Ending out 2009, Gamasutra puts together the definitive compilation of our year-end lists, from disappointments through game of the year and beyond, with bonus reader feedback from the charts' original posting in the site's news section.
While the year has seen the world slowly recovering from the grip of financial recession, the video games created this year and resulting creative and business trends have been as vital -- if not more so -- than previous years, and we're delighted to present our impressions of 2009 in this format.
You can also compare this year's set of charts against 2008's 'Top 5s' compilation and 2007's similar compendium to see what has changed -- and what overarching trends have ended up staying the same over the years.
Without further ado, here are the charts:
Top 5 PC Games
In more ways than physically, the PC is something of a black box. Gaming's only true open platform can be a tough nut to crack for developers. Its install base is ostensibly enormous (Steam alone, just one of its many communities, numbers over 20 million gamers) but success on the PC can be elusive, and it lacks the plug-and-play simplicity of its console cousins.
Triple-A big-budget action experiences have clearly found their place on consoles, and those games are becoming less common on the PC (although sometimes they're just a few months late). But the platform is increasingly emerging as fertile ground for an astonishingly wide breadth of games that don't fit that particular mold.
This year's best offerings included games that play to the system's strengths -- either by demanding high levels of input precision or by being so accessible that only minimal computational hardware is required, and everything in between.
The PC in 2009 saw a front-loaded schedule. It was the first half of the year that was most densely packed with ambitious and quirky exclusives, bolstered by some notable multiplatform standouts in the fall.
As a result, the PC's year in gaming ranged from Empire: Total War's grand strategy to Dawn of War II's RPG-like strategic micromanagement; from Dragon Age: Origins' epic fantasy to Torchlight's bite-sized lootfest; from The Sims 3's single-player interpersonal relationships to Left 4 Dead 2's online zombie-killing cooperation.
This year, the strongest case yet has been made for the PC as the affordable gaming platform, despite its costly image. Cutthroat competition between digital distribution operators (with more on the way) has resulted in nonstop rotating deep discounts, without the permanent devaluation that comes with retail's bargain bins. At any given moment, the PC gamer has access to amazing deals on a wide array of games, from the most mainstream to the most obscure.
Finally, it's worth pointing out the originality on display this year; of the 15 games highlighted here, more than half hail from newly-created properties. And take heart, PC fans: nearly all had PC as the lead development platform, with the majority exclusive.
Top 5 PC Games of 2009
5. Torchlight (Runic Games)
Torchlight offers proof that a game's pedigree makes a huge difference. When you put the founders of Diablo creator Blizzard North in the same room as the guy responsible for Fate, you get the most fluid and addictive action RPG since the mighty Diablo II itself. (Well, first you apparently get a public beta of another game. Then you get a new studio and Torchlight.)
What makes a good loot-driven action RPG is hard to pin down -- there have been several solid efforts in the genre over the last decade, but until Torchlight, none of them resulted in the same satisfied, sleep-deprived nights to which Diablo II subjected me beginning in 2000 and lasting longer than I would like to admit. And it's certainly not a complete coincidence that neither of them have featured the wonderful music talent of original Diablo composer Matt Uelman until now either.
Impressively, Torchlight succeeds even without a multiplayer component, an omission that was worrisome when first announced but which ended up detracting little from the game's charmingly cocaine-like old-school dungeon-clearing. And its system requirements are soft enough that the game's option screen even includes a "netbook mode"!
4. Empire: Total War (The Creative Assembly)
Grandeur is the touchstone in the Total War series, and The Creative Assembly more than lived up to that reputation with its latest entry, Empire. Encompassing a massive geographical scope during a period that was immensely formative in modern civilization, the game's many systems interweave to create an incredible historical narrative -- or a plausible portrayal of what might have been. And as is customary for the series, its extensive automation options mean Empire stays accessible without forcing a reduction in depth. It's a game of uniquely PC scope.
In a creative medium so dominated by fantasy, science fiction, and Rambo-esque combat theatrics, there is something laudable about a developer like The Creative Assembly that pursues an entirely different, and more accountable, kind of wish fulfillment. Such ambitious depictions of vast swathes of history rarely receive such lavish production values.
The game's launch was unfortunately marred by technical issues for many users, some of which have reportedly persisted. But The Creative Assembly hasn't abandoned the game, even after announcing next year's Napoleon: Total War: Empire's long-promised multiplayer campaign enters beta today.
3. Left 4 Dead 2 (Valve)
Last year's excellent Left 4 Dead (which ranked #2 on the 2008 list) demonstrated how much room for exploration is left in the multiplayer shooter arena. A genre-defying mashup of round-based multiplayer and cooperative campaigning, it carved out a unique place for itself in the unforgiving marketplace of online gaming.
Left 4 Dead 2, which famously sparked an ultimately short-lived protest against its year-later development cycle, demonstrates the abilities of a team that, having worked through the establishment of a successful subgenre, has been able to explore the space in a deeper, more confident, more fleshed-out way. Its setting reflects a more perceivable geographic progression, its levels house a broader array of inventive gameplay conceits, and its mode and playstyle options are more numerous.
Along with Valve's neverending Team Fortress 2 content and the pseudo-episodic Half-Life 2 series, Left 4 Dead 2 provides yet more evidence that Valve understands the value of iteration better than most.
2. Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War II (Relic Entertainment)
Real-time strategy doesn't occupy the same headline-grabbing position it once did (except when StarCraft II is delayed again, anyway), but for the past decade, Relic Entertainment has been creating some of the most progressive, fun RTS games around. A few years ago, it received well-deserve acclaim for Company of Heroes, and this year it continued to take liberties with established strategy game design in Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War II, which pushes even further away from the base-management norm to great effect.
The single-player campaign, which can be played solo or cooperatively, offers an engaging persistent loot and leveling system informed by Diablo and its ilk, with the map and control mentality of an RTS -- a formula that pays off. And the multiplayer mode is a heavily teamwork-driven action-strategy experience that can seem initially unfamiliar, but whose fast pace and roots in well-established gameplay underpinnings lends it to quick learning.
Like a couple other games on this list, Dawn of War II is an admirable reminder that design risks can pay off, and there's no such thing as permanent standardization for a genre.
1. Dragon Age: Origins (BioWare)
Dragon Age is a game full of compelling contradictions. Its gameplay paradigm is a revival of the kind of systemic, arcane PC RPG that BioWare previously revived in the late 90s with Baldur's Gate -- but its finely-tuned modernization and playability deflect anachronistic impenetrability. At first glance, its setting seems like forgettable boilerplate fantasy -- but that surface level belies a slate of unexpectedly engaging and believable party members, and well-integrated undercurrents examining its world's class and race relations.
These days, not many multiplatform games feel so intrinsically native to the PC as Dragon Age. Some elements play equally well on any system -- characters, dialogue, situations, choices -- but the intended feel of the game is best conveyed with a mouse and keyboard, and the more complete UI. Using the mouse wheel to seamlessly scroll between the modern chase cam and the old-school remove-the-ceiling top-down view is oddly satisfying in its own right, and is endlessly practical as the game flows between exploration and tactical combat. Characters can be direct-controlled, clicked-and-dragged, given automated tactics; as with the narrative situations, player choice is the name of the game.
Dragon Age's pre-release marketing implied tired, shallow characters and situations. The game itself has an uncommon smartness and genuineness. Rarely have I grown as attached to virtual characters in video games, or developed distaste for them based on something other than poor writing. Even better, they convincingly engage in their own independent banter as you lead them around the world. The game and its setting aren't devoid of cliche, not by a long shot; but few games offer such a volume of well-conceived interaction and observation. (Those driven to the game solely by its current angry-bloodbath television campaign are likely to be confused by the thoughtful experience with which they are presented upon startup.)
Like Fallout 3, last year's winner, Dragon Age promises a life beyond its shipped content with official PC modding tools (and the inevitable paid content). And yet again, it's great to see the characteristically PC-derived traditions of player-driven systemic worlds available in many genres and on multiple systems. But Dragon Age is still best experienced on the platform that gave rise to its kind.
Honorable Mentions (listed alphabetically)
AAaaaaAAaaaAAAaaAAAAaAAAAA!!! - A Reckless Disregard for Gravity (Dejobaan Games): Many hours were spent playing this surprisingly compelling BASE jumping simulator, which brilliantly conveys the fun Dejobaan must have had making it.
Batman: Arkham Asylum (Rocksteady Studios): It's the first good Batman game possibly ever, and it's supremely playable, setting the template for good multiplatform PC conversions.
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 (Infinity Ward): In the end, Infinity Ward's proprietary online backend isn't ideal in all respects, but it gets the absolutely top-shelf multiplayer across well enough.
Dawn of Discovery/Anno 1404 (Blue Byte/Related Designs): This city builder's preoccupation with economic micromanagement pays off in satisfaction when you get everything running like clockwork.
League of Legends (Riot Games): One of several companies hoping to inherit the Defense of the Ancients crown, Riot has crafted a tight, polished (and free) strategy/RPG effort.
Plants vs. Zombies (PopCap Games): It turns out turret defense design hadn't been exhausted; PopCap makes a strong, playable argument here for conciseness of design.
Risen (Piranha Bytes): This deep RPG inherits both the ambition and the slight jankiness of its Gothic forbear, still doing cynical roleplaying better than most.
The Sims 3 (Maxis): If you want what The Sims does, the original series is still the only real choice around, and this entry is admirably polished and expanded.
Tales of Monkey Island (Telltale Games): Impressively, Telltale has made one of gaming's most resolutely stagnant genres feel much fresher, while keeping a venerable license largely intact.
Trine (Frozenbyte): This clever single-player-cooperative (or same-screen) sidescroller offers fun platforming innovation, pretty visuals, and a wizard.
Zeno Clash (Ace Team): Don't try to figure out what the hell is going on, just enjoy the imaginative surrealism and brutal first-person face-punching.
- Chris Remo
Mathieu Marquis Bolduc: "About Empire Total War... I love the Total War series, but I think you understate the scope of the 'technical problems'. It took 4 patches before the AI was functional enough to make the grand campaign playable, and cannons defending a fort still think its a good idea to fire at enemies through their own gates. AI was never the strong point of the series, but its the first time it really broke the game. I hope Creative Assembly rethink their approach to AI in the next game."
Richard Putney: "Trine and Borderlands are my picks for outstanding titles this year. These titles were both incredibly fun to play, quirky, and innovative. DoW II was great fun, but I really dont think their redefinition of RTS did as much for the genre as the original DoW."
Donald McArthur: "Am I the only one who enjoyed Demigod? It was my go to game for two months and I still enjoy going pack for a quick match."
Top 5 Controversies
Generally, video games are fun, touching or sad; the video games business is just business. But there are always more complex news stories that surface from among the daily reports of publisher revenues and franchise sequels -- with such a passionate community of players and creators in the industry, controversies always get a major share of buzz.
Now, let's look back on 2009 to reflect on some of biggest controversies; here are the news stories and sagas that got us really talking and thinking this year.
5. Brutal Legend's Love Triangle
Gamers were saddened when Brutal Legend, the joyous heavy metal opus from fan-favorite designer Tim Schafer, was unceremoniously dropped from Vivendi's publishing slate in its merger with Activision -- it was a creative risk that lacked franchise potential, according to the company.
So when the game found a new publisher in Electronic Arts, everyone cheered it as the de facto avatar of the creative and quirky, creating a narrative that pitted Brutal Legend against the ills of big corporate. And that plot only thickened when Activision sued, ostensibly to hamper the game's release by claiming it still had the rights.
But almost as fun as the success story was the visible show of ill will, albeit good-humored, between the rivals -- EA's comment that Activision was behaving "like a husband abandoning his family and then suing after his wife meets a better looking guy" was nearly as delightful as Schafer's own timely reference to pop star Beyonce's homage to single women: "Hey, if Activision liked it, then they should have put a ring on it."
4. Richard Garriott, Fraud Victim?
Famed Ultima Online forbear Richard Garriott returned from his much-publicized trip to space to find his latest project, NCsoft's Tabula Rasa, had become little more than a heavy drag on the publisher's finances, and declared he would leave NCsoft to pursue other interests inspired by his stint as an astronaut. That was last year.
Early in 2009, Tabula Rasa shut its doors with a bang, and that's when the surprise came: Garriott's claim that his was no peaceful resignation, but a force-out grossly misrepresented by NCsoft. Garriott now claims he'd objected to his dismissal but was forced to leave -- and that the company re-categorized his termination as "voluntary" so as to impact his stock options.
He claims he was forced to choose between exercising his options in "one of the worst equity markets in modern history," or take the risk that the company would refuse to honor them later. Garriott now claims he's lost "hundreds of thousands of dollars" in costs and taxes, and has sacrificed "millions of dollars in value" having lost two-and-a-half years of his options period.
3. The Complex Orson Scott Card Issue
Swaths of gamers couldn't wait for Epic and Chair Entertainment's Shadow Complex, a refreshing return to the exploration-driven "Metroidvania" style of gameplay many remembered fondly from a simpler time. That was until some began to take a closer look at the personal philosophies of author Orson Scott Card, friend to Chair lead Donald Mustard and writer of the fiction from which Shadow Complex was derived.
The problem? Card is vocally against gay marriage, and is in fact an active political opponent to it as founder of the National Organization for Marriage, a group formed to address "the growing need for an organized opposition to same-sex marriage in state legislatures."
Those who believe that same-sex couples should have an equal entitlement to marry as heterosexual couples balked at the idea of allowing such an active opponent to profit even in small share from their purchase of Shadow Complex; game fans on the popular NeoGAF forum discussed and debated the issue, and Gamasutra's own Christian Nutt took a close look at the proposed boycotts.
Political beliefs and causes are highly personal. But as state governments across America begin to consider the issue, passions and polarities are increasingly prevalent in mainstream media and news. More importantly than arriving at a "right-or-wrong" answer for Shadow Complex was the fact that a wider world issue had reached gamers, generally more likely to get up in arms about far more insular issues.
It may or may not be appropriate to politicize video games, but the Shadow Complex controversy got everyone thinking about the places where our entertainment medium of choice and issues of wider relevance can overlap.
2. Who's The Ultimate DJ Hero?
Developer 7 Studios started out with the kind of story that makes small developers everywhere take heart: A rep for publisher Genius Products visited the cash-strapped studio -- still reeling from the Brash Entertainment collapse -- and stumbled upon "a labor of love" tucked away in "this audio engineer's closet of an office," and was swept away.
That little one-man experiment, or so the story goes, was a turntable controller, and from that discovery was birthed the project that would become Scratch: The Ultimate DJ, an inventive concept that sought to leverage the tide of the music game boom in the direction of DJ music with the help of legendary musician-producer Quincy Jones.
No sooner had the team announced their project, however, than things got ugly very quickly. Activision, monarch of the music genre with Guitar Hero, wanted to put out a turntable-equipped video game too. Claiming it was helping out a cash-strapped studio -- and indeed, Activision had given 7 Studios staff contract work in the past to help them stay afloat -- the publisher purchased the developer.
Genius Products and partner Numark didn't quite buy the charity act and found the timing a little too coincidental, and it wasn't long before the pair slapped Activision -- along with its former collaborators 7 Studios -- with a lawsuit, alleging conspiracy and claiming 7 Studios was making it hard for Genius to get its assets back. According to Genius, there was a plot afoot to keep Scratch from launching before Activision's own DJ Hero.
