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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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Bayonetta: The clash of taste, art and critics

What do you think of Sega’s recent over-the-top action ker-plaction game, Bayonetta? For a game that’s seemingly shallow, sexist, and a step back for Hideki Kamiya, critics are going ape shit over its aesthetics and cultural meaning.

This isn’t just a debate about the game’s gameplay or visuals, there is a debate about its cultural appeal, taste, and artistic value.  Check out Christian Nutt’s analysis on taste and Bayonetta on Gamasutra.com; like me, I think you’ll be surprised.

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Alpha Protocol Slips to June 2010

Like Heavy Rain, BioShock 2, Red Dead Redemption, Bayonetta,  Darksiders, and Singularity before it, Sega’s Alpha Protocol has been pushed back into 2010, according to EBGames.com.AlphaProtocolBoxart

Sega’s “espionage RPG,” was due to ship on PC, PS3, and Xbox 360 on October 27. Sega has placed ads for its fall release in several magazines, including a noticeably large three-page ad in the review section of the November issue of PlayStation: The Official Magazine.

Within the last few days, EBGames has changed the game listing on its schedule. A phone call to Sega produced a “no comment” response, which often is another way of saying, “Yes, that’s true but our hands are tied right now, gotta go!”

Alpha Protocol is a unique mixture of RPG story-telling elements and balls-to-the-wall action developed by traditional RPG creator, Obsidian Entertainment.

With the recession taking a chunk out of game industry sales throughout 2009, the game industry no longer appears as recession proof as it once was. Slower software and hardware sales have scared retailers into believing (and possible correctly) that consumers just won’t spend as much this holiday season, and that only big-name games have a chance.

Analysts predict that there will be practially no gray area in sales, with well-known brand names like Call of Duty Modern Warfare 2, Halo 3: ODST, and the likes taking the lion’s share, while lesser known games and new IPs will fare poorly.  This preditction isn’t inevitable, but it’s likely Sega felt that it’s intricate new IP, Alpha Protocol, had just better step out Modern Warfare 2’s way.  Too bad, too. I was really looking forward to playing it this fall.

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Sega Sees Q1 Losses: Is Hardcore Wii Route Still Best?

Sega Sammy issued its Q1 financial report ending July 31, delivering mixed results comprising a decline in sales and in losses.

The Conduit is another of Sega's experiments with the Wii's slim, potentially growing hardcore base.

The Conduit is another of Sega's experiments with the Wii's slim, potentially growing hardcore base.

The company’s net sales struck 60.4 billion yen for the quarter, down by 19 per cent from 74.6 billion on year-on-year comparisons. Operating losses improved from 10.2 billion yen in 2008’s comparable quarter to a loss of only 7.8 billion yen in 2009. Net losses decreased to 10.2 billion yen during the quarter, down from 10.5 billion yen year-on-year.

The questions one must ask, and Sega has yet to answer, is whether its mature game strategy on Nintendo’s Wii system is paying off and has a future, and whether other games in its profile (fitness, Sonic, etc.) can continue funding mediocre results.

Games released during this quarter included The Conduit (with an unimpressive 150,000 units sold through), the multiplatform title Virtua Tennis 2009 (with a solid 790,000 units sold through), and PSP title Hatsune Miku – Project Diva (at a better than decent 90,000 units sold through).

The arcade division saw major sales drop-off from 13.7 billion yen in 2008 to 7.8 billion yen this quarter; operating income declined from a profit of 700 million yen to a loss of 1 billion yen.

But thank the gods for Pachinko!

Sega’s bread and butter Pachinko business gathered net sales of 19.6 billion yen, up from 12 billion yen  in 2008; and the business revealed an operating loss of 1 billion yen, an significant improvement on the loss of 4.3 billion yen over last year’s losses.

Can Alien Vs. Predator, Alpha Protocol, and the endless stream of Sonic games revise this financial picture?

I can say for certain that Alpha Protocol is an awesome, deep, and impressive action-RPG that should do well in a market where very few games are like it.

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Iron Man 2 (The Game) Is Better, Stronger, Faster

Iron Man, the movie, rocked the Casbah. It was a supreme surprise. Robert Downey, Jr. sparked the normally stoic, dislikable drunkard/millionaire Tony Stark to life with a quirky genius and refreshing inventiveness. Iron Man the movie has become one of my all-time favorite comic book movies.

Iron Man, the first Sega video game, sucked big sweaty elephant balls. It was all of the bad things that videogames shouldn’t be: unfocused, repetitive, uninspiring. It made you feel like Iron Man was a pretty lame super-hero as he fought endless waves of stupid thugs from five miles away. Who would want to play another Sega Iron Man game again?

