Self-described gaming novice Rick DeMott traveled to the L.A. Convention Center for a crash course in gaming mania that is the Electronic Entertainment Expo E3.
You wont find me in a Korean cyber café. Dont ask me whats got better graphics capability the Xbox or PS2. Dont even ask me what my favorite game is, because I dont play them. Its not because I dont like games, but because I like to be able to step outside between consuming other forms of media. (Or maybe Im still recovering from all the childhood scars of being constantly shellacked at videogames throughout my youth.) One striking fact that I picked up when attending E3 is that a study found that some hardcore youth are consuming more media in a day than there are hours in a day. Does anyone ride a real bike or skateboard anymore?
So looking at E3, my observations are strictly from a novices point of view. To me, gaming still feels like an underground, subculture entertainment, but the industry makes several billion dollars a year, so theres got to be more than a select few dropping serious coin on videogames.
Nearly 60,000 people attend E3 each year. The L.A. Convention Center has to bring in extra electrical units to generate the awesome amount of power consumed by the various booths. I heard that some booths utilize more lights than the Rolling Stones used on their last tour. Nearly 1,000 new products are unveiled at the expo. The big companies all compete to make the biggest splash. It does strike me kind of funny, though, that a convention, which doesnt allow the general public into the event, would spend so much money to impress each other. Theyve truly gone Hollywood.
And thats what the convention floor felt like Hollywood. Epic-sized, loud, bright, flashy, with a little dose of sex. For some (not me, Im a married man), a big highlight is the many booth babes, whose goal is to draw attention to a companys products. The most affective were the girls at the Nyko booth with bright red wigs and tight white shirts with short red shorts, they were hard not to notice. And if the hardcore gamers werent trying to get their picture taken with the Daisy Duke look-alikes at The Dukes of Hazzard booth, then they were clamoring to get a picture with the Storm Troopers wondering the floor. This kind of awe is clearly taking a page from Hollywood, which is now going to the gaming companies to make deals not visa versa.
The big things that really caught my eye that I think others were most interested in were Sonys new handheld system, the PSP, which will have DVD picture quality, and several new games, including ones based on feature films and ones featuring nudity. Just like Hollywood, sex and violence sells. The buzz surrounding the Spider-Man 2 game and the Vivendi Universal booth was jam-packed when action star Vin Diesel showed up to promote the videogame version of his upcoming summer feature, The Chronicles of Riddick. Accompanied by the debut of the films trailer, The Incredibles game seemed to have its fans. When it comes to sex, attendees seemed drawn in by the Playboy: The Mansion and new Leisure Suit Larry games. I remember secretly playing the original Leisure Suit Larry at my friends house on his Commodore 64. Hey, you could say that it taught me something I had to figure out who was U.S. president in 1964 to verify that I was over 18 to play. I also shouldnt fail to mention Sims 2, which Electronic Arts is hoping will be as huge a hit as the original.
Serving as a refuge from the overload of pulsating videoscreens, I attended several of the conferences panel discussions. This comes to my one little beef with the conference, and thats the lack of communication between its workers and the attendees. The first workshop I just walked into, but the next one I all of a sudden needed some slip of paper allowing me as press to attend. The days of sticking a little card with press written on it in the brim of your fedora are over, I guess. I know its to control crowds, but no one told me. I went to workshops later in the week, where a worker was still informing another worker to make sure to collect the little magic slips of paper. All I ask is that I dont have to go to three different people to find out what the rules are. Sadly, I witnessed the same problem happening to exhibitors and even to people who dropped loads of cash to attend.
Some of the attendees that I talked to said they felt the panels at the Game Developers Conference were better, but I didnt go to GDC so I cant compare. What I did discover is that the best panels I attended were the ones with the best moderators. I can also say that regurgitating information from a press release is a waste of peoples time.
I attended six panels, which mainly focused on MMOGs (massively multiplayer online games) and the Asian market. I also attended Accessing the Creative Mind: Case Studies in the Art and Craft of Game Design and Partnering with the Movie, Music and TV Industries: Profit from the New Level of Collaboration. The latter was a complete waste of time, relating to the press release comment I made earlier, and the moderators lack of control of the alpha males on the panel. However, I did glean one interesting fact from the panel, and that was gaming companies wont even bother with turning a film into a game if they dont think it will make at least $150 million at the box office.
The Accessing the Creative Mind panel featured Naughty Dog Studios creative director Daniel Arey, Lionhead Studios managing director Peter Molyneux, Planet Moon Studios co-founder/ceo Bob Stevenson and Electronic Arts vp/exec in charge of production Neil Young along with Finite Arts Hal Barwood as moderator. The group pretty much agreed that the blank page concept isnt something that happens in gaming because projects are worked collectively. An interesting tidbit that Molyneux said was that he always gets spec game pitches that dont mention what the player does or sees, which is the crucial part of any game. In designing games, Arey said that game play rules and that narrative are often adjusted to fit. Moreover, the panel members all agreed that over the process of creating a game the most important things are to never lose track of the core idea and discovering that not all bright ideas are right for every game.
