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Serf's Up in the Video Game Industry

Cynthia L. Webb

Byline: Cynthia L. Webb

Holiday season in the video game industry is the equivalent of television's sweeps week, which perhaps is why new reports painting game designers as 21st century-style Dickensian factory laborers are proving especially noteworthy.

The bottom line? It's not all fun and games for the game makers, according to historian Randall Stross of Silicon Valley. Stross wrote in a commentary published in the New York Times yesterday that "you can't look at a place like Electronic Arts , the world's largest developer of entertainment software, and not think back to the early industrial age when a youthful work force was kept fully occupied during all waking hours to enrich a few elders. Games for video consoles and PC's have become a $7 billion-a-year business. Based in Redwood City, Calif., Electronic Arts is the home of the game franchises for N.F.L. football, James Bond and ' Lord of the Rings ,' among many others. For avid players with professional ambitions to develop games, E.A. must appear to be the best place in the world. Writing cool games and getting paid to boot: what more could one ask? Yet there is unhappiness among those who are living that dream. Based on what can be glimpsed through cracks in E.A.'s front facade, its high-tech work force is toiling like galley slaves chained to their benches."

Stross wrote that overtime pay is nil and time off is limited even after workers churn out new products. He noted an "anonymous writer who signed herself as ' E.A. Spouse ' posted on the Web a detailed account of hellish employer-mandated hours reaching beyond 80 hours a week for months. No less remarkable were the thousands of comments that swiftly followed in online discussion forums for gamers and other techies, providing volumes of similar stories at E.A. and at other game developers."

EA spokesman Jeff Brown told Stross that "'the hard work' entailed in writing games 'isn't unique to E.A.' He is correct; smaller studios demand it, too. The International Game Developers Association conducted an industrywide 'quality of life' survey this year documenting that "crunch time is omnipresent.'" * The New York Times: When A Video Game Stops Being Fun (Registration required)

As for the missive from E.A. Spouse, nearly 3,000 comments have been posted in reply so far, including this one : "Well, I know this doesn't help you any, but you're certainly not alone, and EA certainly isn't the only publisher pulling this ... I've been wanting to leave my job for quite some time, but it looks like all of the major publishers are following the same plans, and the small ones can't take a chance hiring someone that doesn't have at least 10 titles published... We really do need some sort of union in this industry. When those in charge are getting christmas bonuses larger than my annual pay (and working less than half the hours), something is seriously wrong. My christmas 'bonus' last year was $40. (This was also the bonus they promised me to keep me from walking out.)"

Some are already working to form a union for gaming developers -- a sign that the industry is trying to grow up. But like any other business, cost-cutting and profits are "Mission No. 1," an indicator that the gaming industry might not be so hot on organized labor.

Just as worker angst proliferates, the video game industry is having to deal with problems reminiscent of the very industry it is taking cues from: Hollywood. The Washington Post's Mike Musgrove wrote about the trend in the paper last Tuesday. "If the video game industry is beginning to rake in revenue that rivals the movie industry, it's also beginning to accumulate Hollywood-like headaches. Both industries have to worry about attracting star talent, containing rising production costs and stopping hackers who freely trade their products online. And, of course, there are the lawsuits. For a game designer these days, coming up with the flashy technology that will impress jaded fans is only part of the job," Musgrove reported.

"Take Half-Life 2 , a hotly anticipated computer game that arrives in stores today. The title features the latest adventures of a character named Gordon Freeman , a scientist who's going to save the world from aliens with the help of a stack of cool weapons and a couple of friends. With a list price of $54.99, Half-Life 2 is widely expected to sell millions of copies (the original Half-Life sold 8 million since its 1998 release). But getting the fearless Freeman on retail shelves has been a bit of a slog. Hackers at one point stole the source code to the game by breaking into a computer at Valve Corp. , the game's developer, forcing delays. Development was further slowed by a fitful creative process as game designers tried to come up with a worthy sequel. And all the while, Valve and its publisher have been entrenched in an ongoing legal battle, squabbling over issues such as late payments and which party has the right to sell Half-Life to Internet cafes." * The Washington Post: Half Life 2's Real Battle (Registration required)

In other legal news, the Los Angeles Times last week reported that Oscar-winning " Pulp Fiction " co-writer Roger Avary on Monday last week "sued Microsoft Corp. , accusing the world's largest software company of stealing his idea for a genre-bending video game for Microsoft's Xbox console." More from the piece: "' Yourself! Fitness ,' a well-reviewed exercise game aimed at women, copies large chunks of the papers Avary submitted to Microsoft during a series of meetings in 2003, he alleged in the suit filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court ." Microsoft had no comment for the paper.

