In the full throes of the Japanese recession, the Sony Corp. has reported a 59 percent increase in net profits, up to $1.67 billion at the end of the fiscal year. Part of what's keeping Sony afloat are the new flat-screen televisions, Sony's music divisions (Epic, Columbia, and Sony Classical), and Sony Pictures Entertainment. But beating all these is the PlayStation. Not only did Sony's CEO call it the company's top "cash cow" last year, but this year, the PlayStation and its attendant games accounted for a full 25 percent of the company's first quarter profits.
What are these games, and why do they make so much money? There are games you play on video consoles such as Nintendo 64, Sega, and the PlayStation, which is in an estimated one of every 10 households in the Unites States. And there are games you play on a computer, either alone or at multiplayer online sites such as Microsoft's Internet Gaming Zone (2 million registered users), the Total Entertainment Network, and Battle.net. Aside from porn sites, these gaming sites are some of the only lucrative online businesses. By the year 2000, research firm Jupiter Communications predicts, online gaming will be up to the $1 billion mark.
Executives in the interactive entertainment industry like to brag that their business brings in more money each year than the movie industry does in box office returns. This is a slightly misleading analogy--the real moneymakers in the movie industry aren't the movies shown in movie theaters, they're the movies rented as videos. But the key point is that video games make all this money in the absence of star power and culturewide name recognition. Most people over 30 would respond with a blank stare to the expression "first-person shooter" (a popular kind of game). Although there has been plenty of discussion about how video games are too violent or too anti-social, the fact is that many of them are visually stunning, mentally challenging, deeply engrossing, and have made leaps and bounds since the Commodore 64, TRS "trash" 80, and the Atari 2600 systems first hit the scene. What follows is a quick primer for the uninitiated:
These range from kids as young as 9 or 10 (they play console games) to people in their 30s and 40s (they play the more complicated PC games). Within this range, there is one constant--the players are almost entirely male. Recent estimates have the percentage of women gamers at about 10 percent, topping out as high as 25 percent in online gaming. Why? Many of the games are violent, dedicated to the goal of killing as many adversaries as possible in the shortest amount of time. There is also the "ick" factor. Flesh Feast was described in Gamerfan magazine as "Blood-spurting, head-rolling, corpse-hackin' action," where the point is to "club, chainsaw, shoot, poke, punch, kick, nail, impale, run over, and drown your adversaries ... with everything from a baseball bat to a freshly liberated zombie arm." The boy-wonder computer-science majors of the '70s and '80s who now make up the majority of game designers like to include rape scenes (Phantasmagoria), topless prostitutes (Daggerfall), full nudity (Noctropolis), and even an optional "bouncing breast" feature on the female characters in Dead or Alive.
Some effort has been made to design games specifically for girls and women. There is the Cosmopolitan Virtual Makeover (which allows you to scan your face and then make it over), Barbie Fashion Makeover, and Let's Talk About Me. More frightening than Flesh Feast or Murder Death Kill is Rockett's Secret Invitation from Purple Moon, a "girls' entertainment company." The premise: You are a girl in junior high school who has to navigate cliques and climb the popularity ladder. Most women end up playing the more gender-neutral games, especially role-playing games, although there are some notable exceptions, such as the "
For console games, you need a console unit, which costs roughly $130. The games are $40 to $60 apiece. For Mac- and PC-based computer games, which are more elaborate and challenging, you need a powerful microprocessor (a Pentium 166 chip is a minimum requirement), a big hard drive, a soundcard, and about 32 megs of RAM. However, the memory capacity required for games increases so quickly that in six months to a year you'll need to spend another $1,000 to upgrade if you want to continue to keep playing the new games. A system with all the gadgets and accessories could run you up to $7,500. For online games, you need all this plus the game software plus membership in a gaming site. There are some free sites, such as Heat.net, but many require subscription fees: The Total Entertainment Network charges $19.95 a month; Microsoft Gaming Zone charges $9.95 a month to play "premium" games but has fewer to choose from.
