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.
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?
Top 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.
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.
Top 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.
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.
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.
- 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.)
- 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.)
- 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.)
Top 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
Top 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.
Top 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 blowto 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
Top 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.
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)
Top 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.
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)
Top 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 Battle.net 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 according to claims, the outstanding incentives were being held over the heads of remaining employees to keep them from following their former leaders (Activision denies that the conflicts have any relationship to employees' compensation).
That EA managed to avenge, in a manner, Activision's poaching of its Visceral Games founders Glen Schofield and Michael Condrey by signing West and Zampella's Respawn Studios -- and that Activision retorted by signing Halo wizards Bungie to a 10-year deal -- and that EA couldn't resist weighing in -- was just icing on one of the biggest dramas the industry had ever seen.
1. The Industry's Identity Crisis
Amid the explosive rise of new business models, the industry's biggest and most bitter arguments were perhaps least visible to gamers and consumers, but impossible for those in the business of developing games to ignore.
In 2010, the industry crowned something of a new villain in social game developer Zynga, massively successful on the back of Facebook games that most felt were designed around metrics rather than creativity, storytelling, spirit, engagement -- or any of the principles game designers had heretofore prized. When Zynga's Bill Mooney used an awards acceptance speech to tell an audience of young, quirky IGF winners that they'd be glad to work for him someday, the offense they took was almost palpable.
But the old polarity of "corporate versus indie" doesn't even apply here. Numerous veteran game designers, from Steve Meretzky and Raph Koster to Brenda Brathwaite and Brian Reynolds, began exploring the social space -- much to the bafflement of indies and traditionalists, who argued publicly among themselves about the "true" identity of game design in 2010.
Ian Bogost's Cow Clicker was practically a rebel movement, provoking solidarity and ire alike. Venture capitalists said traditional game designers were "in denial.
Alongside these contentious discussions it soon became clear that the parties in many cases considered the issue deeply personal and as such could not, would not agree. Jesse Schell's DICE talk on 'gamification' -- society viewed through the lens of game design, with achievements and rewards for mundane tasks great and small -- rocked the industry, presenting a vision of the future considered bleak by many.
Bigger than any lawsuit or public spat is this roiling angst, this era of self-reflection and self-definition for the games industry as it struggles to figure out what it "is", what it's "for", and where its integrity lies.
Top 5 PC Games
The definition of a "PC game" continued to become cloudier in 2010. Is it a "triple-A" PC-exclusive? Are indie games included? Is it browser-based games? Cloud-based games? Social network gaming? Free-to-play?
The beautiful thing about PC gaming is that the answer to everything is a resounding "yes." Just about anything can happen on the ubiquitous and open PC. The only limit is developers' ingenuity and imagination.
There's no certification with the platform holder as there is with a console -- the power is solely in the hands of the developer, and that remains PC gaming's biggest advantage.
While technically PC gaming does include any game that is played on a PC, Gamasutra is breaking out in separate lists social network games and indie games, which are often played on PC (although there will still be a small amount of overlap with indies).
Absent from this list are two of the biggest phenomena on PC this year -- Blizzard's World of Warcraft: Cataclysm, which is an expansion and not a wholly new game, and Markus Persson's Minecraft, which while utterly brilliant and recognized on our indie list, is still technically in beta.
Even without those entries, 2010 once again brought the kind of variety that PC is known for, whether its the improved FPS/RPG hybrid Stalker: Call of Pripyat, the terrifying Amnesia: The Dark Descent, the cross-platform sci-fi epic RPG Mass Effect 2, the rebooted and refined Civilization V or the incomparable StarCraft II.
Notably, there's only one game on our 2010 list that isn't PC-exclusive, one less than last year. That wasn't a conscious decision -- it really just worked out that way.
5. Stalker: Call of Pripyat (GSC Game World)
Having debuted in 2007, GSC Game World's Stalker franchise still possesses one of the more unique experiences in PC gaming. And this year's Stalker: Call of Pripyat, the third entry in the series, impresses with gameplay that feeds into the immersive post-nuclear wasteland called "The Zone."
Don't let the RPG-derived questing framework fool you; there's no experience points or leveling. The only way you'll survive mutant attacks in the irradiated Zone surrounding the devastated Chernobyl nuclear power plant is to find the right tools and meet the right people, not by grinding.
What Call of Pripyat does best is make the player feel like he is fighting against The Zone and its inhabitants, struggling to survive, but at the same time dependent on its resources and people. Plenty of tense horror-inspired encounters with mutated monsters punctuate players' time in this latest imagining of the franchise, contributing to the players' give-and-take relationship with The Zone.
4. Amnesia: The Dark Descent (Frictional Games)
Player dis-empowerment isn't anything new to the survival horror genre, but among big-name video game entries that have a horror slant, whether it's the latest Resident Evil, Dead Space or Fear, there's an arms race that has resulted in protagonists who are armed to the teeth with anything from bazookas to assault rifles and incendiary grenades.
In the world of Frictional Games' Amnesia: The Dark Descent you don't have grenade launchers, M16s or shotguns. And even if you did, they probably would be of little use. The gruesome creatures within dreary Brennenburg castle possess a ghost-like, ever-present supernatural-ness that makes them terrifying, as if they can appear at will in order to menace protagonist Daniel. A Raccoon City S.T.A.R.S. member would likely wind up a sobbing mess in a corner somewhere deep within Brennenburg.
It's not just the creatures, but the castle itself that has the ability to petrify players, with immersive, eerie sounds and environments that, even with no enemies in sight, often bear down so hard on players that they have to step back and collect their own sanity to remind themselves that this is only a game.
3. Mass Effect 2 (BioWare)
While designed with the console player and controller in mind, BioWare did a commendable job of bringing the action-oriented role-playing game Mass Effect 2 to PC players. A sprawling universe, unexpected, clever story developments and a memorable ending (much more so than the original Mass Effect) means this RPG finds fans on both sides of the PC-console divide.
There are some legitimate complaints about the game: the battle system, while improved, could still do with more interesting inter-character combo attacks, the side roads of a branching storyline ultimately merge back into a largely linear interstate, and, well, there was the planet scanning (which wasn't quite as tedious with a mouse as opposed to a controller).
But even with those concerns, Mass Effect 2 is overall an experience infused with memorable characters, planets and events that feel distinctly "Mass Effect," a notable achievement in such a crowded genre.
