Gamasutra's Best of 2010

With 2010 now at an end, the Gamasutra editorial team is proud to present a round-up of its individual charts and countdowns for this resurgent year for video games, published on the website over the past few weeks.

jungle.jpgWith 2010 now at an end, the Gamasutra editorial team is proud to present a round-up of its individual charts and countdowns for this resurgent year for video games, published on the website over the past few weeks.

In one fell swoop, you'll get our full wisdom on a multitude of game sectors and industry events, as written up by editors and contributors including Kris Graft, Leigh Alexander, Chris Morris, Brandon Sheffield, Simon Parkin, Kyle Orland, Danny Cowan, Mike Rose, Eric Caoili, and more.

You can also compare this year's set of charts against 2009's 'Top 5s' compilation, plus 2008's similar compendium and 2007's chart rundown 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 Unexpected Gaming Events

Talk about a topsy-turvy year. The video game industry has weathered its share of good and bad in 2010, but what made things really interesting were the completely unexpected moments – things we could never have predicted, no matter how many clues we were given.

From THQ’s decision to launch an experimental pricing strategy that could lob $20 off the price of games if it’s successful, to the return of a circus-like E3 environment (topped by Activision’s Lollapalooza-like concert), there were plenty of shocking moments in 2010.

We’ve tried to narrow things down to the five biggest surprises – but we suspect you’ve got a few ideas that didn’t occur to us. Sound off in the comments below.

5. Justice Kagan Shocks The Court

The November U.S. Supreme Court hearing centering on whether the sale of violent video games to children should be regulated was serious business. A ruling in the wrong direction could have significant financial and creative effects on game publishers and developers.

The scariest part for gamers, though, was that none of the Justices seemed to fit the gamer demographic – and many seemed to think that Postal 2 was representative of the entire industry.

But when Justice Elena Kagan shifted her questioning away from that title and onto the stalwart fighting game Mortal Kombat, it was California’s attorney whose mouth was agape.

“You think Mortal Kombat is prohibited by this statute?,” she asked out of the blue.

“I believe it’s a candidate Your Honor, but I haven't played the game and been exposed to it sufficiently to judge for myself,” Morazzini replied after a short pause.

“It's a candidate,” she quickly followed up, “meaning, yes, a reasonable jury could find that Mortal Kombat, which is an iconic game, which I am sure half of the clerks who work for us spend considerable amounts of time in their adolescence playing…”

4. Nintendo’s Weird Timing

For months, Nintendo carefully built up the hype for the DSi XL. It was a product that faced a bit of an uphill battle to begin with, as it was yet another tweak of the aging DS line.

But the company hoped the update would goose consumer demand and the larger screen would make the handheld device more appealing to a wider audience.

Then, one week before the product launched in the US, Nintendo pulled the rug out from under it – announcing it was working on a 3D handheld gaming system that didn’t require users to wear special glasses, which would be out in less than a year. The announcement, in short, sent the message to U.S. buyers of the $190 Nintendo DSi XL that they were buying technology that would quickly be outdated.

Looming press leaks in Japan (and Nintendo’s desire to control the news) were the likely reason for the ill-timed announcement, but it still had people scratching their heads.

3. The Return Of An Old Friend

Long-suffering fans of the Duke Nukem franchise were just about at the end of the grieving process for Duke Nukem Forever when Gearbox Software shocked the world at Penny Arcade Expo this year.

Assumed dead after the rapid and ugly demise of 3D Realms, the game had been secretly purchased by Gearbox and will be out in 2011. Fans rejoiced, and doubters looked at the playable footage in amazement.

The general consensus among those who played was that the game was actually a hell of a lot of fun, as Randy Pitchford told us "...where we’re at now is a drama free world, where everyone is focused on making it work". We’ll find out in the coming months.

2. Hollywood Turns To The Classics

Movies and TV shows based on video games are nothing new. Tomb Raider, Resident Evil and Prince of Persia have all had their time on the big and small screen. But 2010 was the year the lunatics seemingly took over the asylum.

First, in July, came word that Universal Studios had won a bidding war – a bidding war, mind you! – for the film rights to the Asteroids video game. Disney writer Matthew Lopez (Bedtime Stories, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice) will pen the script, while Lorenzo di Bonaventura (Transformers, GI Joe, Doom) is producing.

Then, as if things couldn’t get stranger, at E3 super-producer Avi Arad (former CEO of Marvel Studios and now executive adviser for Namco Bandai) announced plans to bring Pac-Man back to TV – and in 3D, no less.

The plot centered on ghosts trying to overtake Pac-Man's world. It's up to Pac-Man, who's a high school student, to save the world. In this mission, he'll be assisted by his Pac-friends and four friendly ghosts -- Pinky, Inky, Blinky and Clyde (who were the little guy's archenemies in the original arcade game).

"We feel we have a unique opportunity to have an action adventure, human interest story," Arad told me for a Variety story. "As a filmmaker, it's a unique opportunity to get to know the characters you play. … We don't know what happened to Pac-Man's parents. He's the only yellow one in Pac-Land; what does that mean? Is it a social statement? We'll find out."

1. It’s A Jungle Out There

Apple is a growing force in the handheld market. Nintendo has been seeing its DS sales diminish rapidly. And Sony’s PSP is almost an afterthought. The competition is tougher than it has ever been.

So what better time for a company that knows virtually nothing about the modern gaming space -- Panasonic -- to jump in, right?

In October, the company unveiled 'The Jungle' – a handheld device that it said would make MMOs portable. Problem was: The design was horrible and the idea was dim-witted. And reactions from gamers, analysts and most gaming insiders ranged from skeptical and indifferent at best to howls of hysterical laughter at worst.

Panasonic remains resolute, though. The company began public testing of the device late last month, insisting: "We know other companies out there have traditional hand-held gaming covered... We’re doing something very different." We'll... see how they do?

dp.jpgTop 5 Cult Games

What is a 'cult game' these days? The word is often used to describe 'niche' titles, but now that smaller JRPGs and scrolling shooters have found the right price point and a dedicated Western following, that description seems lacking.

Nowadays, I think wit's more appropriate to borrow from the movies, and define cult games in a similar way. The "B" games that have some very interesting ideas, don't necessarily sell like gangbusters, but which come up again and again in editors' "best-of" lists, and which academics and theorists talk about for years to come.

These are the games that tried something interesting, and perhaps because of it didn't find a huge mainstream audience. But they did find some dedicated fans, who are eager to see what will come next from these unique minds. It's the idea of an "auteur" game made within a traditional structure (indie games are nearly always this way now).

Here I present to you my picks for the five best cult games from 2010.

5. Castlevania: Harmony Of Despair (Konami, Xbox Live Arcade)

Castlevania's audience has been dwindling a bit over the years, as it suffered from the problem fighting games and arcade shooters in days of old. That is to say, it kept getting deeper and deeper into its own ideas, with item micromanagement, collection of souls, and OCD-style collection aplenty. But with each subsequent 2D release, Konami was just making a deeper "Metroidvania" for a smaller and smaller audience.

That changed when the company decided to make a serious go of a revamp, with Mercury Steam's Castlevania: Lords of Shadow. At the same time though, they made the 2D Castlevania HD, which was even more niche than ever before. A difficult, grinding-heavy 2D multiplayer action/jumping puzzle game with a time limit is not everyone's idea of accessible, and reviews were at times polarized, but more often simply confused.

