Well, it’s not Christmas over here, you know. For a number of complicated reasons, for our religious holidays we here follow the old calendar that lags behind the one most of the world is using. The difference is 13 days, so come January, we will eventually have our Christmas.
But in the meantime, while most of you are trying to alternately kill yourselves with drinking and resurrect yourselves from a killer hangover, I will turn back and look on 2009, trying to figure out what it is that people will remember it by once it is gone. When I say “people” I mean “me”, of course. I won’t pretend this is an objective or all-encompassing view on the year that we’re leaving behind us. Rather, this is what I found interesting, fascinating, or simply disgusting about gaming in 2009.
(Oh, and in case you’re wondering, I didn’t include any screenshots from any games in this article because you can see those everywhere else. Instead, have a look at some people who’ve won titles of miss and mister 2009 at various contests!!!)
Perhaps inevitably, gaming has, just about as anything else that has to deal with business, lived in the shadow of the global financial crisis for most of the year. Mere 18 months ago CEOs of large gaming companies have boldly claimed that gaming is a recession-proof business explaining that the consumers will simply be spending more time at home now that they have to be careful about how much money they have for throwing around on dumb entertainment. And staying home equals playing games, no?
Maybe. But the number of development studios that large gaming publishers have dissolved and the number of employees that have been laid off tells us that those people staying at home might be playing games but they are not necessarily playing big budget, AAA games.
If nothing else, 2009 was marked by the rise of The Casual Gametm. The old truth that smart business doesn’t compete on a saturated market but rather looks for new markets was proven beyond any doubt and nowhere has it been as visible as on the PC.
The Grey Box
The old, trusty free-for-all platform may not be what it used to be in the time before consoles could calculate the nine billion names of God, yet it is PC gaming that showed with great clarity that time of behemoth publishers, astronomical development budgets, ambitiously produced IPs and traditional distribution and retail methods is coming to an end.
Perhaps the core PC market has been in decline, yet PC audience did get a number of unashamedly hardcore games. Think ArmA II. Think Empire: Total War. Think King’s Bounty: Armored Princess. Think Torchlight. Think Cryostasis. Think Void. Think, goddamnit! I am talking about PC exclusives here, games unplayable on any other platform. If you add multiplatform titles that have been gracefully published on PC as well, you’d have to be extremely snobbish (or just insane) to claim that the PC core market has been neglected in 2009.
But outside of this market, the really strong sides of the platform were stronger than ever. Yes, World of Warcraft still remains unchallenged as the leader of the MMO world, but is it a bad thing to have a game played by 12 million people, a game being improved all the time, a game growing out of the gaming world, growing out of its community even, turning into a phenomenon, a cultural symbol? Of course, one MMO to rule them all needs to be challenged and while neither WAR nor The Age of Conan nor Aion managed to pose any real threat to Blizzard’s monster, they at least tried. And as the time goes by, someone will finally crack it. Perhaps it will be BioWare with its Old Republic. Perhaps it will be David Jones and his Realtime Worlds with their MMO/ cops and robbers shooter called APB. Perhaps it will be someone else, but for me, it is more important to see that there is genuine will (and fresh ideas) to dethrone WoW. Not because WoW is necessarily bad but because evolution is built on the extinction-survival processes.
At the same time and on the other side of the spectrum a company called Pop Cap symbolises the other strength of this platform. Casual games. Yes, for a “core” gamer these two words combined are a sign of everything that is wrong with the universe as of 2009, and yet you’d have to be a terminally unhappy person, not to mention an asshole, to miss just how great a game Plants vs. Zombies is. Sure, it’s just another tower defence game and, sure, its budget probably equals the budget Dragon Age Origins had for its concept art alone, but Plants vs. Zombies is a paradigm of gaming in its purest form. It’s about skill. It’s about speed. It’s about tactical thinking, strategic thinking, resource management and hand-eye coordination, all at once. And it’s about goddamn zombies. If you seriously think that Plants vs. Zombies is “not a real game” then you may need to reconsider whether you are actually a real gamer.