2. Civilization V (Firaxis)
It's somewhat ironic that Take-Two developer Firaxis delivered such a thorough re-freshening of the classic Civilization franchise by employing a decades-old strategy game concept: the hex map.
Civilization V is the first time that the franchise has used a hex map, but the changes and improvements to the series went far beyond that fundamental shift. As a whole, Firaxis managed to accomplish a supremely difficult task, which is streamlining a complex strategy game to make it more accessible without dumbing it down.
It launched with some issues -- particularly with the A.I. -- that Firaxis is sorting out with patches. But for most players, even on release day, Civilization V was still was fun enough to play for hours straight. To call this game a timesink is a disservice; Civilization V solidifies the continuing relevance of the revered series, and is one of the best arguments for the relevance of the overall turn-based strategy genre that you can find.
1. StarCraft II (Blizzard Entertainment)
Some have derided StarCraft II as an antiquated click-fest; a remnant of resource-gathering real-time strategy gameplay that came to prominence -- and should have stayed -- in the 1990s.
Perhaps some fans of StarCraft II would like to argue that such naysayers are completely wrong, but actually, detractors have a bit of a point. If you want huge innovation in an RTS game, don't look to StarCraft II.
But if you want fast-paced multiplayer gameplay that has over a decade of polish under its belt (plus continuing balancing) and a single-player story that delivers the flawlessly-delivered, borderline sci-fi camp-ness and action that StarCraft fans expect, then here's your game. Innovation was never Blizzard's goal with StarCraft II -- the goal was peerless execution.
Just the fact that the incredibly-polished StarCraft II delivered on such inordinately high expectations is enough for it to make the top of this list. Successfully take on the enormously difficult task of integrating the game with a totally new Battle.net, sell a million copies on opening day and bring back old StarCraft fans while creating new ones... then you have the standout PC game of 2010.
ArmA 2 (Bohemia Interactive)
Supreme Commander 2 (Gas Powered Games)
Call of Duty: Black Ops (Treyarch)
Fallout: New Vegas (Obsidian)
RUSE (Eugen Systems)
Super Meat Boy (Team Meat)
Bejeweled 3 (PopCap)
Battlefield: Bad Company 2 (EA DICE)
DeathSpank (Hothead Games)
Top 10 Indie Games
So there you have it -- 2010 has come and gone, and with it a whole host of incredible indie gaming titles that have put the indie scene firmly on the map. With a record 391 entries into the Independent Games Festival this year, there is no doubt that indie games are, as always, a huge part of gaming as a whole.
With so many worthwhile releases, choosing just 10 from this year was quite the challenge. Note that for every game featured in our top 10, dozens of other must-play indie titles were left out. We genuinely feel bad about it, so we've listed just over a dozen honorable mentions at the bottom to make up for it.
We'll also be compiling various top 10s for each genre on IndieGames.com over the coming months, highlighting even more of the year's best releases, so make sure you watch out for those.
Here are our picks for the top ten indie games of this year:
10. Limbo (Playdead Studios) [Xbox Live Arcade, paid]
Ask any Xbox gamer which Live Arcade titles were worth checking out this year, and most likely they'll mention Limbo along with words like 'incredible', 'atmospheric' and 'unfair'. In development since 2004, Limbo plots the journey of a young, nameless boy into a dark, unforgiving world where beartraps, rolling boulders and giant spiders are the norm. As he ventures into the unknown, it becomes apparent that this is no mere underworld forest, with sprawling cities and a mysterious civilization to be found.
Limbo enjoys nothing more than killing you over and over again in the most gory and unrelenting manner possible, then laughing at your crippled remains. Fortunately, whenever death does befall our young hero, he is always placed back down just before the perpetrator, hence the trial and error feel to many of the puzzles is more humorous than frustrating -- indeed, it's enjoyable to play the game, but watching someone else fail time and time again is just as entertaining.
9. Shoot First (Beau Blyth) [Windows, freeware]
Beau Blyth is truly an indie developer extraordinaire -- not only did he release the fan-favorite action roguelike Shoot First this year, he's also found time to put out our personal favorites Action Fist and Fish Face in the same 12-month period. The surprise here is that they're all equally good, but we're limited to just picking one game from each developer for this "best of" selection.
Shoot First is more of an all-action affair than your usual roguelike, one that brings back memories of quarters spent on Gauntlet arcade machines back in the '80s. Players will embark on a quest to loot gold and save princesses as they progress deeper and deeper into the endless dungeon. The game features an automap system, a two-player co-op mode, an online leaderboard and even AI-controlled companions that will join your party if you can find and rescue them.
8. Minecraft (Mojang Specifications) [Windows, Mac and Linux, paid, beta available, free 'classic' version]
What a year it has been for Markus Persson, a.k.a. Notch. Last December, he was putting together Minecraft, an experimental exploration game that was becoming quite the underground hit -- we even gave the game an honorable mention in last year's top 10. Twelve months on, and more than 750,000 people have bought Minecraft, rendering Markus a multimillionaire. He has since bought an office, hired his friends to come and work with him, and is only just now pushing the game into the beta stages.
Just in case you've somehow managed to miss the phenomenon, Minecraft presents you with a blocky, randomly-generated world in which you can dig, build and explore, and even join friends online for a spot of multiplayer silliness. The game has got indie developers the world over scratching their heads, trying to work out what this secret formula for selling millions is. Minecraft is quite easily one of the biggest gaming success stories of the year.
7. Hydorah (Locomalito) [Windows, freeware]
Locomalito is a rising star in the indie game development community, and his pet project Hydorah (released in June this year) easily enhances his reputation even more. We still have a hard time believing that one man coded and drew every sprite found inside the game, although his collaborative partner Gryzor87 did provide some assistance by writing and contributing a soundtrack that's nearly one hour long.
Gradius fans will find plenty to like in Hydorah. There's the multiple path stage selection screen, a weapon loadout menu for players to customize their ship, difficult boss battles that'll have you on the edge of your seat, and some special unlockables reserved especially for masters of the shoot 'em up genre. Hydorah is our shoot-em-up highlight of 2010.
