'Smart Bomb': Inside the Video Game Industry
'Smart Bomb': Inside the Video Game Industry
The video game industry is home to a cast of characters as quirky, rebellious and diverse as the world they create. In her new book, Smart Bomb, author Heather Chaplin provides a behind-the-scenes look at the world of game developers.
Heather Chaplin and Aaron Ruby, authors, Smart Bomb
Read Chapter 1 from 'Smart Bomb'
CliffyB, or Clifford Bleszinski, as his mom would call him, is getting ready to give a seminar called "The Future Looks Bright." It's May 2001 at the Electronic Entertainment Expo in Los Angeles, California, the largest gathering of the video game industry in the world. Like anyone who owns a television, CliffyB is well versed in the importance of reinvention in holding the public eye. He turns before the mirror in the men's room. White suit, white snakeskin shoes, hair bleached white to match. Looking good, he thinks, although, in truth, his arms and legs are gangly under his suit, his chest thin beneath a black shirt and tie, and his hair, capping a somewhat sallow complexion, is more brassy blond than white.
Ten years ago, CliffyB was that kid on the school bus who got Coke poured on his head and gum smeared in his hair. Back before he was transformed into a pimp-suit-wearing game designer, Cliffy was an acne-riddled, miserable-at-home, small-town kid, filled with unbridled fury at his low status in life—a feeling that years later left him sympathizing terribly, albeit secretly, with videogame fans Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the iconic misfits who in 1999 shot up their classmates, their cafeteria, and then themselves at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. It still brings tears to Cliffy's eyes to think about it—not only the horror of the kids who lost their lives, but also how deeply, awfully alone Harris and Klebold most have been to do such a thing. Cliffy thinks he knows exactly how they felt. He still refers bitterly to the hysteria that swept the country afterward as "geek profiling."
"Yeah, but who has the last laugh now?" Cliffy says about his old high school tormenters. "They're all working at gas stations. And look at me." Arms spread wide in his ill-fitting white suit.
Indeed, that was then, and this is now. At twenty-six years old, CliffyB is a nine-year veteran of the industry, lead designer at Epic Games and co-creator with Digital Extremes of the smash success first-person-shooter franchise Unreal. This is the year that sales of videogames in the United States have surpassed movie box-office receipts, a stamp of success the industry believes is its passport to legitimacy. People who haven't thought about videogames since their Space Invaders days more than a decade ago are saying to one another over coffee and the Times: Did you know the videogame industry made $6.35 billion dollars this year? Ads for Sony, Nintendo, Electronic Arts, and Xbox are beginning to creep from cable channels like MTV2, Nickelodeon, and TechTV onto prime-time slots on the networks. Billboards for hit games such as Grand Theft Auto III are vying with movies for space on city street corners. Nongamers around the world are awaking, startled, to the ascendance of a medium about which they know little or nothing.
The Electronic Entertainment Expo, or E3 as gamers call it, is the yearly event of the International Digital Software Association, the industry's chief trade group. The gathering was founded in 1995 when videogames got too big to remain an adjunct of the Consumer Electronics Show. E3 is where game publishers, console makers, and related companies show their upcoming wares to retailers and industry press. As CliffyB likes to say, videogames used to be like porn: everyone's got a stack under their bed, but no one admits it. In 2001, however, as young men everywhere are pulling their consoles and games out from under the bed, E3 has come to stand for something much bigger than just a trade show. In 2001, it stands as proof that videogames are here—and aren't going away any time soon.
The enormous lobbies and hallways of the Los Angeles Convention Center, where E3 is held, are tiled with wall-sized monitors, banners of all sorts, and constellations of loudspeakers. The noise is deafening, and the bleating and blinking they emit is potentially epilepsy-inducing. Crouched like a spider beneath its web, a full-scale model of the futuristic Lexus from Spielberg's Minority Report guards the escalator to the main convention hall, and a matrix of sixteen or so huge flat-panel screens tease passersby with the images from the videogame of the yet-to-be-released movie. The demos loop over and over, Tom Cruise endlessly fighting off jetpack-wearing attackers. On a wall across the aisle, a digitalized Ewan McGregor is firing up his light saber above a display for a litany of upcoming Star Wars game releases. Though Lucasfilm's digital counterpart LucasArts has been around for more than a decade, in 2001 most movie studios and production houses are just discovering the advantages of tag-teaming their blockbusters with videogames.
On the expo floor, the game companies have gone all out. There are fifteen-foot-tall dungeons and faux Grecian temples surrounded by pillars of red billowing silk that give the impression of flames. There's a small skate ramp in the South Hall replete with professional skaters promoting the newest installment of the multimillion-dollar franchises Tony Hawk's Pro Skater and Tony Hawk's Underground. The king himself, Mr. Hawk, occasionally steps out from the VIP section to monitor the proceedings, sporting the goofy smile of a tycoon who at heart remains an enthusiast.
When Cliffy gets out of his panel discussion, he chats a bit with reporters and other industry folk outside the meeting room. He bounces on the toes of his snakeskin shoes, excited, as if he can't quite believe he's here himself. Then he heads down to the expo floor.
