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The Decade in Review: Videogames 2000-2009, Part 2

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 the decade filled with significant events. This is part 2 of the feature, The Decade in Review. Check here for part 1.

January 11, 2005: The Best Thing About GameCube

Making up for its poor third-party relations on the N64, Nintendo signed a multi-title, multi-year deal with Capcom, securing the Resident Evil franchise for the GameCube. While all of the previous games (RE1-RE3) were updated and released on GameCube to no real fanfare (outside of insanely excited Nintendo fans), Capcom rekindled the sagging survival-horror genre with the remarkable and visionary Resident Evil 4. The action-packed game blended scare tactics with high-level action scenes, quick-time events, and a new story that, while still cheesy in many respects, breathed life into the series.

March 22, 2005: A God Appears

On the heels of Capcom’s Resident Evil revitalization, David Jaffe and Sony’s Santa Monica Studios burst onto the scene with little pre-hype fanfare (due to the ambitious and prickly Jaffe team), but immediately stole the spotlight, stunning gamers with a Greek myth-based action game that maximized every aspect of the PS2 in its final years of life. Introducing Kratos, the vengeance-filled semi God, Sony mixed platforming, quick time events, and a high-impact combat system like nothing else before it. God of War becomes the one of the definitive action games of all time.

March 24, 2005: Sony launches PSP

Seeing that Nintendo’s game Boy has yet to see a substantial rival, Sony engineers the beautiful, sleek, and expensive PSP, the ultimate cool games/music/movie gadget.

November 4, 2005: Microsoft Defines Next Gen Gaming

Jumping the gun by shipping a year earlier than Sony’s PS3 and Nintendo’s Wii, Microsoft stole the hardware spotlight by defining the next-generation with high-definition graphics, connected multiplayer functions, and a virtual, online marketplace. Introducing achievements, a multi-folder interface, an online marketplace, and improving on its already established online gaming service model, Microsoft stole Sony’s thunder and ended its uncontested two-generation rule. Full retail games like Call of Duty 2 and downloadable games like Galaxy Wars paved the way for Microsoft’s insurrection. The American console maker would then pick off Sony’s premiere third-party exclusive titles one by one (Devil May Cry, Final Fantasy, Air Combat, Grand Theft Auto, even Metal Gear Solid). However, consumers exposed Microsoft’s hardware issues (the “Red Ring of Death”), which, along with a media battle between HD-DVD and Sony’s Blu-ray, have tainted opinions about the Xbox 360.

November 8, 2005: Guitar Hero Changes Everything

After quirky-cool endeavors Frequency and Amplitude made gamers feel cool on PS2, Harmonix teamed with Konami to sell millions of copies of Karaoke Revolution, the world’s first sing-a-long videogame. But its best and biggest partnership with Red Octane would revolutionize the game industry. Bravely confronting the statistically proven industry notion that expensive peripherals didn’t sell in high numbers, Red Octane gave the industry’s old idea the finger with Guitar Hero. Merging Harmonix’s innovative music gameplay with Red Octane’s functional, sturdy plastic guitar, the duo would blow past Konami’s musical endeavors, and then blow past everyone else. The rest of the story — Guitar Hero 5, Lego Rock Band, DJ Hero, and The Beatles Rock Band–nearly explains itself.

2005: Epic Floods Next Gen Middleware

Quietly in 2005 and loudly in 2006, Epic Games established itself as the defacto software engine for the new generation of consoles with its Unreal Engine. In the previous generation, a handful of developers created middleware for consoles: Id Software (with Id Tech), and Criterion (with RenderWare) to name a few, but Epic marketed and sold the Unreal Engine heavier, harder, and more convincingly than any other studio. And every time Epic showed game journalists Gears of War, the company’s new in-house game for Xbox 360, a dozen more developers would sign up.

2006: The Music Wars Begin

In May 2006, Activision acquired Guitar Hero publisher, Red Octane for $99.9 million. Then in September 2006, MTV Networks acquired Harmonix, the creative software studio behind Guitar Hero, for $175 million. In November 2007, Harmonix, under publisher MTV Networks and distributor Electronic Arts, released Rock Band, the direct competitor to Guitar Hero, complete with plastic guitar, microphone, and drum kit. Activision and MTV/EA would fiercely compete to out-do one another with new games, features, and exclusive bands, such as with Rock Band The Beatles, in the not-so-distant future.

