Archive for the ‘media’ Category

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Worlds of Fantasy: fantasy… “…the biggest thing in our modern culture”??

March 17, 2008

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So, the final episode of BBC4’s Worlds of Fantasy series aired on Wednesday night (I caught it on the recently cracked BBC iPlayer) and it was easily the most interesting of the lot, managing to pack pretty much everything I complained about the absence of in the first two epsiodes. Under normal circumstances I’d have moaned about the overabundance of Terry Pratchett (as a teen I preferred Piers Anthony’s Xanth series) but in his favour he’s done a good job of popularising the genre and given that he just donated $1 million to Alzheimer’s research and is sadly suffering from the disease itself I think he deserves all the attention out of sheer respect, if nothing else.

It all began very well with some clips from World of Warcraft at long last, then drove straight into the subject of the post-war fantasy boom, with interviews from Michael Moorcock, who explains that coffee and sugar where his drugs of choice during the 60s, and, get this, Lemmy! While discussing the hippy movement’s love for Lord of the Rings the narrator, quite unintentionally states the funniest line on the whole series, when he says that ‘fantasy thrived in an underground scene of radical thinking, wild imagination and the kind of drugs that made people want to befriend elves’.

Moorcock draws an interesting parallel between rock’n’roll and fantasy genre, a point he explores in more depth in Wizardry and Wild Romance, the emphasis being on the ‘romance’ element. Given the penchant for fantasy imagery amongst ‘power metal’ bands like Blind Guardian, Doomhammer, and my personal favourite Crystal Viper this seems particularly relevant. We finally get to see some D&D in action with what appears to be a very young Steve Jackson and some very dodgily painted miniatures. We get a bit of Hollywood in here too in the form of Guillermo del Torro, director of Pan’s Labyrinth and even MMO’s own great grandfather Richard Bartle.

But the statement quoted in the title of this post is what surprised me most. Maybe I’m a bit out of touch here, but despite the popularity of The Lord of the Rinsg films and Harry Potter I thought that being a fan of this genre was nigh on the worst social stigma conceivable. Okay, so commuters unabashedly read Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings on the tube, but this falls a long way short of encompassing the genre as a whole. Perhaps it would be fair to say that ‘fantasy’ in the broadest sense is having a major impact on our entertainment preferences, especially if we count superheroes, supernatural horror and the ‘magic realism’ of shows like Pushing Daisies as well as the continuing production of more conventional fantasy releases like The Spiderwick Chronicles and the upcoming adaptation of The Hobbit. Perhaps it’s not a huge surprise that most of the conventional fantasy films are aimed at younger audiences, I’m doubtful we’ll see an Elric or Cugel the Clever film anytime soon, more’s the pity. MMOs are used to illustrate that people want to do more than just read about fantasical quests, they want to do them. We get lots of nice shots fro World of Warcraft and Lord of the Rings Online, but again, in the UK at least there is still social stigam attached to these games, even more so than single player games. This isn’t to say that fantasy isn’t appealing, I’ve noticed the strange gleam in friends’ eyes when I show them my Dungeonquest and Talisman boardgames, I’m sure I can see their inner struggle, their curiosity to know if it will be just as exciting to pretend to be a barbarian or magician as it was when they were kids, so perhaps the fantasy is better described ‘guiltiest pleasure’ in our modern culture.

The last part of the programme briefly discusses ‘The New Weird’ and its more gritty take on the genre, asking the question is fantasy popular because of some millinerian anxiety, a need for a escapism or an abstract lense through which to view the great fears of the day? It’s a difficult call really and I’m dubious that a single factor alone can have such impact. The Harry Potter series began in 1997 four years before 9/11 and The Lord of the Rings trilogy began its run in cinemas a year before that, so fantasy was rising in popularity before our fears became apparent. Could it have been a general response to the turn of the millenium? Well, give that prior to 2001 the greatest conceived threat was the ‘Millenium Bug’, a disaster movie concpet so unconvincing that even the most desperate Hollywood studio wisely ognored it, then I would say, no. Harry Potter probably has as much in common with The Famous Five as it does Lord of the Rings, maybe even more, and I think its popularity has as much to do with the reclamation of romanticised British culture from nationalism (and football) something ex-colonies, and probably most of the globe can appreciate. The Lord of the Rings films made the most of the amazing special effects available today and conicided with two other epic ‘fantastical’ trilogies (Star Wars prequels and the Matrix films) and is as much a part of their heritage as fantasy litertaure. Likewise the popularity of MMOs has as much to do with improved computer graphics, simplification of gameplay and the rapid spread of broadband than some underlying ideological pressure. Fantasy will probably always be there, it’s popularity like that of sci fi will wax and wane depending on the quality and relevance of media to societies tastes and preferences. Whether it will ever be accepted in the world of formal institutions is up to the next generation of those who find themselves in a position to champion its cause. I know I’ll be doing my best.

