Creativity: The Game

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Sack Boy, atop a little big planet
Sack Boy, atop a little big planet
The global video game business is sprinting towards a $40 billion annual take with last year's U.S. market alone bringing in a healthy $19 billion. That record haul was despite the sluggish economy. Over the past few years, in large part due to Nintendo's one-two punch of its motion sensor-controlled Wii and its portable touchpad Nintendo DS, games have become mainstream. And an expanded audience has meant a whole new way of thinking about gaming for developers, marketers and players.

The average age of a gamer today is 33, according to the Entertainment Software Association, but over one quarter of gamers are older than 50. New gamers are entering the market as young as three years of age and a new audience of lapsed gamers is also expanding the demographic. "I've been in the industry 20 years and I can't think of a time when the type of games and the type of gamers and the types of consoles have changed this much, this quickly," says Chip Lange, general manager of EA Hasbro, who oversees the mass market conversion of popular brands like Monopoly, Yahtzee, and Risk into online, mobile and console game experiences. "I think it's just the perfect storm right now of convergence."

Epic's lead designer Cliff Bleszinski.
Epic's lead designer Cliff Bleszinski.
Will Wright, the creator of the The Sims, the best-selling game franchise of all time with over 100 million copies sold, has said that the way that he creates interactive entertainment has evolved with the growth of the industry. When he first started working on SimCity back in 1985, the game industry was literally made up of individuals or small teams working on games from their homes or garages. In fact, although SimCity and its sequels went on to gross over $230 million in revenue, it took four years for Wright, fresh off his first hit, Raid on Bungeling Bay, to find a publisher for the virtual city construction game. For his upcoming release, Spore, "we thought of the franchise from the beginning, something we didn't do with The Sims, which we never thought would become a mainstream thing," said Wright during a speech at February's Game Developers Conference. "Spore introduces a new way of thinking."

Spore, which ships September 7 for PC, is one of several hotly anticipated 2008 titles. Far more than allowing players to create cities or Sims, Spore gives them the ability to create life from DNA and take these alien creations on a universal journey that literally will never end. The game begins with the creation of life and spans all the way through to intergalactic conquest.

Epic Games' Gears of War 2, launching this November on Xbox 360, will likely be another of 2008's blockbuster hits. Epic is one of a growing number of successful game studios that has migrated from the completely open PC gaming space, which brings in only a fraction of the global game revenue, to the more mainstream, yet restrictive (from a technology perspective) console space.

A scene from Bungie's Halo 3
A scene from Bungie's Halo 3
"Creativity unhinged isn't always a great thing because you need some limitations," says Cliff Bleszinski, lead designer of the Gears franchise. "The fact that we only have so much processing power to make the games that we do on consoles is actually a good thing. We can't just say, 'Let people buy more RAM.' Having an established set of rules helps make a continuous entertaining universe and we know how to play to that now."

While the game industry is certainly driven by franchises and sequels, the recent GDC, which had over 18,000 attendees, demonstrated that there is no shortage of new games and innovative game experiences, like LucasArts' terrain-deforming shooter, Fracture, Disney Interactive Studio's off-road racer, Pure, and Radical Games' Prototype, an open world action game that pits a superhuman antihero against both the Army and infected monsters in Manhattan."It's great to have higher fidelity sequels like Gears of War 2, but the game industry needs to start thinking about giving players more, rather than just delivering something better," says Tim Bennison, executive producer, Prototype. "We went into this project with a goal of giving players a new game play experience. Because of the sheer number of simulation systems that are running at one time, it creates not only a new gameplay experience every time, but a whole new way to play a third-person perspective game."

Mainstream gamers that have made hits of innovative new titles like Super Mario Galaxy and Brain Age have been receptive to and have driven new forms of game play. One needs to only look at the explosive sales in the music rhythm genre, which didn't even exist before Harmonix introduced Guitar Hero and its most recent franchise, Rock Band, to see how fast things are evolving.

A scene from Disney's Pure
A scene from Disney's Pure
With these vast new audiences, the game industry has found a new avenue of revenue in product placement and in-game advertising, with advertisers turning their focus to gamers, just as gamers have tuned out of prime time television viewing and spent more hours in front of their TVs gaming. "We're in a position now where there are a lot of companies who want exposure in our games," says Daniel Sussman, director of hardware development, Harmonix. "We work with partners that represent our product well like Fender and Roland, which are both on the box and in the game. We make sure everything fits the fiction we are telling. Our game is not diluted by crass branding."