Cliffy lives for videogames. Time spent on the Nintendo Entertainment System, playing with Mario and Donkey Kong, are some of his fondest childhood memories. His preteen years were spent on the PC with Doom and Quake, and then SimCity and the Ultima series. By the time he was a teenager, he was making games of his own on a souped-up PC in his bedroom. Cliffy has never had any formal game-design training—until recently the very idea of formal training in game design would have been considered absurd. Nevertheless, Cliffy's been making games professionally since he was seventeen years old. After sending one of his games in a Ziploc bag to a publisher in California, Cliffy found himself a professional game designer before he had even graduated high school.
Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo, the three console makers of the moment, as well as three of the biggest software publishers in the business, dominate the South and West Convention Halls, respectively. Each company has an inner sanctum, erected the day before, complete with passageways and little rooms where executives take meetings and give interviews over plates of melon and grapes. Like a solar system with a collection of satellites, each company is surrounded by its subsidiaries, divisions, and allies. Cliffy checks out a couple of displays, and soon spots dozens of people he knows—other designers, gaming journalists, fans of his. People know Cliffy because he makes a point of being known. He accepts panel spots, poses for photographs, and even has a Web site called CliffyCam that lets you watch him while he works, or allows you to rifle through a collection of his photographs, including a prominent one of him in a big fuzzy bunny suit.
After a few minutes of meeting and greeting, CliffyB turns to a friend with the exhausted but excited look of a congressman just returned from a visit with his constituency. Cliffy explains to a reporter that a rumor has been spreading through the convention center like a virus, growing until the grumbling on the subject has become another layer of noise on the expo floor—a rumor that there's been a moratorium on the Booth Babe.
The Booth Babe is a time-honored tradition of E3—to the extent that a tradition less than a generation old can make such a claim—and the Booth Babe issue has everything to do with what videogames have been, and what they're trying to become. Despite the rumored moratorium, Booth Babes appear to be everywhere you look. There's a woman dressed as Lara Croft, the long-legged, gun-toting archaeologist hero of Eidos's Tomb Raider. (Angelina Jolie played her in the movie version of the game.) There are women in tiny pieces of chain mail positioned outside elaborate gothic sets, women wandering the show rooms in pink latex bikinis. A group of them outside the South Hall are tossing Hawaiian leis around the necks of pale young men, cooing "Want to get lei'd?" There would appear to be many, many scantily clad young women, but, apparently, there aren't as many in 2001 as there used to be. And once the rumor takes hold, a dearth of Booth Babes is perceived by one and all, and the judgment of every male queried is that there are not nearly as many as there should be. "Ban the Booth Babe?" you hear in the hallways. "Come on!" People know this is the year the industry is making its big push for the mainstream, and they clearly understand that they aren't to alienate anyone with acts that could be perceived as depraved or immature or in any way foster the general impression of videogame makers as crazed, violent, or immoral freaks. But on the Booth Babe issue, the conventioneers are like dieters looking forward to being thin yet balking at the idea they must disavow pizza.
CliffyB, statesmanlike, sums up the general feeling. "Give me a break," he says. "The Booth Babe is an institution. If people don't have a sense of humor, f--- 'em!"
The irony is that while it's true Douglas Lowenstein, president of the Interactive Digital Software Association (IDSA), hardly wants to project an image of pimply faced boys taking Polaroids with chain-mail-clad young women, he's the last one to hear the rumor. To his knowledge there's been no official moratorium on the Booth Babe. He's certainly issued no such edict. Perhaps the vendors are cleaning up their act on their own, he muses. Perhaps it's been entirely imagined, or perhaps it's a fantasy that became a reality once enough people believed it. Amidst the chaos and clamor of the sprawling video¬ game shantytown set up by the corporations on the floor of the convention, it's easy to see how that could happen.
Lowenstein is a slender man in his mid-fifties who favors thin polo-neck sweaters tucked into pleated trousers. He's going bald and has a beak nose. Were his posture to worsen, he would somewhat resemble Mr. Burns from The Simpsons. Yet, there's something natty about him—he's polished and professional-looking in a way most people in the videogame industry are not. He shakes Cliffy's hand as they pass in the hall. Lowenstein has his own speech to give. He's a long-time D.C. lobbyist who's had his work cut out for him, trying to transform America's perception of the videogame from that of an artifact of an ailing society to a respectable and fun entertainment product. He's named the 2001 conference "Touch the Future," and, like Cliffy's attempts to vanquish his Coke-wielding demons, he's determined to flip the whole paradigm once and for all. He wants 2001 to be the dawn of a new era. He kicks off E3 with an enthusiastic and statistic-filled address.
"Seven years ago," he says, "videogames were played mostly by teenage boys, usually in the basement or the bedroom. No longer. Today, videogames are mainstream entertainment: they're played by people of all ages; they're played by people of all tastes; and they've become as important a part of our culture as television and movies. . . . They're in the center of the home, they're on the Internet, they're in movies, they're in schools, they're on cell phones; they're on PDAs and airplanes; and they're even in medical research labs. In short, videogames are everywhere."
He chuckles a little, along with his crowd, when he says, "Of course, politicians are still grumbling about videogame violence." It's as if he and the audience were high schoolers, sniggering at a hopelessly out-of-date teacher tramping the halls with toilet paper trailing from his shoe.
