Vid game industry sees silver lining to strike



NEW YORK -- Who says there's nothing new on your TV? Not video gamers.

As the Hollywood writers strike drags toward 2008, the video game industry is hoping a lack of fresh episodes in primetime could motivate more people to pick up video game controllers instead of remotes -- especially with the millions of Wiis and copies of "Call of Duty 4" under Christmas trees this holiday season.

"If you're a fan of network programming, maybe seeing another repeat of 'Pushing Daisies' or 'Cold Case' will inspire you to finish that level of 'Ratchet and Clank Future' instead," suggests Joseph Olin, president of the Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences.

Because game publishers rely almost completely on nonunion talent to create video games, the WGA walkout, now in its eighth week, hasn't been an issue for the gaming industry. Only a handful of game writers are represented by the WGA, and they fall outside of the jurisdiction of the current strike.

"There's a much better relationship between game developers and publishers than there appears to be in terms of all the polemics between the writers, producers and studios," Olin said.

During the five-month writers strike in 1988, gamers were just beginning to become infatuated with "Tetris" -- not exactly a narrative form. In the 20 years since the addictive bricks fell, plot and Hollywood have both become integral parts of interactive entertainment.

With new games now pegged to almost every major blockbuster movie, most of the major studios -- Warner Bros., Walt Disney and Sony, for example -- now have their own game-making divisions.

Two years ago, however, a tussle between Hollywood and Silicon Valley threatened a strike of its own.

SAG and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists voted to strike against game publishers after they rejected an agreement seeking to boost pay for voice acting in games. Ultimately, game publishers refused to dispense residuals -- a slice of profits from every game sold -- but agreed to a 36% pay raise.

"The game production model has always been predicated on a buyout of performance," Olin said. "Games were sold in toy stores. For a long time, production teams only consisted of two people: an artist and an engineer. Now that technology has expanded, it's a lot more complicated."

Game developers sometimes hire authors or screenwriters to pen the thousands of lines of dialogue players may encounter in a game. When publisher Ubisoft tapped Telltale Games to create video games based on "CSI," the developer consulted with the CBS show's writers, but hired "CSI" novelist Max Allan Collins to write the dialogue.

"Anytime we have the ability to work with writers, it improves the quality of the game," said Dan Connors, CEO of Telltale Games. "They're a great body of talent that generates a ton of creative work."

Connors says no union scribes have composed quips for "Sam & Max," Telltale's popular episodic comedy-adventure game series based on the comic book of the same name. Instead, everyone who's contributed to "Sam & Max" has worked in another capacity on the game, like in programming or designing.

"Writing is something we look for in everybody we hire," Connors said.

For the first time, the WGA will recognize game writing at the 2008 WGA Awards, a move that WGA West president Patric Verrone hopes will raise the profile of game writers.

Not that the gaming industry needs any resuscitation.

Nielsen Media Research doesn't yet count how many people play video games across multiple platforms in the same way they calculate TV viewership, but research from the NPD Group, which measures gaming industry sales, said people are buying more gaming software and hardware than ever before.

Sales of consoles, games and accessories hit $2.63 billion in November, up 52% from last year. Sales of games alone hit $1.3 billion in November, up 62% from last year, according to NPD.

Strike or no strike, the gaming industry is welcoming everyone.

"My hope is that people who are used to watching new programming on TV discover gaming as an entertainment alternative," Connors said. "Obviously, it will have to be a pretty prolonged strike for that to happen, but I think it's a definite possibility."