TIFF 2012 - Renga - Featured

Thought Bubble: Theatrical Gaming?

RENGA and the business of theatrical gaming

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As innovative as the games industry has become, it’s astonishingly conservative when it comes to the monetization of games. Three decades into the medium’s lifespan, we have the retail model, the subscription model and the free-to-play micro-transaction model. And that’s about it.

But we’ve finally been presented with a practical alternative: what if we monetized video games as a form of live entertainment?

Enter RENGA, the inaugural effort from British developer wallFour. Thanks to the TIFF Nexus program, the 100-player co-op laser game made an appearance in Toronto. (You can check out our interview with creators Adam Russell and John Sear to find out more about the game and the people behind it.)

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Unlike a free-for-all that can support anywhere from two to 32 players, RENGA’s 100-person cap is not a recommendation; it’s a requirement. Even the most basic tasks demand the simultaneous efforts of a minimum of three players, and the to-do list in RENGA can have several dozen items at any given time.

RENGA can consequently only be played in a movie theatre (or another closed-off venue with good sight lines and a video projector) with a large audience, which infuses RENGA with built-in protections against many of the most frequently cited financial whipping boys in gaming.

Piracy, for instance, is more or less impossible. Sure, you could crack the software, but you’d still need friends to play the game properly and downloading 99 living human beings is a bit beyond the bandwidth capabilities.

That’s a significant notion for a niche market where everyone – gamers and developers alike – seems to be operating under the assumption that some variation of retail is the only way to distribute video games. Those concerned with economics attempt to deliver more game for less money without driving studios out of business. Gamers complain about high prices, publishers complain about used games and Nintendo complains about the App Store. All that complaining only leads to Digital Rights Management and finger-pointing.

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TIFF 2012 - Renga

With RENGA, every line of code is designed to shatter those preconceptions. As with any live spectacle – sports, theatre, or comedy – you’re not paying for a product. You’re paying for an event, meaning the financial power inevitably rests in the hands of the content provider and the person running the venue. Charge admission fees and you’re on your way to recouping any initial investment.

Personally, I think that’s a devilishly intriguing approach to design. I’ve always been a shameless promoter of live performance, but anyone who’s seen a Broadway play or a great concert knows the experience doesn’t fully translate to home video. I couldn’t recreate RENGA even if I wanted to, so I’d have no choice but to pay the full fee every time I wanted to play it again.

I’d suggest that that’s a healthy development for the industry, and I don’t even think consumers would mind paying for RENGA twice because it fundamentally alters the consumer-producer relationship. Concerns about ownership (digital copies, used games, day one DLC, etc.) no longer apply. You pay for admission and leave satisfied (or dissatisfied) knowing that’s what you paid for.

No one expects to walk away with a boxed copy after a screening of RENGA. Live gaming isn’t some kind of panacea – retail isn’t going anywhere – but it does make you wonder why more developers haven’t attempted such a project.

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Despite a few minor flaws, I enjoyed the hell out of RENGA. It’s a bit odd if you’re accustomed to the macho fantasy of triple-A gaming – you have to accept your own powerlessness and recognize that you cannot complete objectives alone – but it does manage to foster exciting new forms of interaction (yelling advice at strangers is essential). It’s so potent that I’m still kicking the concepts around in my head a week later, and I don’t see why RENGA couldn’t succeed as nationally distributed entertainment.

That’s not to say that RENGA will go global. As far as I know, creators Russell and Sears do not have any immediate plans for mass distribution and I don’t speak for anyone involved with RENGA or TIFF Nexus. Even so, the designers have considered logistical issues like licensing and personnel, and they have plans for an HD version. They believe mass distribution is possible, and I’d be inclined to agree.

With that in mind, what kinds of challenges would developers have to overcome in order for the model to be viable? There are a few obvious pitfalls worth considering.

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For starters, there’s the practical component. A game operator is present during every RENGA session, both to control the proceedings and to engage the audience, and training (and paying) qualified moderators could be an organizational nightmare. You’d also have to ensure the equipment stays in working condition. My laser pointer died about halfway through RENGA. Trust me when I say that failing equipment leaves you with a rather striking impression of gaming impotence.

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Scheduling would be another issue. The default mass distribution model is currently Hollywood – multiple screenings every day until something better comes along – but with a film, the projected video is the same regardless of the number of people watching. Live gaming, meanwhile, demands active participation, so there’s no show without an audience. Trying to complete a RENGA screening with two people would be like trying to make it through Super Mario Bros. without a jump button. Producers would likely have to reduce the number of screenings to ensure that each one draws enough participants, and they’d also have to increase ticket prices in order to make fewer screenings fiscally worthwhile.

Finally – and most importantly – studios would have to start designing games exclusively for a performance space. That’s what separates a communal title like RENGA from the arcade cabinets of the 1980s. The fact that games like Mortal Kombat made such seamless transitions to the home console suggests that they never fully capitalized on physical location as a design principle. Developers were instead making games for retail and partitioning them out in small portions like so many digital gumballs, which is partly why arcades started to die out once consumers realized that gaming at home was a hell of a lot more convenient.

RENGA is noteworthy because it succeeds as a group endeavour, forcing people to communicate with each other to overcome obstacles. It’s designed to maximize a cinematic platform. Any developers looking to follow in wallFour’s footsteps would have to similarly target a specific venue because an audience will only accept the high fees associated with live shows if the product justifies the setting.

Theatrical gaming will require a team with the right blend of creativity and entrepreneurship before it fully catches on, but RENGA proves the concept can work in a real-world setting. It’s not all that far-fetched to envision a scenario in which RENGA 2 and The Avengers 2 show on the same night at the same multiplex. I know that because RENGA was indiscriminately listed alongside every other TIFF film. I waited for tickets in the same rush line as guests hoping to see Hotel Transylvania.

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That’s undeniably cool, because while I might have been in the minority at TIFF, I’m the only person who’d rather pay for laser pointers than an animated Adam Sandler.

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