Unrisky Business

The lush countryside is bathed in golden light. Horses’ hooves fwhump solidly into the turf. Pistol shots are sharp, commanding. The period detail is unbelievable. The main characters have been acted well (with one or two exceptions), and extras wander everywhere you look. You really do have the sense of being in a 19th-century town on the frontier of the American West, where morals and ethics are dictated by who controls the land, and control is wrested through the merciless application of hot lead. The idealist fights for his notions of justice, the rancher fights for his livelihood, both fight to win the affections of the alluring madame of the local brothel – the realist, as usual – who is happy enough to have the attention. The characters are, on the whole, well drawn. The plot, such as there is, is engaging. The biggest release of the year, it bogs down in places, but there are hours more content here than usual.

The rise of the Western game? A new MMOG in hush-hush development at EA? Neversoft and Activision’s open-world shooter, Gun?

In fact, it’s none of the above. It’s the 1980 epic film Heaven’s Gate by director Michael Cimino. It won’t be coming to an Xbox360 near you anytime soon, but it just may hold important lessons for the future of the gaming industry.

Heaven’s Gate is a gorgeous film. It’s a bit too long and a bit too self-indulgent (it clocked in at three and a half hours when originally released), but the lessons it holds have little to do with art, storyline or gameplay. The lessons it holds have to do with money, where it comes from and how to get it. And as much as we’d prefer it were otherwise, it’s money that determines whether the games we play are mind-blowing pieces of interactive art or mind-numbing sequels in yet another licensed franchise.

Where money in the games industry is concerned, of course, there’s no better place to find it than at Electronic Arts, Inc., the industry’s behemoth. EA took in almost $3 billion in revenue in its 2004 fiscal year, and is looking to grab about 10 percent more than that in 2005, about what eBay takes every year. While it stumbles now and then (as it is doing, slightly, now), EA has gone from a ballyhooed upstart when Trip Hawkins founded it in 1982 to the biggest, richest company on the face of the planet devoted exclusively to bringing people semiconductor-based fun.

But its size doesn’t necessarily mean EA is the best. Riches are not the mother of invention. Gamers are often surprised when riches and invention walk hand in hand, and don’t often expect it from a cash-heavy company like EA. Except by those loyal Madden NFL fans, EA gets slapped around and spat on for being the evil empire of game development on a daily basis. You name the name, EA has been called it. Profit-hungry. Power-mad. Uncaring, uncreative and uncouth, not to mention unethical and even underhanded.

The company definitely has its faults, where its products are concerned (as well as in other areas, as ea_spouse can tell you). Licenses are not the sole ingredient of good games. Just because you have Batman, James Bond, Harry Potter, Marvel Comics, the Lord of the Rings, The Godfather and pretty much every major sports franchise on the face of the planet – from the NHL to the NFL, NCAA football and basketball, golf stars, NASCAR, FIFA soccer, the NBA and even a non-sport sport like Arena Football – doesn’t mean your games are engaging and fun.

It doesn’t mean that all of them are yawners, of course. Madden NFL 2005 is one of the best-loved sports games around. From its humble beginnings with games like Archon and Pinball Construction Set, EA has since shepherded great games like Battlefield 1942 and Battlefield 2, Need for Speed and the most popular computer game of all time, The Sims (even if the company at first supported it only reluctantly). It has also kept the MMOG Ultima Online going long past the point most people expected, and has occasionally taken on slightly unusual projects like Black & White and TimeSplitters. Not all of these have been smashing successes, but most were fun and even, inventive.

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But the fact remains that while EA may, from time to time, produce the sleeper gem like Black & White, its apparent goal is to hit on the secret alchemical formula, the unfailing recipe that will enable it to turn brain-sweat and database tears into gold every time. Blockbuster after blockbuster, bringing EA yet more scads of cash, enabling the company to either fund a few more of those innovative little games or just look the other way entirely, thumb the Hit Stick and flatten the competition.

