Sitting isolated and aggressive in front of a screen - those days are over, video game makers say. The novelties presented at Gamescom show that computer games have become much more social and communicative.
"Everything is interconnected," a bright-eyed game designer told crowd gathered at the Gamescom trade fair in Cologne. Visitors to the fair and gaming journalists seemed skeptical while watching a test screening of the long-awaited game "Watch Dogs." With an open map on the tablet in his lap, player one scanned a city with a police helicopter. On the second panel, player two tried to steal a Chevrolet. Even the older generation couldn't stop themselves from whispering "cool" when the spot lights of player one caught the thief and the helicopter rattled through the screen of player two.
The second screens are one of the big trends this year at Gamescom, which runs through Sunday (25.8.2013) and is Europe's largest exhibition for computer games. It refers to the connection of smart phones and tablets to consoles, such as Sony's PlayStation or Microsoft's Xbox. From a mobile device, fellow players can participate and influence the game even while sitting in a café or on their lunch break.
Playing god with smart phones
"Watch Dogs," by the French manufacturer Ubisoft, will be on the market this fall. In the game the player slips into the role of a super hacker, who takes his or her personal revenge campaign to Chicago's underworld. The game offers players many options: they can manipulate traffic lights, cripple the electricity network, or steal data from virtual smart phones. "Watch Dogs" is best played with others. When connected via the Internet, players can give each other tasks or hack themselves into the game of fellow players.
The real highlight, however, is the smart phone and tablet app, which users can download for free. With the app a player can become godlike, interfering with events in the artificial Chicago by creating roadblocks, sending patrol cars, or bursting stream pipes. A friend, mom or dad - anyone can make the game easier or harder with their mobile devices, depending on their mood. With the free app as an appetizer, game designers are targeting new customers, although gamers still must pay for the full version, which only works on PCs or consoles.
And new customers are badly needed. In the first half of this year, the market for video games decreased by 3.5 percent. On the other hand the market for mobile phone games is booming.
To shoot or to think?
"I think the way in which people virtually play and the reasons why they play have changed," said Dominic Guay, who runs the production of "Watch Dogs." "Users want to move through the game more individually, they want more complex stories and more interaction with other players."
While the tablet offers a good overview, the screen of the console lets players be close to the action.
With rapid technological progress, the world of video games has become more multi-layered. The priority is no longer aggression like in classic first-person shooter games. The new generation caters to other behaviors, such as cooperation, teamwork and a sense of community.
"The entire social connectedness which we are currently experiencing with the Internet is continued when playing computer games," said Martin Lorber, youth protection commissioner of Electronic Arts. "We've long managed to compete with each other in a game. But now the wish to share and to communicate increasingly occurs."
However, this socialization of games does not mean the industry has entirely given up its violent ways. Quite to the contrary: many of the new games presented at Gamescom can still get gory. With a growing number of players, a gamer can decide whether to solve a task by cleverly combining facts or communication with others. Or players can also still shoot their way through the game.
"In the future the game will increasingly be directed towards the player and not vice versa. The game will adapt to the player's preferences and respective mood," Guay said.
Friendship will be rewarded
Another innovative example of the new generation of communicative games is "Journey" by the Chinese cult game designer Jenova Chen. The goal of the online game designed for PlayStation3 seems simple: get across a desert. But soon players realize they will not get far alone. Players have to find a partner in the desert world. Because "Journey" doesn't have a chat function both players have to communicate via gestures, simple sounds and the storyline of the game. They will reach the goal faster if they warn each other of dangers and work together in tricky situations. A sort of friendship can develop between the avatars and maybe also between the players.
The US game designer Electronic Arts (EA) is also betting on an intensive community experience for its new releases. The company presented their game "Battlefield 4" at Gamescom. In commander mode players can tactically support their teams from a tablet computer, for example by pointing the way to important targets or sending air support. "Battlefield 4" is a brutal war game - the age rating in Germany is 16 years - but many test players at the exhibition are especially enthusiastic about the new possibilities for cooperation.
"The social dimension is one of the most important elements for us," said Swedish game designer Lars Gustavsson, who developed the concept for the "Battlefield" series. "'Battlefield' promotes companionship and solidarity amongst the players. The plain old multiplayer mode in which players simply clash with each other is outdated."