Game over for blood and gore

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The Independent Online
FORGET A Time To Kill and Resident Evil. Stop worrying about your child wanting to play Splatterball: its days are doomed. The future of computer games, according to one of the industry's most youthful innovators, is not about murderous mayhem. The next generation of games will be an intellectually stimulating combination of chess and war games. Strategy will be their chief attraction - and there won't be a gun in sight.

"There's no reason why computer games should be violent," says 22-year- old whiz-kid Demis Hassabis. "At first, when the graphics were more basic, all you could do was give a character a gun and see how many people he could shoot. As technology becomes more sophisticated, games will have to be more imaginative. There are a lot more interesting scenarios than gratuitous violence." And more commercial ones, too.

Mr Hassabis, who has already amassed a small fortune with his non-violent games, has now won a contract, worth around pounds 3.6m, to develop three new titles for Eidos, the creator of the Tomb Raider series. His company, Elixir Studios, which he set up last year in north London, now employs 15 people, all around his age.

Mr Hassabis describes the three new titles he's working on as "simulation and strategy". "Simulation is about the underlying environment - how it works and how the characters think and react," he says. "Strategy is a type of game like war games or chess. Most games are one or the other. We're trying to combine the two."

A chess master at the age of 12 - he still plays the odd game with Kasparov - Mr Hassabis had taught himself to program computers by the age of seven and by 13 he'd taken his GCSEs. He wrote his first game Theme Park when he was 16. "Theme Park was educational and taught you how to run a theme park; it tested you on finance and management. To appeal to a wider market, games will have to be more complex," he says. A fact that Mr Hassabis has already proved - Theme Park has sold 3.5 million copies worldwide and has earned him $80m so far.

Following Theme Park, Mr Hassabis was offered pounds 500,000 to produce another game but opted for a place at Cambridge instead. "At the time, my mates thought I must be mad to turn down half a million but I wanted to go to Cambridge for a social life. It was the best three years of my life." He left with a double first in computer science and the prospect of making a lot more money than he was initially offered.

Mr Hassabis's success in the market comes at a time when computer games have finally overtaken cinema in terms of profitability. Last year the industry was worth $15bn worldwide while the British retail market was pounds 1.2bn. Despite the vast profits involved, though, computer games still appeal only to a niche audience. "The holy grail in the industry now is to reach a mass market in the same way that music and cinema do," he says.

Despite the success of Tomb Raider and the game's racy heroine, Lara Croft (who is about to leap from computer screen to silver screen), the market still suffers from an image problem. Many of the games are still associated with male teenagers in their bedrooms, glued to formulaic sci-fi games, shooting anything that moves.

Mr Hassabis argues that the content of these games will change radically in the next two years, mainly due to advanced technology. "In two years' time, games will include a DVD [digital video disc] drive which you'll also be able to use to watch films and listen to music. It's the way all entertainment will go."

Consumer electronics companies are already researching ways of taking computer games out of the bedroom and incorporating them into everyday life. "Sony has talked about a character in your game that can contact you at work via a digital message on your mobile a bit like the Tamagotchi," says Paul Davies, editor of Computer and Video Games magazine. "The big deal is about communication."

According to Mr Hassabis, the next generation of games will also change the way we identify and interact while playing. "In adventure games, you're only controlling the character, the environment around you," he says. "In a game like Theme Park, you're more of a godlike figure, controlling everything; the whole world rather than just one role." Perhaps parents shouldn't relax just yet.

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