6. Joe Danger (Hello Games) [Playstation Network, paid]
One of the biggest PSN releases of 2010, Joe Danger is the work of four British friends and developers who are widely regarded as some of the nicest people in the gaming industry. Hello Games developed Joe Danger over the course of several years, and the game was released this summer to a flurry of high ratings from the press. Players take control of Joe Danger as he zooms over, under and through obstacles on his trusty motorbike.
It was the feel of the game that really made Joe Danger something special. Joe can hop, bounce and flip with relative ease, pulling off stunts in the air and wheelie-ing along the 2D plane to chain together huge score combos. A level editor was also included, allowing gamers to recreate their own fantasy Evel Knievel-style jumps. Off the back of their roaring success, Hello Games are currently looking to bump their team up with fresh faces and a larger office -- in the words of Hello Games developer Sean Murray, "our office is so small that it's pretty much impossible for the four of us not to be touching some part of our bodies at all times.".
5. Super Crate Box (Vlambeer) [Windows/Mac, freeware]
Not to be confused with Team Meat's Super Meat Boy, Super Crate Box is an incredibly fun score-based arcade game created by Dutch indie development studio Vlambeer. The premise of the game is this: enemies appear from a hole at the top of the screen, but you only score points by collecting crate boxes that spawn randomly with a different weapon each time. Enemies shouldn't be allowed to pass through the bottom of the level as well, since that'll just make them angrier and faster as they make their way to the pit again.
The range of randomized weapons found inside crates is limited at first, but plenty of cool and destructive pick-ups are unlocked as you get better at the game. You'll sink hours into Super Crate Box just playing through the multiple gameplay modes and trying to climb up the online leaderboards, we can assure you of that.
4. Super Meat Boy (Team Meat) [Xbox Live Arcade, Windows (Wii/Mac/Linux coming later), paid, free demo]
Touted by many as the Super Mario of this generation, Super Meat Boy is the work of two extremely hard-working individuals, Edmund McMillen and Tommy Refenes. This hard-as-nails platformer pays homage to the games that the duo used to play as youngsters, while simultaneously causing a good portion of players to scream blue murder as Meat Boy jumps into a grinder for the umpteenth time. Yet thanks to the snap-recovery and hot-footed nature of it all, these challenges feel like something worth overcoming, rather than a frustration.
It is perhaps the fantastic level design that Super Meat Boy is best known for, with over 300 levels of pure quality available and not a single saw or salt mount out of place. With the game released on both Xbox 360 and PC, and a Wii release coming early next year -- not to mention a free level editor for the PC version -- don't be surprised if you're hearing about this game for a little while longer.
3. Desktop Dungeons (Rodain Joubert) [Windows, freeware - alpha version]
Rodain Joubert has managed to do something that other developers could only dream of -- achieve a perfect balance between casual and hardcore with his freeware roguelike game, Desktop Dungeons. Every gameplay session usually lasts for only about 15 minutes, yet the unlockable achievements, playable characters and bonus dungeons will keep the fans coming back for more. The game is popular enough to spawn its own wiki resource, regularly updated to keep track of new spells, deities, enemies, character classes and dungeon areas.
But wait, there's more! If you don't like the default tileset (drawn by Spelunky creator Derek Yu) that comes bundled with Desktop Dungeons, you could always download and switch between other custom tilesets found in a variety of online forum threads dedicated to the game. When you lose, it's usually because you've not planned ahead, so be sure to brush up on your tactics and calculations before spending time with this indie gem.
2. Hero Core (Daniel Remar) [Windows, freeware]
The Swedish domination of the indie game development scene continues with Daniel Remar's Hero Core, a Metroid-style action shooter that is packed with rooms to explore, bosses to fight, suit upgrades to collect, and even cooler secrets to unlock. You play as Flip Hero, a man who is on a quest to defeat an evil machine warlord named Cruiser Tetron. Hero Core is also rather special because players are allowed to engage the final boss anytime they want to, although powering up the protagonist is essential if you want him to last more than a couple of seconds in the tense battle with his nemesis.
Don't be fooled by the lack of colors -- there's a lot of love put into Hero Core, and Brother Android's soundtrack for it only serves to elevate the experience to another level. You'll be humming to the music whenever you're not playing the game -- it's that good. Even better news is that both the game and the soundtrack are available to download from Daniel's site for free, so go grab it now and be ready to be transported back to an age when retro games were king.
1. Give Up Robot 2 (Matt Thorson) [Flash, freeware]
The original Give Up Robot introduced our grappling robotic hero, throwing him into a series of tough chambers with a sinister voice sneering throughout that he should give up his journey. It was a wonderfully psychedelic trip, although the swinging mechanic wasn't explored as fully as we would have hoped. Just four months later, developer Matt Thorson gave us the sequel -- and my, what a sequel it was. Not only did it address our issues with the original game, but it went much further, providing what is easily the indie gaming experience of the year.
Our little robot once again bobs along to the music, hooking onto scenery and swinging through the tightest of gaps. Everything about Give Up Robot 2 is magnificent, from the clever level design to the playful, bouncy soundtrack. There are plenty of homages to the Mario games, including blocks that churn out coins and clouds with faces, and the level of challenge is spot-on, such that players will die numerous times, yet never feel that the game is being unfair. Simply put, Give Up Robot 2 is pure, unadulterated fun.
VVVVVV (Terry Cavanagh) - note: already appeared in last year's top 10 while in beta form.
The Oil Blue (Vertigo Games)
Delve Deeper (Lunar Studios)
Epic Dungeon (Eyehook Games)
Space Funeral (thecatamites)
Recettear (Carpe Fulgar)
depict1 (Kyle Pulver and Alec Holowka)
Tower of Heaven (Askiisoft)
Game Dev Story (Kairosoft)
Octodad (DePaul University Student Team)
Digital: A Love Story (Christine Love)
The Journey Down -- Over the Edge (Theodor Waern)
Top 5 Developers
Picking the top 5 developers any given year is a ridiculously difficult task to begin with. Game developers tend to be tremendously enthusiastic, creative, and dedicated -- which makes deciding hard enough. How do you decide who goes above and beyond above and beyond?
But even more so lately, it's a tremendous challenge thanks to the fragmenting of the market. Game development is truly going global, and it's doing so on a vast array of platforms. Different skills are required by developers than just a couple of years ago, and what constitutes game development can drastically change from platform to platform.
To that end, then, Gamasutra has made an effort to recognize the global games industry in the form of five developers who stood out this year in particularly memorable ways (plus some honorable mentions.)