Speaking of Xbox, Microsoft is playing its own game of hard ball with rogue Xboxers, now that its hotly anticipated Halo 2 sequel is out. The company is cracking down on people that make unauthorized changes to their Xbox devices, the AP reported. "Gamers who modify Xboxes usually do so either to be able to cheat on games or use pirated copies, although some also have made changes so they can use the Xbox for other functions, from running Linux to playing music. Cameron Ferroni , general manager of the Xbox software platform, says Microsoft is not interested in suing individual users. But the company does want to banish scofflaws from its online service, Xbox Live ." * Los Angeles Times: Microsoft vs. Hollywood In A Clash Over Creativity (Registration required) * The Associated Press via the San Jose Mercury News: Microsoft Cracks Down On Xbox Modifications (Registration required)

Winner of the Tasteless Award

And just in time for the holiday season, fresh controversy. Scottish video game maker Traffic is releasing a video game to recreate the assassination of President John F. Kennedy . "A spokesman for the president's brother, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy , D-Mass., called the game 'despicable,'" the AP reported today. "The Glasgow-based firm Traffic said " JFK Reloaded " was an educational "docu-game" that would help disprove conspiracy theories about Kennedy's death. The game is due to be released Monday, the 41st anniversary of the shooting in Dallas. Traffic said the game challenged players to recreate the three shots fired at the president's car by assassin Lee Harvey Oswald from the Texas School Book Depository ." No word yet if Oliver Stone has reserved a copy.

Presidential historian G. Calvin MacKenzie of Colby College in Maine told the Boston Herald, "Aside from being in incredibly bad taste, the idea of marketing it as an educational tool seems to stretch the notion of education beyond belief." David Smith , a spokesman for Ted Kennedy "would not say whether the family was taking any action to stop the game's release," The Scotsman reported. "Traffic said it was aware of the passion surrounding the death of 'one of America's greatest heroes' and it was determined to promote the game respectfully. Managing director Kirk Ewing said the product would stimulate a younger generation of players to take an interest in a fascinating episode of American history." * The Associated Press: Company Launches JFK Assassination Game (Registration required) * The Boston Herald: Outrage Over JFK Slay Video Game * The Scotsman: 'Despicable' JFK Game Is Slammed By Brother

Trying to D(is)S the Competition

Nintendo's DS gaming device is out in time for the holidays and rival Sony is watching carefully. "For the last several years, Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo have fought over an audience for console video games that is growing older and more mainstream. But Nintendo has largely had the market for hand-held games -- which appeal mostly to children and teenagers -- to itself," the New York Times reported today. "Now Nintendo -- and Sony -- are also looking at an older audience. Yesterday, the $149 Nintendo DS went on sale, a portable device that is initially being marketed to older game players, those in their late teens and early 20's. With two monitors, touchscreen control, a Palm -style stylus and wireless connectivity that allows for head-to-head game play, the DS is trying to capture more sophisticated game players who otherwise would be playing consoles like the Xbox and Sony's PlayStation 2 . Nintendo even plays off the new features with advertisements in magazines like Maxim featuring the tagline 'Touching is Good.' For the first time in half a decade, it will have some competition in the hand-held market. By the end of March, Sony will introduce the PSP, a 'PlayStation Portable' that will also play music and videos using a proprietary storage format called the Universal Media Disc ... For the DS, Nintendo is taking a different tack by aggressively courting third-party game publishers like Activision and Electronic Arts, which have enjoyed far more success developing high-end games for the PlayStation 2 and Xbox consoles." * The New York Times: Playing Games In Your 20's? Nintendo Is Onto You (Registration required)

The San Jose Mercury News gave a rosy review of the DS. "The new Nintendo DS handheld video game player is exactly what it should be and more -- offering lots of fun right now, as well as intriguing possibilities for the future. Officially launched Sunday, the $150 DS ( and is not just a slightly souped-up version of Nintendo's hugely popular Game Boy line. Indeed, Nintendo will continue selling the $80 Game Boy Advance SP and developers will continue creating new Game Boy Advance games. The DS instead takes handheld gaming to a higher level, easily justifying its heftier price. Roughly the size and shape of a checkbook, the silvery clamshell of the 10-ounce DS opens to reveal two 3-inch color LCD screens. The top screen has tiny stereo speakers on either side, which put out surprisingly good sound. The bottom screen has the familiar left-right-up-down control pad on the left and A-B-X-Y control buttons on the right," the Merc wrote. More fawning from USA Today, which concluded that "DS is clearly the most powerful and versatile handheld game system on the market today, with two 3-inch backlighted screens (one of which is touch-sensitive) and built-in wireless communications."