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Putting the Transmedia in Virtual Worlds

October 17, 2007

The only reason I use the word ‘transmedia’ without flinching is because Henry Jenkins bandies the word around as though it never was in fashion. And also because no-one has thought up a less crap alternative, so I will proceed to use it without shame.

I was aware that there was some kind of CSI-virtual world crossover event, but the details announced at last week’s Virtual Worlds conference in San Jose sound even more interesting than I expected. Anthony Zuiker’s (CSI’s creator) ambitious and ARG-like approach to Second Life is extremely refreshing, he seems to have grapsed how 3D interactive spaces can be used to augment stories and therefore take their audience with them. This is something I’ve been excited about seeing attempted for some time as I’m sure is the case for many others. One of Second Life’s biggest failings for me has been its lack of ‘narative’, for want of a better word. The roleplaying sims tend to be fairly exclusive and even adventures/quests, like IBM’s black box feel low key because there seem to be no buzz surrounding it, taking away the feeling that as a participator you’re part of something big.

It will be interesting to see just how successful something as mainstream and old media as CSI will be in the virtual world context. I have my fingers crossed though, because should it work it will undoubtedly open the gates for many other fiction driven IPs to try similar things. As Reuben Steiger CEO of Millions of US stated “What doesn’t really exist are case studies that we can point to … and say,’ Look, here’s a hit that was produced out of this fledgling media’… There are ideas out there that are really, really exciting, but they’re going to require risk taking. The more hits we have, the less risky it will seem.” Naturally, not every TV show will necessarily be able to pull something this big off but there are plenty of alternatives, for example Kaneva have the rights to recreate the Family Guy house in in-world, where users can watch family guy epsiodes, for example.

A concern that crossed my mind was that the potentially mass audience that CSI migh introduce to Second Life would be lost once they tried to figure out the notoriusly difficult-to-use interface. Zuiker stressed that he intends to make it as easy for the Second Life virgin as possible through “shorter download times and an avatar of Zuiker to walk visitors through the virtual Manhattan” , but the big news is Electric Sheep Company’s OnRez viewer that claims to dramatically simplify the UI experience. This is significant , and long overdue, news in itself so it’s no surprise that it ‘s not the only web browser available, Japan’s 3Di recently announced the Alpha of their Movable Life viewer, albeit with mixed reception from users, InDuality’s web browser is also compatible with Club Penguin, Blink 3D and X3D, and back in July a UK student pulled together a Ajax Second Life browser.

Together with Metaplace, Whirled and the BB’s TV-virtual world crossover, 2008 promises to be a very interesting year for virtual worlds although not all agree that the encroachment of big, old media into previously ‘native’ communities is such a great thing, the former examples make it easy for users to make their own virtual worlds without necessarily giving access to large companies, so it sounds possible that there will be something for everybody.

In other Transmedia news, the first few pages of the World of Warcraft comic are on show at MTV’s Multi Player blog and Halo 3 scares the movie industry!

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For Love or Money? Making MMOs pay

September 18, 2007

Glad to be back after a very busy month. So what’s new…?