It’s a lot like a big movie studio, in that sense. Or anyway, a big movie studio of 25 years ago – around the time Heaven’s Gate was released.

I hear someone groaning in the back of the lecture hall. Fear not. I’m not about to tell you games are as important as movies and should be accorded the same due (though that’s true, at this point, more or less). Games get compared to movies all the time – they’re as popular as movies, we’re told, they’re as engaging as movies (or more, in many cases), they may or may not represent the next step in narrative entertainment, and some feel they offer better value for the buck. But what’s often glossed over in these comparisons, however accurate or inaccurate they may be, are the parallels between the industries themselves, not at the level of design and development, which is usually what interests gamers (and where there are indeed striking similarities), but at the level of money and decision-making power.

The two industries haven’t evolved exactly in parallel, but it’s worth looking at what’s happened in Hollywood to get a sense of where EA fits into what’s happening in gaming. Because the truth is, we may not have as much to fear from EA as we think.

Unlike the gaming industry, the movies were controlled by cigar-chomping moguls from the beginning. Warsaw native Schmuel Gelbfisz got his start in the garment business in New York before going on – as Samuel Goldwyn – to found the company that would later become Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, aka MGM. Early on, someone got the idea that movies were glamorous. People wanted to be a part of the industry not just because they loved movies, but because some of the glamor of the movies rubbed off on anyone who was involved.

The moguls held on for decades, producing movies, good and bad. Some, like Irving Thalberg, were movie men from the beginning. Others, like Goldwyn and Harry Cohn, who was a pool shark and streetcar conductor before founding Columbia Pictures, got their start in very different businesses.

The end of the movie moguls is commonly dated to 1963, with the Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton epic, Cleopatra. Beginning with a $2 million budget, the production eventually ended nearly $50 million later, and three years behind schedule.

Cleopatra ended the age of epics, but it was only a matter of time before they were back. Before that could happen, though, the 1970s saw the rise of deep, personal, character-driven movies that were emphatically the embodiment of a director’s vision, rather than a producer’s desire for dance numbers and expensive costumes. The Best Picture Oscar winners of the decade, every one of them, are among the best pictures ever made (in this reviewer’s opinion): Patton, The French Connection, The Godfather, The Sting, The Godfather Part II, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Rocky, Annie Hall, The Deer Hunter, and Kramer vs. Kramer. Even the losers were great: M*A*S*H, A Clockwork Orange, Deliverance, Chinatown, Jaws, Taxi Driver, Star Wars, Dog Day Afternoon and many more.

It was The Deer Hunter that turned out to be the problem. It was The Deer Hunter – directed by Michael Cimino – that convinced United Artists, and Cimino himself, that the new age of the epic was at hand. All you had to do was give a great director unbridled control over their films – as the producers of earlier years had had over theirs – and you could spin celluloid into gold.

But like Cleopatra, Heaven’s Gate turned out to be a bloated and expensive failure. It bankrupted United Artists and effectively ended Cimino’s career.

It also ended the era of the filmmaker’s film. Heaven’s Gate was the final over-extension of ’70s auteur culture, and ushered in the blockbuster mentality of the 1980s and ’90s. To protect themselves from directors, the studios wanted big-ticket productions again, easy stories, bright special effects. Was Rain Man really the best picture of 1988? Actually, it might have been. Die Hard was released that year. The Terminator had already come out, and Terminator 2 was well on its way. By 1997, the best picture was Titanic, and the decade wound up with Jar Jar Binks annoying moviegoers the world over. I’m a big fan of Die Hard, but for character and storyline the ’70s directors’ pictures are where it’s at. In the ’80s and ’90s, the money was making decisions again, chasing more money, at the expense of – you guessed it – innovation and inventiveness.

