E3 and what it means for the future of production

This week was my first visit ever to an Entertainment Electronics Expo, usually written as E3. Entertainment in this context means gaming – computer games. My desire to visit E3 was driven by a deep-seated feeling that I was ignoring an important cultural trend because it doesn’t intersect my life direction – I don’t play “video games” and I don’t have children, nieces or nephews nearby. But it’s hard to ignore an industry that reportedly eclipsed motion picture distribution in gross revenue last year. It hasn’t – Grumpy Gamer puts things into perspective.

That doesn’t mean that the gaming industry statistics are anything but impressive: Halo 2’s first day sales of US$125 Million eclipses the record first weekend box office (Spiderman 2002) of $114 milliion – a statistic the gaming industry likes to promote but isn’t as impressive when you consider whole-of-life revenue. Grumpy Gamer again. Gaming is a huge business and E3 had many booths that represent a multi-million dollar investment in the show by the companies exhibiting. E3, like NAB is an industry-only show (18+ only and industry affiliation required) and this year attracted 70,000 attendees (vs NAB 2005 with about 95-97,000) in a much smaller show area. This is big business.

But what has this got to do with “the present and future of production and post production”? There are three “game” developments that will, ultimately impact video production, post production and distribution. This is quite aside from the fact that, right now, video production for games is a big part of the expense of each game. Most games have video/film production budgets way above those of a typical independent film’s total budget. This presents an opportunity for savvy producers to team up with game producers for “serious games” – games aimed at education or corporate training. Video production alone is rapidly becoming a commodity service so working with a games company for their acquisition is a value add and opportunity in the short term.

Microsoft’s Steve Ballmer

Take today’s passive video content, add a little interactivity to it. Take today’s interactive content, games, and add a little bit more video sequencing to it. It gets harder and harder to tell what’s what…

In the longer term three trends will impact “video” production: graphics quality and rendering, “convergence” (yes, I hate the term too, but don’t have a good alternative), and interactive storytelling.

Graphic Powerhouse

We all owe the gaming community a debt of gratitude for constantly pushing the performance of real-time graphics and thus the power of graphics cards and GPUs. The post-production industry benefits from real-time in applications like Boris Blue, Apple’s Motion, Core Video in OS X 10.4 Tiger and other applications. Without the mass market for these cards they’d be much more expensive and would not have advances as quickly as they have.

The quality of real-time graphics coming from companies like Activision with their current release F.E.A.R. in a standard definition game, and the quality of their upcoming HD releases for next-generation gaming consoles is outstanding. In one demonstration (actual game play) of a 2006 release, the high definition graphics quality, including human face close-ups was really outstanding. Extrapolate just a few more years and you have to wonder how much shooting will be required. If we can recreate, or create, anything in computer simulation in close to real time (or in real time) at high definition, what’s the role of location shooting and sets? Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow and Sin City have shown that it’s possible to create movies without ‘real’ sets, although both movies seemed to have needed to apply extreme color treatments to disguise the lack of reality (or was that purely motivated by creativity).

Actors could be safe for a little while, because of the ‘Uncanny Valley’ effect, although the soldiers in Activision’s preview were close-to-lifelike in closeup, as long as you didn’t look at the eyes – the dead giveaway for the moment. Longer term (five + years) realistic humans are almost certain to come down the line. At that point, where is the difference between a fixed path in a game, and a video production?

Convergence

NAB has, until this year, long been “The Convergence Marketplace” without a lot of convergence happening. However, the world of gaming has converged with the world of movies a long time ago. It is standard practice for a blockbuster movie release to have a themed game available – Star Wars III: Revenge of the Sith and Madagascar have simultaneous movie and game releases. Activision’s game development team were on the Madagascar set and developed 20 hours of game-play following the theme of a 105 minutes movie!

Similarly Toronto-based Spaceworks Entertainment, Inc. announced at E3 a Canada/UK co-production of Ice Planet the TV series and game are to be developed together, again with the game developers on the set of the TV series shoot. Although the game and TV series can be enjoyed independently the plan is to enhance the game via the TV show and the TV show via the game. Game player relevant information can be found throughout each of the 22 episodes of the series’ first season – the first of five seasons planned in the story arc.

Whether or not Spaceworks Entertainment are the folks to bring this off eventually it will happen that there is interplay between television and related game play. Television will need something to bring gamers back to the networks (cable or broadcast) if there’s a future to be had there. (Microsoft, on the other hand, wants to bring the networks to the gamers via the Xbox 360.)

Interactive Storytelling

The logical outcome of all this is an advanced form of interactive storytelling that could supplant “television” as we know it. Or not. Traditionally television has been a lean-back, turn my mind off medium and I imagine there will continue to be a demand for this type of non-involved media consumption in the future that won’t be supplanted by a more active lean-forward medium. However, the lean-forward medium will be there to supplement and, for many people, replace the non-involved medium.

Steven Johnson’s Everything bad is good for you makes some valid points that suggest that the act of gaming might be more important than imagined (and less bad for you). From one review:

The thesis of Everything Bad is Good for You is this: people who deride popular culture do so because so much of popcult’s subject matter is banal or offensive. But the beneficial elements of videogames and TV arise not from their subject matter, but from their format, which require that players and viewers winkle out complex storylines and puzzles, getting a “cognitive workout” that teaches the same kind of skills that math problems and chess games impart. As Johnson points out, no one evaluates the benefit of chess based on its storyline or monotonically militaristic subject matter.

In the same vein, and a little aside, I was amused by this comment posted in Kevin Briody’s Seattle Duck blog that hypothesises how we would have contemplated books had they been invented after the video game.

“Reading books chronically understimulates the senses…
Books are also tragically isolating…
But perhaps the most dangerous property of these books is the fact that they follow a fixed linear path. You can’t control their narratives in any fashion: you simply sit back and have the story dictated to you…”

How far will we go with non-linear paths? Most games today have fairly limited, linear paths to a single destination, with a lot of flexibility in the journey. I’m no fan of first-person shooter games but can imagine becoming more involved with another type of story. Don your 3D immersion headset, or relax in your lounge with the 60″ wall-mounted flat panel, and join me in this week’s episode of (say) Star Trek TNG. Choose your character and participate in the story appropriately. Clues as to your behavior would be an optional “cheat” track (not dissimilar to the podcasts accompanying this year’s Battlestar Gallactica episodes). The rest of the characters would guide the story and respond to your participation, to whatever outcome. Whatever character role you took, would control the perspective of the show that you saw (when involved a scene).

Is this a game? Is it “television”? Is it something else? Storytellers have adapted their stories for specific audiences from the first day there were stories. Roaming storytellers would adapt details for kings or commoners, for this geographic region over that (often for their own self-preservation) so adaptive (interactive) storytelling isn’t new, just new to modern electronic media. Do a search for “interactive storytelling” at google.com and you’ll find many links. I just found that my hypothesis above has a name Mixed Reality Interactive Storytelling! The marketing people will have to massage that into something that would capture popular imagination.

None of this will have much impact on typical production this week, next year, or the five years following that, but some time in the future, at least some elements will have crossed over. In a very real sense, I went to E3 last week to get a sense of “the future of video production”.

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