Saturday, August 24

The next generation of gaming emerges


Those familiar with the brick-breaking, mushroom-munching Mario of olden days will have just one question when they get their hands on Nintendo’s blockbuster Wii title “Super Mario Galaxy” on Nov. 7. Exactly what was in those mushrooms?

In “Super Mario Galaxy,” the lovable Italian plumber soars across psychedelic, star-studded landscapes, contesting with variable gravities, planet-sized monsters, and mind-bending game mechanics ““ all controlled with the furious waving and twirling of a Nintendo Wii remote.

Gaming, along with the “Mario” franchise, has come a long way. With the advent of photorealistic graphics, burgeoning online gaming communities such as Xbox Live, and innovative control methods, video games are emerging as a new medium of communication in their own right. Through video games, designers are telling stories and creating games that can only be described as art.

Businesses are also reaching increasingly large audiences ““ blockbuster video games such as “Super Mario Galaxy” or “Halo 3″ have budgets, developmental cycles and audiences that match those of most big-screen movies.

“Games, like movies, can give people a taste of something they’ll never experience in the real world. … I consider them to be a really similar animal, you know, games and movies,” said Douglas Ward, a professor and manager of UCLA’s animation department.

The gaming market is expanding at an incredible pace. The phenomenal popularity of Microsoft and Bungie’s “Halo” franchise is unprecedented, with the revenue from the first 24 hours of the third installment’s retail surpassing that of the opening weekends of “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” and “Spider-Man 3,” according to GamesIndustry.biz. On Sept. 25, the day “Halo 3″ was released, more than 1 million people signed onto Xbox Live to play the game.

The huge audience for games is growing not only in size but across demographics. Nearly 40 percent of gamers are female, and similarly, nearly a quarter of gamers are over 40, according to a Benchmark study by the Nielsen Entertainment’s Interactive Group.

“Maybe it’s a grandma playing “˜Brain Age’ or a girl who trains her Nintendogs every day. You might even have a dorm

party of retro-loving students who downloaded “˜Mario Kart 64′ from the Wii Shop Channel and stay up all night holding tournaments. We think everyone’s a gamer,” said Amber McCollom, senior manager of public relations for Nintendo of America.

This rapid growth can be explained by a general trend toward interactivity within the entertainment industry, according to Bill Barminski, a digital media professor of the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television. What do you get when interactivity meets entertainment?

“Games,” said Barminski.

The new season of “The Office,” for example, premiered with Dunder Mifflin Infinity, a kind of “˜fantasy Dunder Mifflin Paper Company’ game. Blockbuster movies like “Lord of the Rings” and “Spider-Man” are being turned into games, and blockbuster games like “Halo” and “Doom” are being turned into movies; interactivity and entertainment go hand in hand.

Does this mean we’ll be playing our way though a Scorsese film in the near future? Probably not, but developers, consumers, and writers are starting to see games in entirely new ways.

Building communities through gaming has increasingly become the focus of game developers. The line between reality and gaming blurs in MMORPG (Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game) where players can sell their gaming skills for cash and form lasting personal relationships on the basis of their electronic/Internet interactions.

“An MMORPG is more about the socializing than real gameplay,” said Etana Jacobson, a UCLA graduate film student and writer for recent video games such as “Lair,” “Star Wars III,” and “Gods and Heroes.” “You want to keep people playing and buying crap … so I think it’s better to have more and more audience interaction.”

For gamers such as Jun Sung, a first-year mechanical engineering student and “Starcraft” enthusiast, games are both entertainment and communication.

“(Gaming) is a wonderful tool to keep in touch with my high school friends, and a lot of my old friends and I get together online and play,” Sung said. “Multiplayer is essential for new games. … You can enjoy it, and talk about it with your friends later. … I think that’s a really important thing about gaming.”

This expansion of gaming into other spheres of society is partly the product of the unique gaming hardware found on the Nintendo Wii. The Wii’s motion sensing technologies have provided developers with a brand new arsenal of interfaces. The Wii Balance Board, retailing in 2008, will bring an odd combination of fitness and entertainment to the console.

“The Wii Balance Board has pressure-sensitive sensors that measure balance and can sense center of gravity,” McCollom said.

Those who purchase a Wii Balance Board can almost certainly look forward to a motion-specific skateboarding or snowboarding video game, in addition to Nintendo’s WiiFit, which offers an array of fitness games.

The Nintendo DS also uses technology to expand gaming possibilities.

“The portable Nintendo DS has dual screens, one of which is touch sensitive. It also has voice recognition abilities and wireless communication, which all add up to make it completely different from any other game machine. Developers continue … to use these tools in new ways,” McCollom said.

“We’ve taken the industry in a completely new direction. We’re trying to bring the world of video games to new audiences.”

Some long for the simplicity of the past where gamers were just gamers, not grandmas, and games were just games, not jazzercise software.

“I don’t care much about the graphics or anything. I don’t like gaming when things get too complicated to enjoy.” Sung said. “It’s exhausting.”

But as the number of Wii peripherals pile up, and as Xbox and PS3 games dig even deeper into fans’ pockets and monopolize ever more of their time, one thing remains clear about the multibillion-dollar gaming industry: It’s not just a game any more.

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