There was a restraining order, and a countersuit from 7 Studios claiming it was Genius' "unsavory business practices" that caused Scratch's delay, and the costs kept ramping up: Activision reportedly shelled out at least $350,000 in legal fees, while Genius and Numark had to put up a $2 million bond to have Scratch's source code returned.
Genius and Numark say they still haven't gotten back everything that's theirs, but plan to finish the game anyway with a new developer, Commotion Interactive, for release in the year to come. Just before the release of DJ Hero, Activision gave some 30 developers at 7 Studios their walking papers, saying it wanted to focus the studio more on music games. Unfortunately for all involved, most analysts think the music game heyday has passed; although DJ Hero generally received a strong critical reception, its sales were only modest.
1. Modern Warfare 2
Where popularity goes, scrutiny follows, so perhaps it's to be expected that the biggest game of 2009 was also the most controversial -- not just one, but three of 2009's scandals emerged from this title alone, and that's excluding the silly back-and-forth over whether to put the "Call of Duty" branding on it or not. First, there was the revelation that PC gamers would have no dedicated servers for the game's multiplayer -- and PC gamers can always be relied upon to sound their displeasure the loudest when they end up with the short end of the stick. Just one of several online petitions received 234,351 signatures.
Infinity Ward revealed details of IWnet, the matchmaking service unveiled in place of dedicated servers, but they still weren't enough to please vocal PC fans, many of whom permanently soured on the game. Then, fresh on the heels of the dedicated-server debacle came F.A.G.S, an unbelievably ill-conceived marketing video designed as a fake PSA warning against grenade spam -- but offending many for its frathouse-homophobia brand of humor.
And if that weren't enough, there was, of course, "No Russian," the game's much-buzzed sequence wherein the player must accompany his enemy in an airport terrorist attack on civilians. Certainly the implications were offensive to Russians, but the critical consensus, encapsulated here by Rock Paper Shotgun's Kieron Gillen, was that the scene -- heavy-handed and inappropriately following an adrenaline-fueled snowmobile chase -- missed the mark so badly that it was offensive to gamers.
Of course, none of it seemed to hurt the game's record-breaking, 4.7 million-unit day one launch; probably, the most likely damage was done to the blood pressure of Infinity Ward community manager Robert "FourZeroTwo" Bowling, the one who had to field all the drama (and who incidentally appeared among 2008's top controversies, too).
Other controversies this year: Gamers decry EA DICE's Battlefield Heroes price restructure, possibly indicative of just how EA plans to shift to a primarily-digital revenue model; Tim Langdell angers the development community with his vigilant ownership of the word 'Edge' in game-related trademark form; WoW goes dark in China as it battles government regulators; Steam rivals call Steamworks a 'Trojan Horse'; 3D Realms and Take-Two brawl over Duke Nukem.
- Leigh Alexander
Leonardo Ferreira: "The 'No Russian' so-called 'controversy' is so cynical that it angers me profoundly; this sequence must have gone throught contless focus groups, in orders to measure the right amount of 'controversy' it could generate. Apparently, instead of creating a meaningful discussion, the guys at Infinity Ward just put together a flashy and misguided marketing act that is just going to do more harm than good to the industry as a whole."
Jeffrey Parsons: "It's utterly hilarious that a person believing in traditional marriage constitutes a 'controversy', particularly when this didn't have anything resembling a big impact on the games scene."
Adam Bishop: "Whether or not anyone happens to agree or disagree with the [Shadow Complex] controversy, it certainly was one, as the massive comment threads in numerous articles here and elsewhere would attest to."
Top 5 iPhone Games
Since opening last year, the iTunes App Store -- the mobile storefront for iPhone and iPod Touch games and applications -- has grown exponentially in size. The App Store boasted more than 10,000 available apps at the end of 2008. One year later, as of this writing, that number has risen to more than 112,000.
Developers rushed to the platform after witnessing its potential as a gaming device. Some indies became overnight success stories, generating thousands of dollars in daily revenue. Soon, even big-name industry publishers like Electronic Arts and Activision turned their attention to the platform, eager to capitalize on its growing market.
App Store developers now face tougher competition than ever before. In addition to competing against high-quality offerings from established publishers, many independent developers now wage a race to the bottom among themselves, pricing their offerings at cutthroat rates in the hopes of earning a coveted spot on Apple's daily sales charts.
In this highly competitive market, it takes a truly exceptional game to stand out from the crowd and earn the recognition it deserves. These are the five best titles released for the iPhone and iPod Touch this year.
Throw a wooden ball up a ramp. With skill, you'll land it in one of the cups at the end of the lane, earning points. After throwing nine balls up the ramp, the game ends. Get a high score and you'll earn tickets, which you can redeem for pointless prizes.
So what's the big deal, here? Why was such a simple game charting as one of the App Store's top sellers for months on end? Skee-Ball isn't innovative by any means, but it manages to so effectively translate an arcade mainstay to the iPhone's touch screen that you'll find yourself hopelessly addicted, very quickly.
Everything here is rich with authenticity. The physics are spot-on. The sound effects are unmistakable. The touch-and-drag controls are satisfying, and redeeming tickets to add to your collection of cheesy prizes never gets old, even after months of playtime. You'll boot it up with the intent of only playing a round or two, only to find yourself playing it several minutes later with no intent of stopping -- a hallmark of any great mobile game.
The original Rolando debuted at the tail end of 2008, introducing iPhone owners to a new take on the puzzle-platforming genre. Rolando 2 improves upon the first game in every way, adding a smooth 3D graphics engine, more levels of play, and several new gameplay mechanics.
Rolando 2 makes heavy use of the iPhone's hardware features for control input, yet it does so in a way that seems neither gimmicky nor half-baked. The little Rolandos roll and slide in precise response to tilting the iPhone, and all touch screen input is simple and satisfying.
Perhaps moreso than any other game on the platform, Rolando 2 aptly demonstrates the iPhone's unique properties as a gaming platform. There's also a great amount of gameplay variety to be found here, so even after the initial novelty wears off, players will want to see the lengthy quest through to the end.
3. Edge [No App Store link, Apptism web link] (Mobigame)
Edge is one of the best games you can buy for the iPhone...if you can find it. A drawn-out legal battle between Edge developer Mobigame and the supposed trademark owner of the word "edge" ensures that Edge's availability in the App Store -- either under its original name or as the recently retitled "Edgy" -- is sporadic at best, thanks to a seemingly unending cycle of complaint, removal, and reapproval. As of this writing, Edge is not available for purchase in the App Store.
Assuming that you are able to grab a copy while it's available, though, you'll find that Edge is an engaging puzzler requiring fast reflexes. Players guide a multicolored cube through a series of isometric environments, flipping it in one of four directions to progress. Obstacles, traps, and shifting environments fill every level, and the more difficult challenges require the player to delicately balance the cube on its edge in order to progress.
For all its critical acclaim, it's a shame that many iPhone owners are unable to experience Edge for themselves, due to its continuing legal troubles. Here's hoping that a solution arrives soon, so that developer Mobigame can get its due, and so that every App Store user can play one of the best iPhone games of 2009.
There's nothing else like Eliss on the iPhone, or on any other platform. In Eliss, players must group together circular planets and drag them to safety in a harsh interstellar environment. Dropping one planet on another results in a single bigger orb, while placing two fingers on a large planet and dragging them apart results in two smaller dwarf planets. It's a very tactile experience -- you'll often find yourself placing multiple fingers from both hands on the screen at once.
Eliss was a very challenging game when it launched in the App Store earlier this year. The difficulty level ramped up very quickly, and it proved to be quite a challenge for new players. Since then, however, developer Steph Thirion has studied player feedback and has bridged the challenge gap by adding new levels that range from easy to moderate difficulty, making the experience much more pleasant and better-paced.
This change -- one that turned a game that was merely good into something truly special -- was made possible thanks to the ease in which App Store developers are able to update their applications after release. By listening to feedback and implementing customer suggestions, iPhone developers are free to polish their applications until they shine.
Space Invaders Infinity Gene takes the basic gameplay of its 1978 arcade progenitor and evolves it rapidly throughout the course of gameplay. Players start out facing a single wave of invaders marching slowly in predetermined paths. Soon, Infinity Gene transforms into an intense vertically scrolling shooter in which every level adds a new set of challenges.
Infinity Gene's biggest success, however, is its control scheme. While many iPhone shooters released this year suffer from awkward virtual d-pads or imprecise tilt-based controls, Infinity Gene takes a different approach. Your ship autofires. You control it by touching any part of the screen and dragging your finger in the direction you want to go. It's simple. It works.
Infinity Gene is both a fantastic retro revival and a exceptional vertical shooter in its own right. This is high praise on any platform, but to achieve such heights on the iPhone is nothing short of remarkable.
Honorable Mentions: Spider: The Secret of Bryce Manor (Tiger Style), Soosiz (Touch Foo), Tap Tap Revenge 3 (Tapulous), Zen Bound (Secret Exit), and Metal Gear Solid Touch (Konami).
- Danny Cowan
Nathan Vella: "Rolando 2, Edge, Eliss & SIIG are not only some of the best iPhone games I played this year, but some of the best games this year overall. The cream of the iPhone crop really proves how awesome the device can be for gaming."
Tom Newman: "I'd personally add Inotia - the only iPhone rpg that feels like it was made just for iPhone (i.e. - the game can be played with one finger instead of the lame virtual joystick). I'd also give a hats off to Orions, a great and addictive card battler with outstanding art direction, and Peggle."
Ron Alpert: "Drop7 - it's got its flaws (the game doesn't sell well at all in screenshots) but this game is so perfectly suited for the device. Perfect for quick plays, bone-simple horrendously addicting. Writing about it makes me want to play it right now!"
Top 5 Game Biz Trends
Every year, new trends arise, and business decisions are made. Some of these decisions set the trends; others reinforce or vainly attempt to catch them. What once seems to be certain becomes deeply difficult to understand -- and new ways of thinking arise.
Looking back, then, at 2009 reveals not just broad trends, but shifting, complicated and evolving situations that can't easily be boiled down.
As we review five of the biggest trends in the market for 2009 -- complicated by the economic cooldown and the explosion of platforms, audiences, and delivery mechanisms -- perhaps we can find patterns that help sort out the randomness of the sprawling world of video games.
5. The Day the Music Died
Music games were the savior of the industry in 2008. Plastic guitars flew off of shelves into the hands of eager gamers -- and unlike many fads in gaming, which come and go cyclically, this one made everybody happy. Who doesn't like to play Rock Band with friends?
Still, sales are down this year. Significantly. Activision says that's not true, or won't be, but it seems hard to believe. The range has expanded beyond Guitar Hero to encompass DJ Hero and Band Hero but sales of the latter have been tepid and DJ Hero just isn't making the right impression, nor is it selling particularly well.
And though The Beatles: Rock Band has done well, how much is it benefiting Viacom when it might not break even? And with ugly stories like the Scratch dust-up (Genius sues Activision), Band Hero shenanigans (No Doubt and Activision sue each other), and the sad and pathetic Kurt Cobain tale (Courtney Love sues Activision) the genre has lost some of its charm.
There may simply already be enough plastic guitars in this world.
4. The Rush of the Engines
This console cycle has been extremely challenging from a technological perspective. Many studios have come to rely on third party engine technology to deliver games to the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3.
The shining star of that space has, of course, been Unreal Engine 3. It is used extremely widely, generally well-regarded, and flexible enough for many implementations. But as technology has matured, other multiplatform engines have arisen. Some are internal (like Square Enix's Crystal Tools, which will make its public debut next week when Final Fantasy XIII ships in Japan.) But many are reaching wider than that.
Terminal Reality (Ghostbusters: The Video Game) has begun licensing its technology, the Infernal Engine to solid results. Vicious Cycle's Vicious Engine was reborn in a PS3/Xbox 360 incarnation this year.
Even Capcom may be getting in on the act, in a shocking turn for Japan, with its powerful MT Framework possibly being used externally. It drove Resident Evil 5, among other titles, so that's hard to argue with. Unity is expanding to service the Xbox 360. Ready At Dawn is moving into the space. And with other players like Emergent, Unity, Crytek, and Trinigy in the space, engine market is exploding.
This is great for developers -- viable choices and competition are great for everyone. And tearing down the technological barriers of development -- even a little -- will only benefit gamers as well, as more ideas can be brought to light faster (and at lower cost.) This is a vital trend, and if the current console cycle is as extended as some think, there is a potential for a real flowering built on the back of these technologies.
3. The Widening Net of Digital Distribution
The same day that EA announced that Playfish acquisition, the company also announced plans to lay off 1500 developers. Within days, Pandemic, fresh from shipping The Saboteur, had been closed, with around 200 losing their jobs at that studio alone. That was no coincidence, says EA SVP and CFO Eric Brown. The market is shifting to direct digital distribution to customers -- and whether it's via Facebook, Steam, or the PlayStation Network (to name just a few possible outlets), it's becoming a focus of all major companies.
But 2009 does feel like the year it really arrived, in a sense. Sure, Steam has been around for several years. But it's become increasingly clear that shrewd marketing and competition from services like Direct2Drive and Impulse, as well as a highly savvy audience, is making digital the delivery mechanism of choice for PC gamers.
Xbox Live Arcade has around for some time, too -- but Shadow Complex broke records this year. It wasn't just for downloads; it was also that intangible relevance that Shadow Complex had to gamers. There was no question that everyone was playing it when it arrived. It simply was the game of the moment.
And, of course, though success has been limited at best, Sony released a direct-digital only device this year -- the PSP Go. Say what you will about the execution, but the system is an important marker: it's the first time a device in the console market has been purely digital, and following on from 2008's echochrome, it also marks the release of digital-only games (such as underground hit Holy Invasion of Privacy, Badman!) for a device that was intended to rely on proprietary discs upon its release.
Digital took a number of important steps this year. There is still much progress to be made. But in 2009, it shifted to a completely normal means of delivery for all gaming markets, and that makes it a watershed moment for the movement.
2. The Rise of Social Games
At the beginning of the year, many game developers, to speak broadly, were suspicious of Facebook games and running to the iPhone with arms open. Well, we know the difficulties that lie Apple-ward, and we are now duly shocked by the size of the opportunities that have appeared in the social gaming space.
The market grew beyond predictability. Zynga, its leader, is now flush with enough cash from successes like number one and number two games FarmVille and Cafe World to rent a huge "we're hiring!" billboard on the San Francisco Bay Area 101 freeway during a recession. The other major player is Playfish, whose Pet Society and other hits led to a massive acquisition by Electronic Arts. Big numbers: big possibilities.
Just like the iPhone, however, what it takes is talent and execution to break through -- a simple concept done right and tweaked obsessively. And with revenue possibilities that are tremendous, thanks to a huge audience -- over 350 million users on Facebook alone -- it's an alluring place.
Appealing enough to lure big traditional develpoment names like Brian Reynolds -- who went to Zynga not just for the cash, but the opportunity to serve such a huge audience and to rapidly iterate on games. Says Zynga VP Hugh de Loayza, "A standard console game developer, if he has a 30-year life cycle, he's going to get out maybe 15 titles, and that's it. You've got 15 shots to make your decisions correct." Facebook offers opportunity for quicker bursts of creativity and instant user feedback.
