Evolving in the Virtual World

Jeff Corwin (far right), star of Discovery's Animal Planet TV show, brought a 19-foot anaconda boa weighing 150 pounds on stage at the Entertainment Gathering in L.A. It took five people to carry the giagantic snake on stage.
Jeff Corwin (far right), star of Discovery's Animal Planet TV show, brought a 19-foot anaconda boa weighing 150 pounds on stage at the Entertainment Gathering in L.A. It took five people to carry the giagantic snake on stage. (Leslie Walker - The Washington Post)
By Leslie Walker
Saturday, February 4, 2006

LOS ANGELES -- The future of entertainment rests with a hot new star: you, the former audience.

That was a key message I heard in Los Angeles this week at an eclectic conference called the Entertainment Gathering, which featured live performances from a diverse cast, including Yo-Yo Ma, Dwight Yoakam, Herbie Hancock and a 19-foot boa that was carried onstage by five people to join his master, Discovery Channel's Jeff Corwin. The three-day event, which ended yesterday, brought together several hundred people from the entertainment, technology and design worlds to talk about where their industries are going.

While speaker after speaker lamented how traditional media are in various stages of decay, gaming was seen as a bright spot. That became clear as leading game creators talked about how their industry is eyeing a new way to fund the future of entertainment -- by putting you to work building their virtual game worlds.

The next generation of video games aims to give players a much bigger role in producing the look and feel of their own games, Microsoft's gaming vice president, J Allard, said Thursday. The gaming industry is copying the models of the community-created Wikipedia encyclopedia and open-source software. By giving players new tools to shape the design and action in more personal ways, the industry hopes to draw in a bigger audience while helping foot the bill for "skyrocketing" production costs, he said.

Bing Gordon, chief creative officer at Electronic Arts, didn't mention the lower quarterly profits his company announced this week or the layoffs it blamed on a transition to new game consoles. But he said he considers Microsoft's new Xbox 360 console "transformational" for the entire industry, and got excited talking about how the "living world" game genre, in which players are dropped inside virtual worlds they can roam and interact with, is moving to new levels.

Gordon previewed his game, The Godfather, to be released next month. It recreates New York City and its suburbs as they looked in the 1940s and lets players roam while vying to earn respect, become "dons" in the Corleone family and engage in escalating vendettas with four other Mafia families.

"The exciting part of this is none of it is scripted, so everybody can have a different experience," Gordon said.

But the crowd was more enthralled by Will Wright, creator of the Sims, who showed a new game he is developing at Electronic Arts called Spore. It lets players create entire species and have them evolve inside a universe populated by species and cities created by other players. The idea is to put players in the role of a George Lucas or a "Galactic God," Wright said, and let them share their creations over the Internet in a virtual environment.

Creating "living worlds" has grown increasingly expensive, and the content that players typically come up with on their own isn't all that good because most lack the technical proficiency of professional developers. Game makers aim to change that by harnessing the power of computers to amplify their handiwork, Wright said.

"Computers can actually model players as they play, analyze their game play -- which choices do they make, which social interactions and frequencies," he said. Computers can enhance the results of players' decisions using models of physics and behavior.

That is what happens in Spore. Players shape creatures using simple menus, deciding what kind of limbs and coloring they should have. In the background, the computer applies animation models to make their creatures look like something made by Pixar.

Wright showed vivid animations of cities, ranging from fantasy villages to urban cities resembling where we live today. Each player's creations show up on the computer screens of other players because Spore redistributes each person's handiwork over the Internet to everyone else who is playing. Players start by creating single-cell creatures, which evolve into entire civilizations. Eventually, the game leads to space travel around a universe filled with imaginary planets, each rendered in amazing detail.

"For the longest time, games have been considered the new movies," Wright said. "That ignores the interesting opportunities in games."

Microsoft's Allard agreed that giving gamers tools for greater self-expression is one way the 30-year-old video game industry can mature into a truly mass medium. Today, 2.5 million people pay $50 a year to subscribe to Microsoft's Xbox Live online gaming community.

Nobody talked about me-oriented shows transforming traditional TV, though there were plenty of references to the way Tivo-style digital recorders are undercutting the advertising model of broadcast television.

More talk centered on the Internet and how it is creating entertainment in which consumers are the stars.

More than 75,000 new blogs are created every day, many with quirky new forms of entertainment, said Peter Hirshberg, executive vice president of the Technorati blog-indexing company.

Showing a slide titled "Control Was So 20th Century," Hirshberg entertained the crowd with video blogs published on the Web. They included teens doing hilariously bad lip-syncing. No one said the entertainment had to be highbrow.

Leslie Walker welcomes e-mail atwalkerl@washpost.com.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company