Whatever the result of that journey into the depths of your esteemed rectum, there is no denying it:
- Casual games brought more people into gaming than Ninja Gaiden and Fallout combined
- Casual games made more money in 2009 than Ninja Gaiden and Fallout (and Little King’s Story and Mini Ninjas and Muramasa: The Demon Blade and Contra ReBirth) combined
Whether it’s on a telephone screen, or on Facebook, or on Steam or anywhere else, casual games are here to stay and you can expect many more of them to join the partying coming years. Sure, 99.999% of them will be uninspired, ugly, stupid little pieces of evil, yet many of them will be pure gaming perfection, free of narrative baggage, free of stupidly high expectations in terms of presentation, free of anything that detracts from the game without adding anything that matters to the game. Think about it, will ya? Electronic Arts acquired Playfish the other day. They obviously thought about it.
The Gay Box
On the console front, the year was… exciting!!!
Let’s deal with Microsoft first.
Sure, people are saying that Microsoft kinda dropped the ball this year. You know, the usual stuff: they let Sony close the gap in terms of hardware sales, they didn’t have any exclusive titles that mattered, yadda yadda yadda (and, oh, Games for Windows initiative is SO dead in the water despite Rockstar jumping on board that I didn’t feel it was important to mention it at all in the previous section). But that’s all bullshit.
Consider this: Microsoft now has a very comfortable install base for its hardware, with Xbox 360 being a cheap, affordable and comfortable gaming platform for the masses. The Red Ring of Death debacle did cost them a lot of money but it didn’t slow Xbox’s market penetration and, ultimately, Microsoft’s strategy seems to be proven right. Because it’s not about hardware or even software any more. It’s about services and this is where Microsoft has a substantial lead on its competition. Xbox Live continues to grow, turning into much more than just a glorified retail channel. For many of its owners Xbox 360 is not about hardware any more. Xbox 360 IS Xbox Live, a way to play your games, a way to connect with other people (and question their sexual preferences), a way to sample your games, a way to purchase your games, talk about games, watch movies, groove to the music… It does help that Xbox Live Arcade managed to offer some of the finest exclusive gaming software this year (Shadow Complex, anyone?) but Microsoft is wise in expanding the service beyond the core experiences. So you get community games, you get Games on Demand, but you also get Facebook and Twitter support for an integrated social experience that ensures you never have to step away from Xbox Live for your networking needs.
I am not saying this is, you know, great. Personally, I have no use for either Facebook or Twitter and would rather Microsoft invested money into games, but if you’re talking smart strategic thinking, you have it right there. Microsoft understands it’s not about raw hardware sales any more, nor even about first party software sales. It’s about providing all encompassing, intuitive, comfortable service and Microsoft is currently one company being closest to the ideal.
And, oh, no exclusives, you say??? How about not one but two Halo titles this year? How about exclusive GTA content? Think about it.
The other smart thing that Microsoft did was of course the announcement of futurtastic, controller-free gaming. You know how I feel about project Natal and you know how sceptical I am about it actually helping give birth to any games actually worth playing, but in terms of actually attracting attention of gamers (core and casual), developers, media and promising fantastic new experiences straight out of the science fiction cinema at modest additional cost, you could hardly do better than what Microsoft did with Natal. We will of course see if the future will sing the way we are now singing about it.
The unbearable agony of being Sony
As for Sony, despite them managing to kinda close the gap in terms of hardware sales and market share, largely due to the new, slimmer and sexier Playstation 3, I would argue that the company continues not having a goddamn clue about what it is they actually want.
Sure, Playstation 3 slim is kind of a big deal, for good reason too, since finally regular people can afford to own this powerful machine that allows them to play great games. Good job there. Sure, Linux support is gone along with the backwards compatibility which is kinda… unforgivable, but you can at least play Demon’s Souls and not feel like the hardware you are playing it on will be paid for by your children’s children.
Sony managed to give us some really great exclusives this year. Along with the sublime Demon’s Souls, Playstation 3 had to offer other great titles like Killzone 2 (that, miraculously, almost lived to the promise), Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, Ratchet & Clank: Crack in Time and, damnit even InFamous and sure enough, on the downloadable front we got Critter Crunch, Flower and Noby Noby Boy. This is a very impressive line up.