And from the Chicago Tribune: "Its role in console gaming has dwindled since Sony launched the PlayStation in 1995, but Sunday, Nintendo delivers an incredible tap on the shoulder to introduce the Nintendo DS -- and a glimpse into the future. In one sense, the DS is the next step in the handheld gaming niche that Nintendo has owned since 1989 with its ultra-successful line of Game Boy devices (more than 120 million sold worldwide). In another sense, it's a bold leap into the wider world of portable entertainment. As people spend more of their lives on the go, that world has exploded. Witness all those telltale white earphones of iPod owners on the elevated train. Cell phones, an almost ubiquitous 21st Century device, soon will be able to play 3-D games. Facing all that, the DS attempts to be a game-playing device with larger entertainment implications," the article said. * San Jose Mercury News: Nintendo Takes Handheld Gaming To A New Level (Registration required) * USA Today: Nintendo DS: Doubly Good * Chicago Tribune: Nintendo's DS Shows The Future of Gaming

Inspect Their Gadgets

Ready or not, the holidays are just around the corner and advertisers want consumers to know what's hot and what's not in the gadget grange. A slew of publications are out with their holiday buying guides, with gaming players, iPods and mobile devices a few of the must-have items. Included in the New York Times gadget and game buying guide is this idea for the uber-gaming geek in your family: "The Sony EyeToy digital camera system, which works exclusively with Sony PlayStation 2 game consoles, is a $50 U.S.B. camera that puts players virtually inside a video game. While the camera has not changed since its introduction last year, the range and sophistication of the games with which it can be used has. EyeToy: AntiGrav , for example, permits players to control a futuristic hoverboarder by acting as if they were on the board themselves."

The Washington Post has a primer on buying a PC, another hot item for consumers. Rob Pegoraro wrote that "many shoppers judge PCs by their processors' clock speeds. But that no longer tells anything useful -- any new processor easily handles browsing the Web, downloading MP3s or editing digital photos. Few tasks, such as editing video, demand more power. A computer shopping list should focus on different criteria: hard drive, memory and removable storage." Also from Pegoraro: "My ideal home computer would include a word processor and spreadsheet compatible with Microsoft Office (either Microsoft Office or what most vendors offer, Microsoft Works ), a personal-finance manager ( Quicken or Microsoft Money ), a photo album ( Apple 's iPhoto or Adobe 's Photoshop Elements ) and a digital-music program (iTunes or Windows Media Player 10 ). A Windows machine would feature a year's worth of virus protection (though 90 days is usually the maximum). Since most manufacturers leave out some of these tools, you'll have to download or buy what's missing." * The Washington Post: 3-Point Shopping For A Computer (Registration required)

Parade magazine also published its own annual Gadget Guide .

Your Search Has Returned 932 Million Hits

The Wall Street Journal today has specifics on how fat and happy venture capitalists are because of Google 's public stock offering. " Shares of Web-search titan Google Inc. have nearly doubled since its August initial public offering of stock. And now Google's biggest backers are seriously cashing in. Venture-capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers , which invested less than $15 million in Google in 1999, this past Tuesday handed out 5.4 million Google shares -- valued at $932 million at Tuesday's close -- to investors in one of its funds, according to people familiar with the matter. Then, on Friday, Google's co-founders and chief executive disclosed plans to sell a total of 16.6 million shares, valued at $2.8 billion, over the next 18 months. On Thursday, two vice presidents reported selling a combined 55,000 shares, for roughly $9.5 million." * The Wall Street Journal: Google's Backers, Executives Cash In (Subscription required)

Where there's money, there's legal action. Perfect 10 Inc. , a Beverly Hills adult entertainment company has sued Google "accusing the search firm of copyright and trademark infringement and unfair competition related to the display of photos by Google's image-search site," the Wall Street Journal reported. The company said Google "improperly displays copyrighted images from Perfect 10's magazine and Web site, and passwords to its subscription Web site, in response to user queries." A Google spokesman told the paper that the company has not reviewed the lawsuit. * The Wall Street Journal: Google Is Accused of Copyright Infringement (Subscription required)

Be sure to check out this intriguing piece in yesterday's Washington Post. Pam Janis wrote about how Google has become a part of checking up on old flames, for better or for worse. Janis found an ex online through a Google search. "It took just 0.38 seconds to change my image of him -- and myself -- forever. Not to mention inflict myself with a bad case of Googler's Remorse . I kept looking at his picture and bio on the Web and wondering, 'What was I thinking?' We forget when we track down present Others that this invariably brings us face-to-computer-screen with our past Selves," Janis wrote. "I'm not alone in this epiphany, nor in the impulse to Net the ones that got away. Sooner or later many of us go from hookup to look-up. What bizarre compulsion is coded into our DNA -- or ISP -- that makes us keyword old flames on the Internet? We are literally playing with fire. Now obviously, I am not talking about using the Web to reconnect with old lost friends with whom we shared the special bond of skipping gym and sneaking off instead to breakfast at IHOP . If only we stopped there. Though we would never spend hours in the library combing phone books to learn what happened to people who dumped us (i.e., whether they are listed with spouses), the temptation to Google for that information in a split second is often too gripping to pass up. And, voila, there we are in all our previous incarnations. Today's hits turn up yesterday's misses. True, that can flood us with fond memories. It might also explain why some of us are now on meds." * The Washington Post: I Googled Him, But the Hit Was On Me (Registration required)

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COPYRIGHT 2005 Gale Group

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