When talking about the future, the panelist had varying views. Stevenson fears that rising budgets will push independent studios out of business, forcing them to move into cheaper areas of gaming production like handheld devices. Others foresee more complicated production pipelines and increased amounts of staff, including multiple producers, with increased skills needed to finish a high-profile game.
One of the better workshops that I attended was Sustaining a Virtual World: What it Takes to Launch and Sustain a Profitable and Fun Persistent World Game. The panel featured Rich Vogel, Sony Online vp of production; Starr Long, NCsoft producer; Jeff Anderson, Turbine Ent. president/ceo; and Daniel James, Three Rings Design president/ceo along with Play First president/ceo John Welch as moderator. What was so great about the panel, other than lively debate between engaging speakers, was the fact that MMOG is such a new and mysterious area within the gaming industry. A lot of facts and bankable business plans are still being developed, because the area is so new. Plus, the sociological ramifications of MMOGs are fascinating. Heres a story for you. A man playing as a female character (which happens often because other male players treat female characters with less ruthlessness) was kicked out of the online game for cheating. He then wrote a letter as his character claiming to be his own wife wanting to know why the company kicked her husband out of the game.
That is your serious hardcore gamer. Korea has even passed laws to protect children from getting that obsessed. In Thai cyber cafés, every hour a message pops up on the screen urging kids to go home and do their homework. But Ill get into the Asian market later. The big issue in the MMOG market in the States is balancing games between the hardcore players like Mr. Married to my Digital Self and the casual player. In some game worlds, the hardcore players, who play up words of 60 hours per week, make it difficult for new players to accomplish anything in the game. For instance, when bartering to get items like armor, a new player with little money will always be outbid by the hardcore players. Others on the panel are positive they can attract the casual player, but Anderson believes that MMOGs will never break out of the hardcore, because thats the only people willing to pay the monthly service fees.
This debate also extends into the amount of money it takes to make a game, immersability and attracting female players. With a pirate hat atop his head, James, who spearheaded the online game Puzzle Pirates, strongly claimed that producers can easily make a fun, immersive online game for under $1 million when most others cost $10 to $12 million. Cost seems to hinge on which side of the immersability debate you fall on. Immersability is how much a world draws a player in. Vogel, who heads up Star Wars Galaxies, believes that the more realistic the world looks the more captivated the players will be. Whereas, James believes that if a game is fun and engaging then it can be as equally immersive as a game that has photoreal water.
When it comes to attracting female players many of the panelists said that women start playing if their boyfriends play. Vogel pointed out that Star Wars Galaxies gained a big spike in female gamers once they added the entertainer profession to the game. Another interesting fact about the female demographic within online games is that it skews toward housewives in their 30s. In between laundry loads and taking the kids to soccer practice, theyre playing World of WarCraft. Moreover, families more and more are playing together in online worlds especially family friendly places like Puzzle Pirates and Disneys hugely successful Toon Town.
Two other major concerns are the time it takes to accomplish something called grind and making a game more for the solo play or team play. For this panel, it seemed that decreasing the grind is a huge issue. Long said gaming developers need to figure out how to incorporate dramatic compression into MMOGs, so that traveling four miles doesnt take a player a half hour. When it comes to solo play versus team play, the panelists were divided. Long believes that online games should accommodate both types of game play by having players choose missions they can do alone or ones needing a group for themselves. Vogel and some of the others feel this idea defeats the purpose of a massive multiplayer game and makes it more like a massive single-player game.
These are the kind of issues that make gamers stop playing. Currently, the average retention for a MMOG player is six to nine months. With the game and the monthly fees, a company can anticipate roughly $150 per person who picks up the game. Because the industry is so new, these issues need to be worked out by trial and error. But the major unknown in the industry is how long is the life of an online game. Panelists projected seven years because thats standard for a traditional game. However, with the original MMOGs like EverQuest and Ultima still going strong, no one knows for sure. This could create a crisis later when companies need to decide at what point its time to abandon support for an older title. The service team to support a MMOG is between 40 to 50 people. If older games can keep their player numbers and new games gain the same success, working in support or as a game master (a person who plays the game and works out tech and personal problems that players run into) could be a booming employment sector.
But what I found is that MMOGs are nothing in the U.S. compared to Asia. In America, 1% of the population plays MMOGs, whereas in Korea, much like other parts of Asia, 10% of the population plays. How gamers play and what they like is much different between the States and Asia. What gaming companies have learned quickly is that you cant just take your product to another region and expect to have the same success there as you did back home. Sony learned this when it took its huge hit EverQuest to China and it tanked.
