Wednesday, December 29, 2010

2010: The Year in Gaming

To be a gamer is to be both blessed and cursed.

The blessing is that we live in a time when all current gaming platforms have something unique to offer. There are tons of games worth experiencing that come to every single one of these platforms every year. The curse, of course, is that to play every single one of these efforts would require a huge investment, not just in money but in time. There's no way to do it all by yourself.

That's why I brought in air support! Between the two of us, Craig and I think we have most of the year covered. Read on for our thoughts on the biggest gaming stories of the year.

Craig: There’s no denying that 2010 was a year of sequels. Even notable exceptions like Red Dead Redemption were heavily iterative of something - an IP, a particular genre. I’m a bit surprised, then, to find myself looking back on the year quite fondly, despite the prevailing wisdom that new franchises possess an inherent value greater than another entry in an old one.

Some games simply need a second chance to get it right. Mass Effect 2 blew me away, and the score of gameplay changes made its journey that much easier to embark on. Gone were the die rolls disguised as gunplay, replaced by smooth third-person shooting with a smart rock-paper-scissors aspect and some fun powers. This allowed BioWare to deliver the delicious narrative goods sans obstacle. And oh, were they delicious. Have I mentioned that game made me feel feelings?

On the flipside, Starcraft II stuck close to Blizzard’s RTS blueprint, and I loved it no less for doing so. They rightly recognized that the first Starcraft has become more institution than game at this point; stirring that pot too much would simply be unwise. The multiplayer is as punishing as it is addicting. How many times has an unbelievable triumph spurred on us to multiple losses in vain attempts to recapture faded glory? I don’t shout at games like I shout at Starcraft II. No other games earn it.

I haven’t even had time to touch many of the bigger sequels that landed this year - Halo, Assassin’s Creed, Call of Duty - but it seems like more and more developers are making honest efforts to balance innovation with tradition, rather than simply cash in on success. Do you agree, Andrew? I know you liked BioShock 2 well enough. What of the other revisited franchises?

Andrew: I guess I’d start by qualifying some of you said: 2010 was a year of sequels, certainly, but we probably shouldn’t act like it’s an outlier. 2009 (Left 4 Dead 2, Uncharted 2, Modern Warfare 2, New Super Mario Bros. Wii) and 2008 (Super Smash Bros. Brawl, GTA IV, Fallout 3) didn’t want for sequels, and 2011 looks to bring at least as many.

But, yes, I played my fair share of sequels this year - Bioshock 2 was solid, but only really a must-play if you were a big fan of the combat in the original Bioshock. Super Mario Galaxy 2, however, took the formula setup in the original game and improved upon it brilliantly, and the improved “girlfriend mode” is a multiplayer implementation I’d like to see in more single-player oriented games.

On the handheld side of the equation, the DS’s last full year was another strong one, driven largely by sequels to established products. New iterations in the Professor Layton and Ace Attorney series kept those franchises going strong, Golden Sun: Dark Dawn resurrected a beloved Game Boy Advance RPG series, Picross 3D continued Nintendo’s efforts to get your mom playing video games. Last but certainly not least, the wonderful Dragon Quest IX finally, finally introduced one of Japan’s biggest game franchises to a sizable American audience, which is vindicating for a long-time fan of the series who has seen it struggle for attention.

So, those are the sequels. But, just as past years have seen the retail shelves packed with games with numbers in their titles, indie games (and/or downloadable games) have continued to provide gamers with a much-needed source of originality in 2010.

Craig: Let’s stay on the topic of indie originality for a minute. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a year with a less distinct line between the success of indie developers and that of the big publishers. Sure, each individual downloadable title will never rival a Call of Duty in sales numbers, but collectively they’ve resonated strongly with the community - thanks to their growing presence in the console space.

Think about the year of anticipation for Super Meat Boy, an expansion of a two-year-old Flash game made by a team of two. Meat Boy synthesized two of the core audience’s primary interests: nostalgia and ball-busting challenge. The pixelated levels rarely last longer than thirty seconds, but the sense of accomplishment felt upon their completion rivals that found in most big-budget shooters. Games like Meat Boy, P.B. Winterbottom, and Limbo proved that the two-dimensional platformer is far from dead (which may explain why Nintendo’s going back to the well with games like Kirby’s Epic Yarn and Donkey Kong Country Returns).

