Washington: Hey, do you see more video games taking this approach to development, in terms of providing detail and depth in story-based games that give the user a feeling of an interactive "movie-based" environment? Or will Grand Theft Auto be the only series to tread that terrain (aside from Saints Row)? Thanks.
Chris Baker: We've seen a lot of games try and do explorable open world environments in the wake of GTA. Spiderman games let you websling all over gotham, True Crime set you loose in LA and New York, Crackdown was set in a scifi metropolis, Jak 2 was like Mario in a cartoony dystopia ...
We'll probably see even more open world games in the near future. But the design challenges are enormous, and I think some games simply don't benefit from an open world. Let's face it, commuting can be boring.
Washington: I watched my boyfriend play this game for about 20 minutes last night and I, too, was struck by how Niko has a background and a conscience. I remember the past games featured a main character who just didn't care about anything and you didn't care about him. But taking a girl out for bowling and conversation? That made me think running over hookers might not be as fun with this character.
Chris Baker: Yes, the conversation you mention also stood out to me. For people who haven't played the game: The protagonist is a newly arrived immigrant about to go on his first date. He suggests that they go to the "fun fair", the in-game version of Coney Island. His date is bemused and a little put out that he'd want to do something so cheesy, but she feigns a little enthusiasm to be polite. And then they go bowling. It may sound mundane, but the richness and subtleness of the characterizations surprised me.
Alexandria, Va.: Any word on a PC version?
Chris Baker: Not yet! Fingers crossed ...
Falls Church, Va.: "But there hasn't been any definitive research showing that virtual violence in video games can spill over into real world behavior." Fine, but the person I know who works in public elementary schools says that the kids with the worst ADD problems, lack of focus, etc., also tend to play the most video games. I'm headed outside, see ya.
Chris Baker: Hi! There's definitely a question of causation versus correlation. Are kids with short attention spans drawn to games, or do games give kids short attention spans?
Games aren't simply immediate gratification in some cases. Steven Johnson's book Everything Bad Is Good for You points out that many young gamers are learning about delayed gratification from games. You need to save up your in-game money or points for some long-term (eg ten hours later in the game) goal.
Alexandria, Va.: So what is the difference in the violence in games I played as a kid (Cops and Robbers, Cowboys and Indians, Sword fighting (with sticks or wiffleball bats))? Did parents complain when Johnny came home saying he just scalped 20 injuns? Seems to me that parents and society is at an upheaval because video games are something they don't understand.
Chris Baker: I agree wholeheartedly.
I guess the knock against games would be that when you're playing Cops and Robbers, at least you're interacting with other kids and getting some exercise. But many gamers are playing with others, either through online mutliplayer or with friends there in the room. And games like Dance Dance Revolution and the upcoming Wii Fit are great exercise ...
St. Louis: Chris, are the regulators getting any traction on censoring games, Or is it just a flash in the pan that will go nowhere? Personally I'm a lousy gamer but my son, who is now a middle-aged bank vice president, chills out several times a week with GTA or something equally gruesome, as do all his friends. All of them have been playing violent video games since they were in middle school, and they represent a cross-section of law-abiding citizenry. If society is going to crumble, it's more likely to be from the gas prices, in my humble opinion.
Chris Baker: It must be said that the games industry has a ratings board similar to the MPAA called the ESRB. There's a lot of railing against games, but no traction in somehow replacing this independent ratings board with stricter government oversight.
Also, it's important to note that the Entertainment Software Association, a lobbying/PAC outfit for the games industry, just launched. I think games will soon employ the same sort of lobbying muscle that the film industry and the music industry does. We'll see if games continue to be a media bugbear when that happens.
Washington: What do you think of the idea of letting people play different characters within Grand Theft Auto? It would be a lot more interesting if I could be the cops or the ambulance driver ...
Chris Baker: There's actually a player-created mod of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas in which people log on and be taxi drivers or cops.
There's a massively multiplayer cops and robbers game in the works. It's called APB, and it's being headed up by one of the guys who created the GTA games.
Sacramento, Calif.: I have not played the game, but I'm curious about the in-game reality. What is the law enforcement reality in the game? Can the character be arrested and taken to prison? Is so, are there lawyers? Prosecutors?
Chris Baker: Law enforcement is sharper. Some police are suicidally brave, some are shrewd and cautious some will flee at the first sign of danger. Get arrested and you'll pay a huge fine (bribe) and have your weapons confiscated. But then you're back on the street.