Most levels require multiple singleplayer playthroughs or multiple friends in order to beat, and each character you can choose from levels up in a different way. This encourages different playstyles, but is also maddeningly underexplained. But thinking back to our youths, wasn't discovering "the secret" to these games rather exciting at the time? Castlevania HD replicates that feeling of discovery with its sometimes clever, sometimes obtuse, sometimes maddening jumping/flip the switch puzzles, and deserves a second look for those who love pixel-perfect 2D gameplay.

4. Cow Clicker (Ian Bogost, Facebook)

Ian Bogost's social game development experiment has been well-documented, but it's worth a brief recap. Bogost was amazed and amused by the proliferation of social games, but also alarmed by their lack of "game-ness" and interactivity. So to satirize both the content and typical themes of these games, he created a game where all you do is click a cow with a time-down on it until you can click again. Various in-came items can be purchased with "mooney" that you earn, mimicking the microtransaction system most social games carry.

Ironically, the game's satirical nature had serious uptake among game literati, critical thinkers, and just plain old social game enthusiasts, who wound up making Cow Clicker Bogost most-played and most recognized game to date. In his enthusiasm, he had accidentally made the game fun for a certain kind of person.

Being an academic, all sorts of lessons were learned about the nature of fun and the power of satire - but at the end of the day, you're still just clicking a cow. But really, who can blame you?

3. Nier (Cavia/Square Enix, Xbox 360 & PlayStation 3)

Nier is a bizarrely ambitious and messy amalgam of genres and ideas, alternately impressing you with its innovation and making you wonder what madman could have constructed such a game.

Take a 3D brawler, add mindless fetch quests, hunting and fishing, a post-apocalyptic/fantasy theme (the slash is quite important, as they're not quite merged), powerleveling, 3D bullet hell shooting, boar riding, a hideously scarred and aged protagonist, and a transgender female lead, alongside intriguing graphics, painful foul-mouthed voicework, and inexplicably nonsensical dungeons, and you've got Nier.

If anything adds up to a cult game, that's it. There's something to love or hate for everyone, but once you've learned about it, you can't simply ignore it. The game attracts and repels equally, making bold steps forward for games, while keeping the other foot squarely in the era of the PlayStation 2.

For those who haven't experienced it, give the first 20 minutes a whirl. The game has you leveling up insanely quickly, becoming superpowerful within moments, lending a triumphant feeling just as the story wants you to despair. Then it takes it all away and makes you hunt sheep, plant fields, and gather eggs before you can get back to the magic. The workings of a madman, indeed.

2. Game Dev Story (Kairosoft, iPhone/Android)

iOS/Android title Game Dev Story is a fresh take on the "management" genre, ala Diner Dash, in which you must hire, train, and guide a new team of developers to create great games (within the game). The mechanics are wonderfully addictive, and lend themselves well to that "well, just one more game" feeling - although in this case, you just want to make one more game within the context of the story.

Not so surprisingly, the game has been especially popular among game developers, which is part of why it warrants such a high spot on the Gamasutra list. This is Kairosoft's version of a Segagaga, presenting an alternate history of game consoles' past and future, even allowing you to eventually release your own game console. Game references abound, from fake consoles that have very obvious real-life counterparts, to game directors with names like "Shigeto Minamoto."

The game's very specific themes may have kept it from massive worldwide financial success, but it seems to have done well enough for the company, and has delayed the writing of this article several times today. What better praise can I give it than that? The question I want answered is how many of you out there entered your real company name, when you tried to make a go of it in Game Dev Story?. I know I did.

1. Deadly Premonition (Access Games/Ignition, Xbox 360 & PlayStation 3)

This will come as absolutely no surprise to readers of Game Developer magazine and Gamasutra. The team, especially the author of this article, has been enamored with Deadly Premonition since its Xbox 360-only North American budget release. The game is now available worldwide (PS3 is only in Japan at the moment), and delighting and horrifying audiences everywhere.

The game has clumsy combat, PS2-level graphics, and maddeningly long sequences of driving from nowhere to another, slightly differently textured nowhere. But lift the curtain a bit, and you see a living, bizarre game world, where people go about their daily business regardless of player interaction. You'll see a deeply bizarre story, with the main character (expertly voiced by Jeff Kramer) discussing necrophilia, drinking urine from skulls, and B-movie film errata in alternate breaths.

The game's dialog is so perfectly imperfectly written that it feels as though it belongs in a category all its own. It also has one of the most intelligent narrative framing devices, allowing the main character's multiple personality to take life in a way that other games have certainly attempted, but never succeeded (if I say more, I feel I may spoil something).

Once you get past the clunkiness of it, even the combat can become fun - but perhaps I have an odd perspective as someone who obtained every secret card, every weapon, and every automobile in the game. Subsequent fights through the game's "dungeons" turn into speed runs once you get some all-powerful weapons, that allow you to revisit frustrating areas and simply mow through enemies and pick up collectibles that are laid out for you as though they were on a racetrack.

Reviews were perhaps the most amusingly polarizing external aspect to the game. IGN provided the first review, rating the game a dismal 2.0. Destructoid followed suit with a perfect 10 review of their own, and 1up followed with a solid "B" rating. While IGN couldn't see past the clunky controls that they felt kicked them out of the experience, the others saw the ultimate cult classic of a game. The final laugh came when the game was released many months later in Europe - only to receive a 7.5 from IGN UK.

Deadly Premonition took 5 years and as many near-cancellations to put on shelves, and is the kind of game nobody makes anymore - and as the industry changes and shifts, who knows if they ever will again. For now though, the game has amassed a rabid following, so we can only cross our fingers and wait.

Honorable Mentions

Deadliest Warrior (Pipeworks/Spike TV, XBLA/PSN) - a quite decent fighter that was held back in reviews by its association with a license. Fans have felt strongly about the title though, earning it a cult spot.

Splatterhouse (Bottle Rocket & Namco Bandai Games, Xbox 360/PlayStation 3) - rife with problems and lengthy quicktime events, but in keeping with the spirit of the original, whilst also having the voice of Darkwing Duck (the "mask" in the game) speak to you intermittently. Is there someone out there who doesn't want to Get Dangerous?

Infinite Line (Nude Maker & Platinum Games/Sega, DS) - part hard sci-fi, part animu angsty feelings, this game was almost the customizable space sim I was looking for. With a slightly more serious story from skilled scenario writer Hifumi Kouno of Nude Maker, this could've been a contender.

Protect Me Knight (Ancient, Xbox Live Indie Games) - famed musician Yuzo Koshiro took the tower defense genre and made it an action game - in an 8-bit world with awesome Engrish everywhere. That's a good combo.

Yukkuri Meikyuu (Xbox Live Indie Games) - this is an XBLIG title you either love or hate. Play as a schoolgirl punching different colored globes in a first-person maze as odd samples and bizarre music fill the air. It's tough, addictive, and obnoxious: the perfect mix for a cult game.

gamedev_200.jpgTop 5 iOS Games

2010 saw the iOS marketplace grow exponentially. The platform's brief history is already filled with meteoric success stories and massive reorganizations as publishers adapt to rapidly shifting customer tastes.

Prominent App Store publisher Ngmoco, for instance, completely abandoned its previous publishing model in favor of free-to-play, microtransaction-supported releases.