Of course, we can't ignore that the growing pains have lead to some unseemly situations where monetization is concerned (and let's not even go into the whole cloning issue, or the annoyingness of viral wall post spam.)
These difficulties just help highlight that it's a tough market to get right -- and with the rapid increase in sophistication and resources of the big players, it's getting tougher to break in. Still -- small, dedicated teams with the right ideas can hit the ground running. The rules are still being written. The opportunity is there to make your mark -- and your money.
And with so many developers laid off by EA and the various studios that closed in 2009, you have to just wonder if many will find their way into the world of social gaming. Even doubters may be forced, as demand shrinks for packaged triple-A goods, as the console download services, PC, and iPhone are glutted with choices, to confront the future of a large segment of games and gamers.
1. The Wicked Way of the iPhone
When the App Store launched in the back half of 2008, there was an instant gold rush mentality. Developers scrambled to deliver novel and exciting games and applications to a seductively large and savvy userbase. As the iPhone became the number one mobile phone in the U.S., dollar signs started appearing in more and more peoples' eyes. Lured by success stories like that of Steve Demeter of Trism fame, strong hardware capabilities, ease of development, and a receptive user base, development soared.
In November, Apple announced that the App Store had exceeded 100,000 applications, including over 18,000 games. There's a lot of competition out there -- a lot of noise, too; it's tough to stand out from the crowd. Suddenly a grassroots movement became acquainted with clones, and independent developers -- hoping for a more egalitarian platform -- were forced to learn the value of marketing.
And the phrase "race to the bottom" became an endless refrain at conferences like GDC Austin's iPhone Summit. Some developers, like Adam Saltsman (Canabalt) don't think it's necessary to rush to 99 cents -- something still hotly debated as of this writing. And with Apple adding in-app purchases for free titles, the landscape is even more complicated.
The trend is not that the iPhone is hot. That's last year's trend. The trend is not that the iPhone is a wasteland. That's clearly not true. The handset and its brother, the iPod Touch -- now supported by gamer-targeted marketing -- are still immensely popular, and despite tremendous piracy, there's money to be made from an audience that huge. The truth is that the iPhone is complicated. Creating a game that stands out, and is good enough, and simple enough, and engaging enough, and priced right, and people know about is a nail-bitingly tough thing to hit on.
The trend is: people woke up to both the possibilities and the challenges of the iPhone this year, and it's provoked some of the most interesting, exciting, and disheartening discussions of the year.
- Christian Nutt
Bob Stevens: "Both the Stone Loops controversy and the ongoing Langdell/Mobigame saga should serve as a cautionary tale to iphone developers: Apple will be more than happy to remove your game if anyone complains about it, regardless of the strength or weakness of their legal argument. It's a bad precedent and could seriously harm iphone gaming in the future if more people choose to exploit Apple's apparent policy."
Kevin Reilly: "Bob, Apple's takedown policy is consistent with the takedown policy of other sites such as Youtube and Facebook. They take down allegedly infringing content in order to preserve their safe harbor from claims of infringement under the DMCA. Whether or not the takedown notice is bogus is not really Apple's problem unless the developer responds that the takedown notice was improper or sent in mistake, which of course may prompt a lawsuit by the company sending the notice in the first place. I don't see Apple changing this policy because there are just too many Apps to police on iTunes."
Top 5 Handheld Games
This was an interesting year for handheld games, maybe even more for hardware than for software. Two new console iterations were released –- the DSi and the PSP Go, from Nintendo and Sony respectively -- and Nintendo announced a third DS model, the larger-screened DSi LL.
On the software end, despite many strong releases it was hardly a banner year. The luster of the new consoles has worn off, and developers are settling into their niches.
It’s at times like these when the more dedicated or core-oriented titles rise to the fore, and by and large, that’s what we celebrate here in our top 5 handheld games (which for our purposes does not include iPhone games, discussed in a separate Top 5).
Here are Brandon's picks for the top five handheld games of the year:
5. Holy Invasion of Privacy, Badman! What Did I Do To Deserve This? (Acquire/Nippon Ichi, PSP)
Holy Invasion of Privacy, Badman! is a weird little game. It turns the classic RPG model on its head, and makes you the lord of the underworld. You create a dungeonous path through which heroes will venture, trying to capture your demonic Boss Character and drag him back to the surface.
To stop him, you essentially manage a delicate ecosystem, created through your digging. Lower level monsters spread nutrients through the dungeon, growing larger monsters, who in turn consume the lower level monsters. It’s almost Sim Ant RPG, and the chunky graphics, irreverent humor, and thwarting of would-be heroes is an addictive and maddening construct.
The game, directed by Samurai Western stalwart Haruyuki Ohashi, was available on a download-only basis in North America, making it a good PSP Go candidate if ever there were one. This genre-spinning title makes it on our list for its weird premise, solid execution, and for flying in the face of convention.
4. Henry Hatsworth in the Puzzling Adventure (EA Tiburon, Nintendo DS)
Henry Hatsworth represents the efforts of an indie sensibility (Kyle Gray of Experimental Gameplay Project fame) in a corporate world (EA Tiburon), and for that alone it should get some applause. The game is decidedly oldschool, and makes clever use of both screens in a frenetic action/puzzle hybrid.
Players control the mustachioed explorer Hatsworth on the top screen, in classic action-platforming fashion, while defeated enemies appear on the bottom screen in the “puzzle world,” threatening to bleed back into the top screen to take revenge. Player switched between the action-platforming world and the puzzle world in a constant tug-of-rope of enemy elimination and stage progression.
The 2D graphics were detailed and sublime (thanks Jay Epperson), the humor was irreverent, and the excellent music by Gene M. Rozenberg and Peter Lehman et al is still available for free download via the Hatsworth site. It was too hard, and nobody really bought it, but that doesn’t stop it from being one of the best!
3. Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars (Rockstar Leeds/Rockstar North, Nintendo DS/PSP)
Chinatown Wars shows that Western developers can take the handheld market seriously. As the DS and PSP have aged, it feels as though many developers have skewed their efforts to the younger set. Rockstar Leeds has taken it the other way, making a very large, very well put together game for older audiences.
Though sales haven’t matched the blockbuster status of GTA on consoles, the game received near-universal critical acclaim for returning the series to its top-down roots, and bringing a new, core experience to the PSP and DS.
On the PSP, the game is accompanied by a huge score of over 200 songs, including, surprisingly, traditional Chinese music alongside the usual hip-hop fare. The chunky 3D graphics (led by art director Ian Bowden) are appealing and scaled properly for the console, and for the GTA fan, there’s lots to like here. It’s as though Rockstar Leeds took the innovations of the III-and-up GTAs and squeezed them into an oldschool top-down package, bringing together the best of both worlds.
That fans didn’t support the game as much as they might have is distressing, but that does no damage to the quality of the game itself, which is well-deserving of a place on our list.
2. Might and Magic: Clash of Heroes (Capy Games, Nintendo DS)
You might not have heard of this one yet, but for my money, it’s the best DS game this year. The game fits into the Might and Magic universe, but really goes off in its own direction. The art style, driven by art director Nathan Vella, is pixel-based and very nice looking, straddling the line between Japanese and European pixel art styles, with elves, demons, and knights aplenty. But the real attraction is the battle system, devised by creative director Kris Piotrowski.
Players move their characters across a map grid ala Puzzle Quest et al, and battles are fought in traditional puzzle-style wells. Friendly units drop on the bottom screen, enemies on the top. You arrange your units into vertical formations for attacks, horizontal for defensive walls. The game gets a bit more complex than that, with larger units requiring more supports, but that’s the base of it – your units must fight through the enemy ranks to get at the opposing player at the other end of the screen.
Clash of Heroes switches it up by taking you through multiple characters, each with different native powers and units, including devastating attacks unique to each, while also giving you game-changing items to collect and the occasional gameplay switch (such as hitting buttons on the opposite screen in certain orders, escort missions, etc). This is Capy Games’ first boxed product, my personal favorite handheld game this year, and number two on our list.
1. Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor (Atlus, Nintendo DS)
This was only a Shin Megami Tensei game in the U.S., but fans flocked to it nonetheless. The game had an interesting premise – the main downtown areas of Tokyo have been sealed off, and within 7 days, everyone inside the sealed area will die. It’s up to you, and your devil-summoning pals, to survive the incident in this branching-path, non-linear storyline.
Though the art was by Atlus’ second-tier team (with less Kazuma Kaneko and more Suzuhito Yasuda), and the music was lackluster, the tactics-meets-dragonquest battle interface felt fresh (thanks to designer Shinjiro Takada), and the story kept users engaged. Like Persona 4 before it, the game set message boards ablaze with strategies, tactics/story comparisons, and general JRPG love.
Atlus has continued to prove that it’s one of the only companies trying to push the JRPG genre forward, and is doing so much to the delight and expansion of nascent Western audiences. SMT: Devil Survivor was one of the best, most complex, and most interesting core experiences on the DS, and for that it makes our number one.
Scribblenauts (5th Cell, Nintendo DS) – The truest sandbox game on handhelds.
Crimson Gem Saga (IRONNOS Software, PSP) – Very nice high res 2D RPG.
Half-Minute Hero (Marvelous Entertainment, PSP) – Very nice low res 2D RPG.
Peggle Dual Shot (PopCap Games, Nintendo DS) – Horrifyingly addictive game that should not be allowed near anyone. Not on the main list only because it’s largely a port.
Monster Hunter Freedom Unite (Capcom, PSP) – Millions of Japanese fans can’t be wrong!
Little Big Planet PSP (Media Molecule/SCE Studios Cambridge, PSP) - It’s LBP on the PSP, innit?
Professor Layton and the Diabolical Box (Level 5, Nintendo DS) - Puzzles n’ such. Diabolical indeed.
Rhythm Heaven (Nintendo, Nintendo DS) – Push the buttons, get de riddims.
The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks (Nintendo, Nintendo DS) – Good game, but iterative.
- Brandon Sheffield
Paul McGee: "Good list, but I must disagree with the Zelda dismissal. Personally, I hated Phantom Hourglass, where it wasn't poorly designed, clunky or insulting simple, it felt like Zelda sleep walking. However, a game I feared to be even worse, Spirit Tracks, is easily the most vibrant, and imaginative incarnation since Wind Waker. The game is a real joy to play."
Russell Carroll: "I was surprised to see Mario & Luigi: Bowser's Inside Story not make either the list or the Honorable mentions. It was the 2nd highest rated game (by Metacritic) for the year, and that high review score seems well deserved."
Tom Newman: "Retro Game Challenge is the #1 handheld GOTY imo."
Top 5 Major Industry Events
2009 was another year full of notable events in the games industry, some more unexpected than others. It's the evolving landscape of the games industry that facilitates the most interesting developments -- expanding markets, new ways to deliver games, the rise of social networks, and new packaged good strategies will provide new opportunities for more big events in the years ahead.
But here are five of the most notable events of 2009, chosen because of their potential or immediate impact on the parties involved or on the industry as a whole:
5. Doom and Fallout In The Same House
When Bethesda Softworks parent Zenimax announced in June that it would acquire fiercely independent Doom and Quake creator id Software, pretty much everybody was caught off guard. Even id's resident programming maverick John Carmack couldn't have predicted the acquisition: "I would've been shocked too, if a year ago you said Zenimax would acquire id Software," he told Gamasutra shortly after the deal. "First of all, I would've said, 'Who?'"
But once the initial surprise of the deal wore off, the synergies made sense: Bethesda had recently ramped up full-scale publishing of its own titles, meaning it could save 18-year-old id the trouble of striking publishing deals on a per game basis. With Doom 4 in development, Carmack thinks that Bethesda can "change the world" with the game, if Bethesda's resurrection of Fallout is any indication.
Bethesda is also a well-capitalized company -- a good thing for the security of an independent loner like id Software, which by itself could find itself in serious trouble if one of its high-budget games were to underperform. With Bethesda and Zenimax backing id, we should keep a closer eye on the Doom house, which is already ramping up its growth, at the same time promising it will maintain its creative identity under the umbrella of Zenimax.
4. OnLive, Gaikai Promise To Change Distribution
The announcements of remote server-based game services OnLive and Gaikai brought the buzz-term "Cloud Computing" to the games industry in a major way in 2009. And if the services work as advertised once they launch, they could change the way that we get our video games.
While they differ in important ways, the idea is the same: a game's audio and visual processing is done on a remote server, which then streams that to a user's computer. Control input from the user is sent to those remote servers, which purportedly relay information fast enough to reflect that input in-game in real time on a user's screen.
That kind of technology would mean that a user wouldn't need high-powered local PC hardware that is capable of running high-definition 3D games, because the remote server would be handling all of the processing.
The business model for OnLive, expected to launch yet this winter, will be subscription-based. OnLive already and support from several major game makers including EA, Epic Games, Take-Two, Ubisoft, THQ and others.
Gaikai is a cloud-based service fronted by industry stalwart David Perry. While it also uses remote servers, the business strategy is different -- game publishers would use Gaikai's tech so that users can go directly to a publisher's website, click on a game, and play it within a web browser.
The implications of such services could be huge: publishers could deal more directly with their consumers, used game sales going forward would be non-existent and there would be no more need for expensive PC hardware and game consoles. All you'd theoretically need is a broadband connection and willingness to pay for and receive games in a non-traditional manner.
And while there is definitely skepticism on whether or not such services will work as advertised -- cost and lag are two important issues -- the basics of the services do work. It's just a matter of seeing how they perform under real-world circumstances.
3. Electronic Arts' $300 Million Playfish Buy
Electronic Arts' $300 million acquisition of social network gaming studio Playfish is a deal that marks a major change for one of the industry's publishing giants -- perhaps the biggest change in EA's 27-year history.
The November buy represents megapublisher EA's gradual yet deliberate shift from packaged goods to service-based digital products. Playfish is a key part of that shift, as the London-based studio is responsible for the popular Pet Society and other games that are playable on social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace. EA is already talking about using Playfish's know-how to bring popular EA franchises over to the social space.
Unfortunately, this shift from a packaged goods focus to online comes at a price. The same day that EA announced the acquisition of Playfish, it also announced it would be cutting 1,500 jobs. These cuts -- about a year after EA announced 1,000 previous layoffs -- included the shutdown of Mercenaries house Pandemic, a studio that EA acquired in fall of 2007.
Just days after the Playfish and layoffs announcement, EA CFO Eric Brown was candid about the publisher's motives behind the moves. "It's no coincidence that we simultaneously announced a cost reduction in connection with the acquisition of PlayFish, because that represents, in our mind, a very important shift to digital direct," he said.
Moving forward, EA will still be a major player in the packaged goods market with games like Mass Effect 2 and Dante's Inferno coming up, but EA hopes to significantly bolster that business with Playfish-related initiatives and other digital-direct opportunities such as downloadable content, digital distribution and subscriptions. And with BioWare's upcoming MMORPG Star Wars: The Old Republic on the way, we'll likely see another important step in EA's efforts in the online arena.
