitarist to very current video game boss, was also there. Microsoft announced a partnership with ABC and MGM so that people can watch more TV shows and popular films on their Xbox 360s. They're doing the same thing with BT in the UK. As for Sony, GPS devices were the best-selling gadget on Amazon this Christmas season (Wiis were also up there), and now the PSP will be a GPS, too. Sony also plans to add PSP support for Blu-ray, which recently enjoyed a decisive triumph in the hotly-contested format wars. Enough links for you? It's been obvious for some time that games are going mainstream in a big way, which is necessarily bringing them squarely into the territory of other entertainment media that has enjoyed much more visibility, economic impact, widespread adoption and social acceptance for an entire generation. But is it good for games? The answer's maybe. Today, however, let's start with the case in favor. Let's say that, after watching your favorite TV show, you can go online and play with those characters, in that persistent world, along with your friends, and then the property's producers make a movie from the events and stories written and played by you and your companions. Did you just play a video game, watch a TV show, or make a film? The key features here are the absence of boundaries -- there's that word again -- dividing users from media properties, and dividing those properties from one another. Another key feature is that transmedia is participatory. Games, films, stories, experiences don't truly belong to anyone except the people who invest emotionally in those things. Fellow journalist Chris Dahlen has been a strong proponent of this transmedia philosophy since before I ever heard the word, and one of his published articles on the subject, "The Open Source Canon," describes some actual and possible implementations thereof, discussing The Matrix Online and what it could have been as an example. Rethinking Extension At CES, a panel of cross-media execs put heads together to talk about the impact of entertainment media convergence and the relationship between games and films. Video games based on films, and films based on video games are far from a new concept, but the idea gains greater relevance in an era when we're keen to discuss greater opportunities for that relationship than just money-making tie-ins. Entertainment media companies wanting to extend their brand tentacles is half the reason they're in business -- plenty of terrible IPs get made just because some suits sitting around a table realize they can sell tons of toys around it. A product's ability to be extended in that way into toys, clothes, games, cartoon shows and books is part of what drives its appeal for producers. Now that the audience for games and interactive entertainment is larger and more companies are starting to rethink the word "extension" to mean not just a brand translation, but an extension of experience. If a Pixar toy or a video game stuffed animal gets made to capitalize on the success of the game or film, that's the status quo. Now, though, we begin to see games for kids getting made to broaden the ways a child can play with a toy. If you haven't watched Saturday morning cartoons in a while, do so, and check out the ads. There are so many connected toys available now -- a girl can buy a Barbie, and then game Barbie's career path and home decor online with her friends. It's established IP offering its audience multiple ways -- tangible and intangible, static and customizable -- to engage with something they love. Compelling Stories For adults, this growing trend means that the minds that develop in-depth, well-supported film stories will be working hand-in-hand from the start with the game development pros. Comparing games to movies as if they were antagonists in the schoolyard is as old as the hills -- but if we can't make out where one ends and the other begins, everyone wins. At the cross-media CES panel, Brash Entertainment COO Nick Longano was asked what his New Year's resolution was. He said, "Take the sensibilities of great storytelling and bring that to great games for the marketplace." Consumers will be able to interact more with films and become more immersed in games. It's not just film, either -- citing the success of Guitar Hero, Vivendi's Cindy Cook pointed out: "As the music industry's main markets are getting softer, they are becoming much more flexible and are eager to work with game industry projects." Power To The People Consumers will play a role in the way entertainment media is shaped, because the game industry is pleasantly surprised at the way the mainstream has begun to embrace it in new ways, while film, television and music have realized that gamers are cool kids, too. Neither camp expected this, and neither camp is quite sure, beyond the abstracts, how to address their evolving audiences. So they'll be listening, and watching, letting players declare how we want to play, how to reach them, and taking close notes on what makes them tick. That can only be a good thing. So is the fact that connectivity and the availability of content has drastically changed business models. Not only does that mean that media companies will continue to find a pricing model that's congruent with the value users assign to an experience, allowing them flexibility, it means that producers and developers essentially must invest in a long-term relationship with consumers. Flagship Studios' Steve Goldstein noted, during a different CES panel about virtualization and the spread of MMOs, "In a box product, your commitment ends at purchase." Because of advertising and microtransactions-supported business models, companies will earn their money from products that users love enough to buy, or are engaged with enough to spend more time playing. That means the most successful products will be developed with user engagement as the primary motivation -- the era wherein game companies employ the lion's share of their effort getting people simply to buy a game, rather than investing in a development team's vision and making a really good game, is over. I've said numerous times, and others have too, that some of the anger, frustrations, and can't-please-'em mentality that is sometimes prevalent among the gaming audience is due to lingering unmet emotional needs from the medium, and feeling manipulated and deceived by both a hit-driven games business and an over-saturated, over-pressured games media. The cross-media evolution supported by the technology shown at CES -- and the increasing voice it offers the audience -- might finally change that.

About the Author(s)

Leigh Alexander


Leigh Alexander is Editor At Large for Gamasutra and the site's former News Director. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Variety, Slate, Paste, Kill Screen, GamePro and numerous other publications. She also blogs regularly about gaming and internet culture at her Sexy Videogameland site. [NOTE: Edited 10/02/2014, this feature-linked bio was outdated.]

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