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The YouTubing of Games

Video games get personal

4 min read

So we've heard the impressive numbers. Video game sales rose 6 percent last year to hit $7.4 billion in the United States alone. But there's just one problem: despite the ubiquity, the medium of video games has been largely impersonal.

Here's what I mean: we can personalize every other medium. Text isn't read-only; we can write it. We don't simply look at photographs; we take them. Same with movies and music. There is the capacity to be engaged as creators. And it's this potential for participation, whether we exercise it or not, that makes media so compelling. Harry Potter started with J.K. Rowling scribbling notes in a café. If she can do this, maybe you can, too.

But what about video games? I can't think of any other medium that has been so stubbornly--and somewhat surprisingly--closed. The arcade and console games that spawned the industry were fortressed. It took enterprising geeks to stage a participatory mutiny and bring down the walls. They hacked into computer games and modified them. They coded their own homebrewed titles on Apple IIs and PCs. But the video game industry at large went chugging along without them, and the garage-band gamer culture remained relegated to the computer underground.

After recently spending a week in Santa Monica, Calif., looking at the new titles at the annual E3 convention, however, one thing is clear: Video games are finally getting personal. Innovations in both digital distribution and content-creation tools are putting the power of participation into the hands of ordinary gamers like never before. At best, this empowerment will put this medium right in line with the others and make it truly mainstream.

The expansion of content-creation tools is the most exciting development I've seen in the industry in years. Now, of course, PC gamers have been hip to content creation since the days of Doom. But, as I've pointed out in Spectrum'sSandbox blogs, console makers have let their proprietary concerns keep the mods at bay. But no more.

Sony made the rather stunning--and widely overlooked--announcement that they will allow for user-created mods on the console version of the upcoming shooter Unreal Tournament III. That's a huge deal, because it represents the first time that one of the consoles has opened up the game field to content made by gamers. At E3, Microsoft also demoed a new feature in Halo 3 that allows players to make swift and sophisticated recordings--films--of their online multiplayer contests. And Nintendo will be selling homemade games via the Wii's digital delivery service.

User-made mods have fueled the success of franchises such as Doom, Quake, and Half-Life, and have paved the way for players to use game engines as animation tools (sometimes called Machinima). Credit Sony with having the most innovation in this area. As the company struggles with its decision to include the costly Blu-ray drive in the PlayStation 3, there's a new emphasis on engaging both players and engineers in the culture and business of game development.

In my blog, I wrote about LittleBigPlanet--a wildly inventive PlayStation 3 title that lets players design and share their own game levels on the fly. When I was interviewing one of LBP's developers at E3, he said his motivation for making the game was to emulate the joy of creating music. LBP pulls this off in spades; it's like a do-it-yourself Mario game for the 21st century. Another similar title coming (hopefully) next year is Spore, the world-simulation game from Will Wright. In Spore, gamers will breed and nurture a new life-form on a unique planet. Players can then visit one another's worlds, checking out the creatures as neighbors might stroll through one another's gardens.

What's happening here? Again, games are getting personal. They're not impersonal experiences that we merely consume; they're personal creations we design and share--like books, home videos, music, or movies. YouTube for gamers. MySpace for the Halo crowd. Imagine music without raw upstarts like Nirvana or Public Enemy, or film without a Spike Lee or Quentin Tarantino coming out of left field. For the game industry to mature, we need the indie, out-there, rebellious party crashers.

But it's one thing to engage users creatively and another to give their creations a platform. Now that's happening, too. I'm thinking specifically of Microsoft's Xbox Live Arcade, the online distribution service, and Sony's own online service, which includes the virtual world Home as well as downloadable games. Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo are realizing the power of user-generated goods--and the punk-rock potential of the gaming underground. The games cost at least 20 percent less than a retail title does and can be made for six figures, versus the several millions of so-called AAA titles. By making them available through the online networks, Sony and Microsoft have little risk and a big potential payoff.

Now we're seeing titles like Geometry Wars, a sleeper hit on Xbox Live, which was created for relative pennies but made a huge splash. At E3, I had a look at a game called Everyday Shooter, an arty Asteroids riff made by an earnest and talented young designer named Jonathan Mak. Everyday Shooter is a beautiful game to hear and play, something, like LittleBigPlanet, that's inspired by the joy of creating music but executed as a sweeping and visceral action arcade game. Mak made the game himself and got noticed by Sony at a game-design conference for indie developers. Now he has a distribution deal and a huge foot in the door. Kudos to him, and to Sony for giving little-guy gamers a shot.

So, the medium of games is opening up. The walls are coming down. Innovation is accessible. If you look back at the history of the game industry, all the titles we know and love came from the hearts and minds of a small group of players, or just one person: Doom, Civilization, SimCity. Those titles rose from the underworld because anyone who wished to program their own game on a PC could. Now, as consoles lower their gates, the next great game developers are about to crash through.

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