The bleeding edge of screenwriting and media convergence

July 1998

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by Terry Borst & Deborah Todd

filed 3 July 98 Copyright ©1998 alt.screenwriters

If the only constant is change, then we can, with full conviction, say that the computer gaming industry is at an all-time high in the constant department. Or so it seemed at the conference for those in the interactive entertainment industry – the Computer Game Developers Conference (CGDC), held this past May in Long Beach.

Scree-eee-echh! Make that the Game Developers Conference as of 1999. No more “Computer”. The officially deigned name change is more than a mere “let’s make this more inclusive so we can make more bucks” strategy on the part of the conference. For professional writers who have either participated in or been intrigued by interactive entertainment, it signals a real sea change.

WGA member and conference speaker Roger Holzberg summed up his research in a session called “The Real Experts Panel: Kids.” Most of the kids he interviewed were big personal computer game players until this past Christmas, when their wishes came true and Santa delivered game consoles, i.e., Nintendo 64 and Playstation. These machines have been in their lives for merely a few months, yet these kids were hard-pressed to name the last PC game they’d played.

Short attention span? More likely, an illustrative lesson in economics and ease-of-use. Game consoles are cheap, games are plentiful, and you can rent them at Blockbuster. For a couple hundred bucks, a kid can get hooked up, try out some games via rentals or through friends, then start building his own library, which will have high replayability and swap-ability potential. Who wants to remember the past? Get Mom and Dad to buy an expensive PC, with technology that’ll be old before you reach your next birthday, bargain with your folks for time in front of the monitor, battle frustrating game installations, find out you can’t rent any games, and uncover a history that says the vast majority of PC games suck anyway.

Console vs. PC? A no-brainer all around, when it comes to games.

What does this mean to writers? First, technical differences dictate content. Consoles have storage and memory constraints which work against more linear narrative (which may contain full-motion video, pre-rendered art, or other high-bandwidth data) and such gaming elements as inventory maintenance, player history and world persistence. Thus, a mantra heard often at CGDC was that adventure games (like Return to Zork and Bladerunner) were dead. This genre is most apt to require a professional screenwriter: narrative, back story and characters are crucial to its success. Its possible demise is not good news.

Consoles favor 3D shooters, simulations, and role-playing games. Often, game companies believe the content for these can be created completely in-house, and that the first two genres, in particular, don’t require “story”.

A number of games continue to be developed for PCs, but many of them are “cross-platform” — designed to work on both PC and console. Console limitations will naturally shape the content of these titles.

And the Web? A couple of years ago, online soap operas were hot, and a new market appeared to be opening up for writers. But the soap operas have all but vanished, as the realities of low bandwidth and copper wire infrastructure have sunk in. On-demand video? Instant “channel” switching? The computer as TV? Not yet, anyway. It’s the World Wide Wait, and will continue to be for awhile.

Sounds like a litany of dire news for writers in the arena of new media entertainment. But

We’re dealing with sophisticated kids, a generation growing up on games and the ‘net. While their predecessors were happy bouncing mindless balls around on 8-bit machines, today’s kids – tomorrow’s adult game players – already require remarkably sophisticated graphical and gaming environments. Compare Pong to Tomb Raider, Final Fantasy VII, and the upcoming Daikatana. It’s like comparing cave scratchings to Beowulf and Homer’s Odyssey. The movement is indeed towards story, the creation of imaginary worlds, and character development (all of the above-named games have very intriguing lead characters). Roger Holzberg’s research found that over the age of 7, kids don’t care if the characters are known quantities (i.e., a repurposing of Barneys, Disney cartoon characters, etc). Forget marquee value: create original and unforgettable characters for your game.

The major networks are rapidly losing audience share, and feature film ticket sales have stood still for years. We know that consoles and the Web are stealing away some of this audience. The question that remains is whether professional writers can carve a niche for themselves in an entertainment landscape that looks radically different from what we all grew up with.

Next month, we’ll look at how some writers are doing exactly that on the Web…

Written by tborst

July 3, 1998 at 12:55 am

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