Virtual Worlds News has a whole series of blog entrieswith transcripts/notes from the Austin Game Developers Conference (AGDC) which are very interesting to read. This discussion of MMO subscription models managed to cover a whole host of other fascinating subjects so I recommend reading the whole thing. Personally, I feel that there are plenty of opportunities to do MMOs without the monthly subscription fee and the monthly subscription model it seems is becoming less of a norm. For example the up and coming online FPS Kwari will be buit around micropayments for guns, equipment and ammo, in return players receive money for succesful hits, the discovery of special items, and the completion of quests. Hellgate: London has opted for a standard free play option and a ‘premium’ option that requires a monthly subscription fee that gives better customer service and access to ‘elite’ items, new quests, monsters, areas etc. Both these approaches are very interesting, but clearly are as yet unproven (both games are in beta, I believe). The ‘success story’ for the conventional MMO is Guild Wars, which offers a free to play service following purchase of the initial game, with revenue built from the purchase of expansion packs. Although Guild Wars is rarely included in discussions of ‘successful MMOs’, Xfire’s recent data publication put it at the number 2 spot for MMOs, compared to Eve Online and Lord of the Rings Online at number 6 and number 8 respectively.

Raph Koster’s list of successful non-subscription based MMOs unsurprisingly focused on the less graphically superior examples, aimed at children, tweens and teens – Barbiegirls.com, Club Penguin and Habbo Hotel. All three have been very successful, with Barbiegirls.com registering over 4 million sign-ups in just a few months, Club Penguin being snapped up by Disney for $350 million and Habbo Hotel claims to have 7.5 million users. However, all bar Habbo Hotel are relatively new and their subscription models are in the long run unproven.

Beyond revenue, what is it that players of these games are actually getting out of them, are we seeing similar levels of blogging, forum chatting and machinima that are associated with an MMO like World of Warcraft? One thing I feel that Raph overlooks is that to engage with the most interesting features of many of these MMOs players need to pay a subscription fee or make some other kind of payment. A $6 subscription fee in Club Penguin will allow you to buy clothes for your penguin, and according to this article from 2006, 850,000 of Runescape’s 5 million user base pay the £3.20 for access to new areas, monsters, skills etc. that non-paying accounts don’t get.

If I understand this article correctly, Barbiegirls.com requires users to have purchased the MP3 player to access most of the important content which at approximately $75 (Canadian), the price of a boxed retail game, and with the promise of $9.99 accessory packs ‘free’ goes out of the window really.

While I appreciate Raph’s insistence that the typical computer game developer isn’t really clued in to ‘web 2.0’ themes, so far the players seem to have made up for that gap in the business model through UGC mediums, especially machinima. It might be fair to say that the models used by Barbiegirls.com and Habbo Hotel have more in common with web 2.0 practices but that may be out of a necessity to develop a business model that depends on players who, in the majority of cases, don’t own credit cards.

The big question concerning the success of these MMOs will be their response to the use of their IP outside the game environment. Runescape RMT abounds and there is plenty of Runescape machinima on Youtube, and Club Penguin seems to have a strong tradition of machinima that doesn’t seem to have slowed down following its purchase by Disney, but how will a home-grown IP like Barbie work in this kind’ve context. I found only one or two examples of Barbiegirls UGC on Youtube, which used stills rather than ‘action’ footage, but it will be interesting to see how it evolves and what Mattel’s response will be should any video cross into ‘unsuitable’ territory.

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Virtual Worlds and Computer Games: Destinations or Starting Points?

August 27, 2007

Having not had a chance to post anything for the past fortnight, I feel a little cheap returning to a subject I covered in my last blog post but as the business roles of virtual worlds and gaming evolve I think these are important moments to take not of along the way.

The first piece is an example of Hollywood/virtual world crossover; John August’s ‘The Nines’ (you can see the first nine minutes here and the trailer here), which involves some virtual world elements (note ‘The Sims’ style icons over people’s heads in the trailer), incorporates Second Life in part of its promotional ARG (alternate reality game). Although the Second Life element makes up just a part of the ARG, August himself stated in an interview (in SL) that had he known more about SL would have played a bigger role (I’m not cynical enough to believe he was saying that just to keep his audience happy).

The other news of interest came from Yves Guillemot, CEO of Ubisoft, furthered the claim that they intend to push into ‘film’, promising a short CGI piece as support to the upcoming Assasin’s Creed game. In past interview he has also stated that they see their competitors not just as other gaming companies “but books, films, the internet, theatre and music.”