Where I feel Sony’s baby is slightly weaker at are multiplatform titles. As someone who tends to purchase multiplatform games for his Playstation 3 rather than for his Xbox 360 (PS3 is still somewhat more reliable hardware-wise) I couldn’t but grit my teeth at every piece of news proclaiming how the new game XYZ looks and performs slightly better on Xbox 360 than on PS3. Sure, it’s not that PS3 is the weaker platform, it’s about it being difficult to code for, say its defenders, so it’s the fault of the lazy developers, rather than Sony’s engineers, but you know what? I don’t really care about that. I care about Ghostbusters looking worse on PS3 than on Xbox 360. Batman Arkham Asylum as well. Modern Warfare 2 too. It’s about the clarity it’s about particle effects, it’s about transparent textures and anti aliasing. It’s about the damn framerate too.
And, sure in most cases the differences are small enough to be ignored. Then again, in many cases they are not. Playing Bayonetta (the greatest action game this year and also the next year!!!) on Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 are two drastically different experiences with the PS3 one being notably weaker. With Sony, obviously, it’s not all about the services, it’s about the hardware too.
But when it does come to services, they have made some gigantic steps forward. PSN, while still being completely free is now a network of many features with non-gaming content being introduced in a scattershot but nonetheless determined approach. Music!!!! Video!!! Social networking!!! If it wasn’t for Playstation Home, Sony’s abortion of a social network-cum-MMO, I could actually say that the company finally understands what this services business is actually about.
For near future, Sony are still promising great things. A motion-sensing controller that should be more precise than Nintendo’s WiiMote plus debacle (!!!) and more tangible than Microsoft’s controllerless Natal system. A “true” (as in stereoscopic) three dimensional experience with nothing but your PS3 and a Sony television set (OK, and a pair of 3D glasses) (that me and Steerpike will look particularly stupid wearing considering we already have proper glasses). I will admit that it does sound good. Better than PS Home ever sounded at least. But let’s wait and see, Sony have been particularly good at destroying their own good ideas in the last couple of years and I am not sure they got better yet.
Because, you see, on the handheld front, Sony is lost, perhaps more than ever.
PSPgo is not exactly dead in the water, but, seriously, Sony seems to think that expensive experiments with hardware iterations are what drives business success. Make no mistake, I was of the opinion from day one that UMD was a stupid, miscalculated call, so it did make sense that the first radical hardware revision of the handheld will ditch the battery-sucking, heat-dispensing monster of a drive. But Sony’s total failure to account for literally tens of millions of people out there with huge collections of UMD games (and, Allah forbid, perhaps even movies) and an obvious (and perhaps also total) failure to convince enough customers that a download-only platform is the way to go is spelling the slow death of PSPgo.
You know, at this point I feel it is important to explain something: while I hate all multinational corporations with a feverish passion, you could say that I hate Sony slightly less than Microsoft. So all this criticism – it’s just my attempt to be objective. I am not a “fan” of either company. I just want to play good games.
Anyway, Sony: so, on the hardware front, their handheld strategy is, let’s put it mildly, suicidal. On the software front, PSP is by and large a port-and-spinoff machine. Sure, I played a bunch of fantastic PSP exclusives this year: Sony’s own Patapon 2 and LocoRoco Midnight Carnival!!! Badman!!! Half Minute Hero!!! And OK, even Dissidia (!!!) But those are like grains of sand in a desert. Well, admittedly a desert made of some great games: Monster Hunter Freedom Unite!!! Gran Turismo!! Little Big Planet!!! GTA!!! Motorstorm!!!!! Tekken!! SoulCalibur!!! Persona!!! Disgaea!!! Resistance!!!
Notice that this is a list of games all originating on living room consoles and then being shrunk to fit the PSP hardware. It is the testimony to the strengths of that hardware that most of these titles actually turn out fantastic on PSP and yet one can not help but wonder whether this platform was destined for greater things. The next year promises to be largely the same with new entries in Valkyria Chronicles, BlazBlue, Metal Gear Solid and Persona franchises already knocking on our doors.
I am not saying that this is actually bad. I like, nay, love most of these games. But history has proven that you can not build handheld’s future on games that are actually just living room games forced into a tiny package. Those are played by the core crowd and those are anyway best played at home. So not only that you’re reducing your potential market by default, even that market is more likely to go for home console versions if forced to choose. And in times of a financial crisis of these proportions, that kind of choice is more frequent than ever.