To get on this list, tremendously successful developers had to outdo themselves, true innovation, creative spirit, and finesse was required.
Top 5 Development Studios of 2010 (listed alphabetically)
Blizzard (StarCraft II, Battle.net, World of Warcraft: Cataclysm)
A company not known for shipping products frequently shipped three in one year -- long-awaited RTS sequel StarCraft II, world-beating MMO expansion pack World of Warcraft: Cataclysm, and most notably, in some ways, a completely new implementation of its Battle.net service which transforms it from simple matchmaking to a complex and comprehensive service that covers the networking and community functions for the company's slate of games, present and future.
While this didn't go off without a hitch (see: Real ID controversy) the company has made a concerted effort to develop a solution which is in line with the popularity of its games and the future of the market -- a ferociously difficult task, as project director Greg Canessa explained at GDC Online.
And while there are controversies over the circumstances surrounding StarCraft II as a Korean eSport, those have little to do with the team's successes as game developers.
Its games, as always, seem to hit their targets creatively -- conservative, perhaps, but polished and massively popular. The fact that the company shipped two titles this year to rapturous receptions while working on a third -- the deep-in-development Diablo III shows that as a developer Blizzard is firing on all cylinders in 2010.
Rockstar San Diego (Red Dead Redemption)
While Grand Theft Auto has been a truly standout success since the release of the third installment in the series in 2001, very few developers have truly lived up to the promise the series outlined. While open-world games have become a viable genre -- and there are a lot of very, very good ones on the market -- it wasn't until Red Dead Redemption shipped that the publisher showed it could, in many ways, better its own flagship title.
Audiences and critics agree that the title is refined and engrossing, offering a play experience that takes the fundamentals of the open world experience and hones them -- all as a Western, a setting that has been a dicey proposition at best for mainstream video game success.
The only black mark on the title is the "Rockstar Spouse" controversy that erupted -- which illustrates the supreme difficulties of achieving a title like this, and the potential cracks in the studio model which is currently required to do so. Addressing these will be key to the forward motion of the industry and the creation of more games of this scope and scale; even still, the creative power of Red Dead Redemption can't be denied.
Rovio (Angry Birds)
Has this Finnish team cracked the secret of succeeding on the App Store? They may well have, and that lands them on the list. Disappointingly for many, the secret may not be simple, or easily repeatable -- but there is still a lot to learn from the endless chart-topping success of Angry Birds.
One major lesson is that success doesn't come quickly. While you often hear about giving up on casual games that don't hit right away, Rovio poured effort into making the title successful -- and learned that constant updates drive its continued popularity. People talk about games they keep playing. The team also capitalizes on holidays to keep the game fresh and in people's faces.
In short, Rovio has learned that casual games need a great deal of attention; a lesson that was already apparent to developers of core games. The interesting lesson is precisely where and when that attention belongs -- and that is a different question altogether.
Team Meat (Super Meat Boy)
If the point needed any more illustrating, Team Meat has done it: brutally hard 2D game play can spell great success when backed with creativity, polish, and great design. Super Meat Boy captured a huge audience and a great deal of love on download platforms thanks to the developer knowing exactly what kind of game it was making and completely going for it.
But it's not just the game Super Meat Boy itself that makes Team Meat stand out. It's the way the developer's attitude spills out in its interaction with the community -- being honest becomes marketing-from-the-heart when it hits the player base in the form of meaningful communication. And let's not forget trolling PETA, and its hilarious result.
Zynga East (FrontierVille)
The path forward for social games is far from clear. One studio that has made a great stab at charting it despite, arguably, no real need to -- given its publisher's tremendous market advantages -- is Zynga East, developers of FrontierVille.
It's clear that parent company Zynga realized it would need experienced development talent to push forward with games that were more than what it had -- and so it enlisted the help of experienced strategy developers like Brian Reynolds, who left Big Huge Games to transition into the social space.
"I just kind of vote with my feet, of what I want to make and what's cool and what's exciting," Reynolds told Gamasutra, of his decision to move to Zynga -- a move questioned by many in the traditional industry who see the social space as lesser.
However, FrontierVille has proved that there is a way forward -- a way to marry not just a traditional design ethos, but traditional design talent with Facebook. Appropriately enough, it was proved by a game with a Wild West theme.
Osaka-based Platinum Games had an exceptionally strong year with Bayonetta and Vanquish -- polished and inventive takes on established genres that show Japanese game design is far from dead.
While Harmonix Music Systems' Rock Band 3 didn't resuscitate the plastic instrument genre, it was the most robust game in that space yet -- alongside the developer's successful launch of Kinect bestseller Dance Central, that spells a great year creatively.
Playdead proved itself with its moody first release Limbo, a moody and quickly beloved commercial success.
Ubisoft Annecy demonstrated that guns don't make multiplayer with the original and fun competitive mode it contributed to Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood.
BioWare, meanwhile, showed that it has its ears to the ground and great process with as it stepped forward in terms of both interface and narrative with the almost universally-lauded Mass Effect 2.
And Quantic Dream showed a new way forward for the marriage of gameplay and narrative with its chilling, riveting Heavy Rain.
Top 5 Major Industry Trends
2010 ushered the game industry into territory it's not quite visited before. We're settling in for an unusually long console cycle at the same time physical retail can't seem to shake its slump, new platforms are exploding before anyone's quite figured out the most ideal ways to leverage them, and every participant in the arms race seems to be finding its own niche, rather than continuing to compete at who can be the best at any one thing.
During a year that saw what seems to be an unusual amount of upheaval in the form of major industry events, some things remained constant: The puzzles we struggled to unwrap, the little paths we began to forge into our future, and the issues of most concern to developers and players alike.
These are the five biggest trends that emerged as major threads that will define 2010.
5. Figuring Out Facebook Gaming
It used to be you could design a simple social game that posted to your friends until it encouraged them to get involved. Then, as the platform began to reach saturation, you had to design a more sophisticated social game -- one that not only looked good, but was aggressive at cranking up engagement metrics and user numbers.
Then Facebook quashed its familiar viral channels. Suddenly even the most popular of games, like FarmVille, began to see heavy user attrition. Now, social game developers are forced to seriously consider what it takes to really succeed and delight players on Facebook, amid an environment of angst that sometimes puts veteran designers-gone-social at odds with some of their more traditional colleagues.
