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Hollywood Writer's Strike: Good for Video Games?

Ignore for a moment that half of the shows I watch on TV are reality programs and don’t require a script (or do they?). Also ignore for a moment that my college roommate is a writer for CSI: Miami and that I hate to see him out of work. I’m about to ask a serious question about the TV and videogame industries, and I do so with complete solemnity: are game publishers secretly rooting against the Writer’s Guild? I’m tempted to answer “yes,” and for several reasons.

The last time Hollywood saw a strike of this magnitude, hot pink and mullets were the fashion du jour. The year: 1988. The strike’s duration: 22 weeks. The hot videogame at the time: Tetris. When Tetris hit stores, it didn’t require a degree in rocket science to play, nor did it require dozens of buttons to succeed. Its graphics were simple, its controls were cake, and its Russian-style music was ’80s MIDI-tastic. In spite of all this, or perhaps because of it, Tetris went on to become one of the most popular games of all time. Popularity means purchased. Purchased means “consumers had time.” And why did consumers have time? Certainly there were various reasons, but while we’ll never know exactly why, consumers’ availability can surely be somewhat attributed to the writer’s strike and the lack of new, original TV programming.

Nintendo had brought the NES and Super Mario Bros. to the American market two years earlier, breathing much-needed new life into the videogame industry. Yet Mario was two years old, and the original Nintendo Game Boy wouldn’t release for another year (with a Game Boy version of Tetris, no less!). Other than Tetris and its simple-to-learn but hard-to-master gameplay, what was it about 1988 that made gaming reach another plateau in mainstream awareness? The fact that, with fewer TV programs to watch, consumers had newfound hours to devote to gaming.

Fast-forward to 2007: videogames as a medium enjoy mainstream popularity, have their own cable network and revel in some of the biggest production budgets outside of Hollywood. In fact, in a few elite cases (e.g. Halo and Grand Theft Auto), videogame production budgets are even higher than some motion pictures. Yet with this success has come increased pressure to attract a new audience (a la Nintendo with the Wii), new pressure to create fresh franchises (a la Microsoft with Mass Effect and EA with Army of Two), and the need to continue capturing the imagination of gamers whose average age continues to rise.

Sounds an awful lot to me like the same issues TV producers are going through. It also sounds like 1988, when game publishers wanted to reach new heights and TV producers were struggling to do the same. In 1988, the Writers Guild went on strike and gave the game industry a boost. In 2007, the Guild is once again on strike…and you’re telling me game publishers aren’t quietly rooting for the strike to continue long enough to spike sales and audience numbers a little bit more?

If TV producers don’t have writers, they don’t have the attention of an audience that craves well-plotted, original content. If that audience isn’t watching TV, they’re looking elsewhere for their narrative fix. And if that storytelling itch can’t be scratched by television, there’s a real possibility consumers will look to newly narrative videogames. Other than online multiplayer, storytelling has become one of the biggest objectives in videogames. Is it working? A review of some of today’s best games can answer that: BioShock, Call of Duty 4, Mass Effect, Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune. Is this storytelling paying off at the cash register? Although it’s hard to pinpoint that answer, the NPD Group says sales of consoles, games and accessories hit $2.63 billion in November, up 52 percent from Nov. 2006, while game sales alone hit $1.3 billion, up 62 percent.

The Writer’s Guild went on strike November 5. Original programming stopped airing later that month.

To be fair, a lot of things could have contributed to November’s spike in game and console sales, including the rise in popularity of Blu-ray Disc movies (the PlayStation 3 plays them) and consumers’ undying love for all things Nintendo. But the fact that software rose that high can’t help but raise one’s eyebrow about the impact of the strike.

So is the Hollywood writer’s strike good for gaming? In the short term, it probably is. TV watchers want a narrative experience regardless of the format, and games are increasingly focused on storytelling (some of 2007’s best had a compelling plot). In the long term, though, the picture’s a bit fuzzier. On the one hand, if the videogame industry sees a bump during the next few months, those new gamers may be “hooked” for years to come, just as new gamers entered the fold with Tetris during the 1988 writer’s strike. On the other hand, game-industry writers don’t currently have a union, much to the Writer’s Guild’s chagrin, and if the Guild is successful with its movie and TV members, videogame writers might decide to unionize as well. If that happens, who knows how game publishers will react? They haven’t played nice with the Writer’s Guild in the past, and if there comes an impasse with a unionized videogame writer’s guild, gamers could face a similar strike and dearth of good games.

Obviously the goal is for TV, movies and games to exist in a happy happy fun fun land where everyone gets all the money they want and we all live happily ever after with unlimited income to spend on games and TV/movie programming. Until that utopia materializes, you’d better believe videogame publishers are shedding crocodile tears over the Hollywood writer’s strike. Game writers themselves want their fellow writers to succeed, but you’re a fool if you don’t think investor-driven publishers don’t feel the exact opposite. The videogame industry has been comparing its revenues with Hollywood’s for years. Who’s to think publishers aren’t licking their chops over the chance to finally overtake tinsel town?

— Jonas Allen

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