Fall 2006: PS3 and Nintendo Wii Launch

One year after Microsoft’s Xbox 360 launch, Sony’s newly launched PlayStation 3 had the looks of a lost system. For a Blu-ray player, the PS3 was an economically priced system. For a console, its high price tag was reminiscent of the 3DO–way too expensive. Sony’s gamble on winning a media/storage war started well before mass consumers were even aware they needed a Blu-ray player–and before the world had decided which it wanted more, HD-DVD or Blu-ray. The result? Sony’s powerful new PS3 would start slow and remain in third place behind Microsoft and Nintendo in the console race.

While the PS3 launched November 11, the oft-laughed at, low-end Nintendo Wii launched November 19 with the free Wii Sports bundle. To everyone’s surprise (except Nintendo), the Wii captured the imaginations of consumers worldwide. The Wii, with the equivalent of Xbox 1 hardware and maximum 480p output, would go on to topple Xbox 360 sales, steal the console marketplace crown, and recode the next generation with its non-stop sales to the casual market, females, families, and weight-conscious gamers. If Microsoft defined the next generation with HD graphics and connectedness, Nintendo’s Wii rewrote it with its wireless, interactive Wiimote and its simple, accessible games, broadening the game market in a way Microsoft and Sony could only wish for.

June 29, 2007: Apple Launches the iPhone

Following its string of successes with the iPod, Apple released the unprecedented touch-sensitive interface and app-filled smart phone, the iPhone. While the device sold millions and remained the coolest gadget in the world for a good year, it wasn’t until Jul 12, 2008 when Apple launched its online app store that videogame developers were introduced to the full potential of a publisher-free videogame marketplace. With the app store in place, hundreds more developers started making apps in their garages. Just like old times.

July 11-13, 2007: Good-bye E3, Hello…Business Summit?

Booth babes: Did they make or break E3? (Image courtesy of CNET)

After escalating costs, the expansion of t-shirt-throwing barkers, endless parades of booth babes, stage shows, and a general circus mentality growing each year at E3, a majority of game publishers led by EA, agreed to end E3 as we knew it. In its place appeared a multi-venue, splintered, no-frills “event” known as The E3 Media and Business Summit. To put it mildly, the majority of attendees voiced their opinion that the new E3 was a poor substitution for the old one.

September 12, 2007: The Wii Takes Over

Despite launching one year after the Xbox 360, owning a kooky name, and delivering hardware that wasn’t as powerful as the PS3 or the Xbox 360, The Wii took over the console market in sales. The Financial Times reported September 12, 2007 that the Nintendo Wii had surpassed the Xbox 360 and had become the console market leader, the first time Nintendo had done so since the Super NES. (Sales based on NPD Group, GfK and Enterbrain tracking numbers for North America, Europe, and Japan.) Nintendo fans go berserk (and have remained giddily proud ever since).

October 11, 2007: EA Purchases BioWare, Pandemic

EA takes another big gulp out of the development world. One wonders why Microsoft didn’t buy BioWare, after its long partnerships and Mass Effect. But it took a hungrier, more ambitious Redwood City publisher to take over the reigns of the biggest Western RPG maker in the world, one famous for its work on Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, Jade Empire, and Mass Effect, not to mention earlier works with Interplay such as Baldur’s Gate and Neverwinter Nights. Oh yeah, and EA got Pandemic too.

Dec 3, 2007: Activision Merges with Vivendi

The Activision merger with Vivendi created “Activision Blizzard,” a publisher that would soon become the biggest independent game publisher in the world, nudging long-time king EA into second place. The deal would be legally completed on July 10, 2008.

Fall 2007: Gamers Rejoice Part 2

In a collective burst of creative output, videogame developers harnessed the new console hardware with dozens of original titles and exceptional sequels on every system. Gamers scored in every genre and on every system. Titles such as BioShock, Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, Crysis, Halo 3, Skate, Forza Motorsport 2, Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune, Pac-Man Championship Edition, Puzzle Quest: Challenge of the Warlords, Assassin’s Creed, Super Mario Galaxy, God of War 2, Metroid Prime 3: Corruption, Rock Band, The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass, Mass Effect, and The Orange Box, just to name a few, stole gamers’ hearts and emptied their wallets.

