Are video games coming of age?

Game makers are playing to a wider, more mature audience

COLOGNE, Germany -- It's an adolescent boy's dream.

In hall after hall at the video games trade fair gamescom in Cologne you can slay dragons, score tournament-winning goals and blast the hell out of hordes of Nazis/aliens/orcs/demons. All while being attended to in real life by beautiful women dressed as geishas, Amazon warriors and short-shorts-wearing soccer hotties.

In the business, this is known as playing to your base.

But with the video game industry facing revenue drops of 20% and more this year, it's clear that the geeks are no longer enough.

"We still have to get the hardcore gamers, but our demographics are much larger now," said Dirk Schulgen, marketing director for Germany, Switzerland and Austria at publishing giant Electronic Arts. "The Wii in particular has opened up whole new audiences for us, with titles like 'EA Personal Trainer' and 'Littlest Pet Shop.' "

Andrew House, president and CEO of Sony Computer Entertainment Europe, made the same point at a presentation in Cologne of Sony's new game lineup, saying lifestyle titles such as Sony's "Singstar" had brought gaming "out of the bedroom and into the living room."

Across the gaming industry, console makers, developers and publishers are moving to expand their base to maintain, or regain, growth. The new targets are women, families and the more "mature."

"Traditionally, in the video game world, 'mature' means about 14 years old, but that's not what were talking about now," said Matias Myllyrinne, managing director of Finnish-based games group Remedy, which created the best-selling "Max Payne" franchise and is working on the hotly anticipated mystery title "Alan Wake" for Microsoft. "If you make just the hardcore WWII games, the hardcore fantasy games -- you know, with the big-breasted women who slice people up and drink their blood -- you're limiting your audience."


"Alan Wake"
 
For "Alan Wake," Remedy rejected the hard-gore splatter of typical horror titles for a more involved and complicated narrative. The game follows the eponymous mystery writer Wake, who goes on vacation with his wife to an idyllic small town. When his wife disappears, he becomes trapped in a nightmare, the plot of which seems to be following one of his own thrillers.

French studio Quantic Dream has taken a similar path for its upcoming PlayStation 3 title "Heavy Rain," in which players take on the role of one of four characters trying to track down a serial killer.

"The idea is to try and find a new way of gameplay that is not based just on repeating patterns and violence," Quantic Dream CEO David Cage said.

Even "Fable 3," the sequel to the Xbox role-playing title beloved by hardcore fans, appears to be maturing. Announcing the project at a packed press conference at gamescom Wednesday morning, "Fable" creator and Microsoft Game Studios creative director Peter Molyneux stressed the sequel's emotional and political "depth," compared to its best-selling predecessors.

When it's released in late 2010, however, expect "Fable 3" to still have a fair dose of bloody battles and chesty lasses. The games biz might want to grow up, but it still needs to appeal to teenage boys of all ages.
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