In another example, Capcom, creator of hundreds of classic arcade and console games, currently finds its greatest success on iOS platforms not with one of its many established franchises, but with the casual-friendly Smurfs' Village.

Regardless of what the current trend may be, however, quality games determine a platform's true success and legacy. Here are some of the best iOS games released in 2010, with the first link to the iPhone version (also runnable on iPad), and additional info if a native iPad version exists:

5. Hook Worlds (Rocketcat Games - iPhone)

The App Store popularized the "autoscrolling platformer" -- run-and-jump titles that work particularly well on iOS devices, thanks to their basic objectives and simple controls. Some of the genre's best-known works to date include Adam Saltsman's Canabalt, Adult Swim's Robot Unicorn Attack, and Mikengreg's Solipskier.

Hook Worlds stands out from the pack with its unique grapple-based gameplay mechanics. Using carefully timed swings from a grappling hook, players must traverse each obstacle-filled level as fast as possible, and escape before a pursuing monster catches up to the player's defenseless explorer character.

The grappling mechanic is challenging to master, and gameplay becomes stressful as players attempt to recover from missteps. Stringing together a series of well-timed swings is extremely satisfying, however, and Hook Worlds remains compelling long after other titles in the genre have lost their initial charm.

Two titles in Rocketcat's Hook series were released this year. The newer Hook Worlds offers greater gameplay variety, while Super QuickHook is a more challenging experience overall. Both games rank among the App Store's best.

4. Zen Bound 2 (Secret Exit - iPhone/iPad universal app)

Few games are as adept at setting a mood as Zen Bound 2. Originally released as an iPad exclusive upon the device's launch earlier this year, Secret Exit's meditative rope-wrapping puzzler soon received a universal update, adding support for the iPhone and iPod Touch. An adaptation for PC and Mac platforms was released recently via Steam.

Zen Bound 2 is equally engrossing on any platform. In the game, players methodically wrap a wooden figure in a single unbroken strand of rope. Rope-covered portions are colored in paint; the object is to paint a given percentage of each object using as little rope as possible.

The easy-to-grasp objectives, down-tempo music, and lack of a time limit work in concert to create a genuinely relaxing experience. Zen Bound 2 succeeds not only as a game, but also as a great stress reliever.

3. Osmos (Hemisphere Games - iPhone & iPad apps.)

It's rare that an iOS port of a console or PC game can emerge as the definitive edition. Osmos manages this difficult feat in a way that seems almost effortless in its elegance.

Premiering for PC platforms last year, Hemisphere Games' Osmos puts players in control of a small speck of matter that is able to grow larger by absorbing fellow motes that are smaller in size. The concept is well realized, and gameplay manages to stay interesting throughout thanks to the constant introduction of new variations on the formula.

Osmos is a standout on any platform, but its gameplay is at its best on iOS devices. The controls work even better with a touch screen than they do with a mouse; the addition of a tactile element makes Osmos complete.

2. Espgaluda II (Cave, compatible with most iPhones.)

While other publishers struggle to adapt their most popular franchises to the iOS platform -- often ruining beloved classics with the scourge that is the virtual d-pad -- shoot-'em-up developer Cave managed to capture a winning formula with its very first App Store release, and has released hit after hit in the months since.

Espgaluda II is a pitch-perfect recreation of the company's acclaimed 2005 vertically scrolling arcade shoot-'em-up. The release would stand out as a worthwhile play on any platform, but it truly shines on the iPhone and the iPad. An effective touch-and-drag control scheme works flawlessly in the context of Espgaluda II's gameplay, providing enough precision to make the experience fun for both shoot-'em-up novices and hardcore fans alike.

Moreover, Espgaluda II represents an exceptional value for shoot-'em-up fans in North America. The original arcade circuit board costs thousands of dollars. The Japan-only Xbox 360 port retails for around $80. The iPhone version of Espgaluda II -- which includes a new platform-exclusive gameplay mode in addition to the full original game -- is available from the App Store for $8.99.

Cave's recent releases Dodonpachi Resurrection and Mushihimesama Bug Panic are equally impressive, and are superb examples of the platform's capacity for core gaming.

1. Game Dev Story (Kairosoft, iPhone)

When talking about Kairosoft's Game Dev Story, it's difficult to describe its gameplay in anything other than the context of your own personal experiences.

- "Well, I made a cowboy racing game for the Sega Genesis, but it had a lot of bugs, so sales tanked in its second month of release."
- "I poured so much money and time into my NES golf RPG, and the reviewers totally trashed it! What the hell!"
- "I made a bunch of cash-in sumo wrestling games, which were a big fad at the time. The reviewers hated them. They had no polish. We didn't even hire a sound guy for them. They sold millions."

Game Dev Story's foundation is built on player anecdotes. The gameplay may be standard stuff -- it ultimately boils down to keeping a series of numbers and sliders in check -- but Game Dev Story's lighthearted (and at times scarily accurate) take on game development make it a compelling play even long after your virtual company has established itself as a dominant force in the industry.

Better still, Game Dev Story is a special treat for those who have witnessed decades of industry growth. You'll want to buy a soon-to-be lucrative publisher's license when "Senga" launches its 16-bit "Exodus" console, and you'll have the good sense to avoid investing too heavily in Intendro's headache-inducing Virtual Kid.

On the other hand, there's a lot of fun to be had in attempting to change history. If you want to single-handedly make NEC's PCFX the world's most popular console, you have a tough road ahead of you, but by god, you can try.

Honorable Mentions

- Carcassonne [iPhone/iPad universal app] (Not satisfied with merely producing a great adaptation of the classic board game, TheCodingMonkeys adds a new Solitaire mode and online competitive gameplay.)

- Chaos Rings [iPhone] (Square Enix successfully mimics the depth and spectacle of console RPGs with this graphically rich release.)

- Galaxy on Fire 2 [iPhone/iPad universal app] (Fishlabs' space combat/exploration/trading sim features more depth than one would expect from any App Store release, with potentially dozens of hours of gameplay.)

- Infinity Blade [iPhone/iPad universal app] (Its gameplay may be a little shallow, but Chair Entertainment's satisfying swordplay and impressive Unreal Engine-powered graphics are not to be ignored.)

- Kometen [iPhone/iPad universal app] (Blueberry Garden creator Erik Svedang's interstellar adventure is bolstered by vivid artwork and soothing gameplay.)

- Plants vs. Zombies [iPhone, iPad version available] (PopCap's hit "flower defense" game is a perfect match for touch screens.)

- Real Racing 2 [iPhone] (Firemint continues to set new standards for iOS racing sims with the addition of licensed vehicles and new online multiplayer modes.)

- Spirits [iPhone, iPad version available] (A character-based puzzler in the tradition of Lemmings, Spaces of Play's Spirits is clever, challenging, and beautiful.)

- Street Fighter IV [iPhone] (Even though the lack of physical buttons drains a lot of the fun, Capcom's efforts to port its one-on-one fighter franchise to iOS are admirable, and the result is surprisingly playable.)

- Sword & Poker 2 [iPhone] (Like RPGs? Don't hate poker? You'll enjoy Gaia's Sword & Poker series, and probably more than you'd think you would.)

