The Play's the Thing, but...
Issue: Volume: 26 Issue: 8 (August 2003)

The Play's the Thing, but...

In the 1990s, digital media convergence was the talk of the industry. Today, convergence is being used to describe the relationship between computer games and movies. The two mediums share not only an increased use of sophisticated digital technology, but also assets in the case of games made from movies. It's true that game developers now have many more of the filmmaker's modeling and animation tools available to them, albeit with smaller budgets. At the same time, the creative challenges central to each medium are distinctly different. The emergence of much more capable gaming platforms, ones that are beginning to remove the visual limitations previously inherent to game authoring, is bringing these differences center stage.

The feat of seamlessly combining live action with realistic CG was solved years ago in cinema. Effects directors have successfully depicted hurricanes, tornadoes, tidal waves, and authentic ancient cities. Moreover, behavioral models and the introduction of artificial intelligence now are combining to create an environment in which effects directors can command armies of tens of thousands of synthetic warriors doing battle in a realistic environment. Yet, at the same time, cinematic technology has presented a formidable moving target for game developers.

The most captivating games, such as Electronic Art's Medal of Honor: Rising Sun (above), pique players' interest by involving them directly in a screenplay-like story.
Image courtesy Electronic Arts (EA).

All these options are becoming available to game developers, but they need not be unduly impressed or intimidated by the nearly infinite computer power used by filmmakers today. It has been proven time and again that great CG alone is not enough to carry a major feature film. It is especially true of games. Simply adding higher polygon counts and more detailed textures on the same emotionally devoid game characters won't suffice. Sure, realistic images look great, but as users immerse themselves in the total experience of the game, they crave far more. Game designers will need to concentrate as much on character, plot, and sound as they do on graphics.

Game developers must also keep in mind that games are played for weeks or months, whereas films are viewed for only 90 minutes. As a result, games have the daunting task of holding one's interest far longer than any film. Games may have to provide a series of screenplay-like stories linked together in a common and flexible thematic framework, whereas movie screenplays engage the viewer, then bring the story to a single climax caused by a fundamental conflict that is eventually resolved.

The general populace attends films to be taken artfully through a journey, by a master storyteller, in which every twist and turn is a carefully crafted emotional and visual experience. Clearly we will continue to expect this from films, but we are increasingly expecting it in games as well. Yes, current games provide stories, but they often fail to combine artfully all the elements for supporting a story as films have done for years. The challenge is even more complex in gaming. How does one enable a dizzying array of interactive options and still retain the best of what a story is designed to provide? It's one thing to watch Spartacus on the screen and quite another to be Spartacus. The game designer battles to solve this main problem.

The game designer's quest, attempting to offer the quality of imagery to which the public has become accustomed in movies, often can be pursued to the exclusion of other tools. Rising Sun, the latest in the Medal of Honor series of games from Electronic Arts, is a good example of the right balance. Like all good movies, the game has a familiar and immediately engaging story, sophisticated graphics that provide geometric detail, and cinema-quality sound, to which it adds great gameplay that is absorbing at every turn.

As with good movies, Medal of Honor: Rising Sun engages its audience with an interesting story line and realistic graphics and audio.
Image courtesy Electronic Arts (EA).

In the game, players assume the persona of a Marine corporal and strive to survive the attack on Pearl Harbor, lead a battle at Guadalcanal, and rescue POWs in the Philippines. As I watched it played in a dark room with good speakers at the last E3 Conference, I almost felt as if I was watching Pearl Harbor in a theater.

Similar gaming experiences are likely to become more of the norm than the exception in coming years. A host of young, talented game developers around the world who are tired of playing catch-up with the movie industry are brewing a response to these design challenges. They are in pursuit of larger budgets, more challenging stories, and, in short, anything that brings a more satisfying experience to an increasingly broad game market.

In the future, the best games will involve players directly in great stories. Fear, inspiration, identification, uncertainty, and exhilaration...movies have been providing those things for years. Delivering these qualities by combining all tools at their disposal is the most important—and elusive—challenge that game developers now face.

Bill Kovacs one of the founders of Wavefront Technologies, is an advisor to production and software ventures in Southern California. He can be reached at