Now Facebook developers will have to use the platform to create products with substance; the companies with big, beloved brands, sophisticated gameplay mechanics, or whose games offer useful entryways to other, larger-scale products (as Ubisoft is doing with Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood) will be the most successful. Quality standards get higher, and developers are treating the ethics of metrics-driven design as a real concern.
Gaming on Facebook is settling in and growing up, and one big trend this year saw developers discuss and work out possible ways to keep evolving along with it.
4. 3D Stereoscopic Gaming
Do consumers want 3D gaming? Will they pay upwards of $6000 for capable televisions? Will they want to wear the glasses? Who knows, but these are surely some of the questions that divided the game industry this year.
Some companies heartily endorsed 3D -- Sony, which has Bravia televisions to sell in the coming year, put lots of teams to work on 3D gaming content. Engine-makers like Crytek and Epic were happy to play their familiar part in the graphical arms race, showing off 3D games and intiatives at every opportunity.
Microsoft took a wait-and-see approach, tepid on the unproven space. And Nintendo split the difference with its 3DS, a glasses-free 3D portable that looks to be the among the most anticipated product launches of 2011. The next few years will be 3D's proving ground, but this was the year everyone began to take the discussion seriously.
3. Cloud Gaming Possibilities
Companies like Gaikai and OnLive promised to change everything consumers know about media consumption when they unveiled their radical new streaming services earlier this year. If all of a product's rendering is done in a server cloud, hardware's theoretically rendered irrelevant.
Of course, no one is throwing away their consoles just yet. It remains to be seen what kind of potential for widespread adoption these services have, and how they'll make a splash on the scene when the early-adopter audience -- the most hardcore gamer -- already has everything he or she needs to play favorite games.
And many industry-watchers say that in an industry increasingly reliant on high-quality multiplayer, ongoing issues with latency, even a little bit, could be damning to these solutions. The possibilities are exciting, though. That helps explain why cloud-based streaming game services were one of the most considered and discussed industry arenas during 2010.
2. Getting Smart With Digital
No one believes physical retail is on the way out anytime soon, and digital distribution has loomed on the horizon as a rapidly-evolving, important new way for companies to reach their consumers. But this year showed the plan's about so much more than downloadable games and episodic content.
This was the year publishers took everything they've learned about digital and truly demonstrated how powerful it can be -- Take-Two hammered episodic releases for its major titles down to a science, for example, as a way to diversify its portfolio and to turn single discs into franchises.
Just this month, Electronic Arts revealed it's seen enormous profit margins on download-only Battlefield 1943, with some users spending hundreds of dollars on add-on content for Bad Company 2. The military game battle ahead turns out not to be between Call of Duty: Black Ops and Medal of Honor, but between Black Ops map packs and a Vietnam-themed add-on for Bad Company 2.
Digital revenue models are, importantly, helping companies circumvent used game sales, with the "Online Pass" concept pioneered by EA and being explored by numerous other publishers. From Facebook credits to microtransactions-enabled smartphone games, digital's no longer just an option: It's the only way to succeed in an increasingly platform-agnostic gaming world alongside visibly ailing physical retail.
1. Next-Gen Motion Controls
When Nintendo first unveiled the Wii, nobody could have expected the impact motion controls would have. Years later, the next-gen platform holders finally conceded that they missed the boat; Microsoft launched the controller-less Kinect for its Xbox 360, while Sony released the glowing Move wand for PlayStation 3.
As the year draws to a close, it's safe to say that Kinect had the most impact on the industry. Even if most reviewers seem to feel the technology is not yet where it needs to be, Kinect's hugely-buzzed, heavily marketed launch has changed the way we think about interface and abstraction in game design.
These products and the waves they made in the marketplace, the designer's workplace and the media create the trend that best represents 2010.
Top 5 Surprises
There are a number of elements that make it especially new and exciting to be in games right now. Amid new platforms emerging and a rapidly-shifting landscape for traditional development, it's tough to predict what will happen next at any given time.
The social games space accelerates its consolidation with big-ticket acquisitions, a number of brand-new hardware devices debuted in 2010, and just when we think we know what will happen next, a game-changer hits.
Of course, that never stops people from trying to guess. These are the top five stories in the past year that raised our eyebrows the most, surprised our readers and defied predictions.
5. The Success Of iPad
Nobody knew what to make of Apple's announcement of the iPad earlier this year -- who'd want a giant iPhone that can't even make calls, some gawked?
But not only did the device's initial sales strain Apple's ability to keep pace, but the success of the iPad helped establish touch tablets as a new major market now predicted to keep growing.
It also helped cement iOS as a platform, instead of just one sector, albeit a rapidly-growing one, within the mobile market. iPad versions of popular software apps and games became de-facto, and the significant software market opportunity on the tablet led developers to begin exploring possibilities uniquely suited to iPad. The device sold over 4 million units this year, a success hard to see coming.
4. Electronic Arts Backs Respawn
When Activision fired co-founders Infinity Ward Jason West and Vince Zampella, that the pair colluded with rival EA was one of the publisher's allegations of wrongdoing. Although it remains to be determined by a court whether or not West and Zampella really engaged in secret meetings before forming their new studio, few expected the gauntlet to be tossed down so soon.
The defection of Activision's two biggest stars to form Respawn Entertainment, a studio that sprung up quickly with an EA publishing deal in hand, was "the ultimate screw-you" to the former parent, as one analyst put it.
It was the next step in what seems to be becoming a saga of one-upsmanship between the bitterly contentious publishers, and the score no doubt was of some satisfaction to EA after last year's big defection, when two of its own stars, Visceral Games heads Glen Schofield and Michael Condrey, decided to head Activision's Sledgehammer Games studio instead.
3. Mikami Joins Bethesda
It's been a surprise to many that Zenimax Media, parent of Bethesda Softworks, has gotten so big so quickly over the last couple of years, snapping up studios from id Software to Arkane, Machinegames and more. But its acquisition of Tango Gameworks, the studio founded by renowned Resident Evil creator Shinji Mikami, was a bit different.
Many well-known Japanese developers have expressed a desire to work more closely with Western studios; look at Square Enix's acquisition of Eidos, or Capcom and Konami's decisions to have European studios develop some of its key properties, for examples of how this usually works.
The out-and-out purchase of a boutique Japanese developer, with one of the region's top minds as part of the deal, is something new, and fans will be watching closely.