Sony’s answer to this? Minis!!! Tiny, bite sized downloadable games, most of them easily described as casual titles, cheap and ready to play on PSP or PS3!!! Great idea… in theory.
Obviously jealous of inspired by Apple’s runaway success with iPhone’s App Store (and many of the Minis are just ports of iPhone games anyway), Sony is, as usual, miscalculating. Not only that most of the actual PSP owners want games that are hardware-demanding and hardcore in scope, but for the others, the potential casual crowd that is buying PSPs because they look good with their clothes, the issues of development (pricey PSP devkit being a requirement for this kind of game development) and certification combine to produce a price tag for Minis that is substantially higher than for their App Store counterparts. One dollar games becoming five dollar games just through the magic of changing platforms (going from a primarily non-gaming to a primarily gaming platform at that!!!) doesn’t exactly suggest earth-shaking sales, no?
Anyway, let’s go to Nintendo.
The year of swimming in blood money
Nintendo killed this year. Just as any other recent year, of course, but if there’s one word that describes big N’s attitude to gaming and business in 2009 it’s laziness. Or conservativism. Or, you know, the fact that they can achieve so much with so little.
Wii continued to be cataclysmically successful (even though the global financial crisis kinda, sorta managed to slow down its sales by a few percent) and Nintendo really didn’t have to do or, you know, even think much to keep it that way. Sure, WiiMusic was an awful, cheap toy with some great coding under the hood but with very little actual game inside that also managed to become boring after five minutes. But WiiSports Resort and WiiFit Plus managed to sell millions despite being just warmed up versions of previous titles in their respective franchises.
Nintendo continues making the same games over and over. Don’t get me wrong, New Super Mario Bros. Wii is fantastic and also the best platform game in a year that boasts several great platform games, but it is also an iterative upgrade of a game made quarter of a century ago. Other Nintendo games this year? Gamecube titles with added motion controls. Again, fantastic games but…
Nintendo continues ignoring the potentials of connectivity. Most of their games and, by extension, most of the Wii games still only barely acknowledge the existence of the Internet. Nintendo’s online retail services offer some of the best games around (LostWinds sequel, anyone? Icarian? Contra ReBirth?) but, again, the selection process for games published via Virtual Console seems to consist of throwing darts at a pile of old game cartridges. I am not complaining but… wait, yes, I AM complaining!!! So we get Fighting Street because presumably there are thousands of masochistic game historians who have patiently waited for years to spend money on this turd but we don’t get The Immortal? Or Battletoads?? Or, you know, Star Fox, a game published and owned by Nintendo, and one of the most impressive games of the SNES era? Really, Nintendo, really???
But on the physical retail front, the year was far better and simultaneously far worse than I expected. What made it great was the uninterrupted stream of third party titles all being great Wii exclusive games, managing to find new ways to make Nintendo’s modest hardware shine. House of the Dead: Overkill, Little King’s Story, Phantom Brave: We meet Again, Dead Space Extraction, Resident Evil the Darkside Chronicles, Rabbids Go Home, Another Code R, Anno: Create a new World, A Boy and his Blob, Muramasa: The Demon Blade, MadWorld, Let’s Tap, Silent Hill Shattered Memories – games unavailable anywhere else, unburdened with demands of super-crispy larger than life HD graphics, free to give us fantastic gameplay!!! You know, for my money, Wii had the greatest lineup of exclusives of all platforms in 2009.
But what made it bad is that many of these great great games sold like bottled diarrhoea. Maybe it’s Nintendo hogging all the media presence, maybe it’s just Murphy’s Law (although Allah knows I shouldn’t always be trying to lay all the blame on Charles Bronson) or maybe it’s just the fact that most “core” gamers already sold their Wiis disgusted with the wait for the hardcore titles to arrive and the existing owners don’t care or know about their existence, but the fact is, this might just be the last great year Wii ever had. And for once, it might all be our fault!!!
