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The Decade in Review: Videogames 2000-2009, Part 1

By Douglass C. Perry

When we look back 20 years from now, the first decade of the 21st century will look obvious to us, like a paint-by-numbers drawing for kids. It’s almost incalculable how many little triggers have shaped our current place in the games race. But there more than a handful of events, dozens of key games, and entire years that pushed this one-time cottage industry into the full-blown billion dollar industry it is now. While this isn’t the definitive historical account of single thing that happened between the years 2000 and 2009, this Decade in Review is an insider’s look at what happened. See “Part 2 of The Decade in Review: Videogames 2000-2009” here.

The End of an Era

The decade started with a tumultuous bang. After the Sega Dreamcast roared into the world’s consciousness on September 9, 1999, breaking sales records, introducing online gaming to consoles, and introducing David (Visual Concepts) to Goliath (Madden), the Japanese hardware maker shocked everyone again in 2001 by declaring its console was kaput.

Perhaps more remarkable was that Nintendo’s biggest competitor in the 1990s, the creator of Sonic the Hedgehog, and EA’s biggest partner, was re-focusing its energies to become a “console agnostic” software producer, meaning Sonic and his pals would appear side by side with Nintendo’s mascot, Mario. To the gaming world, this was like Bill Clinton announcing he was Republican, Bill Gates admitting he stole the Mac’s operating system, or saying you didn’t really like The Empire Strikes Back–all of it anathema.

Sony’s Big Empty PS2 Launch

Sony Computer Entertainment American launched the black, asymmetrical, and interesting (it was neither beautiful nor ugly, it just kinda “was”) PlayStation 2 in Japan in spring 2000 with lots of Sony-built hype, but few significant games to back it up (Tekken Tag Tournament and Ridge Racer V just didn’t cut it). The even bigger North American launch was amazing in that it packed 28-launch titles, only two of which were truly memorable, Madden NFL 2001 and SSX (originally proposed as a Dreamcast game). Sony scrambled to get 1 million consoles to the US, some flying on planes at the last minute.

Sony’s Stunning 2001 Line-Up

So while Sony’s launch year was a bust in many regards, replete with lots of faulty aliasing and sketchy titles, Sony (and its partners) made plans for 2001. Sony’s fall 2001 PS2 line-up was remarkable, perhaps the greatest line-up of a single system ever. In many ways it secured Sony’s first-place spot in that console generation. In the fall 2001, Sony and its partners launched Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty, Ico, Final Fantasy X, Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance, Grand Theft Auto III, Onimusha, Red Faction, Gran Turismo 3: A-spec, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 3, Devil May Cry, SSX Tricky, Twisted Metal Black (which admittedly came out in the summer), Jak and Daxter, NBA Street, Klonoa: Lunatea’s Veil, Half-Life, Silent Hill 2, and Midnight Club, among many others. The knock-out punch was thought to be Metal Gear Solid, but in fact in was Grand Theft Auto III, which swept the message boards and radio waves, and became the PS2’s exclusive killer app for the next four years.

September 11, 2001

The al-Qaeda-backed hijacking that led to the destruction of four commercial airlines and the devastation of the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers in New York affected the entire world. In the video game business, publishers with games based in New York, removed the Twin Towers from the skyline of their games (i.e. Spider-Man 2). The grim repercussions stole the industry’s light step, killing four-day PR stunts and junkets (some of which were too long and crazy, anyway), forcing marketers to edit creative use of violent language, and heightening American’s fears of Middle Eastern religious groups, the subject of which would appear in games to come.

Grand Theft Auto III Steals the Show

Grand Theft Auto III launches; and with it Rockstar Games brings a whole new way of looking at game design, game production, and a maturing gaming audience. GTA III brought open-world gaming–sandbox design–to the forefront of game development, but it was Rockstar’s magic touch of high-cost development, mature themes, good story-telling, enormous geography, stellar, hand-picked soundtracks, and most importantly, humor–that parodied American civic life–that made the Grand Theft Auto series so revolutionary, not to mention one of the best selling series of all time. Activision, Midway, and several other companies tried their best to imitate it, but between 2001 and 2005, none came close. Pandemic’s Mercenaries, Vivendi’s Scarface, and Activision’s Spider-Man 2 came in at a distant second.

