Halo 3 – Parallels with the Film Industry

On Tuesday morning we saw the release of the latest installment of Bungie Lab’s future-war simulation, Halo 3 – Believe. Early sales reports for the title suggest opening day takings of around US$140M which is akin or in most cases eclipses the equivalent Hollywood blockbuster. Check out the website devoted to the game (especially the unique and resplendent model demonstration) and you’ll see it looks strikingly like a blockbuster film site.

With regard to the computer gaming industry, I think we’re currently witnessing something akin to the introduction of Talkies (Movies with sound) in the 1930s, which brought about massive changes to the entertainment industry. At the time the ‘new’ technology of talking pictures resulted in a changing in the guard for leading actors (who were still merely the salaried property of the studios they worked for, and in many cases foreign language actors who simply couldn’t work any longer once dialogue was introduced) as well as a general shift in the popularity of the medium which had until that point been a poor-man’s-theatre.

As the technology progressed, the interest (and thus the revenues) were provided not by those infatuated with the tech itself, but rather the artistry that was offered. In other words, by the time we were done with Buster Keaton and Shirley Temple, we were whetting our inner-thespian appetites with Brando and Hoffman. Similarly, as the technology behind today’s games progresses, the genre of the story and the spine-tingling plot points are moving units. In Halo 3, each of the bad guys you face has an artificial intelligence including some 10,000 rules that they abide by, creating some of the most eerily realistic game-play to date (not to mention the formidable online component of the game which pits you against other humans).

Now while the introduction of talkies did indeed kill the silent movie, and despite Halo’s takings making Spiderman 3 look like a failed Sundance Indie flick about a nun fostering a goat, It would be silly to suggest the death of TV or Film was nigh. Rather I think what we’re witnessing is the embryonic stages of an entirely new media platform (I say this being fully aware that the gaming industry is some 30 years old), one that represents the convergence of internet and TV, gaming and internet, and Australians and their living rooms. It’s just that now our theaters just happen to be the Xbox 360s, Playstation 3s and Nintendo Wii’s of this world. Again, I’m not talking about a mainstream shift here, but it must be significant when revenues like US$140M are in the offing.

In the 1930s the end-goal for the studios was to own their own theaters, and draw retail revenues from these while keeping their ‘talent’ costs to a minimum. However twenty years on – as speaking-stars like Clark Gable and Gary Cooper came to popularity and hugely determined box-office takings – the same studios were court-challenged by these actors to be free to work on other studio projects, thus giving birth to ’star power’ and shifting the balance of influence in Hollywood. As a result of this (and a downturn during the second world war) the studios divested themselves of the theaters they owned, and thus introduced licensing fees (and later merchandising).

I wonder, short of an AI character breaking free and demanding equal pay, what kind of challenges the gaming studios of the 2020’s will face.

– Ben Prendergast