Finally, the handheld front. Nintendo DS continues to be the most successful gaming platform of this generation and while this does account for a disgustingly high proportion of extremely casual, lifestyle, shovelware or just plain shit titles in its library, on the flipside you get so much good it’s almost too much to bear.
Sure, Nintendo’s latest hardware revision DSi (And Dsi LL) still has to actually offer any reasons for its existence – there are still no important games utilising the camera and the library of exclusive downloadable games is still laughable in terms of both quality and quantity – but does that actually matter when the old, cartridge based retail model managed to offer totally exclusive and totally great games every single month of the year? DS’s hardware, weak as it is still means games are actually relatively cheap to make (despite the dual screen/ touch screen shenanigans) and this in turn accounts for many developers daring to actually experiment either in established franchises or with completely new IPs.
So… GTA: Chinatown Wars (I love and own both PSP and Ds versions, but DS version and its touch screen functionality still has the edge, despite PSP’s enhanced graphics and that, in my eyes makes it an exclusive title), Kingdom Hearts: 385/2 days, Suikoden Tierkreis, Valkyrie Profile: Covenant of the Plume, Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor, Might & Magic: Clash of Heroes, Rhythm Heaven, Retro Game Challenge, The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks, Professor Layton and the Diabolical Box, Scribblenauts, Mario & Luigi: Bowser’s Inside Story, Knights in the Nightmare, Dragon Quest V, Space Invaders Extreme 2, Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia (well, it only came out over here this year, thank you very much!!!), Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: Echoes of Time…
I mean, need I go on? DS has the best exclusive list of all platforms by a fat margin (potentially excluding PC…). Games that you can take with you and play anywhere, regardless of whether you want to play a fast action title, a quirky rhythm game, a deep, complex strategic or tactical game, a RPG or an adventure, a platformer or a racer, a shooter or a puzzler – DS has it all and DS has it in spades. Most importantly, these games are not glorified movies trying to entice you with superb graphics and sky high production values – which does not mean their presentation is necessarily weak – they are first and foremost about gameplay.
Which is exactly how I like my games. You know, I don’t really hate Nintendo less than I hate the other two. It’s just that their handheld platform seems to be more about games than any other platform in existence at the moment.
And if you are waiting with bated breath for my thoughts on the iPhone, well, I’d like to, friends, I just don’t own it yet. And as long as my trusty 5th gen iPod is alive, I won’t have an excuse to buy it.
So, what other trends and phenomena have been visible in 2009?
The year of random babble
How about mainstream games becoming too easy for their own good? Sure, it all has to do with tough financial situation across the board and the desperate struggle to retain old cust… I mean gamers, and attract new ones. But it can not be ignored any more. Have you played Batman Arkham Asylum (or Lego Batman, for that matter)? Have you played Uncharted 2: Among Thieves? How about Brutal Legend? Or even Modern Warfare 2’s single player campaign? I mean, come on, even Dragon Age Origins, that every reviewer out there warned you about being tough and punishing is a cakewalk compared to almost every RPG older than three years.
I don’t mind games becoming easier when it’s about becoming clear in objectives and comfortable in execution, but I do mind when games become easier by cutting down the challenge. There are ways to have your cake and eat it too – after all the backlash that Nintendo got for their “press the button and watch the game play itself for you” in New Super Mario Bros., that game actually had quite a substantial challenge (especially compared to its DS predecessor) and felt like a proper platform game. Then there’s Bayonetta that ditches the stubborn, wooden difficulty design of Devil May Cry and actually gives you sensible checkpointing and endless continues, but at the cost of your global score, visible to anyone with the game anywhere in the world. So, yes, a slacker might get through the game just pressing a few buttons. It would take them weeks but it’s possible, however a player seeking challenge will actually be working on perfecting their game, turning Bayonetta’s combat movements into a ballet of death worthy of a stage performance.
Speaking of ballet, 2009 was definitely the year of return for fighting games. Street Fighter IV, Tekken 6, King of Fighters XII (which kinda sucked), Arcana Heart 2, Melty Blood Actress Again, SoulCalibur: Broken Destiny, Battle Fantasia, BlazBlue: Calamity Trigger, all these great games made it to home consoles creating a lot of media buzz, selling reasonably well (on the average), proving that pure gaming – that is, gaming based on skill and self improvement – still has its audience. My heart beats in sync with the universe that for once demonstrates life can make sense.
