It must have been a shock to the film industry when they first realized that era of the silent movies were over, and the future was going to be entirely about the “talkies”. After all, the language of cinema had really only matured over the last decades before, and modern movies had started to become masterpieces of motion and physical expression, using editing to create visual effects and dramatic storylines. But even though sound was inevitable, some creators didn’t go down without a figh: Charlie Chaplin made Modern Times, his last “silent movie”, nine years after Al Jolson first broke the sound barrier with the Jazz Singer. It proved that you could still make a great silent film, but it had also been seven years since the Marx Brothers had exploded onto the screen with their snappy patter and musical talent. Chaplin wanted to prove that things didn’t need to change, but they already had.
With Video Games it’s not as clear what our “talkies” moment is going to be. Certainly there are lots of issues with narrative, and as we solve them games are become less and less about pure goal getting, and more about uncovering story. But it seems to be social gaming, from World of Warcraft, to Rock Band, to games on MySpace and Facebook, that are moving games in a new direction. We’re leaving behind the lone player in his heavily simulated reality, and heading toward a world where we games are part of an ongoing, evolving social interaction with hundreds of even thousands of others. It’s a world where gamers aren’t just buying an experience, they’re getting into a relationship.
Two years ago Raph Koster predicted that single player games were coming to and end. At the time it seemed implausible, almost hard to understand. And the idea set off a minor firestorm of conversation across the internet. It was easy to dismiss his ideas at the time, but things have only accelerated since then, with multiplayer becoming the core experience on the PC, and co-op play being a part of almost every successful console release this years.
There’s a variety of reasons why that trend will continue to accelerate, but one clear effect of adding in a social relationship to your game, whether it’s with other players or the publisher, is that it turns all the “peer to peer” tools of piracy from negatives into positives. When it’s the relationship that the player is paying for, the more easily they can access the content the more money the publisher can make. And that seems like a win for everybody.