Action-First Person Shooters generally rely on an over-the-gun-barrel point of view. Your objective is to shoot all enemies in your path so that you can win something, often a key, that will take you to the next level, where you get to shoot more enemies. Wolfenstein 3D was the first big first-person shooter. Its action consisted of exploring a castle and killing Nazis. Later successes include Doom and Doom II, which has sold 1.8 million copies. Doom, in which you have to kill legions of demons, was one of the first successful multiplayer games. It was notorious for being played on corporate networks, resulting in thousands of hours of wasted work time. The game featured a fake spreadsheet that would automatically pop up at the push of a button in case your boss walked in while you were playing. After Doom came Quake, which could accommodate up to 16 players at a time.
Action-Adventure is part shooting, part fighting, part going on a quest or mission. Tomb Raider, in which you retrieve artifacts from tombs around the world while killing and avoiding a variety of enemies, sold 6 million copies worldwide. This was partly due to the popularity of protagonist Lara Croft, a character who attracted a huge and fanatical following not only for her curvaceous computer-generated body but also for her sense of adventure and her skill with a submachine gun. Like a real-life star, she received fan letters, had Web sites devoted to her, and even had a book written about her (Lara's Book) by Douglas Coupland. She also has a movie deal with Paramount.
Action-Fighting Series are all about combat, with or without weapons. These are like action-adventure games, except that they abandon all pretense of purpose and story to make room for more fighting. Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat are two popular examples.
Role-Playing Games involve adopting a persona and going on quests in an elaborate fictional universe. Myst, the all-time best-selling game in the United States, had sold 3.8 million units as of September of this year. Other favorites include the Ultima series, including Ultima Online, which lets you join players all over the world and explore the fictional world of "Britannia." ("Britannia" is an unusually elaborate universe. Let's say you want to kill someone with a bow and arrow. First you cut down a tree, then you carve the wooden arrow shaft, find a wild chicken, kill the chicken, use its feathers, and so on.) When Ultima Online started, the unexpectedly large number of players taxed the new system, causing it to run very slowly. The players' response? In addition to calling the company to complain, they staged a protest within the game by gathering outside the castle of Lord British, the creator of the game, to register their displeasure. Just as first-person-shooter games such as Doom and Quake are the logical outgrowth of shoot-'em-up movies like Terminator, so also are role-playing games the logical outgrowth of young-adult, science fiction, and fantasy novels. You become a character and in that role determine the plot of your life; with online role-playing games you even interact with other characters just as if you were in a book come to life.
Sports--Popular sports games include Tiger Woods Golf, Madden NFL Football '98, and Major League Baseball, to name just a few. In these you can play either against other people or against the computer, which uses artificial intelligence to run plays, coordinate defense, and so on.
Simulations--Flight Simulator and M1 Tank Platoon are typical of the genre, and they involve simulating the experience one might have in the cockpit of an actual vehicle. In a game such as Sim City, a player gets to run a city. There are also hunting games; last year a game called Deer Hunter was a surprise success. The game involved tracking deer by relying on clues such as tracks and spoor. Its success has been attributed not to the usual droves of suburban teen players but to the "bubba factor" of actual hunting enthusiasts buying the game.
Deep Strategy and Real Time Strategy are video game versions of geopolitics, business, economics (Civilization, Capitalism, Entrepreneur) and war (Risk, StarCraft, WarCraft). These require players to conserve resources, negotiate, attack, and create alliances that help them succeed. The older games are turn-based, meaning that one person makes a move and then waits for the opponent's move. The newer RealTime games allow players to act simultaneously and, in multiplayer online games, for the game to continue even when a player isn't actually playing. This means that when you're playing a war strategy game, if you walk away from your computer for an hour you may come back to find out that the Huns have invaded and pillaged all your towns.
The Convergence of Video Games and the Movies
Video games have been made into films, such as Mortal Kombat I and II, and film stars now sometimes appear in video games--Christopher Walken was in Privateer 2: The Darkening. The graphics in many games have taken on such a high degree of realism that they almost seem like film. The recent X-Files game was practically an interactive movie, full of actors from the show and bits of dialogue and video. Some people claim that the Blade Runner video game was better than the movie--not only were the "sets" incredible but you also got to control the action and the ending. Video games also now have trailers, credits, and publicity stills, called "screenshots." There is also the new breed of "polygonal stars," such as Tomb Raider's Lara Croft.
Multiplayer online gaming is the next wave in the video game world. Online gaming not only provides more in the way of social interaction but is also a better gaming experience, simply because people are more creative and more challenging adversaries than computers. Thousands of people can play simultaneously all over the world--on some sites, up to 16,000 players at a time can play.
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