The Firm

The Firm
Unrisky Business

Mark Wallace | 11 Oct 2005 08:03
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The lush countryside is bathed in golden light. Horses' hooves fwhump solidly into the turf. Pistol shots are sharp, commanding. The period detail is unbelievable. The main characters have been acted well (with one or two exceptions), and extras wander everywhere you look. You really do have the sense of being in a 19th-century town on the frontier of the American West, where morals and ethics are dictated by who controls the land, and control is wrested through the merciless application of hot lead. The idealist fights for his notions of justice, the rancher fights for his livelihood, both fight to win the affections of the alluring madame of the local brothel - the realist, as usual - who is happy enough to have the attention. The characters are, on the whole, well drawn. The plot, such as there is, is engaging. The biggest release of the year, it bogs down in places, but there are hours more content here than usual.

The rise of the Western game? A new MMOG in hush-hush development at EA? Neversoft and Activision's open-world shooter, Gun?

In fact, it's none of the above. It's the 1980 epic film Heaven's Gate by director Michael Cimino. It won't be coming to an Xbox360 near you anytime soon, but it just may hold important lessons for the future of the gaming industry.

Heaven's Gate is a gorgeous film. It's a bit too long and a bit too self-indulgent (it clocked in at three and a half hours when originally released), but the lessons it holds have little to do with art, storyline or gameplay. The lessons it holds have to do with money, where it comes from and how to get it. And as much as we'd prefer it were otherwise, it's money that determines whether the games we play are mind-blowing pieces of interactive art or mind-numbing sequels in yet another licensed franchise.

Where money in the games industry is concerned, of course, there's no better place to find it than at Electronic Arts, Inc., the industry's behemoth. EA took in almost $3 billion in revenue in its 2004 fiscal year, and is looking to grab about 10 percent more than that in 2005, about what eBay takes every year. While it stumbles now and then (as it is doing, slightly, now), EA has gone from a ballyhooed upstart when Trip Hawkins founded it in 1982 to the biggest, richest company on the face of the planet devoted exclusively to bringing people semiconductor-based fun.

But its size doesn't necessarily mean EA is the best. Riches are not the mother of invention. Gamers are often surprised when riches and invention walk hand in hand, and don't often expect it from a cash-heavy company like EA. Except by those loyal Madden NFL fans, EA gets slapped around and spat on for being the evil empire of game development on a daily basis. You name the name, EA has been called it. Profit-hungry. Power-mad. Uncaring, uncreative and uncouth, not to mention unethical and even underhanded.

The company definitely has its faults, where its products are concerned (as well as in other areas, as ea_spouse can tell you). Licenses are not the sole ingredient of good games. Just because you have Batman, James Bond, Harry Potter, Marvel Comics, the Lord of the Rings, The Godfather and pretty much every major sports franchise on the face of the planet - from the NHL to the NFL, NCAA football and basketball, golf stars, NASCAR, FIFA soccer, the NBA and even a non-sport sport like Arena Football - doesn't mean your games are engaging and fun.

It doesn't mean that all of them are yawners, of course. Madden NFL 2005 is one of the best-loved sports games around. From its humble beginnings with games like Archon and Pinball Construction Set, EA has since shepherded great games like Battlefield 1942 and Battlefield 2, Need for Speed and the most popular computer game of all time, The Sims (even if the company at first supported it only reluctantly). It has also kept the MMOG Ultima Online going long past the point most people expected, and has occasionally taken on slightly unusual projects like Black & White and TimeSplitters. Not all of these have been smashing successes, but most were fun and even, inventive.

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