Halo Captures a Generation

When Microsoft entered the videogame business in 2001, it tried buying developers across the world. Its big catch was Bungie Studios, which was in development with the first-person shooter Halo (originally for the Mac). With Halo, Bungie revolutionized FPSs on the consoles. The Halo franchise won over millions and millions of college students who spent endless nights playing linked systems and Master Chief strangely displaced a generation of confused, lone college women. The Halo franchise went on to break previous opening day retail sales records and remain the number one selling game on Xbox during its four-year life-cycle.

2001: Titus Acquires Interplay

French publisher Titus Interactive, best known for its phenomenal failure, Superman 64, completes its acquisition Interplay. French gamers are oblivious. American RPG fans openly weep across the nation.

2002: Square and Disney Raise a Kingdom

In 2002, after navigating high-level political discussions and crashing into license cul-de-sacs, Square demonstrated its creative genius again with its fully licensed Disney action-RPG, Kingdom Hearts. One part Final Fantasy (without being Final Fantasy), and the rest a bamboozling assortment of Disney characters, Kingdom Hearts, up until the recent Batman Arkham Asylum–became the pinnacle of innovative licensed work.

2002: Titus Fumbles Interplay

Interplay’s shares descend drastically, and Interplay is de-listed from NASDAQ. American RPG fans claw their eyes out, wander the streets blind.

September 20, 2002: Square and Enix Merge

In one of the biggest mergers in Japanese game history, Square, makers of the popular Final Fantasy franchise, and Enix, makers of the Dragon Quest franchise, join in holy matrimony. The new company is called Square Enix, and its formation has as much to do with the crumbling Japanese economy and staying solvent as anything else. Years after this merger, Square will make yet another purchase of note.

September 12, 2003: Valve Launches Steam
Valve’s digital distribution platform, Steam, might have launched in September 2003, but it wouldn’t be until Half-Life 2 released in 2004 and third parties joined the party in 2007 that Steam gained traction and reached profitability. By carrying big third-party companies such as Eidos, Capcom, and Id Software, and seeing financial successes with The Orange Box, Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, and BioShock, Steam took the leadership role in digital distribution.

December 8, 2003: Black Day, Indeed

Interplay lays off the Black Isle Studios staff. A spat of former Black Isle staff members bitterly recalls the final days of their studio’s collapse. American RPG fans walk off cliffs, in front of cars, into the mouths of sharks.

September 1, 2004: Acclaim (Finally) Calls it Quits

One of the oldest publishers in the arcade and video game business, and makers of titles Shadowman, Burnout, NFL Quarterback Club, WWF Attitude, Re-Volt, Extreme-G, Vexx, Fur Fighters, Dave Mirra’s Freestyle BMX, and many others, Acclaim finally throws in the towel. After its multiple comebacks, all of its ghastly Mary-Kate and Ashley “games,” and the last, gasping hope at re-kindling Turok (once a great series), Acclaim Entertainment filed Chapter 7 bankruptcy in fall 2004, purportedly owing $100 million to its debtors. Nobody, not even Acclaim employees, weep a single tear.

2004: EA Buys NFL License, Kills NFL 2K Series

In a move that crushed the healthy competition between annual football developers EA and Visual Concepts (and football-based videogames in general), EA out-bought its competition. EA convinced the NFL to an exclusive five-year licensing deal granting the Redwood Shores publisher the sole rights to the NFL’s teams, stadiums, and players. The move followed Visual Concepts/Take-Two’s risky move to sell its game at just $19.99, undercutting EA’s Madden sales with a superior game at a lower price. EA went on to produce three years of substandard Madden games in the new generation of systems, proving true the adage that competition is healthy for any market.

The Fall of 2004: Heavyweight Sequels Reign Supreme

The year 2004 was one of the greatest all-encompassing creative achievements for the game industry. In the fall of 2004, heavyweight games were in abundance and every system had its killer-app lined up. After an alleged security breach forced developer Valve to stall the release of Half-Life 2 in 2003, the Seattle-based developer delivered the wildly popular sequel on the PC in fall 2004, garnering dozens of high scores and game-of-the-year awards. Bungie followed up its first Xbox success story with Halo 2 to high scores, incredible sales, and a technologically advanced online system that revolutionized console multiplayer games. Rockstar Games brought its biggest, grimmest (and subsequently most controversial) game in the Grand Theft Auto series, GTA San Andreas. GTA San Andreas brought in the highest ratings and sales for the franchise, but also produced the hidden Hot Coffee sex scenario that caused characters like Jack Thompson to have their day in the sun (you know, before he lost his license to practice, soon thereafter). While these titles initially garnered the lion’s share of press, awards, and sales, Blizzard’s World of Warcraft silently took over the PC, wooing millions of casual gamers to subscribe to its highly addictive MMORPG, which went on to become the most successful MMORPG ever.