- UFO On Tape [iPhone/iPad universal app] (Challenging players to capture video of a skittish UFO, developer Revolutionary Concepts introduces a unique gameplay mechanic that's a natural fit for mobile platforms.)

firework.jpgTop 5 Major Industry Events

While 2009 was no slouch in terms of major video game industry events, most of our picks for 2010's weightiest news pieces have greater potential for wider industry impact compared to last year's developments.

This year's major events only make us even more curious about the year ahead: What's next for Bungie? Will motion controls have legs in 2011? Will the 3DS fend off increasing competition from mobile gaming? Will we be carded when we go to pick up Grand Theft Auto V?

2010 not only provided us with interesting events for the here and now, but also a solid starting block for the year and years ahead.

5. Activision Signs 10-Year Deal With Halo House Bungie

In April this year, Halo creator Bungie signed an exclusive 10-year deal with industry heavyweight Activision. With Bungie having split from Microsoft in 2007, the deal was the first realization since the studio's new-found independence that it would be going multiplatform with a new franchise sans Master Chief.

Not only was the scope of the deal a surprise -- 10 years is a long time -- but the partnership came just weeks after the emergence of the fiasco between Activision and its internal first-person shooter studio, Call of Duty maker Infinity Ward. But Bungie, which will continue to own the new IP that Activision will publish, was unfazed by the controversy, happy with the reach and resources made available by the gaming giant.

The deal is yet another feather in the cap for Activision Blizzard, already home to the industry's leading franchises, not the least of which are Call of Duty and World of Warcraft. And with Bungie's online multiplayer expertise and Activision CEO Bobby Kotick espousing Activision's online future, we'll be on the lookout for a new, highly online-centric Bungie experience.

4. Infinity Ward Reboots

The post-holiday game industry lull was shattered in early March this year when reports emerged that Jason West and Vince Zampella, co-founders of Call of Duty creator Infinity Ward, were ousted from the studio by parent company Activision.

The publisher soon confirmed that it was conducting an "internal human resources inquiry" to examine possible breaches of contract on the part of West and Zampella. Lawsuits from both sides followed, as the pair established a new studio, Respawn Entertainment, and signed a publishing deal with Activision rival Electronic Arts, recruiting several ex-Infinity Ward staff in the process.

The drama played out for several months before dying down. Activision was confident since the beginning of the conflict that the Call of Duty brand would remain strong as ever, despite some brain drain at the studio that created the multi-million-selling franchise. Today, Infinity Ward is back to work.

In November, Activision released Call of Duty: Black Ops, developed by internal studio Treyarch, the same house behind Call of Duty 3 and Call of Duty: World at War. With Black Ops, Activision sold-through $650 million in the title's opening five days, up from 2009's Infinity Ward-developed Modern Warfare 2, which generated $550 million, serving as a clear sign that Activision has put the debacle behind it from a business standpoint.

3. Nintendo Unveils The 3DS

As reports in Japanese business papers mounted about a top secret successor to the Nintendo 3DS, media outlets received one of the most anticlimactic press releases about one of the most exciting pieces of gaming hardware in recent years -- the Nintendo 3DS.

The original Nintendo announcement for the 3DS had virtually no details about the machine, only that more information would come a few months later at the annual E3 games convention and that the new device would have the ability to display stereoscopic 3D images without glasses. The quick official acknowledgment of the 3DS helped Nintendo preempt further media rumoring.

When Nintendo officially unveiled the 3DS at E3 in June, the company seemed to turn skeptics into believers. By putting the device in the hands of attendees, users saw that the technology works, helping generate positive buzz around the handheld. Nintendo also already has a long list of third-party developers on board for the 3DS, as the hardware maker is taking steps to make its consoles and handhelds more attractive to external game makers.

The device has much commercial and creative potential, and it may also serve as a bellwether for the future of the portable gaming business, which is diverging between dedicated portables like the DS and mobile devices. If something as technologically appealing as the 3DS is cast aside in favor of mobile gaming, the relevance of dedicated handheld gaming devices could be brought into serious question.

2. New Motion Controllers Arrive

Four years after the arrival of the industry-shaping Nintendo Wii, competing console makers Sony and Microsoft brought their own motion control answers to market in 2010 with the PlayStation Move and the super-hyped Xbox 360 Kinect sensor, as the core gamer-centric companies make a play for the mass market.

The Kinect represents a reboot for Microsoft, which is trying to soften up Xbox's image as first-person shooter central, with family-friendly games like Dance Central, Kinectimals and Kinect Adventures. For Sony, the company is trying to distinguish its motion controller offerings from Microsoft and Nintendo by focusing the Move more towards the core gamer.

Both new controllers are off to a healthy start, according to Sony and Microsoft. The Move has shipped 4.1 million worldwide since its September release, and Kinect sell-through hit 2.5 million in the device's opening 25 days since its November launch. Microsoft expects to sell 5 million Kinects through the holidays, making the device a fairly hot item.

It's difficult to forecast just how much of a game-changer a three-way motion control war will be in the coming year. There's already concern over Nintendo's strategy, as rivals adopt their own versions of the Wii's primary distinguishing feature -- motion control -- and Wii graphics that look increasingly dated compared to competitors.

But if the new controllers prove to have legs that last through 2011, maybe we can see a continuation -- even to a somewhat lesser extent -- of the mass market video game adoption that marked the Wii's earlier years.

1. Supreme Court Reviews Violent Video Game Law

In November, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments for and against a California law that would restrict sales of violent video games to minors -- and the outcome of those hearings could have the widest impact on not only the video game industry, but entertainment media as a whole.

The years-long controversy surrounding the video game law came to a head when California lawmakers, video game industry representatives and lawyers converged on Washington D.C. to debate and discuss the merits of the 2005 measure, backed by California Sen. Leland Yee and Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.

If put into practice, the law would make it illegal for a retailer to sell a minor a video game deemed excessively violent. Retailers would be fined $1,000 per violation, and game packaging would require an extra 2-inch-by-2 inch label displaying the number "18."

The nation's top judges heard the arguments of Schwarzenegger vs. the Entertainment Merchants Association with interest, and while they expressed serious concern about the law's accordance with the First Amendment, the justices criticized the games industry's supposed tendency to downplay violent games' possible effects on children.

Opponents of the law argued that the law is too vague to be effective, and would instead cause a chilling effect -- game creators would be wary of crossing the line into "excessively violent," and would essentially self-censor themselves.

Major companies and organizations from all corners of entertainment such as publishing, movies, television as well as video games, spoke out against the law by filing numerous amicus briefs with the Supreme Court, knowing that if the law should pass scrutiny by the highest court in the land, their own industries could be the next targets for similar laws with the potential for creative and commercial stifling.

Prior to its appearance before the Supreme Court, the law -- and several similar laws in other states -- was already deemed unconstitutional by lower courts. But until the top court officially decides on the legality of the California measure, the video game industry and other entertainment sectors will just have to wait and see, and hope for the best when the ruling arrives next year.

Other notable industry events of 2010 included:

- UK government nixes game developer tax breaks
- Disney's purchase of Playdom for up to $763 million
- Viacom puts Rock Band creator Harmonix up for sale
- Ngmoco acquired for $400 million
- Facebook changes its notification policies to limit spam, and in effect, virality

101018-ig-1.jpgTop 5 Facebook Social Games

For the social game leaders who've built their empires on social network Facebook's platform and the backs of its users (which accounts for pretty much all of them, although iOS is an increasing force here!), 2010 was just as much a tumultuous year as it was a prosperous one.