Lowenstein is clearly thrilled he finally has the luxury of laughing off angry politicians. The videogame industry has been growing at a rate of 15 percent a year for several years, double the rate of growth for the U.S. economy as a whole during the same time period, and more than double the rate of either the film industry or the computer hardware business. The average age of a gamer has finally exceeded eighteen years—"Please, please, can we put that stereotype to rest once and for all!" Lowenstein mock-pleads. It's predicted that by 2005, videogame consoles will have penetrated 70 percent of all American homes, giving it one of the fastest adoption rates of any consumer appliance in history. The PlayStation 2 alone, for example, made it into 10 million homes its first year on the market, something it took the telephone thirty-five years to accomplish.
Ubiquity is what the industry has been after for years, and ubiquity seems to be what it is finally getting. One study, from investment analysts at Deutsche Bank Alex. Brown, has just concluded that the potential market for videogames had grown from 20 million people in 1980 to 96 million in 2001 and is now growing exponentially—106 million people in 2005 and onward, as every baby born takes to the videogame habit.
"Fun. That's what this . . . industry is about," Lowenstein says. Then he reads from a May 2001 article by Bob Schwabach for the New York Times: "‘The videogame industry has been on the threshold of seizing dominance in entertainment for several years,'" he quotes. " ‘Ultimately it will. It's inevitable. . . . I don't see any way out of this.'"
THE FOLLOWING YEAR, 2002, CliffyB's plans for industry dominance aren't panning out quite as he'd hoped. At E3 2001 he'd been riding high on the recent release and resounding success of Unreal Tournament. But in the spring of 2002 at the International Game Developers Conference, the release of his next title, Unreal 2, is still seven months away, and Cliffy has taken to muttering "you're only as good as your last game."
If you didn't know that Cliffy introduced a new look at every industry gathering, you might not recognize him right away at the 2002 Game Developers Conference. This year, CliffyB's hair is brown and brushed into his face 88 la early-ER George Clooney. He's wearing a silky shirt and a stiff black leather jacket; a heavy silver chain lies around his neck. Cliffy is well scrubbed and moussed, like someone from New Jersey going to a Manhattan dance club. He's hanging out by the bar of the Fairmont Hotel in San Jose, California, which serves as the headquarters for the Game Developers Conference. It's March, almost exactly one year after the rumored Booth Babe moratorium, and attendance at the GDC, an event as different from E3 as San Jose is from Hollywood, is strong. E3 may be for the companies, but GDC is for the developers. For an industry on the verge of reaching cultural critical mass, it's hard to imagine that a tight sense of community could be maintained among developers, but Alan Yu, the bald, hip twenty-nine-year-old organizer of the event, is doing his best to make that happen. He has a dream of a videogame community that crosses cultural, geographical, and company lines. He's lured designers from as far away as Japan, Hong Kong, Italy, Scotland, France, and England. E3 may shock and awe with its eye-popping display of the electric sprawl of the videogame industry, but GDC opens a portal into the hearts of those who keep it thriving.
Every year, in early March, just before the mad scramble in the months leading up to E3 begins, twelve thousand or so game developers from around the world descend on this four-block stretch of downtown San Jose. They fill up every hotel in the area, every meeting room in the convention center, and every ballroom in the Fairmont Hotel. The hotel's sunken lobby is packed from early in the morning until late at night with designers, programmers, producers, animators, audio engineers, writers, and independent studio CEOs—all the people it takes to put out a modern videogame.
They crowd into seminars ranging from programming with geometric computations, to composing interactive music, to managing online societies, to understanding female gamers. There are educators from universities such as Stanford, MIT, and University of Michigan who want to know how to create degrees in game-making and videogame theory. There are business people from wireless companies hot on the trail of multiplayer games that can be played over cell phones. And there are others, like Peter Molyneaux of Lionhead Studios (Black & White and Fable) who are acknowledged masters of this strange universe. GDC is a place where it's possible for the lowest coder to rub elbows with the likes of Will Wright, maker of the most popular PC game of all time, The Sims, or Raph Koster, the visionary leader of the current charge into massively multiplayer online gaming, or even Jonathan "Seamus" Blackley, the man behind the Xbox.
The men at GDC—and it is almost exclusively male—are former nuclear physicists, neuroscientists, and linguists; painters, musicians, and illustrators; reformed graffiti artists; professional gamblers; computer scientists who consult with the FBI on the side. BioWare, for example, the Canadian developer known for their hugely successful adaptations of Dungeons & Dragons adventures, was started by a pair of MDs bored with designing biomedical software, who began building games for a challenge. An even older generation exists, of middle-aged men who were playing text-based computer games like Zork and Adventure over the Internet a decade before most people could even access it. And perhaps most prevalent are the kids in oversized hoody sweatshirts, knee-length shorts, and skateboard shoes who have spent their entire lives playing videogames. Essentially the grunts of the industry, these guys—low-level texture artists, game testers, designers without contracts, audio effects hacks, and the like—are simply content to have a job where they can obsess about videogames freely, and an employer who throws them the yearly blowout.
Then there are the Japanese. The Japanese didn't invent videogames, nor were they the first to debut a commercial arcade game or home console. Nevertheless, in the thirty short years or so that the videogame industry has existed, the Japanese have become the undisputed champions of the medium.
This Japanese dominance of videogames is due first to the crushing success of the Nintendo Entertainment System in the mid-eighties, which effectively disemboweled the struggling American giant Atari and launched what is now considered by many to be the age" of videogaming. During this period companies such as Sega, Namco, and eventually Sony entered the fray so aggressively that by 1990 not a single American firm stood as a major producer of videogame hardware.
