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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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GameStop: Play Halo 3: ODST Firefight Early

Seen enough Halo 3:  ODST previews and impressions? Ready to play? Your time has come, rookie.

In conjunction with Microsoft and GameStop, Bungie is fueling its custom Halo 3: ODST Transport and is scheduled for a  22-stop, nationwide roadtrip to offer gamers a chance for hands-on sessions of Halo 3: ODST’s new Firefight mode.

Visit GameStop in the day to play Firefight at night.

Visit GameStop in the day to play Firefight at night.

Starting at 12 pm, Saturday, August 22 at the GameStop in Redmond Tiwn Center, Seattle, WA, Major Nelson and his Xbox Live crew will head up competitions that start this Saturday in the Pacific Northwest and end at the Sunset Plaza in North Babylon, New York on September 19.

For those folks who live in the Bay Area, the “Bungie-Mobile” will stop at Union Landing, Union City, CA on Tuesday, August 25, and Wednesday, August 26, at the Center at Slatten Ranch, in Antioch, CA.

Check Major Nelson’s blog for the full schedule.

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World Gaming’s Safe Bet

worldgamingAccording to Florida Atlantic University graduates Billy Levy and Zach Zeldin, the founders of WorldGaming.com, they were sitting around playing Madden, betting cash, and were just a little bit hung over when the idea struck them.

“We stayed out late with some out-of-town friends the night before and were a little hung over,” said Levy. “Zack and I were playing Madden and we had this big pile of money on the floor. Our friends, who weren’t gamers, were playing online poker and betting, too. We realized there was something going on.”

That was 2006. As the new consoles Xbox 360, PS3, and Nintendo Wii hit retailers in the successive winter holidays of 2005 and 2006, console gaming had grown to an unprecedented penetration level, and gamers were far from playing alone. Social gaming had come a long way from PC LAN parties and Halo house parties. Gamers wanted to play in good communities and, every so often, for money.

Unlike the Major League Gaming–designed specifically for ambitious professional level gamers–WorldGaming.com offers a safe place and a growing community for gamers to play online and bet without the hassle of Xbox Live’s random members screaming at their moms for milk. More importantly, gamers who weren’t playing at the professional level but wanted to play and bet, could do so with players of the same skill level.

After its fall 2008 kick-off date and a successful beta campaign which saw more than 9,000 people register (and win more than $78,000 in prize money), WorldGaming.com has held several big tournaments and holds nightly tourneys, too. One of the biggest to date culminated in the recent 32-player Halo online tournament held last weekend. The tournament cost $5 to enter, but WorldGaming guaranteed that if you were able to win one game, you’d win at least $16.25 back. There was a total of $500 in cash prizes offered.

WorldGaming’s Website offers players the chance to play both Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 games. The site’s most popular games–Halo 3, Madden Football 09, and FIFA 09–are joined by Fight Night Round 3, Resistance Fall of Man, MotorStorm 2, NHL 09, and NCAA Football 09. Look for the additions of these games to be added to the list: GTA IV, Call of Duty, NBA 2k9, LA Midnight Club, NBA LIVE 09, Warhawk, and Lost Planet.

How does it work? Gamers sign up (it takes less than five minutes) using a credit card or Paypal to begin, and then choose a game. Bets can be placed as low as $2 or can go upwards to $200; it all depends on you and the person you challenge. An easy interface enables players to chat, pick teams, and then pick a time to play. Players then set up their game on either Xbox 360 or PS3, seek out the name of the selected player, and engage. Since the site tracks public data from each of the game’s servers, WorldGaming’s smart software can process the information on the site directly after a game. Presently, the site only permits one-on-one challenges; however, Levy says that team play functionality will be added.

Initially available only for players in North America, WorldGaming now supports players from the UK and Australia. Levy explained that soon players from Austria, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland, also will be able to play.

Upcoming features for the site the ability to block players (who don’t have a good rep or who bailed on a game), and concede a game, and now gamers can play MLB 09: The Show. More updates can be found at the What’s New section of the site.

Follow WorldGaming’s regularly updated blog to get a feel for the site’s community and staff

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