The giants in the industry, like Zynga and Disney/Playdom, grew not only their total audience sizes but also their headcounts and coffers, opening and acquiring a myriad of studios around the world -- expansions funded by the hundreds of millions of dollars raised from investors wanting a piece of this flourishing market.

It wasn't an easy year for the titles that relied heavily on viral channels for their inflated user base numbers, though.

Facebook sent a message to developers with changes it implemented in March: the social network would not stand for spam-like tactics that many games relied on to attract and retain players.

After Facebook limited the application "notification spam" that aggravated its users but benefited social games looking for fast/cheap growth, many of the site's most popular games lost millions of users.

Zynga's FarmVille, the biggest Facebook app for most of the year, dropped from its peak of 84 million monthly active users to now 57 million, according to AppData.

Since then, more developers have espoused the idea that their titles need to focus on compelling gameplay and metrics-based design, rather than virality tricks, to succeed. It's an approach that many social gamers, especially those new to gaming and now looking for more depth in Facebook's offerings, surely appreciate.

Here are our picks for the top five social network games featured on Facebook and exemplifying that trend:

5. Millionaire City by Digital Chocolate

If 2009 was the year of countless farming and mafia game clones, 2010 was teeming with empire-building simulators inspired by Sim City and Civilization. For developers looking to create social games with more complexity and a satisfying sense of progression, there are few better titles to imitate than these two classics, which have enslaved players for decades.

Digital Chocolate, a strong proponent of the idea that social games shouldn't be shallow, created one of the most popular sims with Millionaire City, which is more about snatching up and managing real estate than carefully planning the layout of a city. The game offers missions, achievements, the ability to visit friends' towns, and other features designed to grab and keep players' attentions quick.

The developer has naturally followed up Millionaire City's success (nearly 13 million monthly active users) with recent releases like Vegas City and Hollywood City

4. Zuma Blitz by PopCap Games

Just as puzzler fans were finally pulling themselves away from Bejeweled Blitz, PopCap brought another of its addictive PC/console/mobile titles to Facebook. Similar to Mitchell's Puzz Loop/Magnetica series, Zuma has players frantically aiming with their mouse and firing colored balls at a chain of incoming spheres, matching three similarly colored orbs to explode a segment of the stream.

Zuma Blitz condenses the concept into a polished one-minute experience (power-ups can extend your play-time much longer) and adds an XP/leveling feature that unlocks new power-ups, a satisfying "Hot Frog" mode that sends sphere-clearing fireballs across the screen, and of course social features like weekly tournaments, leaderboards, and medals/achievements you can show off to friends.

3. Ravenwood Fair by LOLapps

Built under the creative direction of industry notables Brenda Brathwaite (Wizardry) and John Romero (Doom, Quake), Ravenwood Fair has a completely different atmosphere from the sims you typically find on Facebook: Players create and maintain a fairground, entertain woodland creatures with different attractions, and explore and complete quests inside a sinister, magical forest.

Ravenwood Fair's offbeat premise and dichotomy between cute critters and menacing woods not only transforms the game into something more than a FrontierVille clone; it also afforded LOLapps the opportunity to add more character and flavor to NPC interactions than one typically expects from social games, and to present the world with a distinct visual style that's both adorable and ominous.

2. It Girl by CrowdStar

Created by the largest independent game developer on Facebook, CrowdStar's It Girl melds MMO and RPG mechanics with shopping, fashion, cliques, and parties. Players shop for/collect as many outfits and accessories as they can find, then compete against each other in "Showdowns", quick battles that take into account clique size, confidence, and wardrobes.

Obviously targeting younger women (and designed by a mostly female team), It Girl goes beyond the "pink games" approach many developers take to appeal to girls with simple games about ponies and dolls, and provides a rich experience with elements reminiscent of "hardcore" MMORPGs: player-versus-player combat, countless fetch quests, and, yes, lots of rare gear to collect.

1. FrontierVille by Zynga

During a post-virality period when many believed a studio producing another major hit -- one that could quickly take in tens of millions of monthly players and rise to Facebook fame -- was highly unlikely, Zynga released just that with FrontierVille, an engrossing Old West pioneer sim that now has over 30.5 million users on the social network (not quite CityVille numbers but still impressive).

Veteran strategy game designer Brian Reynolds (Civilization II, Rise Of Nations) and his team at Zynga East took the habit-forming FarmVille formula and its farming/livestock mechanics, and expanded on it with varmints to clobber, quests/goals to complete, virtual partners to marry, families to raise, neighbors to visit and invite, badges to earn, and more in FrontierVille.

Honorable Mentions

City of Wonder by Disney/Playdom
Mighty Pirates by CrowdStar
Social City by Disney/Playdom
FIFA Superstars by Electronic Arts/Playfish
CityVille by Zynga

disappointing.jpgTop 5 Disappointments

Because the gaming industry is so fast-moving, it's a hotbed not only for exciting, welcome developments, but also some crushing disappointments.

In 2010, we saw proof that certain projects can take on a life of their own -- in a negative sense -- and come back to bite the ones who have been spending so much time intending to deliver a good product.

Also this year, an entire region was let down after its government reneged on a guarantee, and one major publisher might have missed out on an opportunity to make a statement about free speech and video games.

As for the industry's digital sales, they're on the rise, but most are still almost completely in the dark as to the exact extent of their relevance. What can the industry learn from some of the biggest disappointments in 2010?

5. Digital Sales Figures Still Shrouded In Mystery

As businesses move beyond boxed models, it's becoming increasingly unclear what's working in digital, what's not, and exactly how healthy or unhealthy this industry is. That's because we are still seeing very little in the way of online and digital sales figures, despite their increasing relevance.

Many companies continue to shroud online sales in mystery. We're able to determine the performance for some digital and online games through things like online leaderboards. And when a company like Activision sells millions of units of a map pack, publishers are happy to brag. Some indies are also quick to share their sales figures with the world, whether or not their games were huge hits, and publishers sometimes break out their digital revenues.

But meanwhile, NPD Group's monthly (scaled back) U.S. boxed game-focused video game report shows that November was the first month of sales growth since March this year in the U.S. That reflects seven months of retail game losses following a down 2009 in the U.S.

We just wonder how much better the industry would today look if we actually had more digital transparency from game makers.

4. Final Fantasy XIV Fail

As the first Final Fantasy MMORPG since 2002's Final Fantasy XI, Final Fantasy XIV was supposed to be the game that brought the beloved RPG universe into the next generation of MMOs.

Instead, FFXIV's launch has turned out to be a massively multiplayer online blunder. The Windows PC version launched on September 30, and early adopters have been greeted with stability, performance and functionality issues, problems that developer and publisher Square Enix is apparently working around the clock to fix.

The game's problems were serious enough to lead Square Enix to extend the game's free 30-day trial period twice in order to appease players. Last week, the company restructured the game's development team, bumping the producer down to a supporting role and bringing in staff from other projects to take over.

And to top it off, Square, probably wisely, decided to delay the launch of the PlayStation 3 version of the game out of March 2011 and into the next fiscal year. Really, there was only one other MMO launch in 2010 that was more disappointing than that of Final Fantasy XIV.