Another phenomenon? Well, it seems that the people in the business are finally starting to actually understand what all this connectivity is about and how it can be used for gaming. Sure, MMOs and deathmatching have been around for ages, but in 2009 we got so much more. Left 4 Dead (2)’s social responsibility generator!!! Episodic gaming that actually makes sense!!! Downloadable content that is actually worth both your money and time.
This last is perhaps the biggest single step forward made in 2009. As the poets will describe it in years to come: we’ve come a long way from horse armour, baby. Sure, a lot of it is still just stuff cut out of games prior to release or stuff that we were getting for free only three or four years ago, but things we got as GTA IV’s and even Fallout 3’s downloadable content were actually, you know, meaningful. I play too many games as it is and rarely feel compelled to go back and revisit games I have already completed just because there is a new map and a new, short, stupid mission in there but stuff that Bethesda and especially Rockstar gave us actually felt like content worth the effort. BioWare seems to be taking the cue from them and Dragon Age Origins is at least going to have a lot of DLC.
But on the flipside, Activision/Infinity Ward’s decision to ditch the support for dedicated servers for the PC version of Modern Warfare 2 (and John Carmack’s announcement that they may do the same for the upcoming Rage) reminds us that the industry perhaps likes to give, but it prefers to take away. And then not give, but sell. Sure, it’s a crisis year, but, as we said before, as long as we put up with it… they’ll keep doing it.
Whichever way you put it, the industry is positively determined to make the best use of the goddamn Internet before that blasted Mayan asteroid destroys the Earth in 2012. Digital distribution is slowly but surely taking over from the physical one (despite Nintendo’s boss saying that he doesn’t see it happening in at least two more decades!!) and it is not too much of a stretch to say that the next generation of consoles might end up being thin client machines with no physical storage media, connected into digital clouds. That is IF there is the next generation at all. Developing systems like OnLive and Gaikai by two competing companies are working on eliminating even the classical client. In their vision, games would all be played on powerful company servers while the user would only be using broadband connection to send inputs and receive streamed video feedback. While this idea sounds intriguing (no expenses on hardware, no platform exclusivity etc.), the idea of never physically being it touch with the code is kinda scary to me.
As for scandals related to sex and violence in games, there were surprisingly few and far between, especially considering that the usual suspects (Rockstar and, haha, BioWare) delivered on both fronts giving us pools of blood, male frontal nudity and hot man on man sex. The only contender worth mentioning here is Infinity Ward and their No Russian mission in Modern Warfare 2 which had you shooting up a Russian airport full of civilians but, as explained elsewhere on this website, if there ever was a fake controversy, this is one. But then again, we should be happy this is almost the only time our favourite hobby made headlines for all the wrong reasons.
When it did make headlines, it was mostly to report awesome sales. Again, Modern Warfare 2 made a killing, crowning itself the most successful launch in the history of entertainment industry which, as our ancestors used to say, is no mean fit. Not everything was so peachy for all the other publishers with many games, developers and publishers struggling to survive but if there is one good thing about the current climate of financial instability and strategic conservativism, it is that people become smarter when times are harder. New retail channels, new software platforms and ultimately new (and hopefully great) games will eventually surface as more people think of more ways to make a buck in the drowning economy.
But what else will 2010 bring? Aside for God of War III and about a gazillion other games that migrated to Q1 2010 afraid of a direct confrontation with Modern Warfare 2, I have no idea. Which is, of course, the most exciting thing of all. I love being surprised even though I know many surprises are going to hurt. So, let’s wait for the future to drop!!!
Oh, what’s that? You’re asking what my game of the year is? Well, that’s easy.
It’s Demon’s Souls.
No, no, wait, I meant BlazBlue: Calamity Trigger.
Wait, wait, wait, I got it now: it’s Might and Magic: Clash of Heroes.
I mean it’s Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor.
Yes, that’s it. Either that or Dragon Age Origins.
Or, possibly Bayonetta.
Or… you know… what is your game of the year??? Let’s hear it in the comments below!!!
Email the author of this article at Meho@tap-repeatedly.com.