2. Modern Warfare 2 Deploys, Delivers Big Sales
Anybody who keeps tabs on the games industry knew that Activision and Infinity Ward's Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 would be a big commercial success once it released on November 10. But the true commercial impact of the game didn't begin to sink in until the sales reports started pouring in.
First there was the report out of the UK that claimed Modern Warfare 2 sold 1.23 million units on day one in the UK alone. Then Activision said that the game raked in $550 million in its first five days worldwide, as Activision CEO Bobby Kotick boasted that the game is "largest entertainment launch in history and a pop culture phenomenon." The game drove Call of Duty franchise sales to over $3 billion, Activision later said.
When November sales numbers from NPD Group came in, we saw the impact the game had on the U.S. market -- between the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 versions Modern Warfare 2, the title sold over 6 million copies in its opening month
By comparison, Infinity Ward's last hit, Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, released on November 6, 2007, and sold around 2 million units in the U.S. during its opening month. That game has sold over 13 million units to date, a milestone that its proper sequel is on pace to pass, despite a little controversy.
1. The Motion Controller Announcements
We knew about them in advance thanks to the leaks, but when Microsoft's Project Natal for Xbox 360 and Sony's motion controller for PlayStation 3 emerged with concrete details at E3 in June, we got a glimpse of where the console makers want to take gaming.
The controllers are an acknowledgment that improvements to video game hardware need to be more than just a boost in horsepower every five years. It's also an acknowledgment that Nintendo had the right idea with the Wii.
But these new controllers have potential to capture new audiences with an approach different to Nintendo's. Like the Wii, Microsoft's strategy is also aimed squarely at the mass market, but Project Natal will incorporate a 3D camera with a built-in mic in an effort to make gaming more accessible for the average person. With the release of Project Natal, Microsoft hopes to redefine the Xbox 360 experience by offering high-definition controller-less gaming.
Sony's to-be-named motion controller is more akin to the Wii's setup -- it incorporates a wand-like pointer combined with a camera that enables depth-sensing. But Sony isn't positioning the motion controller as a mass market grab, but an alternative means of control that can get more core gamers to accept motion control.
Game publishers are counting on the two control solutions to act as re-energizers for the current console cycle, helping push the Xbox 360 and PS3 beyond the typical five-year console lifecycle. An extended console cycle is a scenario that would have the most immediate, widest-reaching impact on the games industry, and the new motion controllers are poised to be the impetus behind such a scenario.
But the proof will be in the software, and 2010 will paint a clearer picture about whether the new motion controllers are boom or bust.
Other notable industry events of 2009 include:
World of Warcraft's rocky transition between Chinese operators
Warner buys Midway for $33 million
Square Enix acquires Eidos
Mark Jacobs leaves Mythic
- Kris Graft
Adam Coate: "Cloud computing is such a joke. My download rate is capped at around 23kbs, and so even though the game may be running at 60fps on their remote server, you better believe that I won't be able to download even 20 frames per second. It'll work great in Japan where everyone has a T1 line, but it won't even work in the US, the world's primary market."
Derek Saclolo: "If the EyeToy wasn't able to revolutionize motion-controlled gaming before the Wii came out, then Natal will have an even tougher chance with their camera-based system. The EyeToy was pretty darn revolutionary back in the PS2/GameCube/XBox era. Even if it wasn't a 3D-cam, it provided controller-free 2D gaming for living-room-worthy family entertainment.
"Why didn't Sony capitalize on this opportunity to appeal to casual gamers? The PS2 was also a DVD player that could easily be part of the living room, which would've been a perfect position for the EyeToy. What happened?"
Top 10 Overlooked Games
This was a tough one. Usually I'd come up with a list like this with a snap of my fingers, but the changing face of journalism, coupled with better PR and more avenues of release meant that most games that deserved recognition got it.
Who would imagine that I’d be living in a world where Demon’s Souls was one of the most talked-about games of the year, at least in games journalism? With sales to boot?
But not everything decent made it through the cracks. Here, we present 10 titles that deserved more recognition than they got (I avoided indies, as choosing just a few to add to a list of 10 would’ve been completely unfair to all the rest).
These include some titles from larger publishers that should’ve known better – and niche publishers that should’ve known better to boot. Special thanks to Chris Remo, Kris Graft, and Leigh Alexander for suggestions:
10. UniWar (Javaground - iPhone)
Javaground’s UniWar is a hex-based strategy game for iPhone that didn’t get nearly enough play. While Hudson was providing inferior ports of Military Madness to XBLA (and a decent port to Android), UniWar took the tried-and-true formula to the next state, with simple tweaks and clever unit pairings.
This was one of my favorite iPhone games of the year – it wasn’t amazing, but it provided a solid tactics experience in a year where that was really difficult to find on a handheld. Unfortunately it didn’t really get picked up by the masses.
9. House of the Dead: Overkill (Headstrong Games/Sega - Wii)
With more swearing than an American porno, HotD: Overkill rubbed a lot of people the wrong way. Its over-the-top exploitation film love, married with the classic light gun gameplay was too much for some people. But it was not too much for Gamasutra’s Kris Graft, who loved this game to pieces and put this on our list.
I do welcome the return of the light gun genre, and Headstrong did an excellent job of recognizing what was good about the genre from a gameplay perspective. Shame the “hardcore” Wii userbase doesn’t really seem to dig the old lightgun thing.
8. Raiden Fighters Aces (Seibu Kaihatsu/Gulti/Valcon – Xbox 360)
This was one of my personal surprises of the year. With Raiden, you pretty much figure you know what you’re getting, and to some extent I did. But there was so much more there under the surface. Raiden Fighters Aces got me to fall in love with scores again, through its perfect implementation of arcade fun. Big explosions, chunky pixely graphics, and ridiculously responsive controls, it’s the best I could hope from a shooter, in this day and age, or any previous.
I found myself going back to attempt single credit playthroughs, because the game essentially teaches you itself. Far from the bullet-hell shooters of the current era, RFA winds up being more accessible and more inclusive than even modern indie shooting games. Well worth a spin, especially given the value price in the West.
7. Alive4Ever (Meridian - iPhone)
Chinese developer Meridian hit it out of the park with Alive4Ever, but it was understandably somewhat glossed over. It’s one of many twinstick Smash TV-style shooting games on the iPhone, so is easily dismissed. But the responsive controls, and more importantly the different missions - from rescuing survivors, to defeating enemies in specific ways, to harvesting gold - kept the missions fresh.
The game is plain fun, and when you layer on a level system with various upgradable weapons, accessories, and attributes, you’ve got a game that really caters to the “just one more” voice in all of us.
6. The King of Fighters 98 Ultimate Match (SNK Playmore – Xbox Live Arcade)
This is another one that I totally understand people skipping over. The fighting genre is niche to begin with, and SNK releases so many KOF variants and ports that nobody but the hardest of the hardcore can keep up. But KOF 98 UM is a rebalanced version of the most popular KOF ever, with new characters to boot.
The game feels more kinetic and more explosive than ever, and the balances really help make the game work much better in versus mode. But in the shadow of the arguably regressive KOF 12, 98 UM really didn’t get the chance to shine. If you like fighting games and have ever wondered what KOF was all about, this is the game to start with. It showcases almost everything that is good about the series.
5. Silent Hill: Shattered Memories (Climax/Konami – Wii)
The Silent Hill series has taken some serious knocks, after the third. Most recently development shifted to the West, and for better or for worse, it seems here to stay. Double Helix dropped the ball on Homecoming, and Climax’s Origins didn’t fare much better – but the latter developer got a second chance with Shattered Memories, a reimagining of the original, and it works quite well. Though it doesn’t have the scares of the PSX game, it does have thoughtful puzzling and a very well developed UI.
I’ve argued about this with the developers in person, but the blue iced environments just don’t have the scare factor of the original rust-colored chainlinked worlds of Silent Hill for PlayStation – but the newest entry is the best Silent Hill in years, and it seems most have written off the series entirely at this point.
Shattered Memories is worth a shot for fans of the adventure genre more than the survival horror genre. Fans and critics alike will discount the game based on the downturn in the legacy - but if you can get past the arguable lack of horror, you’ll have a nice game experience on your hands.
4. Kenka Bancho: Badass Rumble (Spike/Atlus – PSP)
Here’s a protip if you want to get on the overlooked list – release a good, but very niche handheld game for $40. That will assure almost nobody will play it in spite of its quality, as is the case with Kenka Bancho: Badass Rumble, the third in Spike’s awesomely irreverent look at the world of highschool delinquents, released for $10 too much by Atlus in the U.S. (and not at all in Europe, so far).
This third person action game has you starring as an ambitious young gangster (bancho) who lacks street cred. As you progress, you use your eye beams to stare down other gangsters, (unfortunately staring at peoples’ butts and crotches has been severely de-emphasized in this, the third entry in the series. It was rather hilarious.)
Crouch on the ground like a hooligan to regain your power, and engage in smack talking battles to raise in ranks and achieve dominance without fighting (of course, you do wind up fighting an awful lot). The ridiculous humor, fun action, and B-level nature of this game would have you singing this game’s praises to your pals – if only it weren’t priced out of most people’s “sure, I’ll try that” range.
3. Little King’s Story (Cing/Marvelous/XSEED – Wii)
There have been many theories as to why this game didn’t get the popular reception it should have, in spite of overwhelming critical approval. Marvelous blames its own lack of brand appeal. The development lead, producer Yoshiro Kimura worries that the game might appear too kiddy for more sophisticated audiences. But the fact is, this bizarre Pikmin-like game had way more to offer than most people realized.
It came from the mind of the creator of Chulip (Kimura), a game in which you must kiss people of all genders in order to make the world a happier place. In Little King’s Story, you play as an unintentional king who must unite the land, in an increasingly bizarre adventure full of game and culture references, both obvious and obscure, which charmed the pants off of journalists, but they got it for free.
Those who had to pay kept their pants firmly affixed to their belts, and didn’t shell out for the title. Which is a shame, because if any third party Wii game was trying to make something to fit the core audience while pleasing the casual, this was it.
2. The Saboteur (Pandemic/EA – 360/PS3/PC)
It sure feels odd to put an EA game on the overlooked list, but here I go. This is the final release from a whole Pandemic Studios, and in my opinion, their best game. I’ll admit to not being a huge fan of the studio’s last work, but this one hits the right chords. It’s a GTA-like in which you throw Nazis to their doom (that’s fun), while liberating Paris (well, Paris is awesome), and driving sports cars and running around on rooftops (I’ll admit, I have a mild videogame rooftop fetish).
Like Infamous, Prototype, and Assassin’s Creed before it, The Saboteur features parkour as a main method of getting around (it’s admittedly the worst of the bunch at it – still fun though), and uses the player’s abilities to get into some interesting situations. One of my favorite aspects is sneaking, in which you can sucker punch, garrote, or otherwise stealthily disable a Nazi and then steal their clothes to blend in and engage in subterfuge. Throwing a Nazi off a building, stealing his clothes, then blowing up his sniper roost has a certain kind of satisfaction associated with it.
The icing on the cake though, is the Will to Fight mechanic. The world of The Saboteur is black and white when controlled by the Nazi, and in color in areas where the French resistance is strong. This works surprisingly well – in the black and white areas, the main color you can see is the red of Nazi insignia – on armbands, on buildings, and on every Nazi target you can blow up with dynamite (you do a lot of this).
This not only shows you an easy list of targets, it actually feels oppressive. There are enemies everywhere, and in fact they’re the most visible thing in the environment. The environment changes back to color in real time as you destroy more Nazi installations – it’s subtle, but for me the mechanic really works.
If only the tone of the game had been more serious they could’ve really had something there. But still, the game is good, I’m still playing at 12 hours in, and it got neither the recognition nor the marketing budget it deserved. It’s not perfect by any stretch, and it does have some dastardly design choices at times, but it’s most definitely overlooked for its quality. And a fitting final effort from a studio that exists now in name only.
1. Cryostasis (Action Forms Ltd./Aspyr/505 Games/Zoo Corp. – PC)
Ukrainian developer Action Forms Ltd. has released good games before - Chasm was well received, and the company’s other games have done rather alright. But Cryostasis, an FPS survival horror game, of a sort, is Action Forms' magnum opus. I have absolutely no doubt that if the game were released on home consoles, this would be one of the more talked-about games of the year, but the curious shape of game journalism means most of us tend to ignore PC games in favor of the dedicated console experience. As it stands, this game hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves.
What’s so special about Cryostasis? A few things. First, it gets across the idea of cold (and for that matter warmth) incredibly well. Cold is your enemy, and also very tied to your health. The game takes place on a huge ship that’s been wrecked in the North Pole – and the prior inhabitants have come back to life as horrific shadows of their former selves. You have to battle the cold, as well as the actual enemies, in order to stay alive.
In this game each encounter matters, in true oldschool survival horror style, avoiding huge waves of enemies in favor of important dedicated battles. The main “gimmick” of this game is the ability to dive into the memories of dead crew members you find, during which time you can attempt to avert the deaths of these characters. If you’re not convinced, try on one of the more unusual brain dives for size. Mild spoilers included, but none that are really tied to the main story.
You come upon a meat locker. There, you have the ability to dive into the memory of a slab of beef. You become a cow in a field – there’s really not much you can do, other than die. But later, you have the ability to play as the ship’s butcher. You can choose not to kill the cow – by not killing the cow, not only is that particular slab of beef no longer present in the meat locker, the butcher lives, because he was crushed to death by that very beef slab.
You don’t want to play this game? Sure you do.
- Brandon Sheffield
Robert Boyd: "You want overlooked, you want XBox Live Indie Games. Although there's a lot of dross there, it's starting to get some really awesome games as well: Johnny Platform Saves Christmas, Bonk, Gerbil Physics, Molly the Were-Zompire, City Rain, Aesop's Garden, Echoes+, Squid Yes! Not so Octopus! to name a few."
Anwar Wilkerson: "Maybe developers have a marketing problem and need to look towards their in house marketing to find a solution. It would seem that when they give information in a game, whether it be advertising, or through a media outlet, they need to have clear points to tell what their game is about, and how the player will interact."
Vince Dickinson: "I would put Dead Space: Extraction up there - it was my favorite Wii game of the year. Not at all a shock that it was overlooked as light gun games are *such* a niche genre in 2009 (especially at $50), but it was extremely well-done. Better-looking than the much-hyped The Conduit, and better-playing (imho) than HotD: Overkill."
Top 5 Console Downloadable Games
Do you remember the launch of Microsoft's Xbox Live Arcade for the Xbox 360 back in 2005? On offer, it hosted games like Gauntlet, Joust, Smash TV and Bejeweled 2 -- titles that most of us had played before and all limited to their 50MB file size.
But there was a little gem stuck in there called Geometry Wars, and that addictive little top-down shooter has shaped what the Xbox Live Arcade -- and digitally downloaded console games -- have become today.
Four years later, PlayStation Network and WiiWare have joined the mix -- as well as DSiWare and PSP Minis. We’ve got games hitting 2GB in size, we’ve got a digital-only Battlefield game that has sold well over a million copies, and we’ve got individual indie guys like James Silva (Dishwasher: Dead Samurai). The industry has certainly changed its perspective.
And just the leaps in quality are amazing. Just try to go back and play Jewel Quest on Xbox Live Arcade – it’s a mess of an interface, limited by the ideas of the time and the file size. We’ve come a long way. Just for consoles, we’ve seen over 250 games this year for Xbox Live Arcade, PlayStation Network and WiiWare.