November 21, 2004: Nintendo launches the DS

Ever marching to its own drum beat, Nintendo launches the dual screen (DS) handheld, a modern new take on the Game Boy, which doesn’t instantly take off. It wasn’t until Brain Age and Nintendogs were gobbled up like candy in Japan, Europe, and North America did the system surpass sales of major consoles.

See “Part 2 of The Decade in Review: Videogames 2000-2009” here.

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Recession: publishers slash projections

With EA and Ubisoft appearing as the most recent publishers to slash projections for 2010, analysts who only look at the bottom line miss a lot of things, from developing IP, changing tastes in games, and slower than expected hardware sales.

Don’t the analysts get it? There is a recession going on, a really big one, and it’s affecting everyone’s pocketbooks.

Activision’s Bobby Kotick says his company will focus on quality not quantity in the upcoming years, which is a direct result of his overly conservative approach to game development and high sales of Modern Warfare 2.  We’ll see how well his old franchises due in a few years when something new and better comes along and Activision is left high and dry without new IPs, and everyone is just sick to the gills (if they aren’t already) with Guitar Hero 101, Tony Hawk 19, Call of Duty 54, and Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2,000,001.

This is a time to cut back, due to the economy; that’s true. But it’s also time to create new games in new areas such as smart phones and DLC, and to maximize efforts on the Xbox 360 and PS3, as developers can really put innovation and polish on consoles that are well understood.

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Modern Warfare 2: Survival of the Fittest

I read Edge-Online every day. I could read Kotaku, JoyStiq, Destructoid, IGN, GameSpot, or several other sites (and I often do), but I subscribed to the email newsletter at Edge one day and I’ve become semi hooked.

Yes, semi-hooked doesn’t sound terribly convincing. Every site gets the news, some early, some later, but they all get it. What I enjoy about Edge-online is its columnists, and today’s column by Chris Dahlen, “Survival of the Fittest,” is an insightful, erudite piece that puts Modern Warfare’s gritty story in perspective.

Like a Bond film, Modern Warfare 2 moves faster than most people can breathe. It’s incredible action sequence after incredible action sequence, interrupted only by loading screens that tell the compressed story. When you finally pull up for air, your skin is tingling, your mind awash in violent kill-or-be-killed scenes, and your fingers twitching. It’s an amazing feeling, actually.  Like a rocket-fueled roller-coaster that you control is implanted into your nervous system, plus five cups of coffee, and one cigarette for balance.

But what about that story? Dahlen looks at the game and sees it as a conscientious example of story-telling sans a moral kilter, without a rudder, or even a little Jimity Cricket strolling in once in a while to say, “Hey, if you do that awful thing, people are going to die and that’s not good.”

Modern Warfare I and now 2 are Infinity Ward’s way of saying goodbye to its former self, to World War II, to its originator, Medal of Honor, see you fucking later–and flipping them the bird, the California high sign.  IW has swallowed enough of all of that World War II morality stuff. In the post-Bush era, the United States has tortured people, it’s attacked Iraq, watched as Baghdad’s stores, shops, and buildings were ransacked by its own people, and then, years later, sent in private companies to pay off government officials. It’s hunting terrorists overseas and in its own backyard, and isn’t looked at as a moral leader as clearly and cleanly as it once was. Pardon me for sounding like a conspiratorial lefty, I’m not really, but we don’t live in 1944 anymore. We live in 2009. The US isn’t exactly the same country it was in WWII. And World War II was different than most wars because there was a clear enemy and it was really evil.  It was because of unspeakably evil things conducted by Nazi Germany that we could take the moral highground–and savor it.

Infinity Ward’s story is based on elite militants hunting unscrupulous terrorists. There is no savoring to be done, no relaxing, just the frantic scramble for air. As the story unfolds, we learn that the only way to fight fire with fire is to imitate the unscrupulous bastards, to become more bad-ass–or in this case, more fit–using every possible weapon in our power to catch and thwart them. The victor gets to write history as the game says, and like Malcolm X said, the winner must use “whatever means necessary.” With Activision’s news today’s of the game’s worldwide sales of $550 million in five days (approximately 8.5-9 million units), it appears that most folks agree.

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The Monetization Game: Moore calls current gen a burning platform

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This past Saturday I had the chance to moderate the keynote panel at Play: The Berkeley Digital Media Conference, an annual Haas Business School conference that covers a variety of tech, media, and business issues. It was a gorgeous day to be back at Cal where I graduated, and in a nice added touch, Cal stomped UCLA down in LA.