February 2008: EA’s $2 Billion Move to Acquire Take-Two

In an opportunistic bid just prior to the release of Grand Theft Auto IV, Electronic Arts proposes an unsolicited bid to buy Take-Two Interactive for $2 billion dollars, or $25 a share. After an initial refusal, EA upped the bid to $26 per share, but Take-Two rejects the offer again. The press went hog wild with the story because of all the opportunisties to speculate on how EA would handle Rockstar, which games would get killed, etc. Analysts practically begged Take-Two to accept the offer, but Take-Two’s “take” on the offer was simple: “We’re worth more.” The biggest news? EA would have surpassed Activision Blizzard as the biggest independent softwre developer in the world with the acquisition. Somewhere, Activision’s Bobby Kotick is giggling madly in a room filled with plastic guitars, skateboards, posters of Spider-Man, and World War II guns, with money signs burning brightly in his eyes.

March 2008: The Indie Movement Arrives (Again)

While indie gamers have been around since Nolan Bushnell’s Pong started it all, a perfect storm of marketplace scenarios came to light in 2007 and 2008, creating a perfect environment for indie games to flourish. The world finally noticed in a big way at the Game Developers’ Conference in 2008. Jonathan Blow’s Braid, 2D Boy’s The World of Goo, and a dozen other quirky, creative, and low-budget titles created more than just a lot of media buzz, they showed the world new and different ways of thinking about and playing games.

The Games of 2008

While we can exalt in the monumental barrage of games that flowed through game stores in 2007, 2008 featured distinct breakthroughs. Bethesda’s award-winning first-person RPG Fallout 3 captured the essence of the beloved Fallout RPG series and brought its epic sense of story and size to the IP. Rockstar stunned the world with its updated, realistic vision of New York with an online, multiplayer Grand Theft Auto IV, garnering perfect scores and generating record-breaking sales. And Will Wright’s quirky god-game Spore hit the streets, generating buzz and good scores, but sales that did not match Wright’s previous hit, The Sims. With other breakthrough games including LittleBigPlanet, Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots, Left 4 Dead, Gears of War 2, Dead Space, and Prince of Persia, game publishers warded off the beginning of the biggest recession since the Great Depression.

February 12, 2009: Midway Goes Bankrupt

Confronting a $240 million debt, Mortal Kombat publisher files Chapter 11. Meanwhile, the last Midway-made Mortal Kombat, Mortal Kombat vs. DC, ships 2 million units. The last of the Old School arcade publishers, Midway’s closure was cause for a moment of profound silence, followed by, “Get over here!”

March 27, 2009: Square Enix Secures Acquisition of Eidos

Ever since I’ve been in the business of writing about videogames, Eidos has been on the table for purchase. After succumbing to too many Tomb Raider failures (from TR4-TR:Angel of Darkness), Eidos never really climbed back up to its previous heights of success in development or on Wall Street. During that time, nearly every publisher in the world has engaged in talks to purchase the English publisher. But no one in their right mind thought Japanese giant Square Enix would be the one. Anyone for a Final Tomb Raider Fantasy?

March 24, 2009: Could OnLive Change Everything?

OnLive CEO Steve Perlman and COO Mike McGarvey introduced the cloud-based computing online service, OnLive. The service is designed to eliminate the need to continually upgrade PCs or to buy new consoles. EA, Epic Games, Take-Two, Ubisoft, THQ and several others show initial support, but direct issues such as eliminating lag and cost structure posed problems, while indirect worries such as the next generation of consoles led by Sony, Nintendo, and Microsoft also weigh in.

June 1, 2009: Microsoft, Sony Reveal Motion Controllers

At E3 2009 (which had returned to the LA Convention Center), Microsoft unveiled the potential next step in controller-less gaming, Project Natal. Combining the use of an RGB camera, depth sensor, microphone, and proprietary software, Microsoft discussed the importance of eliminating the barrier between gamers from games (a la Nintendo’s Wii). At Sony’s press conference, Dr. Richard Marks introduced Sony’s own proprietary engineering prototype which combined the abilities of the EyeToy and a motion sensor. Neither project would ship in 2009.

June 24, 2009 Bethesda Acquires Id Software

After quietly announcing it had transformed from a developer into a publisher, ZeniMax Media Inc., the parent company of Bethesda Softworks, acquired industry pioneer Id Software. Id’s departure from the conservative creative culture at Activision and acceptance at Bethesda’s well-funded, new studio-friendly system was a surprise and a shift whose repercussions have yet to be determined.