And 2009 has been a testing ground of sorts. Xbox Live Arcade began the year with a test of player’s wallets with the rise of the $15 game -- producing variable results. The PlayStation Network showcased many stylish games, with Flower and Noby Noby Boy headlining the world of the strange, while WiiWare’s arguably best tactic was mining our childhood memories with Contra Rebirth and Excitebike: World Rally.
Now, as the year comes to an end, we're choosing five favorites. Every person will have a different experience, but these 5 titles were the ones we had the most fun with.
5. Defense Grid: The Awakening (Hidden Path Entertainment, Xbox Live Arcade)
Sure, Defense Grid first came out on the PC late last year, but it’s still one of the best 'tower defense' games that has been released, and its XBLA conversion is excellent. The mixture of strict placement levels and levels with path creation were a ton of fun. It becomes a puzzle game in some respects, but can also be played in all kinds of ways, depending on what you're in the mood for.
I’ve played many Tower Defense games this year – South Park Let's Go Tower Defense Play! for XBLA, Ninjatown on DS, Defender Chronicles, 7 Cities, Star Defense, geoDefense Swarm and The Creeps on my iPhone, and I still feel Defense Grid beats them all.
Even though you don’t control a guy on the field like PixelJunk Monsters, the controls for Defense Grid fit great with a console controller. The stages were challenging without feeling unfair, and the game is filled with plenty of modes to keep me interested.
And I haven’t even mentioned the raspberries.
4. Peggle and Peggle Nights (PopCap Games, Xbox Live Arcade / PlayStation Network)
Yes, Peggle came out back in 2007, but the Peggle spirit lives on, and made a perfect transition to consoles this year.
What makes the XBLA and PSN versions even better is online Leaderboards. People have been addicted to besting scores on the PC by trading YouTube videos, but nothing beats the simple Leaderboard structure that the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 allows.
Another huge addition was Peg Party mode, a four-player variant of Peggle which again makes you think more about hitting those pegs as best as you can -- something not usually supported in PC games of this style.
3. ‘Splosion Man (Twisted Pixel, Xbox Live Arcade)
A simple platformer is exactly what I’ve wanted for the longest time on Xbox Live Arcade, and Twisted Pixel delivered. The keep-it-simple-stupid mentality of Sonic The Hedgehog has long been lost on Sega, but indie darling Twisted Pixel was able to find that magic with ‘Splosion Man.
‘Splosion Man is just what an Xbox Live Arcade title should be – it makes no attempts to emulate a retail title within a smaller package, has a simple and interesting control scheme -- and of course, is just really fun.
2. Shadow Complex (Chair Entertainment, Xbox Live Arcade)
Chair Entertainment’s Undertow on XBLA was a bit of a downer – a simple underwater shooter that wasn’t really that entertaining for me. It’s amazing to see how far they’ve come with the release of Shadow Complex.
A game that harks back to the days of Super Metroid and Castlevania: Symphony of the Night but with a next-generation twist, Shadow Complex delivered in spades, and it was a lot of fun along the way.
It's just little things that keep you going -– like showing how well your friends are doing at booting robots across the room, or seeing that rocket canister in the background that you know you’ll be back for later.
1. Trials HD (Redlynx, Xbox Live Arcade)
Before Trials HD came out, I was tester at a video game company. I had access to pre-release games on Xbox Live Arcade via a test system, and one of those games was Trials HD. When we stayed back late to test a build, we would bide our time by playing Trials. When our game was basically finished, the artists had a brief quiet period, so they started playing Trials HD. All day.
RedLynx has created one of the most addictive, fun and frustrating games ever, and you don’t get bored of it. You may press that restart button 300 times, but that’s not going to stop you from beating that level.
The Leaderboards integration is fantastic, showing off everyone in your friends list in the corner so you can make sure you’re that little bit ahead of them. It’s addictive to try and beat your own score as well as your friends'. And with the level editor and downloadable content coming, RedLynx is able to pile on the replayability over time -- even more reason to vote it our top console downloadable game of the year.
Battlefield 1943 (DICE / EA Games, XBLA / PSN): For those like me who’ve never tried a Battlefield game before, 1943 is a fantastic way to test the waters, and now has me far more interested in Bad Company than I ever was before.
Banjo Tooie (4J Studios / Rare, XBLA): The Nintendo 64 did its best to make Banjo Tooie playable, but the framerate was so iffy that I didn't want to complete the game. The XBLA version fixes everything and adds more to the game -- and is a blast the whole way through.
Swords & Soldiers (Ronimo Games, WiiWare): Conceptually, real-time strategy games sometimes have issues on consoles, but wonderful, cartoony art direction and a really clever gameplay adaption, this WiiWare title from the original creators of De Blob was decidedly slept on.
Critter Crunch (Capybara Games, PSN): Though not my favorite puzzle game this year, Critter Crunch is notable for making the puzzle genre actually look striking. No “blocks” or “gems” -- you’ve got your bugs and your Biggs and that instantly makes me more interested.
Death Tank (Flat Games, XBLA): I was a huge fan of the original Death Tank on the Sega Saturn, and the new version certainly delivered. Its only problem was the lack of players, likely due to the higher (1200 MSP) price, which is kind of sad.
Bit.Trip series (Gaijin Games, WiiWare): Amazingly, all of the first three titles in this series from the Santa Cruz-based indie were released during 2009, and while they're bite-sized, they're also adorably retro, well-constructed, and a lot of fun to play through.
Dishwasher: Dead Samurai (Ska Studios, XBLA): Proof that one guy can do just as well as a full studio. Solid design and excellent entertainment twinned – can’t wait for what’s next from this guy.
Flower(ThatGameCompany, PSN): Certainly one of the more interesting games this year – you’ll be seeing it in a lot of Top 10 lists in the next couple of weeks. It does what it intended to do, but I feel there were more fun games out there over the last 12 months.
LostWinds: Winter of the Melodias (Frontier Developments, WiiWare): While it does simply expand on the mechanics of the original Lost Winds, it’s still one of the few Wii games out there where I really enjoy the Wii remote controls. Plus, it’s also still the best-looking series on WiiWare.
Marvel Vs. Capcom 2 (Capcom, XBLA / PSN): My favorite fighting game finally goes online, and was a ton of fun – until you run into a Sentinel / Cable / Storm combo, of course. It’s still as delightful as it was back in the early 2000s.
The Maw (Twisted Pixel Games, XBLA): Twisted Pixel’s debut game brought a solid 3D platformer to the Xbox Live Arcade, and much like ‘Splosion Man, it knows exactly what it is – a well-crafted $10 game.
Mushroom Wars (Creat Studios, PSN): A very simple strategy game which really surprised me. It has a particularly addictive quality to it, and plays like I like my real-time strategy games – rushing the enemy.
Bonsai Barber (Zoonami/Nintendo, WiiWare): Martin Hollis' debut title for WiiWare wasn't what you might expect from the GoldenEye co-creator - but a really interesting 'few minutes per day' play style and time-unlockable elements meant that it was both innovative and beguiling. Good use of Wii controls, too.
Red Alert 3: Commander’s Challenge (EA Games, XBLA / PSN): Surprisingly ignored by the general populace, Red Alert 3: Commander’s Challenge is the perfect way to get console players to try RTS controls on their system. For $10, you can get a quick taste. It certainly proved the series on console to me, and I will be eying a copy of Command & Conquer 4 for the Xbox 360 next year.
Shatter (Sidhe Interactive, PSN): A fantastic revision of the classic bat-and-ball game that brings it to the next generation from the New Zealand-based dev. Arkanoid Live was a disappointment, but Shatter exceeded my expectations.
Trine (Frozenbyte, PSN): A wizard, a thief and knight must bind together through some beautiful side scrolling action. An evocation of classic gameplay styles with some intelligent updates.
- Ryan Langley
Chad Metrick: "I really thought NyxQuest: Kindred Spirits was a pleasant surprise on WiiWare, and the ability to download the demo was a big factor in my decision to purchase it (hint to Nintendo)."
Eric Adams: "So agree on Defense Grid. But for ‘Splosion Man, gave up mid-way through due to brutal difficulty curve."
Top 5 Developers
Development studios primarily earn their reputation on the strength of the games they release, and rightly so. But many studios make a name for themselves beyond that, based on interaction with their fans, impressive post-release support, strong first impressions, or succeeding in genres or business models that are traditionally particularly challenging.
These five studios fulfilled some of those criteria. Eligible groups released at least one game during 2009. Only specific development teams, offices, or divisions were considered; entire publishers were not.
Top 5 Development Studios of 2009 (listed alphabetically)
Harmonix Music Systems (The Beatles: Rock Band, Rock Band Network)
In addition to having kicked off the current wave of music-driven video games, Cambridge-based Harmonix Music Systems has stayed at the forefront of it through its ambitious but relatively restrained stewardship of the Rock Band franchise.
The company's sole internally-developed retail release this year, The Beatles: Rock Band, was a cut above the rapid-fire band tie-ins that populate the genre, serving as a self-contained tribute to an iconic band that built on the design framework the studio has perfected.
But more broadly, Harmonix's stewardship of the mind-boggling voluminous and diverse Rock Band song catalogue has ensured the franchise's increasingly-broad appeal. It's a lineup that ranges from The Who to Roy Orbison to The Zombies to the Pixies to Alice in Chains to Lucinda Williams, totaling more than 1000 tracks across individual downloads, bundles, and full albums.
And that number will only increase with the full launch of the Rock Band Network, a suite of community-driven tools allowing musicians to create their own Rock Band-compatible tracks. The software is already available, so when the marketplace opens up, it should start with a healthy stock.
Naughty Dog (Uncharted 2: Among Thieves)
Aside from garnering considerable praise for its action-adventure sequel Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, Naughty Dog set a particularly strong example this year for its desire to document and demonstrate its development practices to its fans and to the rest of the game development community.
On the public-facing side, Naughty Dog developers -- not just marketers -- produce a surprisingly high number of behind the scenes videos discussing its design philosophy, development goals, and general studio culture. Staffers also participated in multiple extensive real-time chats with fans, answering questions about all aspects of the project.
The company also addressed its development peers, sending staffers to demonstrate extensively at shows like Game Developers Conference and Develop; the company is planning to give numerous talks during GDC 2010 drilling down deep into Uncharted 2's production.
Rocksteady Studios (Batman: Arkham Asylum)
London-based Rocksteady Studios' first effort, the 2006 shooter Urban Chaos: Riot Response, was relatively well-received, but generated little attention. With its followup, this year's Batman: Arkham Asylum, the studio created a new first impression for itself overnight, establishing a top-notch reputation on the back of one of 2009's most acclaimed releases.
What's more impressive about the feat is that Arkham Asylum succeeds where nobody else has. It's tough enough to make a truly great licensed game -- after all, the segment doesn't have much of a quality threshold, and it's been demonstrated that tie-ins can sell well regardless -- but it's even harder to make a truly great Batman game. For over two decades, the dark knight's video game presence has been, with few exceptions, abysmal.
But Arkham Asylum is highly playable, strongly evocative, and inventive from a design standpoint, showing that all the license needed was the right caretaker. IP owner Warner Bros. clearly agrees, having recently announced Rocksteady will be hanging on to the caped crusader for another round.
Runic Games (Torchlight)
Seattle-based Runic Games hit the ground running this year. Starting with an open-source renderer -- already an unusual choice -- the startup churned out its highly-polished debut effort Torchlight in only 11 months.
The Diablo-esque action RPG was widely praised as fun and addictive in the way the genre strives to be, but it's Runic's approachability and receptiveness to feedback that has particularly distinguished it beyond its development prowess. Developers from the company have made an effort to respond to fan concerns and suggestions, provide information and context, and participate in a heroic number of community interviews and podcasts.
In a particularly famous incident, the studio set a bar for accessibility concerns. Mere hours after a forum member mentioned that one of the game's camera effects left her unable to play sections of the games due to an uncommon eye condition, a Runic developer patched in a user toggle for the option -- at 8:00 am on a Sunday morning, no less.
Valve Software (Left 4 Dead 2, DLC for Team Fortress 2 and Left 4 Dead)
Valve goes to great lengths to share its philosophy on ongoing post-release content with the rest of the development community, but it still arguably acts on that philosophy better and more frequently than anyone else, supporting its games long after their ship dates with free content (at least on the PC) in an era when day-one paid DLC is becoming the norm.
But that's most evident with the two-year-old multiplayer shooter Team Fortress 2, which has played host to a dizzying (and seemingly neverending) stream of new content, gameplay tweaks, and almost joke-like additions. It's almost a totally different game than it was at launch; it's seen more persistent evolution than some MMOs.
The game's fundamentally tongue-in-cheek premise of warring corporate entities provides a perfect canvas for the studio's continuing content insanity, as documented by its consistently hilarious blog. Case in point: the game's Soldier and Demoman classes are currently locked in a community-wide war that has seen the Demoman equipped with a new shield and claymore (the sword kind).
Developer Honorable Mentions
Ace Team (Zeno Clash)
BioWare (Dragon Age: Origins)
Dejobaan Games (AaaaaAAaaaAAAaaAAAAaAAAAA!!! - A Reckless Disregard for Gravity in it)
From Software (Demon's Souls)
Rockstar North (Grand Theft Auto IV: The Lost & Damned, Grand Theft Auto IV: The Ballad of Gay Tony, Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars [co-developed with Rockstar Leeds])
Telltale Games (Tales of Monkey Island, Wallace & Gromit's Grand Adventures)
Twisted Pixel Games (The Maw, 'Splosion Man)
- Chris Remo
Daniel Piers: "[Infinity Ward] and Gearbox should be on this list; for the producing the [Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2] sales juggernaut and for introducing the best new IP of '09 (respectively)."
Mike Nowak: "Personally, I'd have included Capybara Games and/or 5th Cell."
Bob Stevens: "Everything Valve releases is great, but this feels like an off year for them in terms of high profile releases, so I'd have put [Infinity Ward] in that spot."
Top 10 Indie Games
It's been an incredible year for fans of indie games. The 2010 Independent Games Festival recorded a 35 percent increase in submissions, indie games have gained more prominence and recognition in the mainstream industry, and quite a few of them even turned out to be decent commercial successes for their developers.
To celebrate the achievements of these up-and-coming game designers, we thought it'd be a great idea to list out some of our favorite independent video games from the past twelve months.
Bear in mind that for every game mentioned here, there are twenty more that are dear to us which got left out, so we'd like to apologize in advance if your picks didn't make an appearance in this article.
Here are our picks for the top ten independent games of this year:
10. Enviro-Bear 2000: Operation: Hibernation (Justin Smith) [Windows, freeware - paid iPhone version available]
Created for the TIGSource Cockpit Competition - and, rightly so, the winner of the competition - Enviro-Bear 2000: Operation: Hibernation is what you might call 'downright genius.' Taking control of a bear just as winter is approaching, the task is to gobble down enough fish and berries and then find a place to hibernate before the snow starts to fall. All this takes place in a car. Obviously.