The dominance of the Japanese is also due in part to the fact that post–World War II Japanese culture was especially friendly to technology-based entertainment. It was also rabid for novelty, and embraced pop culture to a degree unheard of in the United States except among children. In such a cultural climate it was, perhaps, only a matter of time until the dreams of someone like Shigeru Miyamoto (Donkey Kong, Super Mario Bros., Legend of Zelda) would find their way in, translated into a near endless stream of 0's and 1's.
The current crop of Japanese game developers have much for which to thank Miyamoto-san, as he is reverently referred to, as well as other veterans, like Gran Turismo architect Kazunori Yamauchi, an expert simulation builder who tells a reporter in the lounge of the Fairmont that his greatest goal is to make a simulation of a brain, one that could tell stories to children. Designers like Miyamoto, Yamauchi, and Sonic the Hedgehog creator Yu Suzuki have demonstrated an ingenuity, creativity, and versatility that few American or European designers can match.
But while designers like Miyamoto-san are venerated by American game makers, it is perhaps the younger generation of Japanese designers that Americans like CliffyB most want to emulate. Tetsuya Nomura, for example, the character designer behind many of Square Enix's Final Fantasy blockbusters, is thronged by fans when he goes out in Japan—something that has surprised more than one visiting American designer. It's the same for Tetsuya Mizuguchi, whose music-based games Space Channel 5 and Rez have inspired not only a devoted cult audience, but widespread adulation as well.
The highlight of the conference—besides the ubiquitous drinking and schmoozing in the Fairmont Lobby—is the Game Developers Choice Awards, held each year in a crumbling palace of a theater across the street from the convention center.
Cliffy joins the flow of people from the Fairmont over to the awards show. He's dragging his feet, feeling a bit deflated. He had dinner earlier with his boss at Epic, Jay Wilbur, and found himself saying, somewhat plaintively, "We're going to be making Unreal for the rest of our lives, aren't we?" After all those years spent dreaming of it, Cliffy is just now realizing that videogame success does not guarantee either cultural adulation or creative freedom.
Cliffy knows he's not the most groundbreaking game designer in the world. "I'm no Will Wright," he says, "no Sid Meier." Cliffy's talent, as he explains it, is being an adept thief, stealing elements from the games that turned him on as a teenager—Doom, Quake, Wolfenstein 3D. But recent business trips to Japan and Korea have spurred an interest in history and in cultures other than American. Cliffy has started dreaming about a game that's more than a shoot 'em up. He's been fantasizing about a futuristic World War II–style battle game set in outer space. But one of the hallmarks of this new era of mainstream acceptance for videogames is, like in modern-day Hollywood, the rampant reliance on franchises rather than innovation. It's also an era of extreme consolidation among development studios, and Cliffy knows that Epic is lucky to have a steady moneymaker like Unreal on its hands. It's what has allowed the company to stay independent. Cliffy may get to experiment, to make his new game, but it'll depend on how the market holds over the next year, and how well the Unreal franchise does.
As Cliffy approaches the theater, he glances at the crowd waiting to get in. It's an interesting-looking crowd, to say the least. There are albinos and men covered in angry red acne. Guys with blow-up plastic dragons on their shoulders, slouchy velvet hats, long ponytails, big fat bellies, tiny concave chests, dandruff on their shoulders, and random piercings. There are grown men wearing top hats and sporting big bushy beards, and women in industry T-shirts worn over ankle-length skirts. There are kids with pink and green hair and hoops through their noses. Girls dressed like anime characters in huge platform boots and spiky hair, and dozens of young men who all seem to be wearing the same oversized, button-down shirts with red and orange flames licking up the bottom. And there are young Japanese men in leather pants and turquoise corduroy, their hair bleached orange, with skinny and chic girlfriends hanging from their arms. The Brits in attendance seem to mostly wear their hair in dreads and swaddle themselves in T-shirts swearing allegiances to different DJs and electronic music labels.
Cliffy cuts through the long line outside the award show and goes directly to the VIP door—as a well-known member of the videogame world, he enjoys the same kind of perks every industry affords its stars. Watching him pass are envious young men, hunched over in their hoodies, who probably work as low-level animators or coders. They aren't going to get in to either the show or the business as easily as Cliffy did. The videogame industry is rapidly becoming the kind of place where publishers will no longer take submissions that come in Ziploc bags.
Once inside, piled into the plush red movie seats, the gamemakers yell and holler and whoop with enthusiasm that is palpable. They can feel the sea change that's taken place over the last year. They can feel the thickness of the crowd—less than ten years ago, the GDC took place in someone's living room. They notice the extra press coverage this year, the reporters stopping to ask them uninformed questions about making games. They all saw Tony Hawk—a man whose mainstream celebrity is almost entirely a product of the videogame industry—guest star on The Simpsons. In the spring of 2002, Doug Lowenstein's bold new era seems to be well under way. Three new consoles—the PlayStation 2, the Xbox, and the GameCube—have been launched since E3 2001, stirring up excitement with their technical capabilities, new games aimed at an older audience, and billions of dollars spent on marketing.
It's still an oddly insular world, however. The average guy getting on stage to give or accept an award is most likely known to every member of the audience. And he's probably dressed as casually as those in the audience, his unshaven face, blemished skin, and bad hair projected on big screens at the side of the stage for all to see. He may get a standing ovation here in San Jose, but drop him in any Midwestern Wal-Mart, which may have just sold 100,000 copies of his game, or place him at a Manhattan cocktail party where the people pride themselves on their cultural literacy, and nobody would know who he was.
