Page last updated at 11:06 GMT, Wednesday, 4 June 2008 12:06 UK

Gaming gains celebrity status

By Margaret Robertson
Video game consultant and writer

Hideo Kojima
Games developer Hideo Kojima is gaining a high profile

Like many commuters, one of my milder vices is leafing through a free copy of Metro on the morning train.

It rarely disappoints - cute animals rescued from improbable peril, TV stars revealed to be dieting hoaxers, lovelorn fugitives betrayed by sausage addiction - but it's rarely worth slowing down from a rapid flick.

Today, though, I was brought to a standstill, not by the enduringly inexplicable photo of Mike Tyson cab-sharing with Aisleyne from Big Brother, but by a mean and moody quarter-page shot of a middle aged Japanese man.

Suddenly, alongside Amy and Blake and Peaches and Lily, here was Hideo Kojima, creator of Metal Gear Solid, and one of the best known game developers in the world.

But while Kojima had made it into the paper he hadn't made it into the fashion column or the interview slot.

He was smouldering out from an HMV promo advertising a signing session for the release of Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots.

What else would you expect? Game designers just aren't great gossip fodder.

Rich rewards

It's hard to imagine David Braben on I'm A Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here, for all sorts of reasons.

Gillette, to my certain knowledge, has never approached Charles Cecil to be its new face, despite his formidable stubble, and I'm pretty sure Mike Tyson has never shared a cab with Matthew Smith.

In fact, I'm pretty sure that most Metro readers will never have heard of Braben, Cecil or Smith, nor be able to name off-hand the games for which they're revered (Elite, Broken Sword and Manic Miner, respectively).

Screen shot from Guitar Hero
Guitar hero has changed relationship between games and music

But Kojima's presence in the paper - albeit in a paid-for slot - is evidence of a trend that's been building for some time.

Game makers are gaining more and more recognition. In Britain they get OBEs, in France admittance to the Ordre des Artes et de Lettres. Game fans queue along Oxford Street to bag an autograph, and it's not unheard of for game studios to receive requests for candid developer calendars.

Nor are these emerging stars rubbing shoulders with an army of geeky nobodies.

Gaming is drawing celebrity to it like never before.

Throwing knickers

The arrival of Rock Band and Guitar Hero have changed the relationship of gaming and music forever.

At the moment the repertoire - Motley Crue and Def Leppard - may leave you cold, but the news stories show that games can be a better place to sell a single than iTunes, and a better place to launch an album than a TV show or a festival stage.

And if The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull has left you wanting more Spielberg, then you'll need to head to your Wii, not the cinema, for his latest release, Boom Blox. And speaking of cinemas, the rash of game-inspired movies in the works is going to produce an epidemic of heart-throbs racing each other to come out as life-long gamers.

Expect hours of interviews with Prince of Persia Jake Gyllenhaal earnestly explaining how much he loved the original game on the Apple II, and whatever hunk bags the Gears of War lead to lay claim to 16-hour co-op marathons to get him into character.

Screen shot of World Cyber Games website
The World Cyber Games attracts big prize money

Of course, the great thing about games is that there's scope for their consumers as well as their creators to become stars.

It's hard to imagine anyone throwing their knickers at a really prolific reader, or eBaying the kidney stones of someone who's seen a lot of films, but around the world top-class gamers are already celebrities.

Virtua Fighter experts get mobbed by girls in Japanese arcades. Korean Starcraft champs are on TV every night.

In Brazil the top Gunbound player was famous enough to get himself briefly kidnapped. Think it can't happen here? Sky already screens the Championship Gaming Series, and live e-sports events in the west attract audiences of tens of thousands.

Major events - such as the Electronic Sports World Cup and the World Cyber Games - have prize purses of hundreds of thousands of pounds.

New models

And money is a key issue. There's long been a theory that we don't get gaming celebrities because developers just don't have the charisma, or the looks, to be superstars.

The truth is colder: overwhelmingly they just don't have the money.

Being famous is an expensive business, and game makers were for many years most likely to be salaried employees, paid the same regardless of how much money their games made.

But that's changing: thanks to new distribution methods and new financial models, there are more and more ways for developers to work independently if they choose to, which lets them reach their market direct, speak their minds instead of towing publisher PR guidelines and retain more of the credit - and more of the profit.

All of a sudden, the indie kid who made Desktop Tower Defence is making more each year out of his ad revenue than lead designers on games that gross hundreds of millions. And wherever youth and money meet, fame follows.

So a year, or two, or three from now, there could be enough celebrity game developers that Mike Tyson would need to share a bus with them, not a cab.

Make no mistake, gaming is going to get celebrities, and celebrities are going to get gaming. But I'm still not betting you'll see them in the gossip section of the Metro. Not because they're too boring, or too ugly, or too poor. But because they're too smart.

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