Can Sega pull off a kick-ass Iron-Man 2 video game?

Can Sega pull off a kick-ass Iron Man 2 video game? My fingers are crossed.

“The world has changed, Jarvis. The crazies are getting smarter. I’m not alone anymore,” says Downey, Jr. in this first reveal trailer on Sega’s home page.

Hm… does this actually look, dare I say, intriguing? In a cynical world, no one in their right mind should give Sega a second chance after the first game’s poor effort. But things change, publishers learn lessons, people get inspired, and sequels shouldn’t be prejudged.

In Iron Man 2, developed by Sega’s San Francisco Studio–formerly known as Secret Level–a completely new creative lead heads up a mostly new dev team. The game is designed on a completely new, built-from-the ground-up engine, and gamers should get to play in the new Mark IV armor.  The game isn’t based on the movie, but shares elements of it, giving Sega wiggle room to do cool things in the game that it was restricted from doing the first time around (causing some of the first game’s issues).

For instance, Iron Man confronts Crimson Dynamo, as revealed in the first trailer, a character who isn’t in the movie (or so we have heard). From the video it appears that Sega has imbued Iron Man with a sense of power, enabling him to defeat enemies by blasting straight through them, ripping off their heads, and pummeling them to pieces. That’s sounds cool by me.

The story is penned by Iron Man comic book writer Matt Fraction, which means it will be more true to the character, his strengths and weaknesses, than anyone else is likely to pull off. Add to that the ability to research, create, and modify custom weapons for your suit before each mission and already this game sounds better.

A video game trailer can be deceiving. But this Iron Man 2 video does look bitchin’. Should we believe in Iron Man 2? I’m hoping Sega can pull it off, and I know it knows the first game stunk. So I am truly hoping they’re using that game as fuel to construct a truly kick-ass Iron Man 2 that’s worthy of the first movie and the Iron Man comic book legacy.

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Sega Opens Mature Gates on Wii

MadWorld: The most violent game ever?

MadWorld: The most violent game ever?

Risk, schmisk! Sega, the former hardware manufacturer of the Genesis, Saturn, and Dreamcast and known for risk taking in both hardware and software development, is rolling the dice again. With House of the Dead 4, then Mad World, The Conduit, and now Mad World 2, Sega’s risky business has opened the mature market in the Wii market for others to follow.

In an article today on GamesIndustry.biz, Gary Dunn, MD of European development for Sega, told the media outlet, “You have to push boundaries and explore. I think whilst MadWorld commercially didn’t sell what we were expecting I wouldn’t say it’s game over for mature Wii titles from Sega.”

In May, new publisher Bethesda has indicated that it’s interested in developing more mature titles on the Wii, the current console leader in the market, and EA has created a special, from-the-ground-up version of Dead Space to test the waters, too.

It will only be a matter of time before more publishers deep their feet in, too. Who’s next, Activision, THQ, Warner Brothers?

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Aliens Vs. Predator Again

Goodbye head, goodbye spine, goodnight moon (image courtesy of IGN.)

Goodbye head, goodbye spine, goodnight moon (image courtesy of IGN.)

I remember hearing the Colonial Marines’ movement detector in those silent narrow hallways, slowly pulsing at first and then eerily speeding up, mimicking my very own heartbeat as I looked and saw nothing but knew they were coming. It was the first time I felt like a movie and its accompanying game could replicate the same feeling of dread. The aliens were gathering and coming, and you knew it and you couldn’t do a thing except cock your gun and grit your teeth.

Teaming with Sega, Rebellion looks to replicate its earliest success with Aliens Vs. Predator on PC, Ps3, and Xbox 360 in Q1 2010. How does it look? Frankly, you have to work hard not to make your game look good these days, so yeah, it looks sharp. IGN has a hands-on piece illustrating how the Predator plays, and it looks like there will be gore, blood, guts, and more gore with close-up blade insta-kills, invisibility cloak sneak attacks, and head-and-spine trophies.

But how much better will it be than Rebellion’s years of medicore sequels? How much left is new, interesting, and worth your while in the crazily crowded first-person shooter genre? At best, this game reflects the familiar anxiety created by hordes of attacking aliens, the fear of their hunger for death in your mouth. At worst, it attempts such drama, but only reminds us how great that nearly 30-year old franchise was, and how old it still is. I ain’t saying Rebellion can’t pull it off, but they’d better make it really effing smart, fast, and brutal to make it any good. There are simply too many good choices out there to get stuck with a mediocre one.

We’ll find out at E3 2009, won’t we?

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