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GAME makers pushing for more brains, emotion


LOS ANGELES (AP) _ After years of stuffing store shelves with video games offering little more than guns and gore, game makers are realizing their aging audience is yearning to stimulate more than just trigger fingers.

Gamers want puzzles, plot twists and penitence.

With some raging exceptions, such as top-seller ``Myst,'' brainier adventure games have bombed among the industry's most lucrative audience _ the 20-something man who buys at least one new game every month.

Now, however, inspired by best sellers like ``Half-Life,'' even producers with the most mindless and macho of reputations say their new games are eschewing a rapid-fire button in favor of more storytelling and, believe it or not, emotion.

``You can only shoot so many enemies or destroy so many buildings,'' said Reid Schneider, a producer with San Francisco-based game maker Ubi Soft. ``At some point, people want to feel involved in something.''

In Ubi Soft's ``Batman: Vengeance,'' scheduled for release in September, the Dark Knight's face grows pinched when he's wounded, giving the real-world player a silicon glimpse of pain.

Ubi Soft credits the move away from stony-faced heroes to the PlayStation 2, released last fall. The console's Emotion software engine let developers add facial expressions to characters during game play.

Some software designers attribute the changes to an aging market that's nearing a third decade of gaming.

Others say it's technology evolving naturally, that more computing power means pixilated heroes and villains can be smarter, faster and vulnerable. In short, more lifelike than ever before.

Still others credit 1998's ``Half-Life,'' which married action to a deep and complicated plot. The game is full of terrified scientists, edgy guards and balky machinery.

In ``Half-Life'', players get to crawl into the skin of a scientist who must battle creatures from another dimension after an experiment at his lab goes awry.

``Players have experienced in-your-face shooting in the past, and now they want more,'' said Todd Hollenshead, chief executive of Id Software, a developer in Mesquite, Tex. ``Players are looking for the next thing that is going to wow them.''

Id is credited with popularizing shooting games with a first-person perspective. The company's titles include ``Quake,'' ``Quake II'' and the earlier ``Doom,'' which Id says has been downloaded from the Internet more than 15 million times.

``Quake II'' has been on the shelves a year longer than ``Half-Life,'' which is considered the series' biggest blockbuster. But ``Half-Life'' has sold 800,000 more copies than ``Quake II'' _ a 50 percent difference _ according to the companies.

That's a testament to the changing tastes of players.

So, in Id's upcoming ``Return to Castle Wolfenstein,'' players will have to carve their way through a horde of virtual Nazis. They'll also have to read clues from an on-screen clipboard if they want to win.

And they'll have to think before attacking. For instance, shooting an enemy instead of silently knifing him could trigger an alarm.

The Nazis themselves will also be more lifelike, able to behave in several different ``modes,'' instead of just the usual sleeping or attacking. They might lose sight of a player who ducks around a corner, act nervous if they hear noises or play with a radio if they grow bored.

It's a far cry from earlier games in which enemies automatically attacked and always seemed to know where the player was, Hollenshead said.

Smarter bad guys need more computing power.

Thankfully, developers say, improved graphics accelerators and chips can handle the chore of creating detailed backgrounds and entertaining foregrounds without hogging memory or crashing the PC.

That leaves the computer's main processor free to ``think'' for the opponents.

The developments are coming just in time for older players like Rob Stein, 27, of Wilmington, Del.

Stein has forsaken former favorite ``Quake'' for an online ``Half-Life'' version called ``Counterstrike'' _ the No. 1 action game played online, the company says.

``There is a realism in 'Counterstrike' that adds to the game,'' Stein said. ``The weapons are based in the real world, and it is also a strategic and a team-based game, which makes it a better game.''

He's noticed his fellow gamers maturing.

``When I was a kid, nobody older than me played video games,'' Stein said. ``Now ... there are a lot of 30-year-olds.''

Indeed, 39.1 percent of personal computer gamers are age 36 or older and nearly a third of PC gamers are ages 18 to 35, according to the Interactive Digital Software Association, a trade group.

In the world of console games _ Sega Dreamcast or Nintendo 64, for example _ roughly 36 percent of the audience is 18 to 35. Another 21 percent is 36 or older.

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