East restaurant 9 p.m.
Tommy Francois is all over the place. One minute he's diving into a précis on the Samurai influences in the original Star Wars movies, the next minute he's comparing the end of a video game development cycle to breaking up with a girlfriend. Since he took a seat at our table in this faux-rock-walled, upscale-ish Asian fusion restaurant on Hollywood Boulevard 20 minutes ago, he hasn't stopped talking. His glazed cod just sits there on the dinner plate, untouched. Ubisoft's media relations foot soldiers look on uneasily as Mr. Francois inadvertently let's slip some minor but as-yet-unannounced detail of an upcoming game, but he seems unconcerned.
Mr. Francois isn't easy to peg for an executive. His unruly mop of rusty coloured hair, forest-green hoodie and militantly laid-back attitude make him a dead-ringer for that guy on your rez floor in college who always knew where to get the best weed. And yet Mr. Francois has one of the most important positions in one of the biggest game development companies on Earth. His official title is director of Ubisoft's Intellectual Property, and his job is to make people want to play games developed by his employer. And when they aren't playing, his job is to make them think about playing.
I'm at this Ubisoft-sponsored media dinner, and in Los Angeles generally, because I'm covering the Electronic Entertainment Expo, the single-largest video-game conference in the world. Over the next 72 hours I will talk to people such as Yves Guillemot, who runs Ubisoft, and Don Mattrick, who is responsible for Microsoft's entire interactive entertainment division. I will listen to some of the smartest business minds in the media industry talk about brand new ways to make and sell products. I will also watch a gaggle of bikini-clad young women wash cars as part of a sales gimmick for the new Saints Row game, the advertising for which carries the lazily innuendo-laden tag-line "Strap it on."
But beyond all the overbearing billboards and contractually upbeat booth babes and towering Styrofoam ogres littering the E3 show floor, something more significant is happening.
For better or worse, video gaming has suddenly become the most innovative and important media industry not named the Internet. At a time when just about every one of those industries is struggling to come to terms with the rise of the Web, video game companies have dreamed up myriad new business models, distribution mechanisms and customer loyalty programs. The work Mr. Francois and people like him do, which involves everything from directing short movies that expand on video game back-stories to creating elaborate mini-games and unlockable achievements to keep players hooked, is being copied by everyone from major retailers to U.S presidential candidates.
Since a bunch of bored engineers first manipulated a cathode ray tube to create a basic missile-launch simulator more than 60 years ago, the video game industry has struggled to shake off the perception of frivolity. Even as global video game market pushes past $50-billion (U.S.) and the game console increasingly becomes the content-streaming heart of many families' living rooms, there's this lingering sense that, when it comes down to it, this is still an industry tailored primarily to boys and young men who want an interactive version of a Spike TV commercial.
And in many ways, the gaming industry is immature - but not for the oft-stated and somewhat simplistic reasoning that many games are overly violent or lacking emotional subtlety. There are plenty of intelligent, complex and powerful video games, be they violent or not. Portal, a best-selling and critically acclaimed title, relies on little more than a physics engine and a sarcastic computer to drive gameplay. The bleak, post-apocalyptic America of the Fallout series is full of multi-dimensional characters and moral forks in the road. Even God of War, a hyper-violent franchise in which a Greek warrior named Kratos (whose facial expressions range from "impossibly infuriated" to "impossibly infuriated and possibly a little constipated") hacks pretty much everybody to cubes, comes with a rich storyline.
But anyone who has ever tried to play games on a public multiplayer server has probably witnessed first-hand the juvenile, misogynist or homophobic side of gaming - the almost ceaseless melee of grade-school-level profanity delivered anonymously. And as is the case in almost every creative industry, the content often mirrors the consumer. For every deep, emotionally rich game, there's a lazy sludge of testosterone and penis jokes. For every Fallout, there's a Duke Nukem.