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Video game turf wars: Hollywood vs. the gamers

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Steven Spielberg is the latest film director to jump into the video game world. His "Boom Blox," shown above, will be released in May of this year. (Courtesy of AtomicGamer.com)

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Steven Spielberg is the latest film director to jump into the video game world. His "Boom Blox," shown above, will be released in May of this year. (Courtesy of AtomicGamer.com)

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John Woo is a film director that has recently focused on directing video games. His 2007 "Stanglehold," shown above, achieved commercial success, but was not warmly received by the hardcore gaming community. (Courtesy of Midway Studios)

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After he made the movie, Peter Jackson demanded he be involved in the direction of the "King Kong" video game in 2005, shown above. Jackson is one of several film directors that are increasingly turning their attention to video games. (Courtesy of Ubisoft)

This month, film director and cultural titan Steven Spielberg will make his highly anticipated debut in the world of video games. The game, "Boom Blox," is a modern puzzle game where the player can arrange, knock over and blow up various block formations. Despite its seemingly basic premise, Entertainment Arts, the game company, has invested millions of dollars into the game's development and expects it to be a, well, blockbuster.

But many gamers are less optimistic.

"I know it's going to suck," Eddo Stern, an independent game developer and professor at Cal Arts University in Los Angeles. "And he's not even going to make it. He's just going to put his name on it because he knows nothing about games."

For the past decade, the crossover between Hollywood and video games has been on the rise. The new genre of video-turned-movie ranges from the Super Mario Brothers bomb to the amazingly successful Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. And video games based on movies, from Spider-Man to King Kong, made in conjunction with the film studios have become staples on video game store shelves.

Directors are now getting in on the action, viewing video games as the next great frontier in visual story telling. John Woo, known for his movies "Face Off" and "Mission Impossible II," made the video game "Strangle Hold" in 2007. Peter Jackson, the Oscar winning director of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, has signed a contract with Microsoft to make what is being billed as the next big adventure game and "Hellraiser" director Clive Barker made the game "Undying."

These directors have generated significant media attention for their games, and video game companies continue to pump millions of dollars into their development because mainstream game enthusiasts buy them in large numbers. Midway Studios invested $30 million in “Stranglehold,” and when it was released it was quickly landed on top 10 sales lists, according to media reports.

But hardcore video game enthusiasts, or "gamers," are not buying. The sales for these games range from "from decent to really, really bad," said, Giulio Graziani, the owner of Video Games New York, a specialty store in New York City's East Village.

Movie directors don't know how to make video games, gamers say, and their games typically amount to nothing more than a money-making marketing ploy. Their dissatisfaction reveals the tension between mainstream Hollywood and the gaming subculture that vehemently opposes their slick, packaged presence.

"I don't like film directors' games," said Kanelly Reyes, a 20-year old New Yorker who plays video games daily but prefers games that are more “original” than those film directors typically produce. "The game play is not that great in directors’ games. It's just two different mindsets."

Film directors' games often fail to satisfy gamers because game developing requires a different skill set. "In certain ways the challenges that are put in front of game designers are much more difficult than those in front of a film directors," Sid Shuman, senior editor at GamePro magazine, said. "They are two different worlds."

Games, unlike movies, involve an active audience. When a director makes a movie, he plots out the story line that the audience will passively follow, Shuman said. In video games, the audience has much more control.

"I don't know if traditional film directors know how to keep a story together when the viewer has the ability to control or alter the main story line," David Tractenberg, whose Traction Public Relations in Los Angeles is one of the video game industry's largest P.R. firms, said.

Tractenberg acknowledges that putting a film director's name on a box has a certain cachet, but, in the long run, he isn't sure the trend has legs.

"The film directors," Trachtenberg said, "are trying to take a non-linear medium and make it linear."

Moreover, the technical savvy needed to take full advantage of the medium is very different from the skills directors use. Movies typically operate in a universe bound by two dimensions and are governed by the world's physical properties, said Robert Taylor, the executive producer and director of Pendulum Studios, a company that directs video games. Video games, conversely, provide a blank slate many film directors have trouble fully utilizing.

"It's an understanding of staging," Taylor said, "of really taking advantage of a fully 3-D world you can create anything in."

What a director can add to a video game, mainly his or her ability to tell a story visually, is less important to gamers than the way a game feels when it is played. "The basic premise of narrative is highly contested in game developers' discussions," Stern, who, incidentally, teaches game design in Cal Arts' Film School, said. "There is a narrative camp and the game play camp."

Most serious game developers and gamers fall into the game play camp, which focuses on the mechanics of the game and views video games as a toy, not as a story. In their view, it doesn't matter where the main character is a hedgehog, plumber, super soldier, a unicorn or just a block. How the characters move and the mechanics of the game are much more important.

"A game just feels better when it is made by a game maker," Reyes, the New York gamer, said.

But EA is confident that Spielberg breaks this mold. "Most film directors in the past have taken the approach of let's stick to what we know and a strong story," said Amir Rahimi, the game's senior producer. "That's worked well in some cases and failed in others. I personally believe that the best way to make a good game is to build it from the mechanics out."

Spielberg was more concerned with how the game felt than with the story line, Rahimi said. Spielberg spent the first couple of months of the production working with EA on how the throwing motion with the Wii controller would feel, making it as realistic and fun as possible. "As a gamer, Spielberg recognized the importance of mechanics," Rahimi said. "I'm not sure how much other film directors have done that."

"He went completely away from the story angle," Rahimi said. "He took the approach that hardcore game makers ourselves would take."

The debate is, in fact, an emotional one. The heart of the matter goes deeper than who can best challenge the dexterity of a player’s thumbs. It’s a juvenile schoolyard situation played out in a multimillion-dollar industry arena.

"The sensibilities of the gaming subculture are different," Stern said, pausing to describe how film directors moving in on his territory makes him feel. "Suddenly the jocks are making games."

E-mail: jpj2110@columbia.edu