Event organizer Alan Yu is standing by one of the side-doors, a bottle of beer in his hand. He's wearing a red satin cowboy shirt. "This is great," Alan says. "They're having a good time, huh? I just want these guys to have a good time."
Alan scoots away as the contenders for best game of the year are announced. The games up for awards seem to have as much to do with Pong, Missile Command, or Space Invaders as Star Wars does to early cinema classics like Rescued by Rover. The best of today's videogames are imaginative and intelligent. As a medium, they have achieved excellence. This is not to say, however, that every game is good. Much like the early days of the Hollywood studios, videogame publishers churn out a constant stream of product, some made simply to meet demand and others with larger budgets and grander aspirations. The AAA games, as the more elaborate entries are called, take years to make, and cost upward of $5 million. They require tightly coordinated staffs of hundreds, and have at their heads men with computer skills that are the envy of government, banking, medicine, and academia. For example, John Carmack, the programmer behind Doom and Quake, is considered one of the best graphics programmers in the world. Breakthroughs he's made in three-dimensional graphic technology have been used by both the U.S. military, to create training simulations for American troops, and biologists, for 3-D molecular modeling.
As the contenders for this year's awards are announced, the crowd screams, red-faced with excitement and fueled by the cups of beer available in the lobby. They're more like sports fans at a title game than award attendees. They're drunk, and happy, and pumped up. The only difference is they don't really care who wins; they loved all the games.
There's Munch's Oddysee, the sad tale/adventure game of a one-eyed aquatic creature on the verge of extinction, who must liberate his species, helped by an ex-slave with a pinhead and chronic flatulence named Abe. The game's animation is creative and original, and its story is subversive, at least by main¬stream entertainment standards. Its creator, Lorne Lanning,
of Oddworld Inhabitants, is a thirty-seven-year-old former painter and hydraulic amusement-park-ride inventor, who does the character animation and voice acting himself. Lanning is six feet three inches, with recently cut-off long black hair, a pointy goatee, and a Cary Grant–like elegance. Ask him what his religious inclination is; "Jedi," he'll tell you.
Ico is a fairy-tale adventure game rendered in surreal pools of light and shadow. The game's heavily stylized imagery is a stunning example of what the next generation of game makers, with next-generation technology behind them, are accomplishing. Ico is the brainchild of Fumito Ueda, a slim, thirty-three-year-old former visual artist from Japan who dresses like a preppy American and slouches like James Dean. Ico is the first game Ueda ever made, and it is hauntingly beautiful and well crafted, both in design and gameplay.
Jak & Daxter is from a Santa Monica–based studio called Naughty Dog, and it is Disney-esque in its use of anthropomorphized animals chasing each other with mallets while running through stylized cartoon landscapes. Jason Rubin, one of the company's founders, is known for having cashed in, along with Andy Gavin, his partner since Hebrew School days, on the rise of the videogame. Sony bought their company in 2001 for a reported seven figures. Rubin drives a quarter-million-dollar Ferrari; Gavin collects ancient Egyptian artifacts.
And then there's Grand Theft Auto III. The title, from a keep-to-themselves group called Rockstar Games, caught the attention of everyone from TV commentator Ted Koppel to the 12 million people who shelled out fifty bucks for a copy.
What gamers loved about GTA III even more than the car-jackings and prostitute power-ups was the enormous possibilities the game provided. The game issued players a movielike world of urban mobsters and petty crooks, but the player called the action. If players didn't want to follow the plot line that runs through the game, they could cruise the city and
decide whether they felt like stealing virtual cars and beating up virtual cops, or driving a virtual ambulance to save virtual pedestrians.
Not surprisingly, many people, both inside the industry and out, found the content of the game offensive. Ted Koppel was one of them. But ask anyone in that auditorium, and they'll tell you that it wasn't the cop bashing in particular they liked.
It was the sense of existing in an alternate universe, surrounded by opportunities to act, and being able to feel the effects of those actions as they played. This freedom simply thrilled them.
When Grand Theft Auto III is announced as the Game of the Year, there is wild enthusiasm from the stands—people screaming, whistling, chanting, stomping their feet. Geronimo, one of the grand poobahs of Rockstar Games, takes to the stage, his portly frame packed into a double-breasted zoot suit. He waves the award high over his head. People clap and cheer even louder. Geronimo moves to the microphone and says, "This is to show that videogames don't have to be about hobgoblins and dwarves!" The crowd is silent, unsure about this last bit of heresy. But then they erupt into applause all over again. They can't help it. It was a great game. And if there's one thing the people in this decaying auditorium do care about, it's great games.
By midnight, Alan Yu's post-awards party is in full swing. Winners from the night and others in the know take the Fairmont elevator to the top floor, walk down two hallways to a set of double doors with a plaque beside it engraved with the words Ffairmont suite. Tall and elegant, Lorne Lanning opens the door, drink in hand, relaxed among his peers. There's a fully stocked bar on the left, a marble bathroom to the right. In the main room, Alan is running back and forth seeing to his guests. There are six couches, a grand piano, a view of the San Jose skyline, several small trees, and two bedrooms off to the side. Word at the party has it that the Mexican ambassador to the U.S. has been displaced to another suite on the floor below in order to accommodate Alan and his gathering.
