AMERICAN McGEE _UNLEASHED

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Videogames are in a rut. The game publishing market is increasingly focused on "safe bets." Original game concepts are viewed by many publishers as unnecessary risks. The result is a market flooded with sequels, me-too products, and feature film-licensed properties. This serves publisher financial interests but leaves no room for good original games-the unique escapes that game consumers crave. Within the game publisher-controlled retail distribution model, there's not much that can be done to reverse this trend. Last year, Electronic Arts, the largest game publisher in the world, released zero original game titles. And these publishing giants have a lock on retail shelf space. As a result, there are two major barriers to creating original game content: distribution and financing. A "feature" game can cost anywhere from $1.5 to $5 million and can take as long as two years to create. Even with a finished game, there's no guarantee that consumers will ever see it. Many major retailers won't stock a videogame unless it's being advertised on television. It's a closed-loop system that is tightening in a cycle of yuck. There is hope and, more importantly, opportunity. TV commercials and music videos can create a new model for game production and distribution. By thinking of games in terms of shorter-length entertainment we can invent a new product that fits into the existing financing, production and distribution model of commercials and videos. Taken to a logical end, this sort of thinking could radically alter the way linear and interactive media is produced.

Imagine an animated music video created in conjunction with a console "mini game" that becomes its own gameplay preview. By subverting MTV to advertise this additional retail product, you entice consumers to buy a hybrid DVD of mixed content: game, video and music. And it's next to impossible for an average consumer to pirate content created to run on an Xbox or PS2. If they're going to play the game, they're going to have to buy the boxed product. Record companies rejoice! The best part is that if the game is good, consumers won't mind paying for it. If the game is great, you have the beginnings of a full-blown retail offering.

The same model works when thinking about consumer advertising. Almost any consumer product can be turned into a compelling videogame. Delivered pizza products strike me as an ideal candidate for hybrid ad/game content. Delivering pizza is automatically a game. Building a commercial campaign around an animated delivery sequence based on footage from the game is straightforward enough. And getting the game content to the consumer is built into the existing delivery system. In-game coupons and enticements can make the game an essential part of future pizza orders. Picture parents who are about to order pizza for the family: No need to cut a paper coupon, just yell, "Jimmy, go play that game of yours so we can order a pizza!" The kid plays the game, the coupon code is generated as a reward for his skills, and the pizza chain gets more business. Fifteen years later that kid will remember when he used to "Play the game to get the [Brand X] pizza".

How to do this? First, stop thinking about games as you know them. A good game doesn't have to take 60 hours to complete. In fact, many of today's best-selling games can be finished in 20 hours or less. What we need are commercial/video length games, played in 10 minutes or 10 hours. Reduce the size of the game and you reduce the cost as well. Suddenly you're in a range that will fit within most commercials budgets and many video budgets. The key is to focus on building games that can be played again and again within a limited context without growing old. Games of this nature should break the established rules of game design. And this is a good thing, because the truth is that existing games still fail to reach the true mass market. They're too difficult or frustrating. There is a need for true interactive entertainment. These days, games are mostly built with off-the-shelf technology. As with animation, it's all about content production: environments and characters. The most important step is often to identify an environment and character. From that, the gameplay will flow naturally.

"Ah," you're probably thinking, "but why?" Here's why: Did you know that videogames are stealing your audience? What better way to keep them around but by offering them what they want. The stats: 92 percent of all games are purchased by adults over the age of 18. The vast majority of people who play games do so with friends and family. Fifty percent of all Americans age 6 and older play computer and videogames. More recent studies have shown that males 18-35 are spending four hours a day in front of games. That's four hours they used to spend watching TV. A good game will be played for 10 hours. A good TV commercial is lucky if it's viewed 10 times. Games create memory; they're the best learning tools and they're strong communicators. Just like toys, they can be played with over and over again.

The future: Xbox 2 and Playstation 3 are already shaping up to be all-in-one entertainment boxes-combined TiVo, gaming systems, DVD players, etc. That means you could be watching a car commercial, hit the Game button and be taking a virtual test drive through the Grand Canyon all on one box. Eventually, combined production of linear and interactive entertainment is going to be the norm. The question is, who's going to lead this charge and who's going to be playing catch-up?

American McGee is an interactive content creator and director, whose credits include American McGee's Alice and design for the Doom and Quake series.

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