The keynote panel was entitled “The Monetization Game,” and the panelists included Peter Moore, president of EA Sports, Neil Young, president of ngmoco, and Kai Hwuang, co-founder of RedOctane, plus little ol’ me.  The topic was as broad as they come: How is the video game industry changing the way it’s monetizing the sales of games?

I brought an outline that ranged from discussing the emergence of social games, smart phone games, retail versus digital distribution, next generation consoles, the recession, death of the music genre, and more. we had one hour to discuss it all, and we covered almost everything in front of a 90% packed auditorium. IGN, Games Radar, and Kotaku covered it.

Here are their stories:

IGN: EA: Core Business Model a ‘Burning Platform’

Kotaku: Talking Points Brought to you Mostly By Peter Moore

Kotaku: Guitar Hero, Madden, Eliminate Play the Money Game

GamesRadar’s page was broken tonight. I’ll update their link when it’s back up.

There should be video of the conference available in a few days, too. I’ll post the link when it’s ready.

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Activision Ghetto-izes Guitar Hero Van Halen

In what appears to be a badly hidden secret, rather than a big six-pack celebration like it should be, Activision is given Guitar Hero: Van Halen the super ghetto treatment.

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Starting with its nearly hidden appearance at E3 2009, stashed away in a dark corner of Sony’s booth, and then following up with this super budget like garage sale site, Activision appears embarrassed by its own game. It’s true that this is like Guitar Hero number 47, and the company has exploited and spammed the world with an over-abundance of 31 flavors of the same game, three to four times a year, in fact. But they should have hidden Aerosmith, not this one.

Is Van Halen really that embarrassing? Wasn’t it one of the more popular bands in the ’80s? And isn’t it named after one of the greatest virtuoso guitar players in the world–Eddie Van Halen, who is in the band? And, um, aren’t they touring again? The fact that Sammy Hagar and Michael Anthony are excluded from the game doesn’t bother me, but it’s sort of rude, don’t you think? Or it that just Eddie being his old self again?

Anyway, here is the song list and addition bands in the game.

Van Halen Songs
“Ain’t Talkin Bout Love”
“And The Cradle Will Rock”
“Atomic Punk”
“Beautiful Girls”
“Cathedral” (solo)
“Dance The Night Away”
“Eruption” (solo)
“Everybody Wants Some”
“Feel Your Love Tonight”
“Hang ‘Em High”
“Hear About It Later”
“Hot For Teacher”
“Ice Cream Man”
“I’m The One”
“Jamie’s Cryin”
“Jump”
“Little Guitars”
“Loss Of Control”
“Mean Street”
“Panama”
“Pretty Woman”
“Romeo Delight”
“Running With The Devil”
“So This Is Love”
“Somebody Get Me A Doctor”
“Spanish Fly” (solo)
“Unchained”
“You Really Got Me”

Other In-Game Tracks
Alter Bridge – “Come To Life”
Billy Idol – “White Wedding”
blink-182 – “First Date”
Deep Purple – “Space Truckin”
Foo Fighters – “Best Of You”
Foreigner – “Double Vision”
Fountains of Wayne – “Stacy’s Mom”
Jimmy Eat World – “Pain”
Judas Priest – “Painkiller”
Killswitch Engage – “The End Of Heartache”
Lenny Kravitz – “Rock And Roll Is Dead”
Queen – “I Want It All”
Queens of the Stone Age – “Sick, Sick, Sick”
Tenacious D – “Master Exploder”
The Clash – “Safe European Home”
The Offspring – “Pretty Fly For A White Guy”
Third Eye Blind – “Semi-Charmed Life”
Weezer – “Dope Nose”
Yellowcard – “The Takedown”

The game ships December 22, 2009 on PS2, PS3, Xbox 360, and Wii.

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Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen Review

I’m reminded of the stunningly poor execution of Activision’s Spider-Man 3 after playing the movie and game sequel Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. Given the numerous complaints the first Transformers game received, one would think Luxoflux would not only put those problems to bed, but create a dynamic, fun, and interesting game this time around. While Spider-Man 3’s terribly executed Quick-Time Events and bosses that mysteriously seep through ceilings don’t cause the annoyances, the coarse, control-unfriendly sequel provides Transformer kiddies with a slew of new issues that drag the fun out of it.

Starscream gives Decepticon fans a small dose of fun.

Starscream gives Decepticon fans a small dose of fun.