November 2009: Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 Smashes Records

Infinity Ward’s first-person shooter Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 took in $550 million during its first five days, beating Grand Theft Auto IV’s video game record, while setting a single-day record with 2.2 million unique Xbox Live users playing the game on November 10. Modern Warfare 2’s remarkably fast-paced single-player campaign is joined by a new Spec-Ops mode, and a highly improved, highly desired multiplayer game. Christmas will never be the same again.

***

Surely that’s not everything–not every single thing–that happened. What about…? If I forgot, missed, or ignored an event worth posting, write and let me know! I’ll see if I can post it in the story.  Missed part 1 of The Decade in Review: Videogames 2000-2009, part 1? Check it out now.

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Zenimax Buys Id Software: Commentary

John Carmack makes sense of the ZeniMax acquisition.

John Carmack makes sense of the ZeniMax acquisition.

GameSpot’s Tor Thorsen interviewed Id Software’s Chief Technology Officer John Carmack recently in the wake of ZeniMax Software’s buyout of Id, revealing key reasons for the landmark business decision.

Id, one of the biggest independent developers in the industry, has long had a firm publishing relationship with Activision, now the largest independent publisher in the world thanks to its merger with Vivendi, which made this acquisition a surprise to many.

As the video game industry’s landscape has changed drastically since Id’s humble share-ware origins, that relationship has made some sort of sense, with Id keeping control over its IP, and Activision serving as a publishing arm.

“But since the very beginning, even before [the first] Wolfenstein was published, id has gotten a lot of offers to be acquired by various companies, and there were always pros and cons to it,” Carmack told GameSpot. “It’s always nice when somebody offers you a lot of money, but then again, you have to trade it for the idea that you wouldn’t completely be your own boss. You may have to do something you wouldn’t do in a different company, and that becomes a statement about their corporate culture.”

From my perspective, Id’s remained fiercely independent, making any Activision acquisition a difficult one to strategically make sense of. While the Santa Monica-based publisher has smartly avoided EA’s Borg-style of acquisition–buying the developer for the intellectual property and gutting the creative forces and key designers–when Activision does buy a developer, that team must then do Activision’s bidding, whatever that may be.

Trey Arch is a key example of this strategy, being directed to whatever is the most important title at the moment, with little time to complete the project, and usually with a big licensed attached to it. A worst-cased scenario of this strategy is the former Dave Mirra BMX developer Z-Axis, which Activision bought and then had little luck with on at least one never-published game and X-Men: The Official Game, which was panned.

It has watched Activision-owned Infinity Ward rocket in popularity due to its Call of Duty and Modern Warfare series, eclipsing the aging Doom and Quake series. While in the technological side of things, Epic Games’ Unreal engine has become the industry standard for tech engines in this console generation, eclipsing Id’s technology as the preferred tech engine.

Idlogo

“I mean, we had to wonder how we would be if we were acquired by Sierra, Activision, EA or any of the potential publishers there. The other aspect you have to look at with the larger publishers is that there’s almost always some competitive interest. Activision and EA already have developers that do first-person shooters. If we were to come into the fold on one of those, then we would be competing against the brother and sister companies under that umbrella. We’d be fighting for attention for the marketing department to get positioned.”

Carmack answers the strategic fit question later in the interview, giving context to the ways in which Id’s corporate culture would fit or mesh with ZeniMax’s corporate culture, and answering Id’s tendency to publish a game only “when it’s done.”

“Yeah, there’s a couple aspects to that. In terms of the “when it’s done” thing, another key advantage about ZeniMax is that it’s a private company. They do not have quarterly reports that have to go out, and they don’t have to worry about making their publicly stated targets. I mean, our contracts with Activision and EA always said that we didn’t have to push out anything out over our objections. We were never in a position where something would get pushed out. But that doesn’t mean that there is not some level of…well, let’s just say, they convey their desires to us.”

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Wolfenstein 3-D Hits XBLA, PSN

Is it just me or is it not terribly surprising to see Activision announcing the release of the original Wolfenstein 3-D June 3 on XBLA and June 4 on PSN?

Wolfenstein 3-D is the bonafied original first-person shooter. And uh, don’t tell anybody, but it’s not all that good. Doom gets all thte credit but that’s because it was a much better designed game, offered better graphics, and was full of cool secrets, tricks, passages and whatnot. I went gaga over the original Doom’s release on XBLA.

