Live the world, don't tell the story

The games industry doesn't need to model itself on the film industry, argues Bill Thompson

Around the turn of the century, people were encouraged to explore a new medium, one based around a technology that could tell stories in a way that tapped directly into the viewer's emotions.

The medium was not videogames but cinema. Between the late 1880s and the start of the 20th century, motion pictures developed from an experimental technology into an established entertainment medium. There were thousands of kinetoscope parlours around the US and Europe and, after Robert Paul introduced the projector in 1895, large audiences for the short films of the day.

The early years of the film industry were as chaotic as any high technology start-up of today, as new inventions flooded on to the market and audiences grew. In the US, film-making became concentrated around southern California.

The Hollywood studio system emerged, offering Ford-like production lines for films with vertically integrated giants controlling every stage of the process, a model that survived for decades.

The big studios remain, but today the film industry in the west is far more fragmented, with star directors and actors holding the real power. It is not even clear that Hollywood is profitable: in Do Movies Make Money? insider Roger Smith calculates that the 2006 releases from Hollywood will lose $1.9bn over five years, once every source of income is added up.

There are some obvious parallels between the film industry and the relatively young videogames industry. Early games were commissioned by the companies that built arcade systems or written by hobbyists for the home computers of the eighties, just as early films were made by the inventors who developed cameras and projectors. As the technology matured, many small companies were started, and a period of consolidation in the 1980s and 1990s created Electronic Arts and the other giants we see today. Major players like Sony, Nintendo and Microsoft funded games development for their consoles, hoping to bring audiences to their next-generation platforms.

Independent control

Now there are signs that the studio model is breaking down - as it did with film. Big name designers like Peter Molyneux are attempting to control their own destiny just as film directors do, although they remain reliant on the big-name publishers to distribute their work, in the same way as independent film-makers need a distribution deal.

From the outside, games seem very similar to films and, indeed, the term "cinematic" is often used approvingly in reviews and discussion. Both are industrialised forms of entertainment, which rely on sophisticated technology to create a product and advanced capitalism to provide a market within which the product can be promoted, sold and consumed.

However, the superficial similarity disguises fundamental differences between the two forms of entertainment which may lead the games industry to diverge from the path taken by film.

Back in 2005, film director Steven Spielberg announced a working partnership with games company Electronic Arts to develop three games, including one for Nintendo's family-friendly Wii. The attendant promotion gave the film industry another chance to claim superiority over mere games developers, and Spielberg remarked: "I am a gamer myself and game development has always intrigued me."

It may have intrigued him, but the assumption that being a good film director automatically equips him to design and develop games is not one that many in the industry would support. Respected games developers like Shigeru Miyamoto, Peter Molyneux, Andy Schatz and Jenova Chen could reasonably argue that their skills in creating engaging and interactive environments are somewhat different from those needed to persuade a bunch of highly-paid actors to sit up and beg in front of the camera.

Commercial relationship

One reason for the confusion may be that the commercial relationship between films and games has been very lucrative, and there is much at stake in encouraging the belief that the overlap is meaningful. Film tie-ins are among the most-hyped titles each year, with Star Wars and Lord of the Rings leading the sale charts and Spider-Man, Harry Potter and The Simpsons all crowding out other games from the shelves.

But a game is not a story. It is a space for interaction and exploration, a space that may be dressed as a medieval world or a vast alien planet, occupied by human-like characters or small yellow blobs. Games require a very different form of engagement from film. Do nothing in the cinema and the story will continue without you. Press no buttons in a game and the action pauses, at least until a character turns up and kills you.

Self-direction

The digital technology that supports film is now very similar to that used for gaming, but the end results are very different. The emotion felt by the audience at the end of Annie Hall was put there by Woody Allan. The sense of achievement my son felt when he completed Halo 3 in hero mode came from inside him, facilitated by developers Bungie - but not created by them.

This difference has provoked a wide-ranging debate online, much of it spurred by a blog entry from RJ Layton, a student at the film school at the University of Southern California.

Studio-system parallels

In a provocative post titled "movies suck" this experienced gamer expressed his profound frustration with the view that "film is something that videogames should aspire to", telling games developers that "instead of trying to make a video game that accomplishes things that films do, why not make a video game that accomplishes things films were never able to?"

Game developers could model their industry on Hollywood, but we should not assume that there are any necessary parallels between the two or even that the games developers of tomorrow would want to find themselves in the same situation as today's struggling, undervalued and exploited independent film-makers. In the fragmented multimedia online world we are currently creating, the space for gaming may owe more to web development and virtual worlds than the old media style of the film industry.

Gaming and me

When I was younger I played Doom and Quake, years ago, on Network Systems but I was never a hardcore gamer. In the eighties, there was a game I liked - an adventure text-based game, called Unix.

About four years ago my son got an Xbox and he insisted I played on Halo with him.

What I want for Christmas...

If I were to get a game for Christmas, I would like a preview of Halo Wars, which is a multiplayer game due out next summer.

Bill Thompson is a technology critic and a trustee of the Cambridge Film Trust