By two a.m., Alan has given up trying to keep the party exclusive, and the place is packed. Cliffy is there, lurking by the doorway between the foyer and the living room. He's clearly tense, which for Cliffy means holding his shoulders high and his lips tight, much like a boxer waiting for the next punch. He fills out his shirt more than he did last year. Indeed, it's apparent he's been working out, lifting weights as part of his path to full CliffyB-dom. He's chugging on a bottle of beer, eyes on a poker table across the room. At the poker table are a group of guys about his age who also have best-selling games under their belts, guys like Jason Rubin of Naughty Dog, who tend to hang out at industry gatherings, forever getting in touch with one another through tiny cell phones. Each has Ferraris, Porsches, or Ducatti motorcycles waiting for them back home. Cliffy himself recently purchased a $100,000 2002 Viper, and he drives it around North Carolina, where Epic is based, thinking that surely he is the coolest guy in town.
Still, next to these guys, he feels like the little brother, the tagalong, as they swap stories of bagging PR women in their hotel rooms and partying till dawn at Las Vegas strip clubs. How can you be a sexy rock-star game developer when you've been married to your high school sweetheart since you were twenty-five? Likewise, Cliffy claims he's never taken an illegal substance in his life, although he does drop the occasional comment about "fatties" to keep people off his trail. Like the savviest of marketers, Cliffy knows that image trumps reality every time.
In reality, this party really isn't his thing. He'd far rather be down in the Fairmont lobby, buying drinks for the lower-level programmers from Epic, guys who aren't welcome at Alan Yu's party, but around whom he feels genuinely comfortable. But if he did that, people might get the wrong idea—think he wasn't welcome. So he's staying, legs planted firmly, teeth set like a pit bull's, holding his ground in this little corner.
There aren't supposed to be any working press at Alan's party, but by three a.m., their presence is undeniable. One cable TV host is staggering drunkenly around the edges of the poker table, much to the players' annoyance. It's a touchy subject, because last year P. J. Huffstutter, a reporter for the L.A. Times, filed a story that included a scene from the Fairmont Suite party that had Lorne Lanning passing a pipe filled with marijuana to the Xbox's Ed Fries.
It's an understatement to say that these guys are touchy about their reputations. The games they've created have been denounced for violent content, and they've been vilified in virtually every newspaper, magazine, and living room in the country, criticized for their marketing practices and held up as a symbol of everything that is wrong with modern society.
So it is no wonder that being pegged as a group of potheads frightened them. Yet it was a stance that drove Montreal game journalist J. F. William to curse in both French and English. Williams is fortyish, and he can be found stalking industry gatherings dressed all in black, including black sunglasses and a black hat that hangs over long black hair and is held in place by a black cord cinched under his chin. "They need MORE of a rock 'n' roll attitude," he says, or, actually, shouts. "They should have thanked that reporter! Kowtowing to claims of bad behavior!? Do you know what the response to these things should be? These people should say ‘F--- you! Here we are, we rule, and, and, and—F--- Y--!'"
IT'S ONE YEAR LATER, February 2003, and CliffyB is pulling on a stogie at a bar in the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. He's handing the cigar to any girl who wants to take a puff, and he's putting an arm around anyone who gets close enough. He's surrounded by media, mostly guys from G4, a new cable TV station devoted entirely to videogames. They want to provide him with a limousine and follow him around as he paints the town. Portrait of game maker as rock star is the idea, and Cliffy is only too happy to oblige.
Cliffy's look for 2003 is grunged-out rocker—dyed red hair made sticky by hair product, raggedy fake-fur-trimmed coat that hangs almost to his knees, and orange-tinted sunglasses. Bicep muscles show beneath his T-shirt, his skin is now flawless, and his eyes shine with enthusiasm.
It's the first night of the Academy of Interactive Arts and Science's (AIAS) third annual industry summit. As the dawn of this new era has brightened into full daylight, the industry is beginning to take on all the trappings associated with the entertainment business. The AIAS wants its summit—called DICE in this acronym-happy world—to be like the Game Developers Conference, but it aims to cater only to the upper- most echelons of the business. Instead of ten or so thousand attendees, DICE is host to a couple of hundred. It's even started its own awards show, in a competitive move that has Alan Yu less than pleased. As CliffyB holds court at the bar, the honchos of the industry, from publishing bigwigs to top-league developers, are flying in from around the world to attend seminars, receive awards, schmooze, and give fifteen-minute interviews in press suites.
Cliffy makes his way around to the other side of the bar to join Ed Fries, one of few men who can actually green-light projects for Microsoft's Xbox. Cliffy's latest game, Unreal Tournament 2003, has finally come out, selling nearly one million copies worldwide.
Ed Fries is older and far more mellow in character than Cliffy. In fact, his life as a videogame bigwig is a second career. After more than a decade with Microsoft as a programmer and project manager, Ed could easily have retired. But when the Xbox project came up, he couldn't resist. Ed may favor polo shirts over fake fur and prefer writing poetry to collecting fancy cars, but he loves videogames with the same enthusiasm as Cliffy.
"Videogames are already an alternate place to live," Ed says. "People live alternative lives in these worlds. They become their characters. That's already happening, the rest is just technology. The rest is just how real will it look? Will I stare at a screen? Wear something around my head? Goggles that are
really high-resolution monitors? What's state-of-the-art in movies today should be possible in games thirty years from now—worst-case scenario. And the best-case scenario is a whole lot better than that."
