Germany: Games as Culture?

11 06 2008

Katamari Damacy

Jurie Horneman, over at Intelligent Artifice, put up a post a few days ago about Germany considering tax breaks. It seems the discussion there has stalled on the EU “cultural exception”, that allows industries to be granted subsidies if they are deemed to have cultural value.

Of course, Germany has always tended towards scepticism on violence in games, demanding that any blood be replaced with green splatter instead. A part of the reason for all of this is something that afflicts all aspects of discussion about games:

I find it strange to imagine a point of view where computer games are not culture. In fact, I find it strange to imagine a point of view where computer games are not art, or culture, or a storytelling medium. I mean… isn’t it obvious? Discussing this was fun in the 90s. The early 90s.

While game developers have been discussing many things for years, wider cultural and political circles are only just discovering and hacking through the same debates (Just as the games industry has been learning to deal with political, economic and management issues). There’s always going to be this kind of delay as issues percolate into fields less familiar with them, but people in the industry have a job to lead the wider debates and guide less clued up people.

(Image: Katamari Damacy box art)

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Ste Curran on Wider Markets

12 05 2008

http://flickr.com/photos/clurr/515091669/

gamesindustry.biz have posted an interview with Ste Curran, creative director at Zoe Mode and presenter of One Life Left.

I saw Ste present at GameCity 2007, and he’s sharp as a tack. In this interview he points out that, though the Wii has made some mass market changes, it wasn’t the first or only thing to be moving into wider territories for games:

I don’t know – it’s not like girls are a new technology…they’ve always existed, and people have always wanted to sing, dance and play games like that. It seems to me that you could talk in terms of things like marketing capacity and throughput of units, and so on, about whether the industry is in a better place to attract that kind of market, but I can see an alternate reality where the first few games that were developed weren’t necessarily sword-and-sorcery games, but maybe were dancing games – so that games developed as more of a teenage girls’ hobby, and only just now would we be busting out into the GTAs of this world.

I think there are a lot of things that make it the right time for gaming, I think it could have happened earlier. In a way, it did happen earlier. People talk about it now in terms of Nintendo, but SingStar did a lot for getting PlayStation 2s in front of teenage girls – just for that game. And SingStar is totally valid as a videogame, I think it’s as precisely designed as any action game.

As an event organiser, I’m also very interested in this, which lines up with some of my recent thinking:

I think that a lot of conferences miss opportunities – you’ve got all of these incredibly creative people, very talented, in the room and unless I’ve just been unlucky with conference sessions in the past, but I tend to find it’s usually a man stood in front of a series of PowerPoint slides, which were prepared by somebody in his office, and he takes you through them very patiently – and that sends me to sleep, it’s not what I’m really interested in.

(CC image of people playing Singstar by clurr)





Lost Ring Sponsored by McDonalds

25 04 2008

The Lost Ring

This is quite a surprise: Beijing 2008 ARG The Lost Ring is sponsored by McDonalds. The NYT has a registration wall, so I suggest bugmenot, but here’s a highlight that conveys the gist:

“I think finding out that it was McDonald’s was kind of a big shock for everyone,” said Geoff May, a player in Ontario who founded a Web site (olympics.wikibruce.com) on the game. “Obviously it’s McDonald’s, and not everyone likes them,” he said. “Personally, I don’t mind as long as we don’t get products forced down our throat. If we’re getting McDonald’s meals sold by characters, it’s going to be hard to suspend our disbelief.”

That’s part of the reason McDonald’s has remained behind the curtain thus far. A successful alternate-reality game relies on the players’ continuing interest.

“If an A.R.G. is too clearly corporate or commercial, the gamers will not want to engage,” said Tracy Tuten, an associate professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, who studies new-media marketing tools. “It’s very important that the game be written in a way where the branding is not obvious.”

McDonald’s has been careful to reflect that, Ms. Dillon said. “Above all, we want to be credible, authentic and respectful to this new audience,” she said.

As a recent academic report pointed out, marketing is now about relationships rather than transactions. There are still many large brands that don’t understand this, and McDonalds getting it took me unawares. I’ve a feeling that by the time ARGs are established, the reputations of more than a few brands will have been turned on their heads.





PC Transitioning From CD-ROM to Broadband

17 04 2008

Discarded CD-ROM and floppy drives

Here’s the crux of publishing games for PC right now:

“Whether it really is all about piracy, or it just becomes the domination of consoles, or […] the ubiquity of gaming: there’s a way to get gaming so many ways now that thinking about the PC as a disc-based platform may in fact be old.”

I imagine those are pretty tough words for some publishers to get through, but it’s true: CD-ROM was a buzzword in the mid-nineties, and so was “multimedia” along with so many other now defunct terms. HD is (slowly) catching on, UK regulator OFCOM are talking about deploying optical fibre at reduced cost using existing utility conduits, private companies are planning to do the same with sewers, and broadband has already just about killed off commercial piracy in some quarters.