This echoes the sentiment expressed by Neil Young of EA games in Kristin Thompson’s book ‘The Frodo Franchise’:

“If you think about the way EA has to grow to be the next great entertainment company instead of just the best game company, we have to move further along the continuum of intellectual-property ownership. It’s our objective ultimately to be creating intellectual properties that would move onto other media – that would move into film, move into television, move into books. Just like the film studios’ motivation is to move to games, to own game companies”

Ubisoft’s and EA’s angle on this may seem overly ambitious but I’m intrigued to see what they come up with. To be frank though it comes down to money: if the gaming industry wants to rival, say, Hollywood then it needs to find more sources of income beyond hardware and games. While all eyes are on Hollywood’s annual blockbuster releases these represent only a fraction of their income, the rest coming from licensing agreements for merchandise, TV stations and, yes, computer games.

While Hollywood benefits from game tie-ins, many of which are very desirable from the perspective of the games companies the same cannot be said for the desirability of games franchises by Hollywood. While EA paid something in the range of $10million a piece for the rights to make games based on ‘The Lord of the Rings’ and Harry Potter’ films, Eidos received just £1million in licensing from Paramount for the rights to make ‘Tomb Raider’ (whether this included rights to the sequel I’m uncertain, a seperate deal will be negotiated for the third). To make matters worse most computer game adaptations have fared poorly at the box office movie, Tomb Raider being one of the few exceptions*. Hopefully Halo or even the World of Warcraft movies can change that. At the moment few games spawn successful merchandising lines, although the first Halo novel ‘Halo:The Flood’ got onto the best-sellers list when it was released in 2003 and Th WoW TCG seems very popular. But, and this is the main point; do people other then the players of these games actually buy these things? I imagine not.

Thinking about how to explain this problem I came up with the idea of ‘Destination’ and ‘Starting Points’. ‘Starting Points’ are media that drive people to other media, these other media being ‘Destinations’. ‘Destinations’ may be starting points for some, but usually a niche or minority. Virtual worlds and computer games are starting points for a minority, probably a growing minority, but a minority all the same, which means that media that originates from them tends to be limited in terms of audience. This problem is compacted when said ‘Destination’ media fails to impress the broader audience at whom it is aimed. For example, I doubt many of those people who were not players of the Doom computer games who went to see the film adaptaion were impressed enough to go on and try the games. As noted above upcoming films like Halo might alter this dynamic. Second Life is in a similar position, regular media coverage has encouraged somewhere in the region of 8 million people to try it out (give or take a few thousand multiple accounts) but only 500,000 or so to stick it out. As a ‘Destination’ it lacks, what they call in the industry, ‘stickiness’.

Ubisoft and EA have a big challenge ahead. Will the CG Assassin’s Creed ‘film’ be anymore than a glorified ad for the game, or will it generate revenue, will it be sold to media companies as a piece of programming? It’s interesting to compare computer games to other niche media genres. Comic film adaptations barely existed following the success of the Superman films of the late 70s/early 80s (Captain America, The Punisher adaptations barely registered on the popular culture radar, along with the Spider-man TV series of the early 80s), but the broad appeal and commercial success of the first X-Men film in 2000 changed the attitude of both Hollywood and filmgoers toward this genre. Even relative failures such as Daredevil, Hulk and Superman Returns have done little to damage enthusiasm for the genre (at least not from the studios’ perpectives). Figures from 2002, the year Spider-man topped the box office saw comic sales up by 10%, success may be seen to stem from a number of factors including promotions such as ‘free comics day’ but surely the massive mainstream success of the Spider-man film had some influence on these figures. Undoubtedly yes, but to what degree is less clear. Marvel’s third quarter report from 2002 showed a big increase in sales but was somewhat ambiguous on the issue of what those sales constituted: licensing and toys demonstrated increased sales, as for publishing sales (comics and graphic novels), Marvel were a little more sketchy on just how great increases were. Ironically enough, in terms of the stock market Activision benefited more from the Spider-man franchise than Marvel did seeing a 12% rise in stock versus Marvel’s 5.5%.