Like Cliffy, of whom he's fond, Ed turns a deaf ear to the controversy that has swirled around videogames since people first claimed in the 1990s that Nintendo was stealing the minds of their children. Ed talks about making players feel free, which, he says "is what videogames are all about." According to Ed, videogames are about having experiences that aren't, or don't feel, earthbound. The fact that people pay about fifty bucks a pop for each shot of freedom—not including the hundreds spent on hardware and peripherals to enhance the experience—doesn't come up too often.
As Cliffy taps Ed on the shoulder, he's bouncing on his toes, an arm half around—and half holding back—a drunk and giggling PR woman. His eyes glint through his orange shades.
"Going to make me the Halo of the Xbox 2," Cliffy says, newly expanded chest puffed out to full size. It's an audacious claim. Halo is the Xbox's biggest hit, the console's premier title since its release—and it's thought by many to be one of the best videogames ever made. But Cliffy is riding high, too. Not only has Unreal Tournament 2003 met with resounding success, but also CliffyB has finally emerged as a full-fledged living character. His Web site has been redone by a professional Web designer, the bunny-suit picture exchanged for one of him in a white wife-beater looking knowingly into the camera. He's been featured in Men's Journal and Entertainment Weekly, looking, to quote Cliffy himself, "gooood." And Epic has hired a programmer to head a subsidiary that will continue to spin out Unreal titles—leaving CliffyB free, at last, to work on that World War II outer-space epic of which he's been dreaming. If Ed will take it as the premier game for the Xbox 2, Cliffy will switch from PC gamer to console-lover faster than he can change his hair color.
"I might give you that chance," Ed says. And then, to an eavesdropping reporter: "You didn't hear this."
Ed sounds cool, faintly bemused, but then he smiles. Cliffy lets out a celebratory woop.
The next day, in a hallway overlooking the Hard Rock's complex of faux cascading waterfalls and chemically induced aqua-blue pools, a few hundred men and a hanflul of women are mingling in between DICE seminars. Cliffy is wearing a black Kangol bucket hat low over his forehead so that he has to tilt his neck back and look down the bridge of his nose in order to see.
Just arriving from Austin, Texas, are industry veterans Raph Koster and Rich Vogel, the maestros of videogame virtual reality. "Virtual reality is just what people call technology they haven't mastered yet," says Vogel, who is white as porcelain and has pointy ears like a Vulcan. Raph is a short, plump man with thick glasses and the kind of supercilious smirk sometimes adopted by people who got their asses kicked a lot when they were kids. Will Wright is smoking outside on the Hard Rock's sidewalk, as Raph and Rich pass through. Will's company, Maxis, has just released a massively multiplayer version of The Sims called The Sims Online, which launched to unprecedented mainstream media coverage, including Newsweek and the New York Times Magazine. Will's going to be speaking on a panel about massively multiplayer games with Raph and Rich, but he'd much rather talk about a new game he's been working on, which, he says, is a simulation of "all of life."
Seamus Blackley is standing by the glass doors of the Hard Rock accompanied by his brand-new baby of one year and his wife of eight months, Vanessa "Van" Burnham, a former game journalist. Seamus left Microsoft, turning his back on the Xbox shortly after last year's party in the Fairmont Suite, and he's full of fire about starting a new development company to make games the right way. Alan Yu admires the baby. Cliffy comes by to say, "Wow, no way," and ruminate as to whether he'll ever be ready to be a father.
It's still early, and people are drinking miniature Cokes and coffee out of little plastic cups with handles. Although most of the action at DICE takes place in the hallways, nearly everyone crowds into the auditorium to hear Yu Suzuki and the reclusive Shigeru Miyamoto talk about their lives as video¬ game makers. While dogging Nintendo has become an indoor sport for industry folk in recent years, no one ever says a bad word about Miyamoto-san. Bad-mouthing Miyamoto-san would be like saying Homer didn't know how to tell a good story. You just wouldn't do it.
Lt. Colonel Casey Wardynski from West Point shows up, accompanied by Mike Zyda, his academic partner on the first-person shooter cum military recruitment tool, The Official U.S. Army Game: America's Army. Wardynski and Zyda are here to give a presentation called "Weapons of Mass Distraction—America's Army Recruits for the Real World." All of the game's stunning 3-D graphics are driven by a proprietary engine originally created by Epic Games to power the Unreal franchise. Doug Lowenstein, seated in the front row, gets up to tell an anecdote about the bust-up of a Brazilian crime syndicate that had bootlegged the game for training purposes of its own. He gets a good laugh.
At eight p.m., all the gamemakers pour into one of the Hard Rock's bigger venues, the Joint. Big cameras scan the room, and microphones sweep overhead. The place is packed. Free dinner. Open bar. Word has been passing mouth to mouth to "dress as if you were going to a club." The Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences has been trying to get the show televised since DICE's inception. Now, thanks to the new videogame cable channel G4—as desperate for material as the AIAS is for coverage—the wish has been granted.
Not only is G4 there, along with the usual barrage of industry press, but also in attendance is a reporter from Entertainment Weekly who has finally convinced his superiors that videogames are worth covering. There's even a crew from PBS doing a documentary on the life of game developers. All the PR people from all the companies are pleased, as are the presenters and potential award recipients. Even the few plebes in the audience are psyched—nothing creates excitement in a crowd like being recorded.