Based on the second Transformers movie directed by action-blowhard Michael Bay, Revenge of the Fallen, the game, guts the admittedly slim movie narrative and gives you a robot puppet show instead. If you dig idle robots standing around gesticulating in their headquarters (like robots!), you’re in like sin. But for those of you who like, at the very least, a thin veneer of story to tickle our brains, you’re shit out of luck.

All of this isn’t a surprise, as movie-based games are notoriously crappy. But one always has hope, as The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay and GoldenEye 007 have shown us IT CAN BE DONE. And in my preview, I thought I witnessed snazzy, unique game mechanics and character variety. But alas, I might have been caught up in the optimistic current of hope that movies games can be good.

Revenge of the Fallen isn’t a terrible game, but it fails to deliver the mechanical power and atypical strengths of the Hasbro-based line of toys turned Saturday morning cartoon phenom 20-plus years ago. As they continue their ongoing battle on Earth for the remaining Allspark chip, the game smartly offers you to the chance to play as Autobots or Decepticons in entirely different campaign paths. On the Autobot side, you can play as Optimus Prime, Ironhide, Breakaway, Bumblebee, Ratchet, and two multiplayer exclusive Transformers, Aerialbot and Protectobot. The playable Decepticons are Starscream, Sideways, Grindor, Long Haul, Megatron, and the multiplayer exclusive character, Seeker. But you rarely get the chance to select robot you want; more often than not you’re restrained to one or two picks, even though you can cycle through the entire list at the menu screen. The missions lack variety and ultimately slow your brain down to a numbingly low sputter as they become repetitive. But they’re not lacking In punch, as you can essentially blow up everything on screen.

The game’s most pressing quandary is its controls; they get in the way. Driving an Autobot is stiff and awkward at best and transforming is an invitation to repetitive strain injury. It is possible to get over these issues if you’re just dying to play a Transformers game at whatever cost. You can adjust and deal with them. But nobody can rightly admit they’re smooth, intuitive, or smart. So, if you’re on the borderline, or only partially interested, you’ll be trading this in quickly. Coupled with Twinkies cream filling for missions, and a false sense of choice in picking your robots, Revenge of the Fallen earns a new sense of irony about it.

Ironhide delivers power and guns, lots of guns.

Ironhide delivers power and guns, lots of guns.

The multiplayer mode is the game’s strange surprise. The first game lacked a multiplayer mode, do Luxoflux attacked that issue by offering five modes of play and somehow, I’m really not sure how exactly, making the game more fun. Playing against other humans gives this a needed shot of fun and diversity, and adds a little to what could be a quick trade-in.

For what it’s worth, I also played the PS2 version. Because the Xbox 360 and PS3 versions superficially appear superior with their millions of dials, moving parts, and radar load screens, and their beautiful re-creations of the movie robots, the stripped down, base-level PS2 version, with its budget graphics and narrow, linear levels, is actually a more honest–and ultimately more fun–game.

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Brutal Legend Lawsuit and New San Mateo Office: Has Activision Gone Insane?

Has Activision gone ballistic? Insane? Is it driven by some strange kind of blood-thirsty vengeance for EA’s first-born children?

There is only one strangely appropriate answer to this: Yes.

Is it now official? Activision is evil and wants to stab EA to death with shards of plastic guitars.

Is it now official? Activision is evil and wants to stab EA to death with shards of plastic guitars.

First Activision, which aside from Nintendo, is probably the most cash flush videogame company in the world, sues little Double Fine for taking its game, Brutal Legend, to EA.

Now Double Fine is counter suing Activision. Which seems like the only reasonable thing to do at this point.

This legal battle is the stuff of legend, of heinous businessmen gone off their rockers, of greed, and of mean spirited bullshit. I learned some crazy shit today: Activision wanted to make Brutal Legend part of the Guitar Hero franchise? LAME! They let the game go, and now they want to kill it? Get lost Activision!

And could the lawsuit come at a more obvious time? It seems now that Brutal Legend is receiving superb previews and tons of hype–because it’s by the awesome Tim Schaefer–Activision wants to spoil the party.

And what’s this? Activision is wooing executive level staffers from EA’s Redwood City headquarters–specifically its internal studio Visceral Games–to help start up a new Activision office near EA’s Northern California base? Talk about going on the offensive. I guess EA isn’t entirely innocent. I am still pissed about EA killing off the 2K Sports football game, and EA did open up an office in LA. But this all seems like junior high school behavior.

Activision please, just go back to making your sequels and unoriginal movie/licensed/franchise games.

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