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Last Updated: Tuesday, 11 September 2007, 09:22 GMT 10:22 UK
State of Play: A wide world of games
By Margaret Robertson
Video game consultant and writer

Screenshot from The Witcher, Atari UK
The Witcher draws on the work of Andrzej Sapkowski

The gaming industry may span the globe but attempts to homogenise what it produces may end up killing creativity.

Austin isn't necessarily a place you've ever thought much about. Quiz aficionados know it as the capital city of Texas. Music fans know it as the self-proclaimed "Live Music Capital Of The World", thanks to its unusually high concentration of venues per capita.

The rest of us would probably struggle to put it on the map.

But the city, home to this month's Austin Game Developer's Conference, has an odd status in the videogame world.

In an industry dominated by its twin poles of Tokyo and Los Angeles, Austin has long been a cluster of development excellence.

From the days of Looking Glass and Ion Storm, to the current trend for major outfits like BioWare, Midway, NCSoft and Sony Online Entertainment to base studios there, Austin has a long history of attracting, and retaining, game developers.

Handy info, if you're a game-fan-quiz-aficionado. And no doubt good news for Austin's local board of commerce. But does it have any wider significance? Does where a game gets made have any impact on what it's like to play?

The most obvious divide is between western and Japanese developed games.

Think of the extraordinary range of subjects, styles and structures you find in the "world cinema" section of a decent video store, and imagine what would happen if we could apply the same diversity to gaming.
Margaret Robertson
The cultural gulf is obvious - each industry is drawing on different languages, histories, social traditions and fairy tales.

And, as the appeal of games took hold in the late '70s in the US, and the early '80s in Japan, that gulf was amplified, as 30 years' worth of games established a new set of traditions to serve the local markets.

But while it's easy to look at game history as the US versus Japan, Atari versus Nintendo, the truth was always more multi-cultural.

Britain had a flourishing and distinctive game development scene, initially serving Clive Sinclair's homegrown computers the ZX81 and the Spectrum.

France soon established itself, with titles like Another World and Rayman still resonant today. Currently, it's areas such as Scandinavia and Korea which are pushing to the forefront of development.

So can you pick up a game and guess where it's from?

Sometimes it's easy: there's a trend for humour and oddness in British games which still survives today, in the output of Rare or the presentation of Little Big Planet.

The French insistence that games can have a wider emotional and stylistic range can still be found in forthcoming games such as Heavy Rain and The Crossing.

A Scandinavian tradition for understanding that "mature" can mean more than mere lashings of gore can be seen in Dreamfall, Kane & Lynch and The Darkness.

Korea's emphasis on highly customisable, multiplayer PC games is producing recognisable aesthetic trends, in both its casual and high-end games.

Screenshot from Bioshock, 2K Games
Bioshock was part-written by Austin resident Susan O'Conner
Even in Austin, the local high-brow, off-beat atmosphere can to be seen in the work of Warren Spector at Junction Point, or of writers like Susan O'Conner who collaborated on Bioshock and Area 51.

Yet, while some local flavour remains, the prevailing trend is for the opposite: games face almost total globalisation.

Overwhelmingly, publishers hope to be able to market what they make worldwide, which leads to them to limit the culturally distinct elements in a title.

Developers themselves are well used to relocating, often skipping continents to find the work they want. Even individual game projects are global affairs - it's no longer unusual to find projects that are being worked on simultaneously in three different countries, scattered across time zones.

Other older art forms had longer to incubate local traditions before becoming global commodities, meaning that national literary and musical identities have stayed strong.

Some newer media, like comics, have failed to generate the kind of commercial pressure that the games industry now generates, ensuring local traits continued to flourish.

Gaming may be facing a uniquely acute risk of losing its various identities.

Which takes us back to that original question. Does it matter? Isn't gaming's global appeal part of the proof that it's a truly modern medium for a truly modern age?

Gaming is capable of hitting all the current buzzwords, as it crosses borders, and encourages collaboration and user-created content. What sense does it make to cater to a domestic audience when you could be making games for the entire world?

The answer is another buzzword: diversity.

There's little importance, from a gamer's perspective, in whether or not Spain has a thriving development scene.

But if there weren't studios in Warsaw and Kiev, we almost certainly wouldn't have game projects inspired by film-maker Andrei Tarkovsky (S.T.A.L.K.E.R.) or writer Andrzej Sapkowski (The Witcher).

The games industry is used to having arguments about whether bringing more female, gay or ethnically diverse staff into the development process will make it more able to serve those markets.

What doesn't so often get discussed is the benefit that cultivating regional identities could bring. Think of the extraordinary range of subjects, styles and structures you find in the "world cinema" section of a decent video store, and imagine what would happen if we could apply the same diversity to gaming.

Isn't that the kind of globalisation games should be fighting for?

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