This is where the hilarity begins, as - and prepare for the bleeding obvious - our bear isn't the world's best driver. In fact, he's only able to grab one part of the car's controls at a time. Cue trying to accelerate with your paw, then frantically grabbing the wheel and dodging around that pine-cone tree, or that angry looking badger, or even the other bears who are, of course, driving their cars around looking for food too. Feeling clever? Jam a rock on top of the acceleration pedal and away you go - let's just hope you can stop in time. Failing at a game has never been such incredible fun, and by the time your car is brimful of leaves, stones, bees and badgers, there will be tears of laughter in your eyes. Magical.
9. Meat Boy (Edmund McMillen, Jonathan McEntee) [Flash, freeware]
A fruitful year for Edmund indeed. Spewer and Time Fcuk were great platform games, but Meat Boy is definitely the prime cut here. They've even made a map pack for it, yet fans apparently couldn't get enough of our hero and his quest to save Bandage Girl. Count on Mr. McMillen to capitalize on the popularity of his creation, as he has teamed up with Tommy Refenes to produce Super Meat Boy (the enhanced version created from the ground up) for release on WiiWare and Steam sometime next year.
SMB will be a tricky game any way you look at it, and we'd recommend putting a few hours into the original Flash build first.
8. Cogs (Lazy 8 Studios) [Windows, paid, free demo]
I'm a big fan of puzzle games, and it's easy to recognize one in any community - hand them any version of Tetris, and it would keep them entertained for hours. It is from this simple concept that Lazy 8 Studios' Rob Jagnow built the solid foundation of Cogs. All you have to do in this game is to move the tiles around a surface until the level objective is achieved, which is usually connecting one end of an object to another with a set of cogs or pipes. Sounds like Pipe Dream, yes? Even better.
The sheer satisfaction of solving a puzzle on your own was one of the things that Jonathan Blow wanted players to experience when playing Braid, and it is that same exact feeling you get in Cogs when the tiles click into place and contraptions whir to life. Sure, you can find the solutions online, but where's the fun in that?
Cogs is a game that everyone should try, regardless of whether they're fond of puzzle games - simply because it's one of the best puzzlers of its kind to be released in the past few years. The grandmaster of puzzle games Alexey Pajitnov has played Cogs at E3 recently, and even he couldn't bring himself to stop playing it. That is Lazy 8 Studio's bullet point, right there.
7. AaaaaAAaaaAAAaaAAAAaAAAAA!!!: A Reckless Disregard For Gravity (Dejobaan Games) [Windows, paid, demo available]
Dejobaan Games' basejumper takes the idea behind the extreme sport and turns it into one of the best arcade games of the year. Players duck, dodge and dive their way over and under floating obstacles, waving to their fans and flipping off the rest. What makes Aaaaa! so worth your time is the feeling of speed players can experience from the comfort of their living room. As scenery zooms by, the rush is simply staggering.
The game is balanced to perfection, allowing casual gamers to pick it up and enjoy that rush of streaking past buildings and deploying the parachute at the last minute, whilst also giving the hardcore players more of a challenge, with perfect paths set out in the sky for maximizing score and achieving those 5 star honors. There's also a vein of ridiculous humor running throughout which cuts the action up nicely, with relaxation videos and special announcements made at random intervals.
6. Journey to the Center of the Earth (Dot Zo Games) [Windows, freeware]
Dot Zo Games' Journey to the Center of the Earth received a whopping 75 comments on the Indie Games Blog, most of them involving the word 'wow' - and with good reason! Players guide their little explorer down into the depths of the Earth's crust, grabbing treasure, opening locked doors and fending off beasts. A treasure map gives a hint as to where each chest lies, and each area has its own unique atmosphere.
Of course, where would an explorer be without his unlimited supply of bombs to destroy enemies and provide himself with an little extra jumping power. The depth of this game (quite literally) is phenomenal, and since there is no save function, it's an experience you really need to sit down and focus on for a good, long while. Clever puzzles continuously block your way, and only the most skilled explorers will make it out safe and sound with their plunder. Platforming at its best.
5. RunMan: Race Around the World (Tom Sennett and Matt Thorson) [Windows, donationware]
The premise is simple - take control of a small, star-shaped hero as he pelts his way through worlds which appear to have been designed via Microsoft Paint. Make sure nothing can stand in his way - every wall can be bounced off, every brick and bad guy smashed and every hole can simply be jumped back out of. Then throw in a mixture of folk, blues and jazz music to give the whole experience just that little bit more excellence, and you're away!
Many claimed that RunMan was the Sonic the Hedgehog game they'd been longing for since the blue streak turned 3D, and it's really not hard to see why - this game wants you to run really, really fast and it does everything in its power to help you achieve this goal. Our starry friend can't die, he leaves a trail of fire in his speedy wake and he shouts 'ROCK ON' as he powers along. And yet, even though it was all fairly easy - it's always going to be if the matter of death is taken away - it took really determination and skill to collect gold medals on each level. A masterclass in platforming.
4. Star Guard (Sparky) [Windows/Mac, freeware]
A platform game for people who have fond memories of classic platformers. The developer chose to use CGA-like colors for this production, and we're delighted to report that his decision to limit the palette for graphics has paid off handsomely. It looks great, controls smoothly, and there is never a period where you would not be shooting at enemies or avoiding the carefully-laid traps in every area.
Star Guard also features a checkpoint system and an infinite number of lives, making it a very accessible game to players of all skill levels. A hard mode is also included, and I've tried to speed run this platform game as a personal challenge more times than I cared to count - hours spent trying to beat the nine stages in the quickest time possible, and without a single life lost. For that alone it surely deserves a mention in our picks, and we'll be looking forward to future retro creations from this up and coming developer.
3. Canabalt (Adam Atomic, Daniel Baranowsky) [Flash, freeware - paid iPhone version available]
The rate at which Adam Atomic's Canabalt got around the internet on its release was staggering, but not at all surprising. Here was a game that was pretty much impossible not to like, and forums and message boards went berserk with people trying to best each other's runs. What makes Canabalt such an achievement is its control scheme, which goes as follows - press X to jump.
Simple as that, yet as an experience it's so frantic, so tense... so incredible. Our hero is escaping along rooftops as the buildings around him are falling to the ground, and it's the players job to get him safely from one rooftop to the next, and repeat. Other obstacles attempt to foil his escape plans - like huge missiles falling from the sky - and there is such a glorious atmosphere to it all. Such questions as 'Who is he running from?' and 'Why is the world falling down around him?' get lost in the sheer astounding intensity - part of the tension due to your knowledge that the only end is his demise... but how far can you get before that happens? That question is one which has kept the game alive long after its release, which high score tables for the iPhone edition still being fought over. A prime example of how one-button games should be done.
2. VVVVVV (Terry Cavanagh) [Flash, paid]
Terry Cavanagh has made quite a few gems lately, and while Don't Look Back, Bullet Time and Bullfist were fantastic games, VVVVVV is definitely the jewel in his crown. A simple gameplay element is introduced early on, but things quickly become challenging as each room has its own set of traps or devices that will turn everything you've learned topsy-turvy (figuratively and literally speaking). Rescuing your crew members in this retro-looking platformer might not be such an easy task after all.
VVVVVV is currently only available to play via a small donation to the developer. People who have experienced the game firsthand can attest to how good it is, and judging by the recent postings on the developer's site there are many who couldn't wait to get their hands on it too.
1. Machinarium (Amanita Design) [Windows, paid, free Flash demo available]
This is such a gorgeous, gorgeous game, we just had to use the same word twice to describe it. Amanita Design made its name with the Samorost series and could have repeated that commercial success by making another sequel, yet Jakub Dvorsky (leader of the team) chose to take a risk by creating a brand new game that had no connections with anything they've done in the past. Turns out that risk was one worth taking, as every reviewer and journalist who got their hands on Machinarium had only positive things to say about it.
The game is a true work of art, and by the end of the adventure you couldn't help wanting more. So much thought and love went into the development of the game, and thanks to Machinarium the bar has now been set very high for commercial Flash games. We can only sing praises for this one, so here's hoping we don't have to wait another two long years before Amanita Design resurfaces with their next project.
Pathways (Terry Cavanagh) [Windows, freeware]- Such simple graphics, such a moving message.
And Yet It Moves (Broken Rules) [Windows, paid, free demo, WiiWare version soon] - Platformer with a literal twist.
Osmos (Hemisphere Games) [Windows/Mac, paid, free demo] - Relaxing puzzler which requires complete concentration.
Minecraft (Markus Persson) [Browser, paid, free previews] - Wonderful sandbox-style world builder.
Blueberry Garden (Erik Svedang) [Windows, paid, free demo] - Very experimental, very atmospheric.
Time Gentlemen, Please! (Zombie Cow) [Windows, paid, free demo] - One of the best adventure games I've played. Ever.
- Tim W. & Michael Rose
Pierre Baillargeon: "I'm dismayed by Machinarium getting such high praise. It does have very stylish graphics, but as far as game play goes... the first part is top notch, with puzzles involving the capabilities of the little robot... but once you get pass the first quarter or so, almost all the remaining puzzles are peg jumping and the like."
Gregory Kinneman: "I was sad to see my favorite indie game of 2009, Windosill, absent from the list. As beautiful as any game here, and with far more compelling puzzles than Machinarium, I feel it deserved top honors."
Top 5 Disappointments
2009 brought many welcome surprises and accomplishments that the video game industry can be proud of -- whether it's the ever-broadening definition of "gamer," the proliferation of risky indie video games, or just the higher profile that the industry has today in general.
But not everything in 2009 was worth celebrating -- some very notable shortcomings occurred this year, from continuing third party issues with the Nintendo Wii, to slowing retail game industry sales.
Perhaps the worst thing about our top five picks for disappointments is that all of them are still open-ended problems that have yet to be solved...
5. Ongoing Third Party Wii Hurdles
For some time, Nintendo management has been fighting a PR war against the perception that Nintendo platforms are inhospitable for third parties. In 2009, Nintendo honchos continued to wrestle with that perception. Nintendo president Satoru Iwata noted in January this year that there were 30 third-party Wii titles that have sold over 1 million in the U.S., up from just 12 in March 2008.
At the time, he predicted a trend that third-parties would become increasingly successful on the platform -- a prediction that occurred just months after Nintendo of America boss Reggie Fils-Aime said, "I will be able to say our licensees 'get it' when their very best content is on our platform. And with very few exceptions today, that's not the case."
We'd venture to say that Fils-Aime still wouldn't think third parties "got it" in 2009, with "very few exceptions." We saw third party Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 titles regularly top the charts, but we never did see a third-party Wii game lead monthly sales this year in the U.S.
2009's high-profile M-rated Wii third party titles didn't seem to fare that well. The sales performance of Madworld, House of the Dead: Overkill, and Dead Space Extraction not only cemented the console's reputation as cold towards third parties, but also seemed to show that the console, like previous Nintendo platforms, isn't friendly towards more adult-focused content.
What third-parties do get the Wii? Capcom apparently gets the Wii, releasing successful iterations of Resident Evil. Take-Two gets the Wii with Carnival Games. Before it went into bankruptcy, Midway got the Wii with Game Party; Activision with Guitar Hero; Ubisoft with Rayman: Raving Rabbids; Namco Bandai with Wii Ski and Active Life; and THQ with Big Beach Sports, apparently. All of these are million-selling third-party Wii titles -- some of them not exactly known for their high-production values.
Who "got it" this year specifically? Electronic Arts had success in the West with EA Sports Active, which released in May this year. The workout game has sold around 1.8 million units and is the publisher's best-selling Wii game to date. EA CEO John Riccitiello insisted: "Third-parties can do a lot better on the platform with the right support from Nintendo. They've always been first party-centric, and they're learning how to be third party supportive. The Wii is not gone."
However, the EA CEO added, "But if [Nintendo] maintains a $199 [price] and doesn't innovate, they're going to have a hard time competing with what's already been announced from Microsoft and Sony [their motion controllers]." And seems like there may already be issues, as Gamasutra's Matt Matthews recently illuminated with a study of U.S. retail game sales.
Matthews noted an estimated 34% Wii market share of all U.S. retail games in November 2008, dropping to 29% in November 2009 -- as the Xbox 360 overhauled the Wii, rising to 37%. If you consider that Nintendo's own first-party games are included in that 29% total, and the relative flood of Wii titles thanks to ease of development, it looks like the Wii game market may be markedly tougher going forward.
4. Clunky Digital Platform Approval Processes
In 2007, industry stalwart and Space Giraffe developer Jeff Minter described Xbox Live Arcade's extensive approval process as "soul-crushing." For many other XBLA developers, it might not be quite that dramatic, but the process for gaining approval to many digital services -- including the iPhone App Store, PlayStation Network, WiiWare, and others -- certainly could have done with continued optimizing in 2009.
There's a contrast in the issue, but it tends to be strict, specific technical requirements that trip most developers up. Surprising holes can open up -- such as an issue with the Unity engine for iPhone -- that can exclude or disapprove entire classes of titles.
For the much more exclusive Xbox Live Arcade and PlayStation Network approval processes, developers have to jump through various greenlight hoops and meet strict technical requirements before hitting the storefront for each release. This stops poor quality or significantly broken games from appearing, but leads to extremely long approval processes at times -- sometimes difficult for indie studios to afford.
But let's not just pick on console approval processes. The iPhone App Store, with its 100,000-plus Apps and more than 22,000 games, has an approval process that is "starting to crack from the seams" thanks to the sheer amount of content flowing through it, Kimmo Vihola, CEO of Minigore developer Mountain Sheep told Gamasutra this year.
While the barrier to entry is much lower, the result of the 'gold rush' on iPhone is that approval times for the App Store can range from a couple days to six weeks, he said. In addition, games do get 'stuck' in the approval process at times, it appears.
And as digital distribution becomes more prevalent, these issues look like they're going to persist for some time.
3. Devaluation of Games
The App Store made the term "Race to the Bottom" a common phrase among video game editors covering the iPhone gaming market. But might that just be rank snobbery from those who don't understand Apple's radical free market approach?
We're not just talking about the avalanche of 99 cent software, although that is at the root of the predicament of value perception on iPhone. We're also seeing impressively fully-featured games that might sell for $20-$30 on a PC or other platform sell for a measly $5-$10 on the App Store.
Ian Bogost, video game designer and academic, wrote about this skewed value perception earlier this year on Gamasutra. He said that a person may buy a $5 magazine, read it for a bit, then leave it on an airplane with no qualms. Or a badly prepared coffee might cost $1.49, and you'd just trash it without much of a second thought.
But people buying games off of the App Store have different value expectations for games as opposed to a cup of coffee, and in 2009, that skewed perception was not in favor for higher game prices, much to the chagrin of iPhone developers. A September analysis by UK site Pocket Gamer found that the average price for a top-100 iPhone game was $3.20; a top 10 game was $1.89.
But what else should we expect? The App Store encourages this Race to the Bottom with its storefront, which lists games according to unit sales. Of course, when a game is listed at 99 cents as opposed to $10, the 99-cent game is already at a distinct advantage over more expensive games, and likely to land a higher billing. (Apple did add a 'highest-grossing games' chart with a lower billing in 2009, however.)