Backstage, the green room is filled with platters of vegetables, dips, cookies, third-tier actors, and extreme-sports heroes. Tony Hawk is politely talking into the tape recorder of the Entertainment Weekly reporter while his Electronics Arts PR girl shifts her weight on kitten heels and looks bored. Actresses with recurring roles on the FX Network and WB shows are plumping their cleavage and exchanging secrets on maintaining skin tones. Much to the delight of the videogame makers, Nina Kaczorowski, who boasts a small role in Austin Powers in Goldmember, is wearing a red dress that is slashed in the front down to her navel and completely bare in the back. ("Yea, I threw in a few Babes," Josh, the event's talent coordinator, says modestly.)
By some act of god, CliffyB gets to present with Ms. Kaczorowski. He saunters onto the stage, her hand on his arm, grinning widely. When they reach the podium, Cliffy can't help himself. He starts cracking up, laughing uncontrollably at his proximity to the starlet. Then he, and the rest of the audience together just start clapping and clapping and clapping.
Blue Man Group is there, too, running around the back halls, wearing their trademark intensely blue face paint. Cliffy complains they're freaking him out. Miyamoto-san, who is presenting an award, is being rushed back and forth, down the narrow hallways, with his usual swarm of interpreter, assistant, and PR women. Vince Neil of M9Atley Cr9Fe is there to present an award. He's dressed in a shiny gray suit, and his trademark scraggly blond hair is still scraggly and blond, though his face has wizened. A newly hired G4 anchorperson is being positioned on a balcony overlooking the stage to give his blow-by-blow commentary. Ed Fries is standing around backstage looking awkward and embarrassed. Will Wright, who wins for best massively multiplayer online game for The Sims Online—for which he didn't know he was nominated—is being rushed down a back staircase to accept his award. "I really don't deserve this," he is saying on the way to the stage. On the elevator down, Mrs. Vince Neil assures her husband his teeth looked "incredibly white" from the audience.
After the show, everyone—all the presenters and PR people and everybody else in proximity—gather in a tiny room with no ventilation to puff on expensive cigars and drink out of plastic cups. Dave Foley of Kids in the Hall and News Radio, who was the MC for the night, is walking around the room, his tie undone, announcing "Let the drinking begin!" The industry folk ogle the so-called celebrities, and the celebrities rejoice in being treated like actual stars for the evening. Then a group led by industry veteran Brian Fargo, an old-timer dressed in a Hawaiian print shirt, and Naughty Dog's Jason Rubin pile into taxis and head over to the Bellagio, to an exclusive club called Light.
Of course CliffyB is part of the posse, wearing his Kangol hat and a wife-beater T-shirt like the one from his Web site photo, which shows off his newly developed biceps. "She's actually a really nice girl," he says of Ms. Kaczorowski. "She has kids, too! Can you imagine, with that bod?"
The group strides through the Bellagio, with its yellow-and-blue French Riviera–themed casino, and into the dark red mouth of Light. They take an escalator circled with mirrors and rise up, emerging into the club. Cliffy's got his hat pulled down low, his head tilted back, and he seems to be getting friendly with a thin young woman, an industry producer. Brian Fargo ushers everyone into a semi-enclosed plush red banquette and begins ordering $350 bottles of vodka and any fruit juice or mixer that anyone can shout out. A diminutive English fellow named Kos, dressed in a crisp white shirt and sporting a black pompadour, shimmies on the dance floor—clearly delighted to be acting as Hollywood action hero Vin Diesel's personal emissary to the world of videogames.
Cliffy joins Kos on the dance floor. He grinds hips with the young woman, who is now wearing his hat. From the outside, it seems time for an intervention. But in reality, Cliffy is getting that feeling he still sometimes gets: just when he should be feeling like the biggest kid on the block, he feels like the smallest. Surely this should be the peak of his CliffyB-dom so far—his stars obviously aligned by the selection of Kaczorowski as his presentation partner, not to mention the nod from Ed Fries. Surely none of those gas-station-working, Coke-pouring tormenters of his youth have ever had a weekend like this.
Yet it feels nightmarish here on the flashing, noisy dance floor. Cliffy clearly wants to stay. He wants to experience his own apex. But it's the culmination of so many years of dreaming that Cliffy can't quite shake the feeling that he's still asleep. He mentions that it feels kind of like being a zombie.
Finally Cliffy splits, leaving his hat with his dance partner—he doesn't even want it back the next day—and heads down the escalator, and back out onto the Bellagio casino floor. The eternally shining casino lights are bright, the music is blaring, the machines are clinking, and the players are throwing money down on the tables. Alone, Cliffy catches a taxi and is in bed by two a.m. In the morning, he's not sure what was the dream and what was the waking.
Subsequently, Cliffy will only tell a few people that he didn't actually have a good time at the Bellagio. In fact, the whole night will eventually be transformed, assuming the place of treasured memory in his mind. It was, after all, the culmination of all his dreams: acclaim, glamour, wealth, girls, muscles, publicity, good skin. If only he could escape the queasy feeling of being trapped on the edge of a dream state.
And so the videogame industry moves forward.
The Quest for Art, Entertainment, and Big Bucks in the Videogame Revolution
Hardcover, 287 pages |purchase
Buy Featured Book
Your purchase helps support NPR programming. How?