Innovation & Design

Gaming's Need: An Emotional Rescue


When he was just 15, David Perry was writing books about video-game programming. By 17, the native of Northern Ireland was professionally developing games for London-based publishers. Two decades later, he is an industry veteran who has successfully straddled the worlds of gaming, TV, and movies without compromising creativity. As a result, he has devised inventive new business models and innovative game design.

Earthworm Jim, the first game developed by Shiny Entertainment, the startup Perry founded in 1993, was released by Sega (SGAMY) and sold millions of units across various platforms. The game was ultimately developed into a children's television show and a line of themed merchandise.

Most recently, Perry and his team at Shiny -- which became a wholly owned subsidiary of Atari (ATAR) in a $47 million deal in 2002 -- collaborated with the Wachowski brothers, the directors of the hit Matrix movie franchise, on a series of Matrix-based titles. For the 2005 release, Matrix: Path of Neo, the Wachowski brothers themselves wrote and developed a game that placed gamers in the role of Neo, the film's protagonist played by Keanu Reeves. Currently, Perry is at work on a 1,000-page draft of what he calls a "deconstruction" of the most successful video games to date. It's a manuscript that he hopes one day to publish as a textbook for students focusing on game design.

As Perry was preparing his presentation at this year's TED Conference -- the acronym stands for technology, entertainment, design -- he spoke with BusinessWeek Online's Reena Jana about current and future trends in game-design innovation. Here is an edited excerpt of their conversation.

Lately, some developers and game critics have been stating that there is a "crisis of creativity" in the game-design world. They complain that there are too many blockbusters, sequels, and look-alike games on the market. Do you believe the gaming world is in a state of creative crisis?

It's sometimes quite trendy to say there's a crisis in innovation. It's the same story in Hollywood and in the music industry -- and then something great and new like The Blair Witch Project comes along.

The issue is more about how designers unleash the creativity they have. The problem is they are all working on console games, and they all share a control device that's similar in design. So overall, we get similar games that seem like versions of what already exists. But one thing to keep in mind is that the market responds well to people who take risks.

The games that sell the most tend to be what you think would sell the least. The classic example is The Sims. Doesn't it seem dull to play a game in which you wash dishes? And it's been such a huge seller.

How do you suggest controllers be updated?

Let's go back to early video games. Before, interfaces were designed in relation to how you played each game. There was a track ball for some games, for example. Standardization came about when arcade games were first developed. It stole some innovation out of games. Nintendo is going to offer a new controller, and I salute them.

I'll give you an anecdote in terms of how important it is to push innovation in the controller arena. My father watched me play games for years. He'd never asked me if he could play, too. Once, he saw me playing a soccer video game. He told me he couldn't believe how real it looked and sounded, and he wanted to play. I handed him my controller and he looked at all the buttons. Then he set it down and walked away. The controller is a barrier.

What other factors will fuel future innovation in game design?

The stats from 2005 [from NPD Group, a market research firm] that we're seeing show us that the audience is changing, and the players determine what will be a hit. We're seeing 43% of people buying games are female. The average age of all gamers is 30. The average age of a video-game buyer is 37. Suddenly it makes sense that games might not necessarily need to be as visceral as they've been in the past, when they catered to an audience of young men.

Innovation in game design will also follow new tech. Flash was invented, and then designers started to make games using it. It was the same deal when Shockwave was invented, too, and creativity exploded. Thousands of small games sprouted up as a result, because suddenly it was easy to make interfaces. There's even an online game on the Nobel prize site. That's how many new, small, and unexpected games are being made today, thanks to the tools that are available. These styles of small games might not make money at the retail level, but they are creative.

There seems to be a lot happening in the online gaming space, beyond the console model. What do you foresee as future trends in this arena?

Overall, I think the online side of gaming will mushroom. Already, World of Warcraft has an audience of 5.5 million players. The question of what we have in store will be answered if broadband does really become available everywhere -- meaning, if 80%-90% of people have access to broadband all across world.

I can't see why all games can't go totally online. I predict that we're moving away from the physical -- the way many people download songs rather than buy physical CDs. Services like Gametap.com [which allows access hundreds of games online] are the beginning of the move from consoles to online.

Going online makes sense. It reduces costs. It reduces the need for a middleman. But I also think we'll see new paradigms in terms of online games. I'd like to see designers and developers coming up with creative ways of connecting with audiences -- like following a TV-show model. In other words, why not offer episodic games to make audiences keep coming back?

Do you believe that game-writing needs to be more innovative to produce new types of game play?

The best example of the need for better writing is to compare the gaming industry to Hollywood. In movie theaters, after only 30 minutes, people are crying when a character in a movie dies, and this doesn't happen when the same people are playing a game in which there are characters who have the roles of friends. How do scriptwriters do it? It seems like black magic! Game developers need to work on creating empathy and feelings within games.

In reality, many game-development teams quite shockingly have no writer on staff. In general, they don't think writing is important. What happens is a designer will have to step in and say "I'll take care of the story" late in the development process, so many game plots don't make sense.

Games currently provide a primarily visceral sense of entertainment. When we add more complex characters and new situations where the audience is aware of something that a person onscreen isn't, this will lead to some truly immersive games.

I believe the concept of more emotional games, populated by believable characters that you care about, has yet to be exploited in game world.


Steve Ballmer, Power Forward
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