Some people I know at publishers claim that there will always be a market for physical product, and they’re probably right: Bandwidth can be at a premium in rural areas compared to cities, and some people really do like having each piece of media as a physical object (For instance, I have friends whose ongoing music collections are MP3s, but who also collect vinyl). What we don’t know is how big or small a niche each type of physical product will become: but “smaller” is the safe bet for most.

As consoles tilt toward HD formats and net connections a generation at a time, as a platform the PC is taking the same steps in a much more organic way. With boxed product sales shrinking and digital distribution (including web-based games) growing, the PC is in a transitional state. Unless something seriously upsets broadband development, or causes Blu-Ray to catch on for PC in a big way, it seems doubtful it will eventually settle back on disc based formats.

(CC image of discarded internal CD-ROM and floppy drives by Jeff Kubina)





Byron Reactions

15 04 2008

BBFC film ratings

Barring a few upcoming and typical tabloid smears on video games, the dust now seems to have settled on the Byron review. MCV have been doing exhaustive coverage of the reactions to it, the biggest of which has been PEGI raising serious concerns about the applicability of BBFC ratings to online content.

It’s not a bad point. While BBFC ratings are more immediately meaningful to UK consumers, the method by which the BBFC rates things seems poorly equipped to deal with the torrent of content online, not to mention the legal ground that would have to be laboriously trodden in defining what content needs to be rated and what doesn’t. The BBFC claims it can, but such an approach could easily be unable to keep up with a voluntary scheme such as PEGI.

It’s an interesting dilemma, and each side has its merits. BBFC ratings make sense culturally, but perhaps not economically; they may even drown in the volume of online content. Indeed, it seems that any rating system will be dwarfed by the overwhelming amount of freely accessible unrated content – it was easy enough for teenagers to get hold of porn before the internet, and speaking pragmatically it’s impossible to stop them.

Ratings are a useful system when picking content for children, but I’ve rarely ever seen people using them as a factor when making a personal decision on what to watch or play. The two exceptions I’ve seen recur are highly religious people of a kind very sensitive to violence or sex, or men in their late teens and twenties, who tend to say of films things like “It’s rated 12 so it’s going to be crap”.

With its focus on protecting children, it’s natural that the Byron review would spend so much time on rating systems, but it seems to me that education is far more important. With the exception of very young kids, there’s no way to monitor everything they do and look at.

Speaking personally, I can say it’s too easy for parents to give the impression to kids that, if they see something that upsets or confuses them, they might be be punished for finding it rather than helped to deal with it. That’s the picture of a culture that can’t deal with disturbing content, and it exists in patches throughout UK society.

The lack of hard research on the actual effects of certain types of content on children is also frustrating, because so many studies on violence and pornography have to conclude “Noone really knows”. As Tanya Byron points out in the report though, there are no ethical grounds on which such research could be based. Alongside honest discussion of content, rating systems remain the best tools we have, and they’re built on the impression many of us have that seeing certain things without the mental apparatus in place to contextualise them can be harmful.

The recommendations of the Byron Review will take some years to put in place, and I suspect the market may have something to say after the government.

ELSPA and a few others have been kicking up a great stink about the added expense to the industry, though in the case of big publishers if not AAA developers, it’s largely sabre rattling: the 10K or so required to submit a game to the BBFC isn’t much for them. However, it’s yet another thing that will keep small casual and indie productions out of the market for boxed product and push them even further toward digital distribution. If the industry would rather use PEGI and make it prominent, online is definitely now the place to push it.





WiiiPlayer

9 04 2008

Wiimote slippage

The BBC have inked a deal with Nintendo to make the iPlayer a channel on the Nintendo Wii. It’s a smart move given the number of Wiis around, and the iPlayer as it stands is naturally more at home in the strictly orthodox confines of a console network or the iPhone.

Watchification really hit the difference between the BBC and much of the web home to me recently: typically, all of the iPlayer embeds in the lower half of the page are replaced with “Sorry, this program is no longer available” due to the seven day limit.

(CC wiimote image derived from flickr user Riggzy)





Paramount Moves Into Games Publishing

28 03 2008

Paramount

No details on how many people or how much money yet, but Paramount have followed Warner Bros and Disney into games, upping the size of their interactive team and first looking at lower risk projects like mobile and casual. Variety has the scoop. It reads as if they’re trying to spread the risk as far as possible, sketching the outlines of a very flexible business model:

“We are entering into deals now where we will be publishing games this year,” said Sandi Isaacs, Par’s senior veep of interactive and mobile. “There’s going to be a slate where in some cases we’re publishing, in some cases we’re co-publishing, or in others we’re funding development and another publisher buys it. It’s important for us to have a flexible model.”