On paper Marvel had a great ‘Starting Point’ in the Spider-man movie, and unlike the X-Men films it maintained much of the traditional comic book look and feel, including an only slightly modified spandex costume, but this didn’t bring the same broad audience to the comic/graphic novel ‘Destination’ point. This might have been a distribution issue and Marvel themselves had been struggling to maintain their market since the mid 90s (see this great two-part article for more on this), but these are the kinds of things companies expanding into unexplored media pastures need to consider. Given that comic books and computer games have similar core markets I think that Ubisoft and EA need to take note of Marvel’s plight.

*Read Kristin Thompson’s ‘The Frod Franchise’ for more details (sorry to go on about this book but it is absolutely amazing!)

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Media that Crosses the Line

August 11, 2007

The recently released Transformers game tie in with the film of the same name was like Spider-Man 3 before it, something of a disappointment if most reviews are to be believed, and it’s probable that very few people are surprised about this. As usual movie/game synchronicity is seen to be the blame here with some reviwers commenting that the game felt incomplete. Computer games based on film franchises are typically seen as a short-term merchandising investment hence the need to match release dates with the film releases, short-term might be good for the film studio’s pockets, but it isn’t good for gamersor more importantly the reputation of franchise based games.

There is hope though, and I use ‘hope’ optimistically but cynically. The current US box office smash ‘The Bourne Ultimatum’ won’t be accompanied by a gane title of the same name, instead the game entitled ‘The Bourne Conspiracy’ won’t be released until 2008 the reason being that “… we didn’t have enough time to build a quality ‘Ultimatum’ game and come out with it at the same time as the movie. So we decided to do things differently, something new.” Whether or not this results in a quality game is another question, but it’s a turn for the better.

The other franchise game that caught my eye is Ubisoft’s Beowulf (see the game videoclip below). Although the game is due out at the same time as the film (November, I think) so a rushed release could still result in a sub-standard game, but in an interview in this month’s Edge magazine provided some hope. Rather than follow the film narrative which will show an aged Beowulf recounting the tales from the past 30 years of his life, the game will fill in the gaps between the events Beowulf tells. This promises to give players plenty of opportunty to battle various monsters from Anglo-Saxon and Nordic myth using the many combat moves available while improving standing with Beowulf’s thanes and this his reputation as a strong and generous ruler. The step Ubisoft have taken that differs from many franchise games is rather than creating filler content to pad out the gaps between ‘boss fights’, they have chosen to make the filler material the core content of the game, which will hopefully give it more variety.

A great book for insights into movie-game relations is Kritin Thompsons’ ‘The Frodo Franchise: the Lord of the Rings and Modern Hollywood’ (which arrived on my doorstep just this morning, thank you Amazon). A very well respected practitioner of film studies, Kristin was allowed unprecedented access to many of the cast and crew of The Lord of the Rings films, including marketing, fansites and communities and a whole chapter dedicated to the process by which the computer games were made. This account shows the great difficulty EA had in getting access to props and designs from the film-makers, for example there is a request sheet for the ‘Mouth of Sauron vocals’ which as yet didn’t exist and a request that the in-game Shelob design be altered because it was too similar to the ‘top-secret’ design used in the film, which needed to remain a secret until the film’s release (the computer game of ‘The Return of the King’ was released before the film’s debut). There’s a great quote from Neil Young, executive producer of the ‘Lord of the Rings’ games for EA, concerning the problems they faced – “It was a big deal, because it meant that we essentially had to produce high-quality software on a very compressed schedule. If you think about it what the games are, they’re like an action-reel highlight of film of the actual movies themselves, and I think given more time, the games would have had different dimensionality”. This last point sums it up for me, both ‘The Bourne Comspiracy’ and ‘Beowulf’ are attempting to do something different from the film with their game content. In the former, the game developers are doing something radically different in the latter they are actively adding new content to the Beowulf story (in both the film and the book!). Given that prior to ‘The Lord of the Rings’ games there was little interaction between the film making and game making process and that has now become a norm, maybe the two franchises above will set a new precedent that will vastly improve the quality of games based on franchises.

There is a great three part interview with Kristin Thompson on Henry Jenkins’ blog here, here and here.