You see where I’m going with this. It’s not such a new thesis: Once you have money, you want to protect it. Once you have as much money as EA, you protect your cash by not taking any risks. There’s not much incentive for EA to innovate. They could probably churn out sports franchises for the rest of Larry Probst’s days and do just fine.

That doesn’t mean that good games are dead, though. With the movies, a funny thing happened on the way to the blockbuster, and if gamers are lucky and America is ready for it, the same thing could happen with games.

What happened was the birth of independent film. In the shadow of Hollywood’s blockbuster mentality, independent producers started throwing money at young directors, giving rise to a new round of thoughtful, non-blockbuster films put together with little more than a script, a camera and a couple of actors and people to work as production assistants. Filmmakers like Todd Solondz, Wes Anderson, and Kevin Smith were guys you could meet on the street in New York and chat with over drinks with friends (if you had the right friends). You got the sense they weren’t chasing fame primarily, they were chasing their art – though no one chases art without the thought of renown being close behind.

The people who were dead set on the glamour were the money men. There have always been independent Hollywood producers, but the 90s saw the rebirth of the non-Hollywood producer, of the schmatte king looking for a little burnish through what was suddenly the hottest entertainment medium of the day. If you were talented, charming, ambitious and willing to socialize as though your career depended on it (which it did), you could often convince one of the many bored businessmen, flush from the boom, to invest a million or two in your little jewel of a movie. Whether the mini-mogul made his money back or not didn’t really matter; the movies were cool again, and his cash bought him entree to that world.

If gamers are lucky, the same thing will happen for games. The talent is already there. There are plenty of interesting games out there now, plenty of innovation, plenty of inventive designers. You won’t find most of them at your local GameStop, though, because big developers and publishers can’t afford to take the risk. They’re too busy protecting their money by hunting up the next blockbuster game.

What gaming needs is more brave money. It needs cash that’s willing to go outside the system and fund developers who are independent in the sense that the ’90s indie filmmakers were: small groups of talented individuals working together on the cheap to create their version of art. That talent exists, and I’d wager that money isn’t far behind.

But first, gaming needs to become cool – and I’m sorry to say that it just isn’t yet. Gaming is cool if you’re a gamer, sure. But to most Americans, even to many who own a console, gaming is still a curious, new thing. It doesn’t yet have the cachet of the movies. Tourists don’t descend on Austin to visit the gaming Walk of Stars. Even famous novelists get more play than famous game designers. Marvin Mogul may be aware that games do as much business as Hollywood movies do box office sales, but he doesn’t realize that for no more than it cost him to fund an independent film, and often for much less, he could fund a new game that stands to make him just as much money.

Even if he did realize that, what he can’t yet get out of gaming is glamour. But in about five minutes, that’s going to change. It might be the huge success of Spore, it might be the dismal failure of The Godfather. It might be some game EA hasn’t yet sunk its teeth into, or one that comes from somewhere else entirely (World of Warcraft, anyone?). But it’s going to happen, and the game that makes gaming as cool as the movies were 10 years ago is probably going to come from a company like EA, a company with the money and the reach to market the hell out of a product, to get it in front of everyone in the country – not just gamers – to draw people’s attention to games as just another fixture of the entertainment universe.

Whether the game itself succeeds or fails is almost unimportant. What counts is that it will open a new door for the developers and designers who have to content themselves with making browser-based games and freeware today. They’ll still get their start making small games, but now they’ll be able to get them in front of the public. And gradually, being an indie gamedev will come to mean something very cool, not just to gamers, but to everyone.

We’re still a few short steps away from that time, though, so wish EA luck. Whether it’s a Cleopatra, a Heaven’s Gate or a Jaws (one of the first modern blockbuster successes), one day soon, a big game is going to make a big splash and end the age of the gaming mogul. And once again, the guy with the best game will win.

Mark Wallace is a journalist and editor residing in Brooklyn, New York, and at Walkering.com. He has written on gaming and other subjects for The New York Times, The New Yorker, Details and many other publications.

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