2. Bungie Signs With Activision
More surprising than how the Infinity Ward debacle at Activision shook down was what happened next: The publisher had to be reeling after the implosion of its crown jewel in a boon to its biggest rival.
Bungie and Activision said that a deal had been in the works for some time and was not a response to the trouble at Infinity Ward, but when the pair announced a ten-year exclusive contract between Bungie's next big post-Halo project and Activision's publishing muscle, no one saw it coming.
Ten years is a long time, and indicative of the scale of the project on which the studio's hard at work. Predictions on everything, from the game's possible persistent settings to its monetization strategy, continue to fly from all corners, but it's likely many more surprises are yet to come.
1. Nintendo Has Glasses-Free 3D -- And It Really Works
Despite initiatives from major companies like Sony, Crytek and Epic aimed at calling attention to the possibilities in 3D entertainment, most audiences remained fairly skeptical, with industry-watchers neutral at best about whether 3D was even something game consumers wanted.
Who knew it'd be Nintendo -- maker of the lowest-def console, behind on "core gamer" features in every way -- who'd execute a 3D product so well it was the talk of 2010's E3?
But the glasses-free 3D's unveiling was one of the biggest and most exciting surprises of the year: Now, look for it to make our list of most-anticipated events of 2011, too.
Top 5 Most Anticipated Games of 2011
Sitting in the middle of the holiday deluge at the end of a year as chock full of quality releases as 2010, it may seem silly to even think about looking ahead to next year's crop of titles.
Yet the game industry stubbornly refuses to stop progressing, and players seem eager to dig in to some of gaming's upcoming courses before they've even finished looking at what's on their current plate.
Aside from the obvious sequels and updates to the biggest-selling franchises of the last few years, there are a few titles that stand out as the most intriguing and mysterious blips on the 2011 radar.
Here are just a few of them, and why we and so many like us can't wait to get our hands on them.
L.A. Noire (Team Bondi/Rockstar)
Despite a development history that stretches back to 2004, very little was publicly known about this crime drama until relatively recently.
Even after a March preview in Game Informer magazine revealed the 1940s Los Angeles murder mystery would feature a cast of 300 characters speaking over 2,000 pages of dialogue, publisher Rockstar Games maintained its standard aura of media silence.
But that silence is beginning to crack, with the game's first trailer showing off the innovative motion-capture process from partner Depth Analysis that creates full 3D models directly from captured performances.
That revolutionary technology is being put towards a game where interrogating suspects and examining clues carefully matters just as much, if not more, than shooting bad guys, and where conversations that would be cut scenes in most games can end up being pivotal gameplay moments.
It's quite a departure from a publisher known more for do-as-you-please sandbox titles -- and for project head Brendan McNamara, whose last release, The Getaway, was a more straightforward cops-and-robbers shoot-fest. Still, it's a departure that has many looking eagerly to the game's planned Spring 2011 release.
Star Wars: The Old Republic (BioWare Austin/EA)
After six straight years of attempts to beat World of Warcraft on its own MMO turf, some have despaired that the king of the genre will ever be taken down. That doesn't include EA, though, which has plowed a record amount of money into developing BioWare's first massively multiplayer title.
Being a BioWare title, it's perhaps not a surprise that developing individual storylines is a focus for the game's 12 full-time writers.
In-game choices will reportedly affect branching personal tales and give a concrete shape to what can often seem like pointless, stat-padding fetch quests in other MMOs. A fluid class system promises to do away with the need to find specific players to fill certain roles as well, letting players change their in-game job along with their mood.
Though the game's current release window of "fiscal 2012" does extend a bit past 2011, there are already a lot of breathless fans hoping the game manages to hit the earlier part of that window.
Thatgamecompany's Jenova Chen may have officially unveiled Journey back at E3 2010, but it was only last week we got our first glimpse of the game in motion, a glimpse that featured a desolate, sandy world with a lone, robe-clad protagonist.
The controls are reportedly equally desolate, limited to a jump button and a shout command, the latter of which is your only mode of interaction with the other players joining you in the online-enabled title. When thatgamecompany's designers talk about the game, they tend to use lofty language about emotional connection and meaningful interaction without getting in to many specifics about what you actually do in the game.
Such fuzzy gameplay information, and an even fuzzier release date of "2011," might not seem like much to serve as a basis for a highly anticipated title. But after the elegant, genre-busting beauty of thatgamecompany's flOw and Flower, the company's projects get the benefit of the doubt.
Portal 2 (Valve)
After its release in 2007, the original Portal quickly went from being an afterthought addition to Valve's jam-packed The Orange Box release to being an over-referenced cornerstone of nerd culture. Now that "The cake is a lie," "Still Alive' and the Weighted Companion Cube have had some time to go from clever to tired to kitsch and back again, Portal's tightly constructed first-person puzzle gameplay and interwoven story have stood on their own as a new classic.
Valve has taken its time crafting the sequel into something much grander than the brilliant-but-short experience of the original (which was based on student project Narbacular Drop).
The company has kept anticipation high with a slow but steady drip of demos, trailers and information regarding the game, stressing the title's new co-operative mode and a helpfully British spherical artificial intelligence guide Wheatley. More open environments and new gameplay elements like propulsion gel promise to expand the original game's variety of puzzles as well.
Though a two-month delay has pushed this long-anticipated title's release back to April, the fact that the game has a firm release date at all makes it one of the least hard-to-wait-for games on this list.
The Last Guardian (Team Ico/Sony)
Team Ico has attracted an inordinate amount of attention for a developer with only two games under its belt, but the wide-open expanses, beautiful art direction and largely context-free adventure gameplay of the PS2's Ico and Shadow of the Colossus have earned the gaming world's attention, and an HD re-release on the PS3, as well.
So it's not that surprising that so many are excited about The Last Guardian despite nothing more than a couple of trailers showing a tunic-clad boy traipsing around and clambering on top of a giant dog/bird/dragon thing without apparent direction. The sheer emotional weight wrought from these spare video trailers shows that, if you have the art direction down, sometimes the actual gameplay can seem like a secondary consideration.
The game is currently loosely targeted for a Q4 2011 release, but don't be surprised if that timing slips back even further as the team perfects its vision. With over five years now since Shadow of the Colossus' release, the team is obviously willing to take its time on this one.
