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Improving the game

Rebecca Cannon

Rebecca Cannon is a media artist, writer and curator who has written extensively on artistic computer game modification.

Gaming is the fastest growing industry in the world, now grossing more than Hollywood in immediate sales. It has been suggested by game theorist Espen Aarseth that “the mass market of computer games is the single most effective cause of the demand for increasingly faster computing from the general public.” Computer game technologies have extended beyond entertainment to be used in the fine arts, education, military, medical, and architectural industries, and have even been used as tools for political amelioration (the US military-designed game SENSE was played by the President and other officials in Bosnia to aid reconstruction efforts). For a technology of such social import, surprisingly little is known about the industry responsible for its evolution.

Offering the public first hand information from game industry insiders is Game Loading, a regular interactive forum organised by the Screen Education department at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI). The forums are open to the public, but are targeted at secondary and tertiary students of multimedia, arts and media studies who are interested in games and might consider the games industry as a potential place of employment. In addition to outlining how animators, graphic designers, filmmakers and sound artists have found employment in the industry without specific game-making experience, Game Loading has raised broader issues faced by artists working in a creative industry which, in many ways, does not yet afford full creativity.

David Hewitt, lead designer at Tantalus Interactive, discussed the frustration faced by game designers who yearn to write interesting, creative games but are limited by the demands of a risk-averse industry. Publishers still prefer to back re-workings of last year’s big hit rather than experiment with novel content. In comparison to the film industry, where some auteurs easily source financial support after a single offbeat art house hit, game auteurs of equal calibre must repeatedly challenge publishers’ demands. Even Will Wright, with SimCity under his belt, found it difficult to develop The Sims because the concept looked poor on paper.

Hewitt feels that the problem ultimately rests with consumers, who continually purchase substandard games due to a lack of knowledge regarding game design potential. For example, Hewitt suggested there is currently room for improvement in the degree of emotional engagement aroused by computer games. He referred to Iko as a singular example of a commercial game that proffers sensitive emotional engagement, eliciting deep empathy between the player and a game character. Other complex emotions such as fear and sadness have yet to be drawn out by game content, rather than the currently sought after excitement and curiosity.

Other works presented at Game Loading, such as SelectParks’ AcmiPark game-based interactive, further illustrate creative avenues that could be explored by game designers given the chance. AcmiPark required the development of a new game engine that could support sophisticated sound requirements. These included: complex, realtime, interactive, generated audio; a live, in-game, streaming concert venue; and the programming of subtle, time-based, tonal variations in sound effects. These developments have put in-game aural aesthetics at a new level. Given the range and flexibility of technology and artistic media available to game developers, AcmiPark suggests that the surface potential of game design has only been scratched.

AcmiPark succeeded in delivering this degree of innovation because of its status as an art-based, non-commercial project. It received financial support from the Victorian State Government through the Digital Media Fund (DMF) and was provided sponsored use of Renderware.

Other game projects to receive arts funding include Escape From Woomera (Australia Council) and Street Survivor (City of Melbourne), but these projects are exceptions to the norm. DMF game funding has shifted direction dramatically since reverting to the control of Film Victoria. Despite the fact that the fund has provided a rich breeding ground for innovation because it is independent of publishers, new criteria demand that all funding applicants secure links with publishers. As a result, Victorian government funding for game development is now delivered to already successful developers, whilst mini-developers focused primarily on research and development are neglected. With the world’s largest publishers, such as Sony, now implementing research and development departments, Australian government funding must support non-commercial development if our industry is to seriously challenge its international competitors.

The next Game Loading will be held in early August, featuring programmer Paul Baulch from Atari discussing Artificial Intelligence in games.

Rebecca Cannon is a media artist, writer and curator who has written extensively on artistic computer game modification.

RealTime issue #61 June-July 2004 pg. 39-

© Rebecca Cannon; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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