Hollywood gamers click in own clique

Late at night, young Hollywood players are networking. They’re not sharing drinks at a bar. They’re not playing poker in a smoke-filled room. And they’re definitely not making plans to play golf on the weekend.

In fact, these young industry types aren’t even in the same room. Or zip code. Or, in some cases, time zone. They’re playing videogames online, via Xbox Live.

I’m one of them. Every Thursday night, I play with a group of friends, acquaintances and virtual strangers including writers, agents, development execs and other twenty- and thirtysomething industryites.

We call our group “nerd poker,” with only a hint of irony.

We biz gamers are playing for fun, but valuable relationships sometimes result. “I can be at home at 2 in the morning with writers and directors and producers and executives who all vaguely know each other in the business,” notes producer-manager Aaron Kaplan. “All of a sudden, I get to know people the way they really are.”

The Xbox Live broadband Internet service was designed by Microsoft so that owners of the old Xbox and current Xbox 360 console could play with or against each other, as well as download game content. Players can blow one another’s heads off in “Gears of War,” sneak into a terrorist compound in “Rainbow Six: Vegas,” compete in a boxing ring in “Fight Night,” or even play a friendly game of “Uno.”

The fast-growing networking tool is distinguished by little details like a microphone headset and the ability to send and receive messages. Another key factor is the “gamertag”: Each person has a moniker that keeps them anonymous. It’s like a cell phone number — a valuable piece of private info that we share only with a few select comrades.

And my nerd poker group occasionally gathers for a party where showbiz players can meet face to face. We sometimes have to remind each other of our real names.

Online play is a unique and often contradictory experience. It creates social interaction, but is also a solitary activity. (I have debated whether drinking while playing is the same as having a beer during any other social activity, or if I’m simply somebody drinking alone on my couch.)

But the question remains: While networking is occurring, is there any remorse about not reading a script, or poring over a contract one more time? (Personally, I wonder: Would I have written a better story if I’d spent more time writing and less time “researching”?)

But as videogames continue to be infused into the pop culture, many in Hollywood could argue that turning on the Xbox is important to their job. “The level of respectability for those of us who play games and know this world has gone up dramatically,” says Kevin Chang, an exec at Misher Films.

Every week, as friends of friends of friends join, there are more of us, and the mix includes a few names that will be fixtures on the front page of Variety in 10 or 20 years.

It must be noted, however, that Xbox Live is not a universally appealing way to socialize, even among the under-35 set. The games are predominantly male; the rare female voices are often girlfriends or wives in the background asking when the player is coming to bed.

Many hope this will change, however, as the industry tries to appeal to a broader set of consumers with games that involve more than shooting guns and throwing balls.

Nobody is yet selling a script or getting cast in a movie on Xbox Live. But like any social activity, the bonds formed in a game of “Gears of War” — currently the most popular game on XBL — carry over into other areas.

In an incestuous industry town like Hollywood, most people’s social circles primarily involve people in the biz; so tagging somebody with a grenade at night can make it easier to give them a call about a project the next day.

“If you played a game with someone, even four months ago, they’ll start off a pitch by saying, ‘Remember me? I schooled you in (football game) “Madden,” ‘ ” says DreamWorks production prexy Adam Goodman, a semi-regular player.

There are examples of relationships that grew from Xbox Live into major film projects. It wasn’t a coincidence that New Line so aggressively pursued — and won — film rights to “Gears of War.” At a general meeting the two had more than a year ago, studio exec Jeff Katz convinced scribe Stuart Beattie, who is now penning the adaptation, to start playing “Gears” online.

“Jeff sent me a voice message (on Xbox Live) in December and asked, ‘If we bought the game that you and I were playing, would you want to write it?’ ” he recalls. “He knew he could tell his bosses how much I play and that I really get it. That’s literally how I first got interested in the project.”

Now that he’s working on the project with Katz, Beattie notes that he talks to the exec on XBL more often than on the phone or in person. For those on the shy side, talking business with the excuse of playing “Halo” makes social interaction a lot easier. It can also extend business hours substantially.

“Is it really socially acceptable to talk business at 2 a.m. on the phone? Of course not,” observes Zach Shiff-Abrams, an exec at Michael De Luca Prods. “But it’s completely acceptable on Xbox Live.”

People have been playing videogames together since “Pong” first let two players bounce a ball back and forth. The ability to play online came soon after the Internet became a mass phenomenon in the ’90s with both fantasy role-playing games and high-octane shooters like “Doom.” In the past few years, broadband connections started to make voice chat while gaming possible.

Xbox Live, however, has revolutionized the online gaming market and become the standard others are trying to emulate. Most observers attribute Microsoft’s success breaking into the videogame console business with the Xbox in 2000 to the launch of Live in 2002, along with the first great game for it: “Halo.” Today, there are 6 million XBL users around the world, the majority of whom pay $5 per month to play competitively (the rest use the service to download game demo’s and other content). Sony is trying to build a competitive service on the Playstation 3, but is thus far considered to be way behind.

With a captive audience of mostly young men, Microsoft has even expanded the service to include movie and TV downloads, some of which are hi-def, and space for marketers to reach the elusive gamer aud. It’s also integrating Xbox Live with PC games for Windows. Execs talk openly about turning it into a major entertainment service competitive with everything from cable to hi-def DVDs to the Apple TV.

But Xbox Live’s true power may be the tools that make it so great for networking. Microsoft lets users manage their public identity and those who can talk to them, much like AOL’s instant messenger. Every player’s “gamertag” identifies them online and shows their game-playing achievements to the world (mine is my middle name, Kalter; others range from the apt, like “AceSniper,” to the absurd, like “ComicElephant.”)

These aren’t only useful when playing games. Xbox Live members can chat and swap messages while watching a DVD or a hi-def episode of “South Park” that they downloaded.

Because a gamertag is so private, industryites share them only with those they’re willing to get a “join a game” request from at 1 in the morning. (Which is why nobody’s real gamertag appears in this story except my own.)

“I can’t tell you how many times I have come out of a meeting, and while we’re validating parking, we swap gamertags,” Katz says. “But only if it was a good meeting and I want to talk to the person again.”

Xbox Live players can compete in private matches against their friends or be automatically matched up with random players from anywhere in the world. Most industryites, who tend to be too busy to become true experts, tend not to play many random matches, in which you can find yourself getting cursed out by a teenager from Australia if you’re the weak link on his team. But some find it useful.

“Whenever I play with strangers, there’s always profanity directed against me due to my incompetence,” says “Troy” writer David Benioff. “I find it’s an easy way to research the slang that today’s 14-year-olds use when they curse.”

Excursions into the sometimes scary open world of Xbox Live are rare, though. Most of the time, young industryites are playing with each other, confident not only that they’ll compete with somebody at about the same skill level, but that the relationship they’re building with the guy who they just blew up with an explosive crossbow could prove quite valuable.

“I think if you look at the people we play with, it’s primarily young Hollywood,” says Derek Douglas, a videogame agent at William Morris. “Other people, especially older people, might say ‘That’s kind of odd. Why don’t you just go and have drinks?’ But a certain segment of us have grown up with videogame and online play, and consider it just another form of socializing.”

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