Other anticipated 2011 titles: Dead Space 2, Infamous 2, Dragon Age 2, Deus Ex: Human Revolution, Uncharted 3, Gears of War 3, the sequel to that other game you liked.
The Top 10 Games Of The Year
We've been on a major retrospective trip here at Gamasutra, but ultimately it's the games that define a year, right? Together, the Gamasutra staff discussed the games that made the greatest impressions on us, and decided on a list we feel represents the greatest 2010 has to offer -- the games that will remain in our memories as having defined the year for technical sophistication, storytelling, innovation, and pure intangible experience value.
Of course, each of us have titles we individually love, too, and as a "top 10" only allows us to collectively agree on 10 games, each of us herein individually gives special recognition to games we felt strongly about this year.
In an exciting year for major new releases, the staff of Gamasutra is excited to present to you our top 10 games of 2010.
10. Civilization V (Firaxis/2K Games, PC)
It's somewhat ironic that Take-Two developer Firaxis delivered such a thorough re-freshening of the classic Civilization franchise by employing a decades-old strategy game concept: the hex map.
Civilization V is the first time that the franchise has used a hex map, but the changes and improvements to the series went far beyond that fundamental shift. As a whole, Firaxis managed to accomplish a supremely difficult task, which is streamlining a complex strategy game to make it more accessible without dumbing it down.
It launched with some issues, but like past Civilization games, there will be ongoing updates and improvements to the complex system. Despite any issues, even on release day, Civilization V was still was fun enough to play for hours straight. To call this game a timesink is a disservice; Civilization V solidifies the continuing relevance of the revered series, and is one of the best arguments for the importance of the overall turn-based strategy genre that you can find.
9. Mass Effect 2 (BioWare/EA, Xbox 360/PS3/PC)
For a developer with such deep roots in classic PC-based role-playing games like Baldur's Gate and Neverwinter Nights, BioWare has shown over the past several years increasing understanding of what kind of gameplay works for console players, at the same time bringing over the rich storytelling that classic BioWare PC games were known for.
That said, the PC version of Mass Effect 2 was enjoyable in its own right. A sprawling universe, unexpected, clever story developments and a memorable ending (much more so than the original Mass Effect) means this RPG finds fans on both sides of the PC-console divide.
There are some legitimate complaints about the game: the battle system, while improved, could still do with more interesting inter-character combo attacks, the side roads of a branching storyline ultimately merge back into a largely linear interstate, and, well, there was the planet scanning (which wasn't quite as tedious with a mouse as opposed to a controller).
But even with those issues, Mass Effect 2 is overall an experience infused with memorable characters, planets and events that feel distinctly "Mass Effect," a notable achievement in such a crowded genre.
8. Minecraft (Notch, PC)
The basic human instinct to practice survival through play is woven into the DNA of all video games, but in Minecraft, the indie title that dominated PC gaming in 2010, it's hewn into the very rocks that make up its randomly-generated world. You are deposited into a field, your only task to create shelter for yourself from the beasts that rise at sunset. It's survival horror in its purest form, no need for cinematic shocks to punctuate the creeping sense of dread as you race to fashion tools from gathered wood and set about digging a hole in which to cower.
Survive the first night and the game that dawns on the second day is entirely different to the one you played on the first. Minecraft's brilliance is to be found in the way in which goals, almost all self-made, unfurl in new directions with the passing of time. Want to construct a working computer? Sure. Create a scale replica of the Taj Mahal? No problems. How about turn the world into a giant Monopoly set? Pass go. By giving the player exactly the tools they need to express themselves, Minecraft is perhaps the closest we have to a true God game.
And outside of its confines, it's one of the most interesting commercial stories of the year, turning its one man creator, Notch, into a multi-millionaire before it's even into Beta. As a result, here is a little game that in its purity of vision has irrevocably changed the very landscape of gaming, even as we have irrevocably changed its own landscape in kind.
7. Fallout: New Vegas (Obsidian/Bethesda, Xbox 360/PS3/PC)
Much coverage of the long-awaited Fallout 3 follow-up revolved around the bugs and imperfections present in the title, but players were in for something incredible if they could be patient (or lucky). It seemed hard to top the vision of the U.S. capital nearly melted to ash, but the portrayal of a former hub of American decadence at distance of the zone is in many ways more fascinating in its nuance.
The distinct influence of Rome's tragic story of out-of-control power on the gameworld is well-thought, and appropriate, and the game offers enough freedom that the player can choose to make it either a celebration or a condemnation of all kinds of excess. And as the game starts to draw a story of factions warring for control, the loyalty system in which the player participates provokes lots of thought on the nature of power in a world with laws upended.
So maybe it needed a little more time, but in a year of big blockbusters, a project with a little subtlety, a richly-realized world and a thoughtful, multilayered story came much appreciated.
6. Rock Band 3 (Harmonix/MTV Games, PS3, Xbox 360, Wii)
The latest entry in the Rock Band series may not pack the explosive commercial punch that the franchise did just a few short years ago -- let alone the insane hype of the Beatles edition -- but it does refine and expand the concept in important and compelling ways.
Of course, the most obvious addition is the "pro mode" songs and instruments. Designed to let players transition from mimicry to true performance, they're an interesting and rare example of video games, outside of the serious games sphere, teaching real-world skills.
But just as important in many ways is the complete and total refinement of interface and copious customizability of play modes. Rock Band 3 has evolved into the ultimate party game not just because everyone loves to play, but because Harmonix puts real thought into making it simple and accessible -- and the studio is at the forefront of U.I. design in the industry.
5. StarCraft II (Blizzard Entertainment/Activision Blizzard, PC)
If you want huge innovation in a real-time strategy game, don't look to StarCraft II.
But if you want fast-paced multiplayer gameplay that has over a decade of polish under its belt (plus continuing balancing) and a single-player story that delivers the flawlessly-delivered, borderline sci-fi camp-ness and action that StarCraft fans expect, then here's your game. Innovation was never Blizzard's goal with StarCraft II -- the goal was peerless execution.
Just the fact that the incredibly-polished StarCraft II delivered on such inordinately high expectations is enough for it to make the top of this list. Successfully take on the enormously difficult task of integrating the game with a totally new Battle.net, sell a million copies on opening day and bring back old StarCraft fans while creating new ones... then you have one of the standout games of 2010.
