Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Are Video Games Replacing Movies As A Favorite Pastime?

In the late 70's I bummed a quarter from my Mom to play this game called Space Invaders. There were several rows of nasty looking space critters slowly descending level by level, and it was up to me to save the Earth. I moved back and forth, I slammed the fire button a thousand times, killing off one alien at a time. They would shoot back, but with some evasive maneuvering, I was able to avoid their lasers and fire back. As they got closer and closer, they began to move faster. Licking my lips, I could taste the sweat. The fate of the world was in my hands. Who would stop the invaders if I fail? A quick move to the left, a rapid fire succession of plasma bolts, and I killed the last one. Earth was saved! Or was it? Seems, that was just the first wave. A whole new crop of invaders showed up. It was more of the same, only they moved a bit faster than before, and they seemed to fire more frequently. I didnt have time to aim, I had to spray and pray as the aliens were unrelenting in their assault. One by one, they took out my defenders till I was down to my last man. In an epic battle for cosmic supremacy, I fended off the last several invaders until one lucky shot by this tick looking alien hit me. GAME OVER. I have failed to save the Earth, but I swore I would return. They haven't seen the last of me.

From that moment on I was hooked. I would return to take on that second wave, eventually defeating them. Then a 3rd wave, and a 4th, 5th, etc. It never ended. The better I got, the more there were. Video games became a passion. That Christmas I received my first video game system, the Atari 2600. I had the Combat cartridge, as well as Laser Blast and Asteroids. From 7am to 9pm, I was in the kitchen, plugged into the tiny black and white television kept on the counter. Lunch and diners were served to me there in the hopes that I would eat. I cared not for any other activity that whole vacation. I would go on to collect such classics as Bezerk, Adventure, Pitfall, and Kaboom. As I got older, I hit the arcades, where non-athletic competitors entered the proving grounds of dominance by climbing the leader boards. Pac-Man, Paperboy, Tron, Donkey Kong, Q-Bert, Frogger, Centipede, MACH 3, Spyhunter, Xevius, and Punch-Out where familiar friends to me.

As time went on, video games evolved. Better graphics, more buttons, more challenges, and more expensive. Suddenly, arcade games were 50 Cents, 75 Cents, and even a Dollar. However home game systems like Sega and Nintendo brought the arcade experience home. Unlike Atari, Coleco, or Intellevision, these consoles perfectly translated what the player experienced in the arcade at home. In terms of graphics, sound, and play, it was identical. But for the most part, video games were the same. An endless series of repeating events that escalated in speed and intensity until mental fatigue or lack of extreme hand/eye coordination caused you to die.

Then something happened. Video games started to have endings. Legend of Zelda is generally attributed as being the first to do this. Programmers recognized that many games already featured characters and plot. So why not expand on that? With the integration of RPG style gaming, players could build their characters up, customize them, and send them on an adventure. An adventure that had a goal, and once the goal was achieved, the story ended. Your initials on the high score leader boards became less important than facing bosses (end of the level bad guys who offered unique challenges to players), leveling up, and defeating the head honcho.

As we moved into the 21s century, programming has become so sophisticated, that many video games look and feel like a theatrical film. Indeed, whole teams of people are assigned to a games lighting, or texturing. Voice actors are brought in. Plots are story boarded. In fact, with games like Modern Warfare, Gears of War, Red Dead Redemption, watch the end credits. Their as long as movie credits. Millions of dollars are spent on their production as video games are fiercely more competitive than Hollywood is. Top talent is brought in to do voice over work. Ray Liota, Samuel L. Jackson, Ving Rhames, Tobey McGuire, Dennis Hopper, Carrie-Ann Moss, Seth Green, Kiefer Sutherland, and Mark Hamill just to name a few, have lend their talents to the interactive experience.

But it's not just actors and graphics that make these games engrossing, it's the writing. Video game programmers must have an understanding of the theatrical arts. Making a character look nervous is one thing, but why is that character nervous. Animators create body language that accurately depict fear, hostility, suspicion in how they get their characters to move and behave. Programmers create engines designed to have characters behave in certain manners depending on the events around them. This all leads to more and more realism. Some of these games have real emotional weight. Combat games sees allies and friends die. Cinematic cut scenes allow you to take a break from the controller and better understand why your character is there, and what his/her motivation is. At the end, genuine emotions ranging from sorrow to euphoria as you once again save the human race, rescue the girl, stop the enemy from nuking the city, or whatever the resolution is to the epic adventure you just played through.

While movies continue to entertain us in a vicarious way, video games plunge us into the action and mystery of what's on screen. When the music escalates, we get nervous. In a movie, it's easy to yell at the screen, telling the curious person "don't open the door." In a video game, not only will the character open the door, you must be the one opening it. Movies are also a pleasant diversion for two hours, give or take. A video game story can last 10, 14, even 20 hours or more of game time. If its an RPG like Mass Effect or Dragon Age, be sure to clear your calendar. Friends meet at school, and talk about their experiences. Unlike a movie, it isn't about "did you see this", it's about 'this is what I did", or "how did you get past that?" It becomes a shared experience.

In terms of profitability, video games are more profitable than movies could hope to be. Consider the average cost of a ticket, $10, versus a game, $60. And yes, people gladly fork over that much, because they offer so much more. They're not just buying a compelling story, but a story they get to interact with. In fact, a 2008 survey shows that the film industry in the U.S. had a theatrical revenue around $9.5 billion. By way of comparison, the video game industry in the U.S. that same year was over $22 billion. To be fair, the DVD industry is more competitive at $23 billion. However, all projections show the game industry surpassing DVD sales soon. But DVD's or Video Games, the message is clear; people want to be entertained, and entertained at home. Here's a fine example, in 2010, three blockbuster films were released, Iron Man 2, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, and Inception. Their opening weekend grosses were $128.1 million, $125 million, and $62 million respectively. Collectively, that's over $315 million. Call of Duty: Black Ops, in its opening weekend, $650 million. If that isn't enough, Call of Duty not only makes money off the initial sale, but through periodic releases available as downloadable content. Then, a year after it's release, a new Call of Duty game is set to release. A never ending source of revenue.


  1. Gotta say I'm not sure I'm on board with this but it's an interesting topic for thought.

    I think the difference is "passive" vs. "active" activities. There are times when you want to participate in your entertainment and other times when you want to sit back and veg out. So I think the two mediums serve different entertainment functions.

    But ultimately, I think that you'll see a convergence between the two. If someone had told you 20 years ago that a phone, camera, and road atlas would be combined into one device you'd have called them crazy. But cut scenes in video games become more and more cinematic. I think that, after the 3D trend will eventually come an "interactive" movie where choices or reactions by the audience will dictate or impact the action on screen. This might include facial recognition technology that tracks eye movements. So ultimately it may be a moot point as video games and movies become more similar to one another and perhaps even blend together into one brand new medium.

    But to me it's clear that movies are still extremely more profitable when you include licensing fees and product tie-ins. Heck, Netflix just paid $30 million per film to stream Dreamworks movies. Movies keep earning money even into retirement while video games just go to the junkheap once the next one comes along.

  2. I wouldn't say that. Even the old school games like Galaga and Mrs. Pac-Man get repackaged from time to time, either as part of a collection or DLC. I think movies have potential for long term earnings while video games have a definite short-term gain.