The cultural differences are sometimes large and sometimes small. For instance, when Naughty Dog took Crash Bandicoot to Japan, the Japanese distributor suggested they make sure in the new version that Crash had five fingers not four. This is because in Japan the yakuza (gangsters) cut off a finger if you double cross them, so people with four figures are considered thugs.
The larger issues go back to the casual vs. hardcore and solo vs. team debates I talked about earlier. Asian players use gaming as a social exercise. In all three panels on the Asian market that I attended, at least one panelist talked about how many players they had on their game who meet in the game and later got married in real life. Most Asian players get their friends to play so they can team up to accomplish goals within the game world. Tan Junzhao, cto of Shanda, described the difference between Americans and Asians best. Americans want to be the superhero who becomes #1. Asians are more down to Earth and realize that not everyone in life can be #1, so one must team up with others to accomplish goals.
In the States, the gaming companies have all but ruled out the use of cyber cafes as a business model. In Asia, most MMOGs are played in cafes. Other than being a social event, the cafes allow players to talk to other players about how to do things within the game. This also lessens Asian game providers support issues, which still has one customer service rep per 2,500 to 7,500 concurrent players. Jeff Anderson of Turbine Ent. believes that the cyber café concept is not hopeless in the States. He believes that arcades in the 80s and early 90s were popular not just because home gaming systems hadnt taken over, but because it was a social outlet for kids to do something away from home. He thinks that if someone can tap into the mall culture, cyber cafés could be huge in the States as well.
Another difference between American and Asian MMOGs is the game play itself. American games are more complex and have greater grind. Asian games have a shorter learning curve and are more accessible to casual gamers who just want to play a game for a half hour or so. As well, billing is completely different in Asia. Unlike the States where its a monthly subscription, Asians typically dont like using credit cards, so they buy pre-paid game cards at convenience stores or cyber cafés. This also allows kids to use their spending money on games without their parents knowing. At first in Taiwan, cyber cafés were called game rooms and parents associated this with gambling and didnt let their children go. But now cyber cafés are commonplace and Asians companies take advantage of this by partnering with the cyber cafés to push their new games.
When it comes to attracting female players, William Chen, coo of Gamania, said they are having success in launching games with cute characters. This reminds me of a comment that Daniel James of Three Rings Design said. He urged game makers to stop making what he called busty babes in chainmail games. He makes a great point how the MMOG industry, especially in the States, needs to think past the role-playing game concept for other ideas. Just imagine if they could bring the MMOG concept to sports games.
However, the biggest issue facing the Asian MMOG market is piracy. One major form of piracy is when hackers are able to copy the entire game engine onto another server and allow gamers to play for a cheaper price. Companies also have to deal with cyber cafés that promote these pirated services. The other two hacking issues allow players to cheat. Programs that allow players to gain items in the game instantly are widely available. A new device can play on its own, so that a player can advance several levels over night while they sleep. Leo Liu of the9.com said that hacking and piracy will always happen, but the main concern of the gaming company is to fix whatever problems the hackers have created as quickly as possible.
A strange legal issue both in Asia and America has arisen via the world of MMOGs and thats digital item trading. People are selling castles and swords from games to other players for thousands of dollars, while not a single penny flows into the gaming companies. Pretty much across the board both Asian and American companies said they do not support digital item trading. However, Asians were far less hostile about the issue than Americans. Another interesting sociological thing I observed at E3: like the piracy issue, Asian companies try to find a positive in bad things. Like looking at piracy as free marketing of their games, Asians have used the popularity of digital item trading to sell things in the gaming worlds that do not affect the status of the player. For instance, players could pay money to buy digital flowers to take to a wedding of two digital characters.
The issue comes down to who owns the rights to the items gained within the gaming world. Companies seem to have the legal ground, but only in China has a lawsuit ruled that companies officially own the digital items. To date, gaming companies have no recourse to stop players from selling digital items on eBay or as in China itembay, which is solely dedicated to digital item trading.
So now having tackled E3, have I been converted to a gamer? Not really, but I did discover that Activision is creating a game called The Movies, where players can make movies and run studios at various times in history. Now thats a game I really want to play because it addresses my fantasies. Thats what games do, allow people to live out their fantasies. Maybe games will allow us Americans to live out our superhero dreams in games by making us more willing to work with others in the real world. Or maybe well sink so far into fantasy worlds that we never interact with fellow human beings ever again, marrying people in the digital world who are actually living on the other side of the country, thus hampering procreation and killing off our species. Wow, theres so much to look forward to in the future, thanks to games. Thats what this novice learned at E3.
Rick DeMott is managing editor of Animation World Network. He recently contributed to a coffee table book on the history of animation for Flame Tree Publishing, which will be released later in 2004. Previously, he served as the production coordinator for sound production house BadaBing BadaBoom Prods. and animation firm Perky Pickle Studios. Prior to that, he served as associate editor of AWN.