Obviously, low price points can be great for consumers, and there are games that have seen admirable success at the 99 cent price point. But even at rock-bottom prices, consumers still aren't guaranteed to bite, and the market becomes even more hit-driven than normal, as devs cut prices to vault into the Top 100. As Bogost noted, "Apparently 99 cents is a risk worth taking on a cup of coffee, but not on a sophisticated, long-form video game worth ten times more on another platform."
2. Market Broadening Is Hit-Driven
The "Long Tail" was supposed to be a driving factor behind the expansion of the video game market -- more people would play a wider array of games across easily accessible digital platforms, and everyone could make a good living satisfying those niches.
While we continued to see an expansion of the video games market, it turned out that the Long Tail had a limited impact on the games industry's broadening in 2009. Companies that had enough marketing and advertising resources to turn a game into a hit are the ones that drove expansion.
Even in a digital world, it's the sales-leading companies that grab more market share. Just take Activision Blizzard with World Of Warcraft, Zynga with Farmville and Mafia Wars, and even -- on a more conventional retail front -- Nintendo with Wii Fit (and just about all of their other internal titles).
Just because there's more choice doesn't mean that people will buy games more evenly, as consultant David Edery has been pointing out and a recent The Economist article defined particularly well across all creative media.
As the magazine noted, under a subheading called 'The Tyranny Of The Hit': "As sales become ever more concentrated, it is becoming both more urgent and harder to establish a foothold near the top of the market. A book or film that fails to attract a mass audience tumbles quickly into the depressed middle."
It's this danger that even larger games are increasingly falling into, which is why you're seeing executives like Take-Two's Strauss Zelnick recently commenting: "The demand for top-tier products is okay. The demand for lower-tier products is not so clear... The safest place to be is in triple-A."
And if you think the same thing isn't happening on digital platforms - check out the swift hit status of Zynga's latest Facebook games, thanks to heavy cross-promotion with existing hits like FarmVille and Mafia Wars, as well as Electronic Arts and Gameloft's domination of the iPhone's top revenue games charts.
1. Retail Video Game Sales Down
We started this year well aware of 2008's ugly economic environment, confident that video games could weather -- or even flourish -- during tough financial times in the new year.
Early in 2009, there were reports that video games would even benefit from the credit crunch, as people may opt to stay home for cheaper entertainment, rather than venturing outside for expensive trips or meals out.
That seemed to be the case at first. January U.S. game retail sales were up, as were February's. NPD called it a "fantastic start." But that growth would not be sustainable, as the next six consecutive months would see U.S. retail video game industry sales revenues decline. The excuse of tough year-on-year monthly comparisons, while legitimate to an extent, couldn't explain the ongoing shortfalls.
The recession was affecting even the resilient games industry. Through November, video game sales were down just over 12 percent from 2008. NPD analyst Anita Frazier said following the results for that month that "Breaking even [with 2008] seems more out of reach."
But 2008 video games generated a record-breaking $22 billion at U.S. retail (up 23 percent from 2007), which does make for a truly a tough comparison, particularly when the economic odds are stacked against this and virtually every other industry.
In particular, the rise of the online game and digital distribution -- not tracked at all in these high-profile retail charts -- has birthed suggestions that social network gaming (FarmVille), free-to-play online games (MapleStory), digitally distributed titles (Steam), and subscription MMOs (World Of Warcraft) are more than compensating for the retail slump.
But in an industry that has gotten so used to such strong growth over the years, recording an annual retail game decline can be labeled as nothing other than disappointing -- and it is in no way clear that digital is completely making up for the loss.
- Kris Graft
Tadhg Kelly: "[The long tail is] clearly not feasible in the console sector in particular where spiralling costs and small install bases have created a decade of narrowing selection. Consoles are becoming like blockbuster cinemas, with only room existing for mega-buck hits. Even the online offerings of consoles are too managed, tailored and all about the brand of the console rather than the developers to really let the creative cats out of the box."
David Delanty: "In defense of game developers and their publishers [regarding on-disc DLC], I feel that the root of the problem comes from gamers themselves. It may sound incredibly stupid to try for a cheap cash grab by being able to put some sparkles on your horse's butt, yet what's even stupider is that the gamers are willing to pay for such content in the first place. You can't really blame the supplier if the consumer base is providing a demand for trivial knick-knacks."
Daniel Martinez: "The Nintendo 3rd party bit really caught my attention. In SNES/SFC days Nintendo embraced companies like Konami, Rareware, Acclaim, Midway, Squaresoft, Enix, Activision, EA, Etc... but it appears the shift in corporate strategy that took place during the late 90's effectively shunned out and alienated most of those companies because they were not making 'family games.' It would be two consoles (a decade) later until Nintendo once again opened its arms to 3rd party developers for more-mainstream games, however, it seems the devs are still weary of Nintendo's overall strategy.
"Differentiating yourself from the pack is a good thing, as is innovation, but burning bridges with devs and publishers isn't, and it's going to take time and a lot of hard work to build new ones."
Top 5 Game Companies
We've already covered the top five developers of 2009 -- and a fine crop of studios it is. But there's more to the world of games than development skill, and there's more to Gamasutra than recognizing it.
No, in a challenging year and a splintering market, there are several companies that stood out as companies. Some are developers, and some are not -- but the point is that just as studios deserve to be recognized for their fantastic games, so do industry companies that do exceptionally well.
Here's our pick for a list of the top companies influencing the game biz this year, and what made them so vital:
Top 5 Game Companies of 2009 (listed alphabetically)
Apple has done tremendous things for the game industry this year. While we all now recognize that the iPhone has not been the faultless goldmine that developers hoped for in late 2008, the platform is still empowering real developers to make really interesting games and make real money in the process.
Apple isn't a passive participant in this process, either. While the workings of the App Store can be oblique to the inexperienced, and the approvals process for apps is opaque, the company supports developers by promoting apps not based on budget or ad buys, but quality and buzz. Big hits can come from indies, not just major publishers. And someone at Apple is knowingly promoting games like Tiger Style's Spider: The Secret of Bryce Manor and Firemint's Real Racing as "best of 2009" games over shinier, better-marketed titles from bigger companies.
The company also chose 2009 as the year to truly take gaming seriously from a marketing perspective: it started advertising the iPod Touch as a gaming device on TV, in print, and on billboards. Apple spokespeople have also continuously talked tough about the company's competition in the mainstream handheld gaming space -- Nintendo and Sony. And it has introduced improvements to the hardware and to the market, including new versions of the iPod Touch and iPhone, and enabling transactions in free apps, something many had been asking for.
While its approvals and other processes could stand to become more transparent, Apple has opened up a huge new market for games and shaken up the stagnant mobile gaming space completely.
Epic Games continued its dominance in current generation engine licensing -- no surprise, that, as the house that built Gears of War has had no trouble signing up licensees for its popular tech since the start of the Xbox 360's reign as the top console for hardcore gamers. In the face of increased competition coming to market, the firm has held strong.
And to increase its market share, and in the face of free toolsets being distributed by its competition, Epic this year made the intelligent decision to offer Unreal Engine 3 for free. While you can't release a commercial product built under these licensing terms, this move doesn't just get indies working with Unreal. It also ensures that Unreal will continue to march into schools -- training the next generation on its tech.
And though the acquisition took place last year, this year is when it paid its dividends: Chair Entertainment's Shadow Complex came out to massive acclaim and sales, proving conclusively not only that the right developers and game can make a tremendous success of Xbox Live Arcade, but that Unreal Engine 3 is the right tool for that job: a double win for Epic.
Its Epic Games China subsidiary's Titan Studios also launched Fat Princess for Sony's PlayStation Network, showing that Epic knows how to play both sides of the hardcore console audience. Also, as the name implies, it shows that the company is not ignoring Asia but, instead, embracing it -- with localized versions of its tools that specifically incorporate enhancements aimed at genres, such as MMOs, popular in Asian markets.
From an academic project to an engine contender -- Unity has become a major player in the market as of 2009, and there's more to come. Like Epic, Unity moved to launch a free version of its toolset, which is more flexible than Epic's implementation -- the free version of Unity can be used commercially. In the wake of that, the company reached 33,500 registered developers in November.
Important, too, was Unity's announcement that it's moving into the Xbox 360 market. XBLA, as we said above, is a tremendous market for developers to tap into, and while Unity might be considered lightweight for a full-fledged Xbox game, its tech fits into the downloadable space well.
Of course, that's proved by its success on the iPhone -- where Unity is one of the leading engine solutions. And while there was a brief, serious hiccup for Unity on the platform this year, it was quickly fixed by the Unity team.
And the company opened up a new UK office under the stewardship of former Criterion man Graham Dunnett -- expanding its capabilities beyond its San Francisco and Copenhagen locations. 2009 has been a majorly up year for Unity, and as the web and iPhone continue to rise in importance, and as Unity's support for Wii and Xbox 360 help bolster it, the engine becomes a more and more major player in the market.
Valve, the only company to cross over between the Top 5 Developers and Top 5 Game Companies, is one that many admire greatly. Writing about why Valve is so great is frankly getting kind of boring. But it's still worth exploring it -- and also exploring precisely why the company is the only one to make both lists, because that's key to its success.
Nobody doubts that Steam is an excellent platform. Some developers are less thrilled than others, but with indie titles like Zeno Clash getting their due thanks in no small part to the seamless digital distribution of the Steam platform, it's hard to argue that it is not a net positive. In addition, the service's cloud features, including game-saves, are innovative and value-additive. Its popularization of frequent discounts and has created a positive disruption to the PC business model, and the service's overall popularity with its user base has hastened the move toward digital distribution.
Notable, too, is the release of Left 4 Dead 2 -- not just because it's a great and highly successful game, but because the company adapted beautifully from its notoriously slow release model to one much more in line with today's market. It also rolled with the punch of a boycott -- turning the ire of fans into a major marketing coup by flying in the organizers of an online petition against the game's release, and turning them back to the community full of praise for the title.
And, of course, the whole reason that L4D2 thing blew up in the first place is because of Valve's peerless reputation for running its games as services. Its users have gotten so used to meaningful downloadable content and post-release support that their main complaint about L4D2 was that the first game's support would be truncated. Take, for example, Team Fortress 2 -- two years old, it's still getting major updates.
Valve's reputation as an excellent developer and a great service provider are intertwined. The company's success at producing amazing games like Portal feeds its reputation with gamers, driving them toward its Steam service; its success as a service provider builds confidence in its game releases. Other developers can't parlay their goodwill into other revenue streams -- but Valve can, and that makes it a savvy contender.
Of course, the shining star of performance this year has been Zynga -- the company which rode the social gaming trend to the top of the revenue heap, creating the most popular games on Facebook and reaping the microtransaction-based rewards.
Sure, plenty of people don't like to hear it. There's the obvious and disheartening question of the fact that the company's games are largely unoriginal from both a design and theme perspective. So goes the trope: Harvest Moon begat Happy Farm begat Farm Town became FarmVille -- a copy of a copy of a copy. And there's no doubt that the company's strength in marketing is what has drawn players to its particular executions of popular social gaming themes.
But execution is not to be underestimated, says Zynga VP Hugh de Loayza: "Our games are pretty distinctively different from the traditional Asian farm games. A shooter is a shooter, so a harvest mechanic is a harvest mechanic. But the story you wrap around it is different. The other thing to pay attention to is that you've got a service that you're running." It's obvious the company is doing something right with its generic-seeming games. And there's more to the service than strongarm user acquisition tactics -- though they're indubitably a key part of the strategy.
And there's no doubt that this rapid growth has caused some growing pains -- unethical offers got FishVille banned from Facebook, though the game did come back.
Yes, people love to hate Zynga and the social games market (check the comments on that last link.) And that hate is comprehensible. But Zynga proves that, in the short time since the phenomenon has emerged, a business can be built on it. While we can never say "yes, this one will be a long-term success," Zynga is the power player in the market and the absolute company to watch out for, and is also one of the most meaningful and disruptive success stories of 2009.
Zenimax, parent of Bethesda, deserves a shout-out for its acquisition of id Software. The lawsuit with Interplay is a bit of a black mark, though, and so were Wet and Rogue Warrior (it's time to sort out your non-internally developed games efforts, guys).
Also worthy is Square Enix -- not only did the Japanese company successfully acquire Eidos this year, it also shipped the most popular game in its massive Dragon Quest series and instantly became the PS3's record-holder for units sold in Japan with Final Fantasy XIII.
- Christian Nutt
Mac Senour: "I would like to see a list of the top 5 game companies to work for, broken out by publisher and developer. I'm sure the list would be very different. With so many out of work, it would be handy to have."
Hsiao Wei Chen: "Unity rocks! :D I love them, they are really friendly to developers. I once posted a question on their forums, and I think it was their CTO who answered my question. They really deserve to be on that list. And giving away their amazing engine for free is really a smart move."
Matt Ross: "I would like to see a survey of everyone who has tried to make an app for the iStore on their experience with the process. Because lets not forget, all these companies are being recognized for making it easier for people, especially n00bs, to go from idea to profit. I agree that Apple has been the most SUCCESSFUL, as in it has the most users and has made the most money, but as far as the above goes? I'm not so sure, I'm sure the process should be ALOT better."
Top 10 Games of the Year
No year-end retrospective would be complete without a look back at the top games. Gamasutra staff together selected what we feel were the finest, most groundbreaking and impressive games of 2009.
Our individual staffers also chose honorable mentions, personal picks that didn't fall within our group top ten, but that we nonetheless wanted to single out.
Without further ado, we present our Top 10 Games of the Year:
10. Retro Game Challenge (Namco Bandai, Nintendo DS)
Retro Game Challenge isn't really just one game. It's a compilation of brand new retro games wrapped in a clever metanarrative that traps the player in 1980s Japan, forced to master a slew of cartridges. The games start basic but reach the NES' early '90s peak -- starting out with classic arcade titles and culminating in Haggleman 3, a ninja action game with the complexity (and quality) of later era NES games like Castlevania III or Ninja Gaiden II.
Retro Game Challenge doesn't just ape retro games shamelessly. No, what it does is ape them lovingly, with a real attention to detail and sense of exuberant fun. This is a compilation that can remind you why you once cherished Galaga (via its knock-off, Cosmic Gate) or illustrate why Japanese kids were so crazy for 2D shooters like Star Soldier (thanks to RGC's Star Prince). There's even a full-featured Dragon Quest-style RPG, Guadia Quest, to play through -- in addition to three Haggleman games and racer Rally King.
Each game is enjoyable in its own right. The attention to detail is impressive, the understanding of what made 2D gaming compelling to a generation of kids is apt, and little touches make the games accessible to gamers unwilling to put up with the truly archaic. It's all wrapped into a sly, charming story (based on cult Japanese TV show Game Center CX, though you need not be a fan to play). Retro Game Challenge is always charming and engrossing, has a lot of variety, and is an obvious labor of love on the part of its developers.
9. Warhammer 40,000: Dawn Of War II (Relic Entertainment, PC)
Despite the shrinking of the real-time strategy genre since its heyday, Relic Entertainment has consistently turned out some of the most inventive and clever RTS games around. Dawn of War II is one of the studio's riskiest, and that risk paid off.
Relic went full-bore in the direction it's been heading in its recent games, dropping traditional base-building entirely to point a laser focus at squad-level tactics and fast-paced resource management. Even then, the single-player and multiplayer components are almost entirely different games: the campaign shares much in common with the persistent "just one more level" character progression of Diablo-esque dungeon crawlers, while the multiplayer is a lean, stripped-down, team-based action/strategy hybrid that draws from Relic's own Company of Heroes as much as from class-based multiplayer shooters.