But if you should decide to turn backward to the past and delve into 1993 pixel land, you’ll confront Hans Grosse and Mecha-Hitler through the game’s six episodes and 60 levels.

Releasing the old-school Wolfenstein 3-D now just seems like a smart way to build hype and momentum for the August 4 release of the newfangled Wolfenstein on Xbox 360, PS3 and PC.  I guess I can’t argue too hard against that strategy; it seems smart to me!

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Five Reasons Why Wolfenstein Has a Fighting Chance

Originally introduced to the world at the Microsoft X06 event in Amsterdam, Holland, Activision’s new Wolfenstein is geared to pummel gamers with familiar run-and-gun gameplay, but a newly added alternative dimension component that’s reminiscent of Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver in all the best ways.

What I found interesting about the Raven Software-developed FPS combines a fictional but nifty story premise, some solid game technology, new upgradeable weapons, and the constant rush of really hideous new enemy types.

1. The Premise

Wolfenstein is the sequel to Return to Castle Wolfenstein, the single-player game which was developed by Grey Matter, and the multiplayer portion which was designed by Nerve Software, in 2001 for the PC. Picking up where the previous game left off, lead character B.J. Blazkowicz discovers a powerful amulet that’s somehow related to a new German experiment with an inter-dimensional power source called the Black Sun.

The fictional story starts with BJ and team infiltrating a train station in Germany by setting off charges in Nazi’s hidden operations base. The explosion accidentally opens up the supernatural gateway into another dimension called the Veil.

Wolfenstein’s story clearly isn’t on the level of H.P Lovecraft’s bizarre occults and imaginatively designed otherworlds, but it follows that vibe. The story also feels like the original Indiana Jones and the Raider of the Lost Ark, with your hero and the Germans both racing to discover the dangerous alternate powers of the Black Sun. BJ Will work with several factions throughout the game that help, inform, and fight with him as the story progresses.

2. Upgradeable Weapons, Sub-missions, and Treasure

Yes, you’ll use classic (and yes, “old”) World War II weapons, such as the Kar-98 and the MP40 mounted machine gun, but you’ll be able to upgrade them with special parts specific to those weapons at a Hub level called the Black Market. Upgrades range from bayonettes to sniper scopes, bigger clips and more. You also can pick up any weapon that enemies leave on the ground, which instantly opens up possibilities. Plus, you can carry all the weapons you have purchased, are equipped with, or have found simultaneously–old-school pre-Halo-style. Furthermore, in the Hub level you can roam freely, follow-side missions, and explore for treasure.

3. Bloody Chunks

The Wolfenstein engine offers excellent lighting and particle effects and detailed characters and environments. It’s also fast and enables the team to produce an inordinate amount of explosions and bodies on the screen simultaneously, creating a dynamic sense of action and power. The engine also is built to create a regular gust of bloody visceral body parts and chunks into the air including severed hands, arms, and legs, torsos, and heads. The gameplay gives you that raw feeling of creating an immense amount of virtual carnage.

4. Kick-Ass Bosses and Creatures

Yes, of course, you’ll mostly be shooting millions of German soldiers created specifically as low-level fodder, but one of the first bosses we saw, the Heavy Trooper, was a mega-human covered with armor, armed with a particle cannon, and balls-to-the-walls tough. If this is just a taste of the bosses to come, I’m in.

We witnessed an evil paladin creature called Scribes, which fuel enemies with low energy with life, or resurrect them. And Geists, which look like giant bumblebees, only dark and “evil, hover around acting like explosive hovering barrels.

5. Special Veil Powers

Because BJ has discovered the amulet and has tapped into the Black Sun alternate universe, he has the ability to alter time using what is called the Veil. The Veil powers, initiated by pressing up on the Dpad, provide new weapons, powers, environments, and new dangers. What’s especially nice is how quickly the change from one world to the other is. The Veil look presents a sort of Dead Zone, or alternative texture world to the existing game architecture, so for instance, BJ can use the Veil powers to cross bridges, walk through doors, and bridge gaps, he previously couldn’t. BJ also can dodge enemy bullets, use weapons only found in the veil, and escape grave dangers presented by Veil bosses that he otherwise could not.

Wolfenstein will of course offer multiplayer components, but as is Activision’s way, the publisher shows off everything in trickles, starting with the single-player game. Look for more in the upcoming months.

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