Copyright 2001 www.tombraiderchronicles.com

[ November 14th 2001 ]

Though it seems a long time ago now, the computer games industry used to seem like a bit of a joke. But it has crept up behind us to become very big business indeed. And the UK is in the front row of it, both as producer and consumer.

With sales of $2.2 billion last year, it is the world's third largest market for computer games, behind the U.S. ($6.5 billion) and Japan ($5.6 billion) but ahead of France ($1.04 billion). When it comes to per capita consumption of video games, Britain ($39) is second only to Japan ($44) and well ahead of the U.S. ($24).

However, we don't only play these games hour after hour - we also invent and produce them. Indeed, Britain is one of the most influential game producers when it comes to innovation, according to Dr Jim TerKeurst. TerKeurst is the research and business development manager of the International Centre for Computer Games and Virtual Entertainment, or IC-CAVE for short. Icy Cave? Sounds like yet another computer game.

Nonetheless, IC-CAVE is a serious research centre, attached to Scotland's University of Abertay Dundee. Five years ago, the university launched the country's first post-graduate course in computer games technology, and added an undergraduate degree course a couple of years later. The courses are attended by 300 students, and the university gets 10 applications for each available place. Those who make it can study the Japanese language as part of the curriculum, and 150 of them do.

IC-CAVE started by testing game prototypes for the industry and is now developing open code software for network gaming (so remote players can play each other online from any kind of computer). It is also working on mysterious things like mixed reality environments, mixed world gaming, 3D glasses and information displays, and different types of game engines.

One of its projects involves biological and evolutionary models for artificial intelligence, which will allow the game to analyse and adapt to your character as you go along. Discoveries in this fantasy environment may be useful back in the world of medicine and real life.

The UK industry has scored some notable hits, such as Tomb Raider (whose heroine, Lara Croft, has gone on to star in at least one Hollywood movie), Grand Auto Theft and Lemmings. The computer game version of the British TV show, Who Wants to be a Millionaire, sold one million copies faster than any other game in history.

But, as TerKeurst points out, in an industry driven by content, the worst thing would be for it to become dull. Existing games genres - shoot-em-ups, quests, sports - are becoming exhausted, and there is much effort to find new ones. Here's where British innovation could count.

TerKeurst is in Japan right now, leading a team of games boffins - programmers, artists, musicians and producers - on a mission with a difference. Instead of wanting to drum up trade, it wants to learn from Japanese game developers.

The Japanese industry - bigger than Hollywood, according to TerKeurst - differs from ours in structure, culture and influences. Their games tend to be story-driven, skills-based and strong on role play. Western games are more likely to be events-driven and competitive. Japanese children exhibit less stress when playing against a friend than when playing against a computer.

It's said that this is because they don't wish to humiliate their friends by beating them. Western children are altogether more competitive. So that'll be something to bring back home. But will it sell?

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