Electronic Arts, the largest independent game publisher, is taking its first major foray into ad-supported mainstream gaming with this summer's Battlefield: Heroes, a downloadable game designed from the ground up for lower-end PCs and new gamers and the first title in EA's "Play 4 Free" model, whereby the company seeks to generate revenue from free games through advertising and microtransactions.

"It's interesting, because it was a business model that drove the inception of the project but that led to a lot of interesting creative decisions along the way," says Ben Cousins, senior producer of the game at developer EA's DICE. "The idea of getting people to come back to the game and having a sense of ownership resulted in the leveling up of the character. The idea of creating this game setting with blue skies and Mediterranean holiday feel, which is the exact opposite of most shooters that have a gritty, destroyed-city feel, gave us the opportunity to twist a lot of the shooter clich├ęs into something new and different."

Cousins says the burgeoning massively multiplayer online market (MMO), also played a role in the design decisions of Battlefield: Heroes. Thanks to the overwhelming success of Blizzard Entertainment's World of Warcraft, which has over 10 million subscribers around the world, there are more gamers congregating virtually to socialize with friends and strangers. "The average age of our MMO player is 31, and our demographic consists of 85 percent male gamers," says John Smedley, president of Sony Online Entertainment, creator of EverQuest, Star Wars: Galaxies and Pirates of the Burning Seas. "We need to broaden this space."

Halo 3
Halo 3
Smedley says SOE is doing this with new games like the free-to-play, ad-supported PC and PS3 game, Free Realms, which is aimed at the tween and family market and will, he believes attract a 50/50 male/female audience. Another new PS3 and PC game, The Agency, "is the evolution of the MMO," according to Smedley. It combines the popular shooter genre with spies. "Everyone knows Alias, 24, and James Bond," explains Smedley. "There's a huge market of gamers that can't stand fantasy games, and I think this will attract them."

Sports has become another niche in the MMO space. Game developer Netamin has created ESPN Ultimate Baseball Online, a game that replaces overpriced athletes and licensed teams with real players. For those weekend athletes who've moved away from friends or grown too old for the real diamond, this game offers the chance to congregate online, compete in full league seasons and win real prizes. Other sports like football (Football Superstars) and golf (World Golf Tour) have also made the MMO leap, with the key selling points being the opportunity for sports fans to bond with friends and to try out authentic courses virtually.

Casual games are also evolving. According to Comscore, over 200 million people play casual games online worldwide. In the U.S., over 60 million people, a third of the online population, play online games at least once a month. In Europe, over 40 million consumers play online casual games: in certain countries close to half of the online population plays casual games."Over the last three years, the casual games market has exploded," says Beatrice Spaine, vice president of marketing for EA-owned Pogo.com. "Once more, there are hundreds of sites where users can play and or download casual games. Some sites are mass market; others attract mainly children or teens and young adults. Companies are able to monetize their audience in multiple ways through advertising, downloadable games, subscriptions and micro-transactions. The rapid increase in Internet and broadband penetration has boosted the number of people playing games online and the quality of online and downloadable games." Once relegated only to PCs, casual games have now spread to next generation consoles through Xbox Live Arcade and PlayStation Network Store, as well as to Wii, portable game players and even cell phones. There are an estimated 1 billion mobile handsets in circulation worldwide, of which 85 percent are game enabled.

A scene from Gears Of War 2
A scene from Gears Of War 2
"The cell phone is the platform that is leading the way in growing the casual gaming market," says Kathy Vrabeck, president of EA Casual Entertainment. "Games like Tetris, Bejeweled and Solitaire appeal to a broad audience and have been the defining applications on cell phones to date. Newer handsets with larger screens are enabling advanced 3D graphics as well as connected and multiplayer features, a dramatic increase from the black and white games of just a few years ago. This evolution will expand the types of games that can be offered on handsets and should attract new consumers to cell phone gaming."

The game world has also placed a renewed focus on user-generated content. Game developers have long offered free tools on PC games to allow consumers the ability to "mod" their creations into new game types and even movies, or Machinima. Epic's Unreal Tournament 3 for PS3 is the first game to allow PC modders to share their creations with console gamers. Now new console games, like developer Media Molecule's much anticipated upcoming Little Big Planet on PS3, are allowing gamers to build new levels and share them with others around the globe. "From the start, we wanted to cater to both expert creative types, and people that can barely draw a stick man," says Mark Healey, creative director, Media Molecule. "Traditionally, creativity in games would tend to be incredibly limited, and not allow for much variation. If you take a look at a franchise like Theme Park, for example, the tools are easy enough to use, but, you can only really make theme parks. On the other end of the spectrum are games like Half-Life, where modding the game engine is something that's quite complicated and techy and a bit too much to learn for the average game player. We wanted to bridge that gap."
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