The bleeding edge of screenwriting and media convergence

June 1999-July 1999

by Terry Borst & Deborah Todd

filed 16 May 99 Copyright ©1999 alt.screenwriters

CD-ROMs, we hardly knew ye.

In the mid-1990s, the CD-ROM seemed poised to become a major delivery system for a new kind of hybrid entertainment — promising to transform the production and distribution pipelines much as VHS-format videocassettes had in the 1980s, when numerous mini-majors and independent studios emerged and “straight-to-video” and foreign markets opened up new opportunities for screenwriters.

WGA members helped create several blockbuster CD-ROM titles, and the Guild actively evangelized in the game and multimedia industries, attempting to secure an even bigger foothold in the world of New Media.

A typical, high-flying company of the time was 7th Level — which adapted the Monty Python and Ace Ventura franchises to interactive CD- ROM formats and grossed millions of dollars with each title.

Flash forward to 1999 … and the news that 7th Level has just renamed itself — after an 85% drop in revenues between 1997 and 1998. In its announcement of the name change, the company said it had abandoned the CD-ROM market entirely, to focus on developing Internet- based educational tools.

It is a mistake to say that the CD-ROM no longer exists as an Entertainment delivery system. But the CD-ROM is no longer the significant shaper of New Media, and with the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy to see that it’s approaching the end of its evolutionary dominance. What led to its demise, and what has taken its place? First, a few of the reasons for the CD-ROM’s rapid fall from grace:

  • Full motion video (FMV). Ironically, the very reason that many screenwriters were initially recruited to work in the CD-ROM world also became the reason they weren’t invited back to the party. The gaming and edutainment communities realized that if you employ Hollywood production techniques, you’d better employ Hollywood talent: someone who’s been there and done that, someone who understands how to extract emotion, suspense, and humor out of script pages, makeup, boom mikes and videotape. But Hollywood production techniques and Hollywood talent require Hollywood money, an absolutely terrifying discovery for companies who — only a few years earlier — would spend just a few thousand dollars to bring a game to market. In addition, FMV often had the effect of suppressing or flattening the new elements of interactivity and immersion, the elements that made this genre new and exciting to begin with. (Budget and time make it impossible to shoot dozens of scenario variations; in addition, the relentless realism of FMV often defeated the illusion that the player was in the game.) Games flourished when they offered something movies and TV couldn’t (i.e., interactivity). Once they began competing on the same turf, they were bound to lose: choppy 15fps windowed video is no match for the visual splendor of Titanic or The Matrix.
  • A glut of bad titles. Fostered partially because many gaming companies used FMV, but refused to pay Hollywood money — meaning non-WGA writing, non-DGA directing, and non-SAG acting. In addition, the rapid market growth generated an overproduction of mediocre product: the same perverse market mechanism witnessed in the 1980s (when all those “straight-to-video” and low-budget movie titles dragged down one independent studio after another) and seen more recently in the Hong Kong movie industry.
  • Difficulty of use. Something the programmers could never resolve. Installations too often stalled or crashed a system, or even wiped out critical system data. Nobody would buy a music CD if its use routinely trashed a CD player, and nobody would watch “Ally McBeal” if it caused all other programming to be translated into Latvian. Pop in a videotape or a Nintendo cartridge and they work, just about every time. Winner: anything but CD-ROMS.

Several new Industry developments converged to put the final spin on the CD-ROM wind-down:

  • “Next generation” game consoles. Sure, the old Super Nintendo was no match for the visual experience PC CD-ROM could deliver, but the new Sony Playstation and Nintendo 64 are pretty close — and they are way cheaper and way easier to use.
  • 3D acceleration. Game developers turned to FMV because it was a huge advance from the two-dimensional “sprites” and “side-scrolling” that games had used previously (if you haven’t lately, try to look at an old Sega or Atari 2600 game — at one time, they were considered a wonder, but now they look awfully primitive). But FMV wasn’t terribly pliant or interactive. Technology improving like it always does, game designers could suddenly deliver an actual three-dimensional computer- generated world. Sure, it isn’t exactly real, but it responds in a very real way, and is constantly different and unpredictable, since it renders its environment “on the fly” in real-time.
  • The Web. A little slow, and a step backwards in the assets it can deliver (i.e., if you think video sucks on a slow CD-ROM drive, you should see the lags and frame drop- out rate in a dial-up connection). But it works most of the time, and it’s easy to use (click on a link, click Back, click Forward). And as a producer, you’ve eliminated packaging costs, shelf space costs, and distribution costs. You can update and improve the product easily.

Screenwriters were in the front lines when the CD-ROM revolution got going. But that revolution came and went, and another one is underway. Where do screenwriters fit in, and what lessons can be drawn from the rise and fall of CD-ROMs? Stay tuned for next month’s column

Written by tborst

May 16, 1999 at 2:18 am

%d bloggers like this: