Decade In Review – Part 1

2010 marks the beginning of the end of what I consider to be the most crucial decade in the video game industry. Consoles rose into prominence across millions of households to become a permanent fixture in the living room. With affordable broadband Internet available to the masses, online gaming became an innovative outlet to increase the longevity of a title. Alongside Nintendo Wii’s hypnotizing powers, casual gaming took off with the advent of independent publishers releasing games to mobile devices, Facebook and other social outlets. Now that we’re in 2010, I’d like to review critical past events and trends to see where the indicators are heading for the closing year. Without further ado:

#10: Rise of Downloadable Content

More often than not, content needs to be cut out of games due to budget and time constraints. It’s rare for these cuts to ever see the light of day, unless some publishers are motivated enough to re-release the title. While PC gamers often enjoy expansion packs with the click of a button, their console brethren are not so lucky. That all changed when Xbox LIVE and PlayStation Network started to offer downloadable content (DLC).

Of course, DLC is now becoming a profitable enterprise itself. The Call of Duty franchise profited greatly with map expansion packs. The Rock Band and Guitar Hero series have continued to generate moolah with track packs and new songs. Those endeavors are, for the most part, welcome to the gaming community – it adds to the gaming experience. What’s disconcerting is when companies deliberately cut out certain parts of the game to release as DLC on a later date, or even announcing DLC right at the heels of a title’s release, prompting gamers to wonder about the status of a true, complete game. DLC is becoming ubiquitous in this industry, but there is growing fear that companies are charging consumers more for content that should have been free and included with the game anyway (I’m looking at you Lumines Live!). However, there are companies that do recognize rewarding their loyal fan base with free DLC. Naughty Dog released some free DLC for Uncharted 2 and Harmonix unveiled a few free tracks for Rock Band 2. While consumers fear that developers won’t look kindly to tight wallets, it’s up to companies to decide whether content should be priced or free. Gamers, of course, hope for the latter.

#9: End of Console Exclusive Arrangements

Squaresoft splashed major headlines in the gaming community when they broke off ties with Nintendo to partner up with Sony back when the cartridge vs. disc war was brewing. At the time, console exclusivity was the norm. You’d never see Mario and Luigi on the Sega Genesis or Sonic the Hedgehog on the Nintendo 64. It simply wasn’t done.

Nowadays, most games developed by third-party publishers are multiplatform – the Nintendo Wii is the exception due to its limited capacity. Tecmo’s Ninja Gaiden, Namco Bandai’s Tales of Vesperia and 2K’s BioShock were all re-released on the PlayStation 3 at a later date. On the other hand, Capcom’s Devil May Cry 4, Square Enix’s Final Fantasy XIII and Rockstar Games’ Grand Theft Auto IV all went multiplatform. While these moves may grate on the nerves of mono-console enthusiasts, it’s a welcome change for the general gaming community. Timed exclusives will still exist, with whichever console offering up the highest bid, but third-party companies are realizing that going multiplatform makes business sense. Reaching out to a broader audience means more money in the bank. Who can blame them for breaking off exclusivity for the sake of better profit margins?

#8: Unreal Engine and Its Successors

Game engines are tools that provide a reusable platform to aid in the creation of games while significantly reducing costs since development teams don’t have to start from scratch. Prior to game engines, titles were designed from the ground up to optimize a system’s hardware, but couldn’t be reused between games. That all changed in the 1990s with developers licensing portions of software but adding in custom game assets. There are numerous game engines out on the market, but few have left as large an impact on the gaming community than Epic Games’ Unreal Engine. Some folks might decry that developers are cutting corners by tweaking an engine to suit their purposes, but it’s quite an accomplishment when most of the industry has accepted the Unreal Engine as one of the standards for running a title.

While Unreal Engine 1 and 2 were mostly featured in first-person shooters, Unreal Engine 3 demonstrated its versatility. Not too many people will recognize that Epic Games’ latest incarnation was employed in 2K’s BioShock, Gearbox Software’s Borderlands or Rocksteady Studios’ Batman: Arkham Asylum (mere coincidence that all these titles start with a “B”). Epic Games even made their engines more accessible, releasing it in binary only form as The Unreal Development Kit (UDK) this past year. While Unreal Engine 2 has more than 70 titles under its belt, Unreal Engine 3 can easily boast that it not only has more gaming licenses, but is utilized in other capacities including construction design, driving simulation and film storyboards. With Unreal Engine 3’s versatility, it’ll be interesting to see how developing companies will utilize and push the engine for upcoming titles.

#7: Digital Distribution

Piracy has been rampant within the PC community, nearly crippling it. Recent sales figures reveal that the console market is the dominant segment, so it isn’t surprising that most publishers cater to them, leaving PC gamers in the dust. Admittedly, PC gaming will never really die with Blizzard Entertainment carrying the torch.

Steam, developed by Valve Corporation, changed the way games are being distributed in the market to revamp and revitalize PC gaming. With the traditional consumer packaged goods model no longer considered cost effective, more companies are looking to the future of digital distribution. Major publishers are seeing the benefits of going digital with Steam paving the way. Besides cost, another major gripe about getting games is that there isn’t easy access to titles. While piracy is still a major problem, Steam has helped to curb it somewhat because their services are so accessible and streamlined. Steam offers secure downloads, generous sales discounts and integrated services to create a burgeoning PC community.

#6: PlayStation 2 Fulfills 10-Year Cycle

Credit goes to Sony for creating a console that truly stands the test of time. The PlayStation 2 (PS2), a sixth-generation console, had a rather rocky start with poor design leading to performance failures. But with improved versions released year after year, getting slimmer and more aesthetically pleasing, it had a way of worming into households worldwide to become the best-selling console to date. Throw in an expansive library of notable gems and the console becomes a worthy addition.

While the PS2 wasn’t the first console to utilize discs or online gaming, Sony pioneered the use of DVDs. Utilizing this format provided more content to be loaded onto discs, pushing the PS2’s capabilities to even provide competition with early releases of seventh-generation consoles. Moreover, the PS2 laid the groundwork to make a console more than just a hub for gaming, but rather, an interactive entertainment center. And if that wasn’t enough, it has the distinction of being the first console involved in a nuclear weapons conspiracy; speculations that the PS2 could be adapted as a guidance system for long-range missiles cropped up in December 2000. Take note that the PS2 isn’t done just yet, having licensed games for 2010; it’ll take quite some time to discontinue the bugger.

List will continue with Part 2 soon.

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