Network: Gaming is about to grow up

The computer games industry is ready to shake off its spotty teenager image and compete with television and movies for the adult audience. Hopes are pinned to the launch of Sony's PlayStation II and the creative possibilities it will bring. By Mark Chadbourn
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The Independent Culture
The lights have been dimmed, the wine has been poured, Catatonia's on the CD and the children are tucked up in bed. You're ready for a romantic night in. You could have rented the latest video, but instead you've decided to settle down together for a night's... gaming?

Hardly a likely prospect at the moment, but in about 12 months' time it promises to be a different story. The computer games industry is on the brink of a great leap forward which, it hopes, will finally dispel its spotty teenager image and establish itself as the third great world of entertainment.

Its earning capability is certainly on a par with music and movies already, but so far it hasn't established itself as an all-ages cultural force. Critically, games are generally seen as simplistic and immature. To break into the lucrative adult market, and to gain the kind of critical acclaim all games designers secretly desire, will require a complete industry makeover. And thanks to a $2bn gamble by Sony, that's just what it's going to get.

The key to this sea change is the PlayStation II, Sony's next-generation home entertainment console, which is due in early 2000. Any one of the 50 million people worldwide who have used PlayStation may find this a little hard to believe, but PlayStation II is so far removed from the device stuffed under TV sets that it might have been better if Sony had chosen a different name.

The key improvement is what Sony has christened the Emotion Engine - a chip with three times the processing speed of Pentium III and twice the power of a Silicon Graphics workstation. It's a hi-tech definition, but the result is high art. Anyone who has seen the top-level-only demonstrations of PlayStation II's capabilities comes away dumbstruck. The extraordinary detail of the images matches the best digital TV broadcast. Characters look like real people. Camera movement is so graceful, you could believe it had been directed by a Kubrick instead of a computer.

Sony, understandably, is keeping other details secret to prevent the PlayStation II being overtaken by competitors, but it is expected to be fitted with a DVD player and a modem for the expected massive growth of online gaming - the next big thing. It will be able to output to high- definition TV sets and computer monitors, and it should have a PCMCIA slot.

Sony has been telling games developers that it aims to sell a staggering 15 million consoles in just 18 months, with a price expected to be set low to fuel that kind of market penetration. Sony's clear goal is to get PlayStation II into every home as part of the home entertainment system - TV, VCR, games console.

Ian Livingstone, the chairman of Eidos, is someone who knows a great leap forward when he sees it. He set up Games Workshop in 1975 and launched Dungeons and Dragons on the world when everyone said games wouldn't sell. And, of course, he made Lara Croft into a cultural icon when it was common knowledge that games-players wouldn't take a female lead character.

"PlayStation II is awesome," he says. "There's no doubting it will be a key factor, which will put the games industry up there with movies and music. It already is, in financial terms, of course. The Tomb Raider franchise made $400m at retail, which is bigger than movies.

"But what will make that breakthrough with the public is PlayStation II's viewing image, which is of broadcast quality," Livingstone explains. "Once you've got an image like TV, you don't have to suspend disbelief. That's the key factor. Games are always seen as nerdy graphics, and that puts people off. With this, you don't have to be a nerd any more. Sony will make it cool."

The impending ascent of the games industry into a powerful entertainment force isn't just the spurious dream of a few hopeful anoraks desperately seeking credibility. There's already a groundswell of belief as major players suddenly take notice and prepare to enter the arena. Hot on the heels of the best-selling author Tom Clancy's games company, Red Storm Entertainment, comes Michael Crichton's Timeline Studios.

If anybody in the entertainment industry knows how to follow the money, it's Crichton. With books and films such as Jurassic Park and The Lost World, and the top-rated TV show ER, he has regularly been there at the start of a money-spinning trend. And with the graphics expert Michael Backes on board, he now sees the games industry as something that will rival the twin titans of movies and music.

"Technology has advanced tremendously and now it has reached the stage where it will allow me to do what I want," says Crichton, who released the game Amazon in 1982. "In the next year or so, games are going to go to places that few at the moment can imagine. It's going to be exciting, and I'm eager to be involved."

The impending romance between adults and games was given the Establishment seal of approval when Hollywood nominated the opening video sequence of Oddworld: Abe's Exoddus for an Oscar at the last Academy Awards. The games- makers are already gearing up for their biggest challenge.

Eidos has taken a licence for the UEFA Champions League and Formula 1 to target the massive sports market. They are big franchises which will be made fully interactive, attracting fans who wouldn't usually be seen within a mile of a games console. And the company is already preparing to launch Lara Croft into this new arena. Although there's not yet been an official announcement of Tomb Raider IV, Livingstone states the obvious when he says: "You haven't seen the last of Lara Croft."

Games-makers are desperately waiting for the PlayStation II developers' pack, which is expected shortly, but they've all got their ideas lined up. It seems that few doubt a major advance into the public consciousness.

"You can already see the signs of a breakthrough. When a company like Smith-Klein Beecham sees it as a medium to sell their products, you know things are happening," Livingstone says of the recent Lara Croft Lucozade TV ads. "And things will change very quickly - the signs are there.

"PlayStation II is compulsive and compelling, and it's interactive. One day everyone will have a computer in their home and it will be an entertainment machine. The games market has already been growing year on year. And with the changes in technology, people will be able to be Ryan Giggs running around on the pitch, or Lara Croft. It will be a very attractive proposition."

The kind of changes anticipated for the games industry will put new demands on the games developers. It currently costs about $1m to make a game. But for technology to come up with a product that will take advantage of PlayStation II's capabilities, that cost is likely to double or even treble.

However, it's not all about appearance. If games really are supposed to become a big pastime for all ages, there has to be a complete revamp of content, too. Strategy and simulation games appeal to a certain kind of adult gamer, but the stories and structure of most other games are stuck firmly at the post-pubescent level. To attract adults, you will need a game that stimulates at the level of movies like The Usual Suspects. Let's face it, how many grown-ups went to see the film Super Mario Bros?