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Monday, May 08, 2006

What's next for video games?

Video Games Struggle to Find the Next Level
Christinne Muschi for The New York Times

Published: May 8, 2006

MONTREAL — Video games have used dialogue from movie stars, rappers and athletes, but Army of Two may be the first to incorporate a presidential speech.

The game, which is being produced here in a downtown loft by EA Montreal, a development studio for Electronic Arts, will prominently feature a recording of President Dwight D. Eisenhower's farewell address, in which he warned about the influence of the military-industrial complex.

If Army of Two, which is set in the moral gray zone of private military contractors, is something of an artistic stretch for video games, it also represents a large strategic shift for Electronic Arts, which has invested in a two-year development process that employs a team of 115 programmers and designers.

Over the last few years, many video game publishers have come to rely increasingly on sequels and licenses as a way to offset the risk of a development process that can cost more than $10 million, not including a substantial budget for marketing. Electronic Arts, the world's No. 1 game maker, has published titles based on licenses from the National Football League and the National Basketball Association, as well as film franchises such as James Bond, Harry Potter and "Lord of the Rings."

It can be an expensive habit. In general, movie studios typically get between 10 percent and 15 percent of net sales from a licensed video game, according to Anita Frazier, an entertainment industry analyst at the NPD Group, a market research firm. That would mean that for a successful game, the cost of the license can run to the high seven figures. And at a time when games tied to movies, such as "The Fantastic Four" last summer, have failed to sell, many game publishers are questioning whether the expense is worth it. Now Electronic Arts, like other game makers, is trying to develop more of its own game concepts from scratch.

"It's a huge priority," said V. Paul Lee, the president of the Worldwide Studios of Electronic Arts. About 40 percent of the company's revenue now comes from its own properties. "We want to get it over 50 percent," Mr. Lee said. According to Ms. Frazier, "Coming up with original intellectual property is something everyone wants to do, but it's difficult."

Successful video game properties like Halo and Grand Theft Auto also offer other benefits: the possibility of a franchise, as well as the opportunity to get on the other side of license deals. For example, Halo from Microsoft has spawned a best-selling sequel, a series of novels and a movie deal. And game developers need not worry about offending the artistic sensibilities of a film's director or producer.

Aside from Army of Two, Electronic Arts is working on Spore, a new PC game that is expected to be released in 2007. Furthermore, the company has announced a deal with Steven Spielberg, the movie director, to work on original concepts for games. And, the company decided not to renew its license for the James Bond series, which has now gone to a rival, Activision.

EA Montreal also represents a less corporate approach to development.

The staff of 150, whose members tend to be young and favor T-shirts and jeans, is made up of engineers, artists and level designers; they work in pods on specific aspects of the game, such as lighting and weapons behavior.

Maybe EA could treat their workers better and not kill them with 70 hour weeks and then mabye Madden might be playable again.

But what would you like to see done in video games?

posted by Steve @ 12:39:00 AM

12:39:00 AM

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