3. "Taliban" Rebadged In New Medal of Honor

There are two tiers of disappointment regarding the Medal of Honor "Taliban" standoff from earlier this year: the controversy itself and Electronic Arts' response to it.

October's Medal of Honor franchise reboot is set in Afghanistan, where the militant Taliban group operates. Naturally, EA, focused on delivering a more realistic war game, decided that it would make sense to have multiplayer modes that pit allied forces against the Taliban.

But after word got out that gamers would be able to take the side of the virtual Taliban and frag virtual allied troops, the mainstream media, military and outspoken friends and family of fallen soldiers decried the real-world setting of the game and gamers' ability to take on the role of Taliban fighters.

It was disappointing to see that once again, the video game industry was being singled out from other forms of entertainment for acknowledging real-world events such as war. While films like Green Zone and The Hurt Locker have provided entertainment about war and death to flocks of popcorn-chomping moviegoers, some groups still find that the interactive nature of video games is enough reason to declare that games shouldn't touch on similar realistic subject matter or scenarios.

It was also disappointing to see industry juggernaut EA cave to what seemed to be a vocal minority. The publisher, prior to Medal of Honor's release, changed the Taliban faction in multiplayer to the more generic "Opposing Force."

It's debatable whether or not it was a wise commercial decision in the first place to give players control over a group labeled "Taliban" in a modern war game. But the issue goes deeper than that -- this controversy happened in a year when the games industry was readying to fight for its First Amendment rights before the Supreme Court.

Game designer and author Ian Bogost was frank when he said EA's dismissal of the importance of the "Taliban" label in Medal of Honor was one of "commercial political convenience."

2. UK Government Nixes Tax Breaks

Following years of lobbying by UK-based video game industry advocates, the UK government in March this year said it would include tax breaks for video game developers in its budget for 2010.

But efforts by the UK video game industry to make the region more hospitable to current and potential game companies were dashed in June, when Chancellor George Osborne decided tax breaks for the industry were "poorly targeted," and too narrowly focused on a single industry.

The renege was a blow to the morale of those who see greater potential in the UK game industry. The effects of insufficient tax breaks in the region already seem to be taking hold: There is a slow but sure migration of talent from the UK to more game-friendly nations like Canada, and the UK game industry employs 9 percent fewer people than it did in 2008.

The bad news on the UK tax breaks front may continue into 2011 and beyond. Just this month, UK Minister for Culture, Communications and Creative Industries Ed Vaizey said if the industry pushes solely for tax breaks, it "could mean a hiatus for three or four years [or more] before it realistically comes back onto the table."

1. Realtime Worlds Collapses After APB Release

Realtime Worlds had a lot going for it. Headed up by industry icon and original Grand Theft Auto and Lemmings creator Dave Jones, the Dundee, Scotland game studio had an experienced management staff, a fun-focused game design mentality and a creative leader with a knack for raising tens of millions of dollars of venture capital.

With the 2007 release of the open world Xbox 360 action game Crackdown, the rapidly-growing Realtime showed big promise. The next game on the slate, APB, was supposed to fully realize the creative and commercial potential of the talented studio.

But in 2010, the much-delayed launch of the MMO cops vs. robbers action game All Points Bulletin marked the studio's undoing. After years of development and tens of millions of dollars invested, the game launched in late June, and was a genuine commercial bust by mid-September.

APB went offline in dramatic fashion as Realtime went into administration, shedding nearly 300 jobs, a substantial blow to a region whose influence was already slipping in the global games industry. The studio shuttered as another formerly secret project, MyWorld, was picked up by ex-Realtime Worlds chair Ian Hetherington.

In 2010, Realtime's demise exemplified the risk involved in investing tens of millions of dollars into a massive online retail game -- still a common business model. Perhaps Realtime's collapse wouldn't have been so disappointing if expectations for the studio weren't so high.

Other disappointments of 2010 include:

Harmonix's proposed sale makes music game downturn official
Tony Hawk skating games continue to fall far from their commercial heyday
Q4 release schedule crush continues in 2010
Crummy App Store versions of major game franchises

snp2_shot.jpgTop 5 Under-Rated Games

That blockbusters such as Red Dead Redemption, Mass Effect 2 and Call of Duty: Black Ops top many of the end of year game lists is of no surprise.

Not to belittle their great accomplishments, but these titles have been praised with such predicable enthusiasm over the past month that their celebration can seem a little rote and dry (Gamasutra’s perspicacious praise notwithstanding).

Far more interesting are those titles that have been overlooked by the bulk of the gaming populace, games without the marketing budget equal to the GDP of a developing country who, by failing to match prevailing fashions or by choosing the wrong moment in the release schedules to make their appearance, fell by the wayside in 2010.

Here are five such games, experiences that offer something different and fascinating, games that you won’t find on many of the Top 10 Game lists of the year but who, by rights, should feature on each.

An alternative Top 5 list, these under-rated games of 2010 deserve your attention, if only to encourage their makers to keep swimming against the tide in order to keep this medium both diverse and stimulating.

5. Chime (Zoe Mode/OneBigGame, XBLA/PSN)

Zoe Mode’s music puzzle game may seem derivative of Lumines in style and approach, but in mechanical terms it’s by far the more interesting proposition. With an inverse goal to that of most block-clearing games, Chime has you attempting to fill a grid with pentomino shapes.

The musical aspect to the game is then overlaid on top of this, each shape triggering a sample whose pitch is dictated by its position in the grid, generating a composition that's at once unique and familiar.

With pieces of music licensed from artists who rarely feature in video games, including avant-garde composer Philip Glass, Chime would be one of the most interesting downloable titles of the year even if it hadn’t been created for charity.

As it is, this, the first release from OneBigGame demonstrated that the philanthropic initiative is just as interested in creating interesting, innovative games as it is making the world a better place. The result is anything but a charity case.

4. Hot Shots Tennis: Get a Grip (Clap Hanz/ Sony, PSP)

The RPG-ification of games has continued apace in 2010, with games in a huge range of diverse genres doling out experience points for the most unlikely of virtual accomplishments.

But none has committed to the design approach with such forcefulness or success as Sony’s Hot Shots Tennis: Get a Grip (known as Everybody’s Tennis everywhere outside of the U.S.) on PSP, a game that awards Exp. on a per-shot basis.

The endorphin micropayments for every ace served and on-the-baseline lob successfully landed work wonders on the handheld. It may be a cheap trick, designed to artificially heighten the sense of accomplishment for otherwise routine actions, but it’s done with such flair and abandon here that it’s difficult to begrudge the designers for it.

With the leveling and doll-dressing couched in a J-Rocky-esque narrative with heroes and villains and pacts and rivalries you have one of the most exciting tennis games of the decade, albeit one that owes as much to Pokemon as it does the sport it riffs upon.

3. Resonance of Fate (Tri Ace/ Sega, Xbox 360, PS3)

Tri-Ace has long been the Japanese RPG developer most willing to take risks with what has always been video gaming’s most conservative genre. Released mere weeks after Final Fantasy XIII, the developer’s latest effort, Resonance of Fate is by far the more exciting game.

Not every one of its innovations could be considered a success and certainly the convoluted battle system reveals its complexities over the course of hours of play, not minutes but nevertheless, this unusual mixture of Victorian weaponry, John Woo-esque acrobatics and board game metagame is fascinating in its creativity.