It's an unlikely but inspired melting pot of genres and mechanics that speaks to Relic's long-term RTS innovation. And the Vancouver studio has kept support for the game strong, with patches and free additional content this year, and a full expansion in March.
8. Plants vs. Zombies (PopCap, PC)
PopCap's Plants vs. Zombies took the tower defense genre and turned it on its side with its six-row, horizontal gameplay. Like other PopCap games, Plants vs. Zombies became a huge time sink this year -- if you were willing to sacrifice a crop of potatoes to ward off a horde of zombies determined to cross your lawn and invade your home.
Plants vs. Zombies is a success for a few reasons. First, it's a weird, unique premise. People hear "Plants vs. Zombies" and their interest is piqued because they're already wondering how the two things can possibly be at odds. Secondly, the wonderful art style of the game takes something horrifying -- mutated self-aware killer plants and reanimated human corpses -- and turns it into something you would see on a Saturday morning cartoon.
Once players are drawn in, it's hard to escape the game's addictive, accessible gameplay, which takes the staples of real-time strategy games like resource and unit management, and artfully condenses them into something a six-year-old could understand. While it is accessible in that regard, Plants vs. Zombies is still entertaining to a wide range of audiences. PopCap said shortly after the game's release that it estimated over half of all Plants vs. Zombies buyers fell in the "hardcore" category. We guess that's just the magic of zombies at work there.
7. The Beatles: Rock Band (Harmonix/MTV, Xbox 360/PS3/Wii)
It’s not surprising that a music game would make our Top 10 for 2009. But with band-specific music titles sometimes being no more than glorified song packs (sorry, AC/DC, Van Halen), what made this much-awaited Harmonix and The Beatles collaboration shine?
Firstly, the art direction was absolutely supreme – from the wonderfully created intro cinematic through to the subtle stylization given to John, Paul, Ringo, and George. Certain other music games have strayed a little too far into the Uncanny Valley at times, but these characters, featured in carefully dressed sets reflecting particular stages of their careers, just felt right.
Of course, the gameplay works, even with only incremental additions, and the multi-part harmonies were a good technical addition – and vital for a band like The Beatles. And overall, the game was a fully formed, lovingly crafted experience, with the 'dreamscapes' filling out the otherwise drab studio visuals a particularly nice touch.
Perhaps it helps that The Beatles have such diverse – and now mythologized - set of audiovisual shifts. Playing through them felt like a mystical, magical journey. And, last but not least – well, it’s about the music, dummy.
6. Flower (ThatGameCompany/Sony, PlayStation 3)
A lot has been said about Flower over the last year – perhaps too much, at times. But the game, created by ThatGameCompany, took a different approach to games, and to game development, and made it work. The company is very iterative and prototype-based in its approach, and the dynamic duo of designer Jenova Chen and president Kellee Santiago have emerged from indie obscurity and into the media spotlight, while still retaining a different view on what games should be.
Flower exemplifies this view – its non-violent, non-competitive gameplay remains attractive and compelling (if linear), and the integration of sight, motion, and sound make for a cohesive product. Indeed, for a time Flower (a PlayStation Network exclusive) was one of the PlayStation 3’s major selling points, discussed alongside Metal Gear Solid 4. The game made motion control work on the PS3’s Sixaxis controller in ways that no other really did (you could make an argument for Warhawk, I suppose).
The game has received numerous awards and accolades since its early 2009 release, and we feel they are deserved. Though some might argue that the premise is pretentious, it makes you feel good to tell those who decry video games for their violence about a title that allows you to play through the dream of a flower – and that they might actually enjoy it, too.
5. Batman: Arkham Asylum (Rocksteady, Xbox 360/PS3/PC)
Batman: Arkham Asylum is not only the best Batman game to date, but to many, it's the best superhero video game of all time. Developed by UK-based Rocksteady, Batman: Arkham Asylum went beyond Batman's penchant for butt-kicking and batarangs (both of which are implemented masterfully, by the way) and explored the disturbing -- and sometimes moving -- pieces of his psychological makeup.
The game is essentially built around a very solid core fighting mechanic that allowed for perhaps the most intuitive and effective 3D beat-em-up we've ever seen. A simple system made up of one-button counters and attacks, combined with directional input, let players feel like they were part of a Batman comic or film, or even a kung fu movie, in which a highly-skilled martial artist is able to incapacitate waves and waves of thugs using only his well-trained body.
The feeling of improvisation during fight sequences added to the experience -- you could master the timing of the controls, as evidenced by challenge room high scores on the game's leaderboards, but button-mashing is also extremely satisfying for more casual players. Throw in some unlockable moves and gadgets that make you feel like an ever-evolving human weapon, and you have a solid base upon which to build several layers of badassery.
Among those layers are villains like the maniacal Joker, hulking Bane, spunky Harley Quinn, sexy Poison Ivy and the enigmatic Riddler. And of course, there's Scarecrow, who acts as a means to uncover Batman's background in some amazing ways, portraying a vulnerable side to the incorruptible crime fighter. With Batman: Arkham Asylum 2 confirmed, we're anxious to see just how Rocksteady, with its focused approach to game design, can improve upon the original.
4. Left 4 Dead 2 (Valve, Xbox 360/PC)
Left 4 Dead 2 is perhaps not the "best" game released in 2009, but it is unquestionably the game many people will be playing well into 2010. Left 4 Dead’s multiplayer co-op game set a new standard for the cooperative first person experience, and L4D2 takes it a step further. Though the systems are slightly more complicated, they are layered in such a way that they really work – and inspire greater teamwork than ever before.
The game wants you to combine its tools in clever ways to stay alive, and makes you feel clever for doing it (even if some hints are given in the form of achievements). On top of that, new modes like Realism, which takes away your superhuman ability to see your teammates (and health, and weapons) through walls, changes the dynamic even further. And on top of the more cerebral interworkings of the various poultices and weapons upgrades, you’ve got melee weapons, which allow you to slice and dice your way to freedom – you’ll wonder how you ever did without it.
On top of the systems, the game is simply more fun to play than ever, and looks completely gorgeous (especially when not in split-screen). The lighting, the set pieces, and even the enemies are rendered superbly, even if zombies to get a rather unfair free ticket out of the Uncanny Valley. The AI feels even sharper than before, and the game simply throws you into a hostile world with a bunch of interesting tools, and sees how you’ll work it out. Giving the player agency is something we're all in favor of.
3. Demon's Souls (From Software/Atlus, PS3)
A focus on accessibility and intuitiveness in game design has helped make gaming friendlier to a much wider audience... and then there's Demon's Souls, mercifully there to remind us that not all challenge is bad.
So detailed is the steeply difficult melee combat design and so logical are the worlds and their enemies that in discovering their way through the game -- even through repeated deaths -- players have the rare and deeply satisfying experience of meaningful learning.
The game also deserves major props for its creative approach to death, which tasks players with reclaiming their bodies. It implements an inventive multiplayer system, too, by which anonymous ghosts can help one another through battle assistance or simple messages scrawled in eerie runes.
The most addictive game experience of the year reminds us not to be so quick in ditching tradition in favor of one-touch inputs and gesture-controlled simplicity, as there's still much joy to be found in detailed, complex gameplay.
2. New Super Mario Bros Wii (Nintendo, Wii)
Almost since the beginning of the Wii generation, Nintendo took hard knocks from core fans for "abandoning" them. Thanks to New Super Mario Bros Wii, Nintendo deserves credit for addressing, even if slightly imperfectly, several of the major criticisms against it in one joyful, faithful swoop.
The game design essentially makes the difficulty level malleable for each player, depending on how many players who join and what kind of challenges they take on -- attacking the perception that Mario's gone too easy for single-players.
At the same time, the multiplayer is expressly designed to make players talk and interact, which in practice can give the dominant paradigm -- remote interaction over Xbox Live or PSN -- something of a run for it. These brilliant little victories abound, and the impressive result is a current-gen Mario that truly is for anyone and everyone.
1. Dragon Age (BioWare, Xbox 360/PS3/PC)
BioWare once reinvigorated the Dungeon & Dragons-inspired line of PC fantasy RPGs with Baldur's Gate. After a decade of evolutions, the studio has attempted to bridge the gap between that early milestone and its modern refinements.
Dragon Age: Origins succeeds both in that goal and as a masterful, ambitious roleplaying game in its own right. On its surface, it seems full of the same dwarves-and-mages-and-elves dynamic that's been so thoroughly mined, with stock visuals to match. But as you explore the game's considerable volume of content, its fascinating subtleties begin to reveal themselves -- class, gender, and race roles form the underpinnings of a compelling world without becoming too heavy-handed.
On the personal scale, Dragon Age features some of the most affecting and entertaining character interactions in gaming, implemented dynamically and seamlessly. Party members idly chat amongst themselves -- affably, dourly, indifferently -- and comment on the player's own choices. The game's overarching story is nothing special; it's the context and the personal moments that count, and they count for a lot. Rarely are virtual characters so believable.
The game itself demonstrates an impressive RPG design fluency born of hard experience, particularly on the PC where it fluidly shifts between a modern third-person RPG and an old-school top-down dungeon crawler at the player's whim. It strikes a satisfying balance between intricacy and intuitiveness, rewarding player investment but not becoming overbearing.
The remarkably diverse origin stories that serve as the subtitle's namesake just add further personality and depth to one of the most surprisingly unique RPGs in recent memory. With Dragon Age: Origins, BioWare has succeeded in reprising its own revival.
In addition to our team top ten, each member of our core staff has chosen honorable mentions, personal favorites that didn't make the final aggregate list:
Simon Carless, Global Brand Director, Think Services Game Group
Uncharted 2 (Naughty Dog, PlayStation 3)
Ratchets up from its predecessor on every level, and brings carefully-plotted filmic narrative into games without feeling trite or overly guided to me. Multiple thumbs up.
Trials HD (RedLynx, Xbox 360 Live Arcade)
Perhaps my most-played title this year, it improves the genre of physics-based motorbike trick/race games with an awesome cacophany of microchallenges and mini-games. This is how fast, sharp play for a new millenium should be.
Assassin's Creed II (Ubisoft Montreal, Xbox 360/PlayStation 3)
That craziest of things -- a carefully reverent freeform romp through Renaissance Italy with practically transcendent art and carefully iterated gameplay.
Brandon Sheffield, EIC, Game Developer Magazine
Street Fighter IV (Capcom, Xbox 360/PlayStation 3/PC)
Capcom’s reinventing of the franchise, alongside developer Dimps, took 2D fighting back to the masses, proving that it can – and should – be popular again.
Might and Magic: Clash of Heroes (Capy Games, Nintendo DS)
It’s a Puzzle/Strategy RPG with far more organized randomness and more strategic head-to-head play. And it was good enough for me to beat twice!
Devil Survivor (Atlus, Nintendo DS)
DS strategy meets Dragon Quest battles, with an interesting branching story. It's the game made just for me! (Well, maybe not the punishing difficulty on the last day...)
Leigh Alexander, News Director, Gamasutra
Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars (Rockstar Leeds/Rockstar North, Nintendo DS)
Blah blah, who cares whether M-rated content can sell on the DS or how many units Chinatown Wars sold or what Michael Pachter thought about its numbers? It's still one of the most stunningly-designed DS titles I've ever seen, all the more impressive as Rockstar's first.
Silent Hill: Shattered Memories (Climax Studios, Wii)
Shame it was released just a bit too late for the holiday hype window, and often either incorrectly pegged as a simple "Wii-make" of the original old title or overlooked by franchise diehards for its liberties -- this reimagining of Silent Hill is an absolute must-have for every Wii owner, from the rare brilliance in its implementation of Wii controls to the fun and clever little ways it responds to the player's behavior.
Noby Noby Boy (Namco, PlayStation 3)
So you don't really know what you're supposed to "do" besides free-form play -- good. Games need more of this kind of simple, colorful pleasure, and seeing players strive to collectively "reach" the outer planets of the solar system prompts a warm, whimsical twinge we hardly ever get from games anymore.
Christian Nutt, Features Director, Gamasutra
Flight Control (Firemint, iPhone)
Instantly accessible, oddly addictive, and thematically neutral -- its inclusive yet appealing theme is probably a big part of its success. It's a snappily-executed, 99 cent hero.
Henry Hatsworth and the Puzzling Adventure (EA Tiburon, DS)
A great example of synthesis -- it pairs two genres (platforming and puzzling) with cleverness and great success. This is a game that learned from the classics yet still has its own clever personality, and also represents a budding of unique talent in a huge studio.
Shin Megami Tensei: Persona (Atlus, PSP)
A remake done right: the game's pace was quickened, its interface was brought up to date, the translation was completely reworked, and once-excised content was restored. The result is a highly playable new version of an unfairly overlooked cult classic.
Chris Remo, Editor-At-Large, Gamasutra
Brutal Legend (Double Fine Productions, Xbox 360/PlayStation 3)
Double Fine's ballsy genre mashup has snappy writing, a bad ass soundtrack, great vocal performances, some of the most breathtaking environments in gaming memory, and Ozzy Osbourne.
Empire: Total War (The Creative Assembly, PC)
The latest Total War takes on the period arguably most formative to our own world, depicting the colonial era in grand style. Games can depict history like no other medium can, and The Creative Assembly's work feels important.
Torchlight (Runic Games, PC)
Remember how Diablo insidiously ensnared you, coaxing you yet one floor deeper into its seemingly endless dungeon even though you had to be at work in three hours? Torchlight is like that. With the guy who made Diablo's music.
Kris Graft, Senior Contributing Editor, Gamasutra
Forza Motorsport 3 (Turn 10, Xbox 360)
Sure, it's aimed mainly towards automobile enthusiasts, plays best with an expensive steering wheel controller, and takes the "bigger, better, prettier" route to racer design, but if you're a gearhead gamer, this is a must-have.
Infamous (Sucker Punch Productions, PS3)
An original superhero game, Infamous gives players a great sense of continuous evolution and increasing power. It's a fine departure from the developer who brought us Sly Cooper.
Borderlands (Gearbox, Xbox 360/PS3/PC)
This gun-loving loot-fest is tough to put down when playing alone, but is even more magnetic when you have three friends to play with. A great multiplayer game with a vibrant art style.
Matt Diamond: "I didn't think Scribblenauts would be a top 10 game overall, but I'm surprised it didn't make anyone's honorable mentions, just for the sheer chutzpah of it."
Aaron Smith: "I am a little surprised not to see [Modern Warfare 2] or Uncharted 2 on this list. MW2 shouldn't be #1 but I think it should be in the ten."
Russell Carroll: "My personal 3 favs of the year: [1.] Rune Factory: Frontier (Wii)
I love Zelda games, and this mix that is like 1/3 Zelda, 1/3 dating Sim, 1/3 crop-growing is a bizarre combo that really worked for me. [2.] Rhythm Heaven (DS) A totally unique game that has a 'feel' that I can't describe and that I can't find in any other game. [3.] Wii Sports Resort (Wii) Nearly even with Defense Grid: The Awakening (PC/XBLA), I give WSR the nod for multplayer.