The biggest indie surprise this year has to be the runaway success of Minecraft. As of this writing, nearly 900,000 people have purchased a game that technically isn’t even out yet. PayPal servers crashed when Penny Arcade intimated that they liked it. The story behind the game and the tales told by its players are nearly as fun as the game itself, which is saying a lot. It’s the procedurally-generated LEGO game that tinkerers around the world have always wanted. In Minecraft, emergent gameplay isn’t a happy accident arising from the collision of competing systems (like the experiences one might find in Red Dead Redemption). It’s the only game in town.

Andrew: It has indeed been a big year for independently-developed games, and many of those games have gained recognition not just from gamers but from more mainstream outlets. This year’s spat with Roger Ebert over the musty corpse of the Games As Art debate used “art house” indie games as its centerpiece, citing titles like Flower and Braid as examples.

All of the coverage from enthusiast sites and other news outlets has gotten indie games a lot of attention, but their biggest boost came from an unlikely source: phones. 2010 was the year where I finally became convinced that Android phones, iPod Touches, and the rest were serious gaming platforms in their own right.

The biggest successes could definitely be described as “timewaster indie games” - Angry Birds alone is largely responsible for America’s pokey economic recovery, and stuff like Trainyard and Cut the Rope are puzzle games in a similar vein. The difference between games like these and similar games on more traditional video game systems is that (1) it is socially acceptable for people of all ages to have phones and iPods out in public and (2) they have a much, much larger potential audience. The original Super Mario Bros. in its many issues and reissues has sold a bit over 40 million copies since it came out 25 years ago - Angry Birds sold 50 million copies in one year and has become symbolic of the new market's potential.

Other games have done even more to convince me that the mobile platform is a contender: Nimble Strong: Bartender in Training was a quirky, Japanese-flavor experience that would be right at home on the DS (except, you know, for all the alcohol), Infinity Blade brought big-budget production values and gameplay, and reissues of Gaming’s Greatest Hits (starting with Secret of Mana and working outward from there) come to phones with regularity.

Craig: It’s encouraging to see you - someone who strongly pooh-poohed the idea of gaming with Apple’s iDevices - won over by the quality of the software. I’m still living my life sans smartphone, so I can’t comment on the growing library of top-shelf timewasters. I will say, however, that I want Game Dev Story real bad. Like, real bad.

Some of gaming’s biggest stories have occurred in the real world, not virtual ones: Activision’s high-profile neutering of Infinity Ward, followed by recent accusations of shady dealings between the IW boys and executives from Electronic Arts; the Supreme Court hearing of California v. the EMA; Gearbox Studios’ revival of Duke Nukem Forever; and the list goes on. Sales of plastic instrument games continue to flag, and digital distribution continues to give GameStop execs chills. The industry’s evolving alongside the work of its developers.

And that work continues to increase in quality. A specific example: I’ve long believed that (save a select few) game endings are generally pretty weak. Developer allegiance to the boss fight constricts their narrative options. Two high-profile games, Mass Effect 2 and Red Dead Redemption, both knock my socks off with their late-game storytelling. Sure, ME 2’s giant Terminator boss felt out of place, but the potential for heart-wrenching disaster lurking within each decision created an unmatched sense of tension. Red Dead actually had a falling action (remember that from high school English?). It used gameplay to explore the life the protagonist spent the entire game fighting to attain. As games grow up, so do their means of storytelling.

Speaking of storytelling, we haven’t even talked about Sleep is Death. Or our co-op Starcraft adventures. Or Microsoft's Kinect and Sony's Playstation Move. Or freaking Pac-Man! So many stories to tell. So little time.

Andrew: So little time that we’re out of it, in fact.

We’ve talked about a lot of games and game-related stories here, but if you have anything else that you think we missed or glossed over too quickly, feel free to leave something in the comments!