Steven Spielberg's Mysterious Video Games, E3 Reports & More, In GameFile

Plus: Atari's Jenga for the Wii and DS; who's living the gamer's dream?

SANTA MONICA, California — The letters E and T brought Steven Spielberg a lot of success in film. Now he's hoping L, M, N, O, P, Q, R and S can do the same for him in video games.

Last year game publisher Electronic Arts announced a partnership with Steven Spielberg to make three original video games (see "Steven Spielberg Confesses Games Addiction, Announces Next-Gen Projects").This week, as the Electronics Entertainment Expo's Media and Business video game trade show kicks off in Santa Monica, EA is revealing the first few details of the first two games of the partnership. There's an Xbox 360, PS3 and PC game code-named "LMNO" and a Wii title internally called "PQRS." And only one is what Spielberg fans might be expecting.

"It would be really easy and obvious for us to make three games together that we make as films at the same time: One's set in the present day, one's set in the future and one is set in World War II," said Neil Young, general manager of EA Los Angeles, as he described to GameFile yesterday what the three games were not. "That wasn't the intent of our partnership."

Instead, gamers can look forward to the emotional, contemporary action adventure of "LMNO," which Young described in the vaguest terms, only adding that the crux of the experience will be the player-hero's partnership with a female character. "What we're really trying to go after is moving players emotionally." He said the backdrop would be reminiscent of Spielberg's grandest films. "They tell big events in the world through the eyes of a small number of people who are intimately connected by an epic event."

Young was so coy with details, and so careful in choosing his words, that when asked if the lead character was male, he said, "There is no real embargo on you being female." He said the game doesn't make many references to the player-character's identity, at least not in the work developed so far. Does that mean it's a first-person game? "We're not decrying it as first or third person."

Young was vague and evasive partially because "LMNO" is far from completion. Though it entered development 15 months ago, it won't be out by March 2008 and will be beaten out of the EA factory by the second, less typical Spielberg game, "PQRS." That game is on the Wii and is promised for release by the end of March. It's the product of a brainstorm Spielberg had after playing "Wii Sports" tennis with Nintendo's star designer Shigeru Miyamoto at last year's E3. Young said Spielberg came out of his tennis match abuzz, raving, "That is the most amazing machine. That is among the most fun and energizing experiences I've had with a game in some time."

Young couldn't say whether Spielberg beat Miyamoto, but within a week of the match he had dreamed up a game that would allow Nintendo's unique system to host a puzzle game designed as a motion-controlled virtual construction set. "Really, what that game is about is re-inventing classic blocks, but reinventing them with the Wii remote," Young said, beginning to describe a physics-based puzzle game of block stacking and block toppling. "Blocks can have physical properties. They can weigh different weights or they might explode and vanish, or if two combine they might have a chemical reaction." Gamers would be offered single-player as well as competitive and cooperative block-based puzzle missions and a level editor that would allow them to create new levels, from simple stuff to tricky Rube Goldberg contraptions.

Young acknowledged that "PQRS" doesn't immediately sound like a Spielberg production, but he said it fit. "When I think about Steven, I think one of the things he is undoubtedly great at is creating things that are universally appealing." The game will be demonstrated to the press at EA's E3 press conference on Wednesday.

When a big Hollywood name is attached to a series of games, it's easy to assume that the big name's influence goes no deeper than the credit that appears on the game box, but Young maintains that Spielberg's involvement is genuine and meaningful. The director doesn't have his own cubicle at EA's Los Angeles studio, where the games are in development, but he's around.

"Steven's in the studio most weeks and spends time working with myself and Doug Church and Louis Castle, who are producing these games," Young said. "We have an area set aside on the fourth floor where we usually work." Spielberg works with them on design and characters "at a fairly granular level." One perk Spielberg has happily taken advantage of is playing EA's new games early. According to Young he's logged a few hours on the upcoming "Medal of Honor: Airborne," the latest in the World War II franchise Spielberg himself launched in the late 1990s. "He certainly has looked at every game in development in the studio to offer personal interests and offer insights and ideas."

Among the games played that have been influential to the EA-Spielberg collaborations is "Ico," the 2001 PlayStation 2 fantasy adventure game pitting the player as a quiet, mysterious horned boy who has to take a blind girl in a flowing white dress by the hand through puzzle-filled castles and dungeons full of shadow beasts, strong winds and soft light. The game has been praised as a subtly emotional, artistic experience, and Young acknowledged that it's one he and Doug Church paid attention to as the ideas for the PS3/Xbox 360 "LMNO" were created; he said it showed them possibilities as well as a new direction to pursue.

Young praised the game but classified its female partner character as an added element of "a gameplay experience." The player needs to worry about where she is, whether she's safe and if she's standing on the correct weight-triggered, door-opening floor tile. "You certainly care for her, but you don't care about her," Young said. "You care for her the way you would care for a pet. I think that's really admirable. But there's a step beyond that that we need to take if we want you to emotionally connect with a character."

At some point Spielberg, Young, Church, Castle or someone else at EA will explain all this. At some point they'll even drop the game's code-names, which have been chosen so that they reveal nothing. Hey, someday EA will even say what the third game in the Spielberg plan will be like. For now, though, they just want to say that one year in, things are going well — and, at least on the Wii, they will be playable in less than a year's time.

More from the world of video games:

E3 isn't late this year just by nature of it being in July instead of May. It also starts later in the week. Abandoning the tradition of Monday events, the big annual game show begins Tuesday night with an Xbox 360 keynote presentation at 8:30 p.m. PT. Microsoft promises that video of the event and the games showcased in it will be posted for download on Xbox Live later this week. On Wednesday at 9 a.m. PT, Nintendo will present its hour-long showcase, one not being uploaded for Wii users. And then Sony will begin its event at 11:30 a.m. The company has announced plans to stream the conference on the Sony PlayStation Web site. As for the big announcements, Microsoft is expected to focus on "Halo 3," possibly revealing the first significant details about the September game's single-player mode. Nintendo will likely crow about its market dominance and is likely to show more of this fall's "Super Mario Galaxy." Sony's showing has long been rumored to include the unveiling of a PlayStation Portable re-design (not a PSP 2). The show continues through Friday, with major game publishers showing their next year's worth of games to the press in hotel suites and a hangar at the Santa Monica Airport. ...

If making video games is a dream job, how many people actually live that dream in North America? The research group of CMP Technology, publishers of Game Developer magazine and hosts of the annual Game Developers Conference, recently released its first Game Developer Census. The report states that 39,700 people develop and publish games professionally in the U.S. and Canada, with 18,300 of those people working in California. For more information look here. The census is available — and this is not a typo — for $1,995. ...

Makers of "PQRS" look out: Atari announced Monday that video game versions of the block-toppling classic Jenga will be available for the Wii and DS in November.

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