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More Big-Name Actors Find Lucrative Work on CD-Rom Stage

Technology: Computer game makers turn to stars such as Christopher Walken and Burgess Meredith for video images and marketing hooks.

February 04, 1996|FARRELL KRAMER | ASSOCIATED PRESS

NEW YORK — Actor Walter Koenig was ready for something new. As the ever-loyal navigator Pavel Chekov on TV's original "Star Trek," Koenig had built a character so durable it provided him with work for decades.

It also left him typecast. The trademark Russian accent he developed for Chekov became more familiar than the Chicago native's own speech.

So when Koenig was presented with the opportunity for a role in Maximum Surge, the actor took it. Not only would he be able to leave his Star Fleet uniform behind, he'd also get to play a villain.

One other thing was different too: Maximum Surge isn't a motion picture or a TV movie. It's a computer game.

"I'm at a point where I could opt in my life for complacency and a bit of predictability, or I could have one last holler--one last try for adventure," Koenig said. "I'm of the opinion that adventure is still a very enticing and exciting option."

Other actors are moving onto the CD-ROM stage as well.

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With recent, vast improvements in technology, game makers are now able to include hours of video footage of real actors in their computer-generated worlds. Improved picture quality and sound clarity have made the performances themselves more important.

That has created new roles for seasoned actors--generating six-figure salaries and some interesting opportunities.

Another upcoming game, Ripper, by Take 2 Interactive Software Inc., features Christopher Walken, who won fame in the film "The Deer Hunter," and Burgess Meredith, whose lengthy credits include 1939's "Of Mice and Men," TV's "Batman" and the movie "Rocky."

The project was Meredith's high-tech debut.

"I wouldn't want to make a living doing it. But I would do it again," he said. "They paid well, and they were very jovial and it was all a lot of fun."

Meredith sees only one problem: He can't view his performance. The veteran actor doesn't own a personal computer.

Early on, computer games consisted almost entirely of text. Graphics came into wide use in the 1980s, and the advent of faster computer chips made possible the use of color and sound.

Full-motion video, which allows the incorporation of movie-like scenes, has only recently become viable. With it, programmers have been able to create interactive games that meld actors' performances with the puzzle-solving challenges computer games traditionally offer.

Actors, for example, don't simply run through their lines as they would in a movie. Players can, with a click of the mouse, guide their movements, such as having them move forward, turn and pick up an object.

Sometimes by grabbing and viewing an object--say, a letter--a clue is provided that will help a player later in the game. Alternatively, an actor could be a player's nemesis, and the player's challenge might be to destroy him.

Performing such roles makes some new demands on actors.

"One curious thing is they had to take into account in shooting the various scenes what the player would do," Koenig recalled. "So we had to shoot various scenes: One where he hits me, one where he misses."

For Meredith, the acting was a bit less structured than a standard movie or television shoot might be.

"It was like the Actors Studio," he said. "You were given a thought and a general direction, and then your own concepts came out."

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Game makers believe that by using talented actors and letting them build real characters out of their roles, they can improve the fun of game playing. They admit, however, that well-known performers also bring another advantage, perhaps one even more valuable.

"The stars are marketing hooks," said Tom Zito, chief executive of Digital Pictures Inc., maker of Maximum Surge.

A performer's picture on a game box brings familiarity in a powerful way. And as store shelves become filled with computer games of all sorts, a big-name star can be a real attention-grabber.

There's a lot at stake. Maximum Surge cost about $3 million to develop. Ripper was about $4 million, with about a quarter of its budget going to actors' salaries.

Computer games as a whole generated about $900 million in sales last year, according to PC Data Inc., a market research firm.

With the growing demand for acting talent--and the growing salaries game producers are willing to pay--has come an increase in big-time actors' willingness to participate in game making. The phenomenon has taken off largely during the past two years.

Each time a bigger name signs on, the genre's legitimacy grows.

"I wouldn't be surprised if in the next few months a Top 10 star agrees to appear in a title," said Jonathan Trumper, a talent agent who heads the New Media division in New York for William Morris Agency Inc. "When you say 'Top 10 stars,' you're talking Tom Cruise and people like that."

Trumper's agency represents not only actors looking to move into computer games, but Hollywood directors, writers and others. Actors, however, are the most easily identified.

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