Even the world in which the game is set subverts convention, turning the traditional hero's journey from pastoral village out to the ends of a troubled earth on its head into a vertical climb up a decaying steampunk tower of Babel.

The story may be transient and esoteric, but with pared back cut-scenes, and a reassuring turn from voice actor-du-jour Nolan North, it’s palatable. The result is a game that transcends its frustrations with creativity, bristling with quirky charm and ideas ripe for plucking by the JRPG’s less daring artisans.

2. Just Cause 2 (Avalanche Studios/ Square Enix, Xbox 360/ PS3/ PC)

The Achilles heel of so many sandbox worlds is the distance between missions. No matter how exciting the assignments placed before you, so often the sense of pace and excitement to a sandbox world is nullified as every journey between targets is turned into a commute. The trick then is to make the journey as exciting as the destination, and it’s one that Just Cause 2 excels at.

Of course there’s still the opportunity to hijack a car or plane to traverse the terrain, but the combination of parachute and grappling hook makes launching into the sky a two-button sequence, allowing you to shift your view into the beautiful island of Panau in an instant, making the ground around as important a factor in negotiating space as the vehicle between your legs.

As a result Just Cause 2 may have the opposite problem to many sandbox titles, its thrills front-loaded and the somewhat lackluster mission structure in the latter stages dulling what has gone before. But nonetheless, few 3D spaces have been such a joy to navigate.

Moreover, developer Avalanche Studios nails that other, impromptu appeal of the sandbox game, offering a playpen in which you can tether enemies to gas canisters and watch the resulting rag-doll spectacle, or attach two jumbo jets with a wire and see them spiral out of control across a blemish-less sky. No other game in 2010 offered a world filled with such explosive joy.

1. Sin and Punishment: Star Successor (Treasure/ Nintendo, Nintendo Wii)

The sequel to one of the Nintendo 64’s strongest titles exhibits a great many of those traits that has maintained developer Treasure’s position as Japan’s leading boutique developer. This on-rails shooter, like so many other games in the company’s oeuvre, offers a relentless conveyor belt of inspired ideas, distinct, discrete moments of brilliance that dizzy the mind with their intensity and inventiveness.

It’s un-sustainably expensive game-making, the fixed positions of enemies and immovable set-pieces leaving no room for padding with procedural battles. Rather, every moment in this rollercoaster ride of twitch shooting has been meticulously orchestrated with a brand of care and creative attention rarely seen today.

As with its forebear, your character exists only on a 2D plane, firing into the screen as per Space Harrier. But the camera wheels and dives around, shifting perspective in ways that thrill and changing the language of interaction from side-scroller to top-down to vertical shoot-'em-up and back again.

Being a Treasure game, the spectacle is buoyed by score attack mechanics that inspire repeat play long after the visual treats and surprises have grown cold. Despite the level of craftsmanship and inspiration, the game is perhaps something of an anachronism, its workmanlike graphical assets failing to draw the attention of the Wii audience.

Nevertheless, Sin and Punishment: Star Successor is one of the strongest titles of the year, bold evidence that Japanese developers on many counts still produce the most thrilling and inventive video games for those with eyes to see.

Honorable Mentions

Darksiders (Vigil Games/THQ, Xbox 360/PS3)
Army of Two: The 40th Day (EA Montreal, Xbox 360/PS3)
Spiderman: Shattered Dimensions (Beenox/Activision, PC, PS3, Wii, Xbox 360)
Split/Second (Black Rock/Disney, PC, Xbox 360, PS3)
Singularity (Raven/Activision, Xbox 360, PC, PS3)
Patchwork Heroes (PlayStation C.A.M.P./Sony, PSP)
Blur (Bizarre Creations/Activision, Xbox 360, PC, PS3)
R.U.S.E (Eugen Systems/Ubisoft, PS3, Xbox 360, PC)

dq9_box.jpgTop 5 Handheld Games 

Though analysts and mobile gaming advocates will have you believe that everyone's abandoning the Nintendo DS and PSP, that gossip thankfully did little to distract handheld studios from continuing to craft compelling games in 2010.

During a year when many seemed content to spend their portable gaming time with ill-tempered birds and other iOS apps designed for quick entertainment, masterful developers like Kojima Productions and Level-5 forged experiences that immersed players, pulling them in with rich stories, rewarding mechanics, and clever surprises.

Along with its usual collection of quirky titles, the Nintendo DS was impossible to ignore in 2010 for fans of Japanese RPGs, what with a year full of titles like Infinite Space, Final Fantasy: The 4 Heroes of Light, Golden Sun: Dark Dawn, Etrian Odyssey III, Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey, and many others. 

And PSP owners enjoyed a wealth of top-notch handheld adaptations for home console franchises (e.g. God Of War: Ghost Of Sparta), not to mention an assembly of strange but endearing niche releases like Patchwork Heroes, Invizimals, and Z.H.P. Unlosing Ranger vs. Darkdeath Evilman.

Here are our picks for the top five handheld games of this year (stay tuned for a separate summary of 2010's best mobile titles):

5. WarioWare D.I.Y. (Intelligent Systems) [Nintendo DS]

Years ago, Game Boy creator Gunpei Yokoi dropped some knowledge on a young Yoshio Sakamoto, explaining to the future Metroid director and WarioWare producer, "If you can make pixel art, you can make a game."

This sixth release in Nintendo's madcap microgame series recalls those wise words and keeps the WarioWare formula fresh by offering approachable tools for players to develop and share miniature games with their own pixel art, music, and offbeat ideas.

WarioWare D.I.Y.'s simplicity and whimsy encourages players to create all kinds of microgames -- condensed remakes of classic titles like Karateka, commentaries on real-life topics like emigrating to the U.S., and video game snapshots that capture a part of players' lives in an interactive experience.

4. Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 Portable (Atlus) [PSP]

Atlus likely could have appeased fans with a straight port of 2007's Persona 3, the PS2 RPG praised for its Social Links (NPC friendships that advance character stories and unlock Personas) and dark themes, but the developer packed in more than enough new content to attract both first-time and veteran players to this PSP version.

Along with its new difficulty options, battle system changes inspired by Persona 4, full party control, streamlined overworld interface, and other additions, Persona 3 Portable introduces a female protagonist that brings with her new Social Links, music, and more.

Even in its second re-release (2008's Persona 3 FES being the first), the RPG's dungeon crawling, Social Links, and coming-of-age tale are just as enthralling, and the ability to play it on the go and experience the story from a new perspective make this an essential title for any fan of offbeat RPGs.

3. 999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors (Chunsoft) [Nintendo DS]

Chunsoft, whose catalog of celebrated "sound novels" includes 428, Machi, and other titles ignored by U.S. publishers, somehow managed to bring 999 to the States via Aksys and release one of 2010's most underappreciated gems on any console last month.

In this anxiety-filled M-rated DS game, players find themselves kidnapped and trapped on a sinking ocean liner, forced to work with eight other similarly unfortunate characters to survive deadly puzzles set by a mysterious villain named Zero. Each participant of the "Nonary Game" has a bomb attached to them that will blow up if any of Zero's rules are disobeyed.

999's Choose Your Own Adventure-style story progression might seem simple at first, but players soon discover their decisions determine whether they (and their companions) live or die. It's a gripping adventure that gamers will need to play several times over to learn the relationships between all the characters and unravel the mystery of Zero's Nonary Game.

2. Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker (Kojima Productions) [PSP]

Undoubtedly one of the finest titles shipped for PSP, Peace Walker delivers a beautifully illustrated story (stylish animated cutscenes by noted artist Ashley Wood) and tense stealth-action gameplay that have no trouble comparing against the series' best home console releases.

Its bite-sized missions are already a joy to sneak through by themselves, but the ability to capture and recruit hundreds of enemies, assimilating them into Naked Snake's own armies to unlock new weapons and equipment among other benefits, adds an addictive, almost Pokemon-esque side-objective to the assignments.

The ad-hoc multiplayer integration, which allows gamers to run through the main campaign and extra missions with up to three friends, merits praise for not only allowing two players to sneak around in the same cardboard box but for also offering new co-op strategies and previously inaccessible areas to explore. It has co-op Monster Hunter missions, too!

1. Dragon Quest IX: Sentinels of the Starry Skies (Level-5) [Nintendo DS]

It is so easy for even a "casual" gamer to find they've lost over a hundred hours to Dragon Quest IX. Between the game's job/class system, alchemy recipes, treasure map dungeons, and many quests (a good portion downloadable), it's not unusual for players to sink 200+ hours when delving into the RPG's post-game content.

Dragon Quest IX's world is one many won't mind investing so much time in, as it's filled with peculiar characters, adorable enemies (Teeny Sanguini!), and bittersweet encounters. The beautifully written story campaign presents a diverse set of adventures that has gamers searching for a pet lizard, acting as an undercover private school detective, and just helping every troubled soul they can find.

And one of the game's neatest social features, in addition to the local co-op multiplayer supported by the main campaign, is the "Tag Mode" ability for passively trading randomly generated treasure maps with other nearby Dragon Quest IX owners -- something players might not get to try out too often but is absolutely delightful at gamer gatherings.

Dragon Quest IX does so many things right, one easily forgets that its turn-based combat system is essentially the same basic setup from the original Dragon Warrior from 20+ years ago.

Honorable Mentions:

God Of War: Ghost Of Sparta (Ready at Dawn Studios, SCE Santa Monica Studio)
Picross 3D (HAL Laboratory)
Patchwork Heroes (Acquire)
Shantae: Risky's Revenge (WayForward Technologies)
Valkyria Chronicles II (Sega)
Etrian Odyssey III: The Drowned City (Atlus)
Cave Story DSiWare (Studio Pixel, Nicalis)
Glow Artisan (Powerhead Games)
Ys: The Oath In Felghana (Nihon Falcom Corporation)
Super Scribblenauts (5th Cell)

41814_111596662223307_5425_n.jpgTop 5 Biggest Controversies

The game industry is constantly growing and evolving -- and that can't happen without a little contention from time to time, right? With every year comes new public debates, debacles and disputes, and 2010 played host to many.

The first-person shooter category, more highly-valued than ever, saw numerous dramas, a new platform faced openness issues, and the industry and gamers alike considered identity issues in more ways than one.

Given how vocal and passionate those working in and around the game industry tend to be, it's not uncommon to see heated discussion crop up around just about any issue.

But here are five that drew the biggest buzz during 2010, that made the juiciest -- and, in many cases, the most deeply-considered -- headlines this year.

5. Apple Versus Flash

The success of Apple's iOS platform was swift and explosive. It seemed like out of nowhere, the company's devices were everywhere -- but it was this year's iPad launch that really made users more aware than ever that the company's lack of Flash support was a problem.

With a bright, touchable screen and an elegant hardware that seemed ideal for web-browsing in one's lap, the inability to use Flash on iOS seemed a big hole in an otherwise largely seamless offering.

And Apple and Adobe had an exchange of words in the public eye, beginning with Apple CEO Steve Jobs' statement about his company's decision. Adobe asserted Apple was trying to control its App Store, and Jobs said that the company simply wanted to protect users: "Adobe claims that we are a closed system, and that Flash is open, but in fact the opposite is true," he wrote.

For Adobe's part, it said openness was essential to innovation -- a sentiment shared by many game developers who wanted to bring their Flash projects to iOS. At last a form of compromise was reached, as Apple loosened some of its third-party tools restrictions, thereby allowing developers to run apps built with Flash in a fashion that packages them as native, so long as they don't download any code. Users still can't use the Flash plugin itself to browse the web or play games, however.

4. What's In A Name?

It's been suggested that bearing a relationship to real-world conflicts, instead of the vague correlation most modern war games have preferred, might add a new layer of relevance and dignity to the first-person shooter category.

But either that's not actually the case in practice or audiences simply aren't ready, because Electronic Arts' decision to identify the enemy faction in Medal of Honor's multiplayer as Taliban -- and in so doing, allow players to take the role of Taliban against U.S. soldiers -- was hotly contested.

Many, especially veterans' advocacy groups and mothers of fallen soldiers, felt it was disrespectful to literally act out the combat that was taking lives overseas. Those in favor pointed to free speech -- the very rights the industry is in the midst of arguing in the Supreme Court -- the distinction between video games and reality, or a happy compromise, wherein portrayal in interactive entertainment could help people relate to real-world events better.

A heated debate ensued, with strong opinions on both sides. Ultimately, despite its initial 'proud' and immutable position, EA eventually capitulated to the vocal detractors, changing the word "Taliban" to "Opposing Force", a decision that some continue to view as the only way to be respectful, while others see it as an act of commercial appeasement absent of sincerity.

3. Blizzard's Real ID Battle

The internet has always provided the haven of anonymity, while the worlds of MMO games offer players a new "self", a chance to be anyone. Although this is a positive element for many players, others have wondered whether the lack of accountability associated with anonymity has contributed to a tide of anti-social behavior online.

"Cyber-bullying" was a much-buzzed topic in the mainstream press this year, and the game industry has for a few years now taken a long, hard look at the culture within online services where no one has to use their real name. Would people's discourse be more respectful, their game behavior more holistic, their multiplayer sessions more inclusive if people had to sign their real-world names beside everything they did?

Blizzard decided to find out. In what it called an effort to "promote constructive conversations" and curb "flame wars, trolling, and other unpleasantness," the company introduced the 'Real ID' feature on its forums, requiring users to use their real names when posting on a community forum.

What happened next was nothing less than a massive uproar, with users bemoaning lost personal privacy and concern for their information security. On the other side of the argument was the concept that everything's online now, and that if one has no problem having a Facebook account, one should be okay with putting their real name on a Blizzard forum account. But in the face of the massive controversy, Blizzard quickly retracted the idea, citing feedback from its users as the most important factor in its policy-making.

2. Infinity Ward's Lawsuits

The battle for the first-person shooter crown this year -- and all of its hirings, firings and machinations -- was arguably the largest conflict of 2010, as industry-watchers looked to see what would become of Call of Duty, Infinity Ward and its relationship with Activision, among all the other moving parts.

But it was the contentious way the departure of co-founders Jason West and Vincent Zampella played out that was among the most-watched dispute of the year: it began with Activision's sudden sweep of the Infinity Ward's office and ousting of the two studio heads.

The sensational claim? The two had been plotting behind the scenes with a rival publisher -- later revealed allegedly to be EA -- and preparing a coup on Activision. Then there was the other side.

The ousting and accusations were a ploy to deprive the pair of their rightfully-earned Modern Warfare 2 bonuses, and accordi

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