Gaming 2010: Let battle commence

With glittering red carpet launches and multi-million pound profits, games are taking on the movies – and winning. So what will be the biggest success of 2010? Michael Plant weighs up the contenders
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The Independent Tech

As daylight faded over London's Leicester Square on 9 November 2009, a familiar occurrence was taking place. Temporary fencing punctuated by thickset men in fluorescent all-weather jackets formed a perimeter, on the outside of which a crowd gathered. As the head count increased so too did the atmosphere of anticipation; tourists and office workers unified in their celebrity-spotting fervour. On the inside of the security however, the atmosphere was tangible, fuelled by the knowledge that something new and unprecedented was taking place.

This was no ordinary premiere. The carpet was camouflage print rather than red and the real stars in attendance had never been on film. The production being premiered was Infinity Ward's Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 (MW2), sequel to the highest-selling videogame of 2007 (with in excess of 13 million copies sold), and soon became the possessor of sales figures of the sort that makes movie publishers blanch. "Modern Warfare has exceeded our hopes and expectations, grossing an estimated $550m worldwide within the first five days of launch," says Andrew Brown, UK General Manager of Activision – the publishing house responsible for releasing the game – adding that it makes MW2 "the most successful launch in the history of entertainment". To put those figures into perspective, last year's highest grossing cinema release, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, took $394m within the same period at the box office.

Given this accomplishment, the decision to launch the game at Leicester Square was hardly surprising. As men in full army fatigues marched in file behind an armoured car before posing for the assembled photographers, the scene seemed a fitting celebration of the talent that went into making the game – and all that money. However, as the game's programmers followed in the wake of the faux armed forces, the crowds began to disperse. The knowledge that an A-list celebrity was not about to make an appearance had permeated through their ranks, an adroit example that the gulf between the film and games industries in terms of their media and public stature remains extant.

One organisation looking to boost the games industry's reputation is Elspa, the Entertainment and Leisure Software Publishers Association. "We are working to continue to raise the profile of the massive role which the games industry plays, in terms of its economic contribution and how it is shaping popular culture and leisure time [within the UK]," explains Mike Rawlinson, Elspa's director general. "Games are relevant to everyone – children, adults and families; there is a game for every type of player."

Andrew Brown concurs: "It's almost guaranteed that we'll see games being represented as a key media in their own right in the future."

If games are to take their place next to the film, music and book industries in the eyes of the mainstream media then the perception that games are a degenerate source of entertainment for troubled teenagers must first be remedied. "Nearly all of the mediums that are a now a staple part of our culture have been unfairly demonised at some stage in history – including television, music and literature," explains Brown. "As games are still an incredibly new medium, the negativity sometimes shown is not unusual. There are around 271 million gamers in the US and Europe alone, and the fastest-growing market in the industry is 25-34 year olds."

One developer looking to exploit the buying power of this age bracket is K Games. Famed for its story orientated, mature approach to games production, its next release, BioShock 2, is one of this year's more likely contenders to rack up high sales. The first BioShock sold over 2 million copies in less than 12 months during 2007; its sequel, which hits the shelves on 9 February, will be looking to eclipse those figures.

Anybody unfamiliar with the changing face of games might be surprised at the thought-provoking setting and plot of the BioShock titles. Designed to explore Ayn Rand's philosophy of objectivism, voiced most famously in her work Atlas Shrugged, the original BioShock followed the struggle for power between two would be dictators for control of the underwater city Rapture. Rapture, an Eden for the world's great thinkers, artists and industrialists, is K's version of Rand's Galt's Gulch, but in K's garden all is far from rosy. Great minds do not necessarily make great workers and Rapture's inhabitants soon find their systems decaying and society breaking down. Cut off from the surface, they are forced to fight for food, resources and their very existence. Those with the requisite knowledge enhance their bodies – science having made great leaps during the boom times of Rapture – but consequently the augmented survivors are warped grotesques, a parody of humanity.

BioShock 2 turns that idea on its head as it presents Rapture 10 years after the original's conclusion. A new dictator, Sophia Lamb, has assumed control of the city and altruism is the new philosophy being exalted. Gone is the worship of the great individual over the masses, instead Lamb has instigated a cult whose members are willing to sacrifice themselves for society's betterment. Super Mario Brothers it's not. "Sophia Lamb is [part] based on Karl Marx and John Stuart Mill, two altruistic philosophers who had a strong cause for the greater good but to a different extreme," says Jordan Thomas, creative director of the game.

A creation as intricate and intelligent as Rapture doesn't happen overnight; an experienced team, more than 100 strong, has worked for more than two years on BioShock 2, keen to evoke and evolve the successful formula of the original. All areas of the game must be enhanced; from the distinctive art deco-themed environments, impressive character intelligence – which creates the illusion of playing within a living, breathing city – and captivating storyline. "There's lots of pressure. Part of my goal is to ensure everything you experience has that very specific Rapture tone," he adds.

Despite this determination to make BioShock 2 an engrossing experience, enjoyable as much for its commentary on altruism as its volatile action sequences, it is still a videogame, and is judged as such. "Many of us grew up playing games with a simple interface and as time has gone on that interface has complexified," explains Thomas. "Now playing a game like BioShock 2, while we have made significant strides towards accessibility, is still something that would overwhelm my mum. Other mediums on the other hand require us to simply sit there and take it in."

This issue of accessibility is one that should be solved in time. Elspa's latest surveys indicate that the average UK games player is 33 years old. As that age goes up and the younger gamers of today grow up, games are sure to be targeted at an ever-growing audience. When this change takes place, and games compete ever more closely with movies for column inches and cold hard cash, perhaps Leicester Square games launches might become the norm rather than the exception.

As for BioShock 2, does Jordan Thomas someday hope to see the game's player-character, the lumbering, robot-like Big Daddy plodding down the red carpet? "I think he'd deserve it, he's been through a lot!" he says with a grin.

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