4. Super Mario Galaxy 2 (Nintendo, Wii)
It'd be easy to assume Nintendo was just cashing in on the success of the original Super Mario Galaxy with this sequel, the first direct, same-console follow-up to a major Mario game since the original NES (Yoshi's Island is way too different to count, nitpickers). And at first glance, the game does seem like nothing more than an expansion pack containing additional levels for the widely hailed original.
But oh, what levels. Galaxy 2 highlights the franchise penchant for inventive design by spreading the by-now-familiar collectible stars across many more areas than previous 3D Mario adventures, each making inventive use of the game's gravity-warping physics and tight controls. The result is shorter, more distinct levels that feel more focused on a single theme, yet without losing the sprawling sense of open exploration that has been a series hallmark since Super Mario 64. And then, just when you think the game is wrapping up, new star and time trial challenges encourage even more exploration of these dozens of exquisite, self-contained universes.
The clever reintroduction of a rideable Yoshi, new suits and items and some of the toughest challenges this side of Super Mario World's Special World further prove that this title was more than a quick cash-in. Usually we'd be ready for Nintendo to take its time and prepare something truly new for the next Mario adventure, but as it stands we wouldn't be at all unhappy if the company announces Super Mario Galaxy 3 for a quick release.
3. Bayonetta (PlatinumGames/Sega, Xbox 360/PS3)
Platinum's Bayonetta seems as if it's trying hard not to be liked: Hyper-stylized to the point of garishness, it features a disproportionate heroine who uses her hair as a weapon -- and as clothing, meaning she frequently ends up naked. What is this, a deliberate kiss-off to healthy female role models? Plus, the game's garish and implausible, bursting with filigree, butterflies and senseless conglomerations of religious iconography, begging to be deemed poster child for the whole "Japanese games alienate Westerners" thing.
And yet, somehow it all works as absurdist fiction. Bayonetta is like a slick, glorious pulp movie, its excesses as celebratory as a Tarantino film. It wages such a calculated, eloquent war on taste that it creates its own style, riotously pleasing to play. It doesn't hurt that the combat feels brilliantly-executed, fluid and hooky as choreography, and that the action sequences are in large part tautly plotted and exhilarating, with storyline and interface that stay wisely out of the player's way.
The game is a spiritual sibling to the Devil May Cry series in more ways than one, but Devil May Cry took a long time before it hesitantly stopped pretending it wasn't ridiculous. Bayonetta is proud of what it does and it does it all-out, with delightful distinctiveness and aplomb.
2. Super Meat Boy (Team Meat, XBLA, PC, Mac)
Edmund McMillan and Tommy Refenes at Team Meat never expected Super Meat Boy to be quite the XBLA hit that it has, but perhaps they should have. This tough-as-nails platformer is so chock full of content that it'd be a bargain even at boxed retail price, with alternate versions of each level, retro throwback mini-stages accessible through warp zones, and unlockable characters and modes.
The thing SMB (not an accidental acronym, I'm sure) gets most right is the control, which in spite of using the 360 analog stick, manages to feel precise and sticky, even in a 2D environment. This means that no matter how difficult the game may be, you always know it's your fault when you die, which can minimize frustration (well, a bit at least).
The game also features characters from other classic indie games, such as Braid, Alien Hominid, and Spelunky, making for a package that is so precise, so clever, and so robust that it's no wonder folks are raving about it. McMillan's irreverent sense of humor doesn't hurt either, extending even to the point of baiting PETA into making a parody of his game, which he then turned around and parodied himself.
1. Red Dead Redemption (Rockstar San Diego/Rockstar Games, Xbox 360, PlayStation 3)
You're half-dead, under heavy fire from the Mexican army and running out of ammunition. In desperation you call your horse, who gallops over the ridge with the sun rising at its back through the sage. You swing onto the saddle and ride like hell until you reach the next safe town.
That scenarios like this are so common in Red Dead Redemption speaks volumes to the reverence with which Rockstar treated the Western genre, effectively ending the game developer legend that "cowboy games don't sell." RDR presented a compelling open world that players hadn't really been exposed to in games before (at least not this effectively), and the result was a slew of accolades and massive sales.
The game does a fantastic job of making the player feel like they're making significant choices, forming relationships (especially with horses), and discovering locations on their own, when in fact their options are rather limited - that kind of trickery is to be praised, since the intent is to entertain the player.
And let's not forget the excellent downloadable content, including the popular Undead Nightmare, which adds zombies (overplayed though they may be) and a firefight mode to the game's already excellent multiplayer mode.
In all, Red Dead Redemption makes our list because it inspires imagination and engagement in players, giving the game a sense of agency and purpose, which is what many (if not all) games aspire to.
Leigh Alexander, News Director, Gamasutra:
Halo: Reach (Bungie, Xbox 360) Thanks to a graceful visual palette and an actually-sincere attention to storytelling, it's the first title in the franchise I didn't roll my eyes at.
BioShock 2 (2K, Xbox 360/PS3, PC) The original was a tough act to follow, but the sequel was wildly underrated -- with smart thematic continuance, gorgeous setpieces and more compelling characters, it did a couple of things better than its predecessor.
Castlevania: Lords of Shadow (MercurySteam, Xbox 360/PS3) Unfortunate that pacing issues and slow entry turned many away from what, by its resolution, was might be the first real story in the dated Castlevania franchise. And baffling that somewhat-earned gameplay comparisons to God of War, arguably the leading melee combat title, worked as negatives?
Brandon Sheffield, Editor-in-Chief, Game Developer Magazine:
Deadly Premonition (Access Games, Xbox 360/PS3) Great story and dialog, bizarre design choices and 80s pop culture history abound in 2010's top cult game, and my personal game of the year.
Super Street Fighter IV (Capcom, Xbox 360/PS3) Street Fighter IV revitalized the fighting genre, and SSFIV is really just more of the same - but more of the same greatness still makes a list, for me!
Kinectimals (Frontier Developments, Xbox 360 Kinect) This is one of the best-written and best-designed games for kids I've seen in ages, allowing a child to be taken on a personal adventure with a personal pet. Great youth-orientation.
Simon Carless, Global Brand Director, UBM TechWeb Game Network:
Pinball FX 2 (Zen Studios, XBLA) A pinball simulation on a computer may not be the most 'video game'-like experience, but Zen's expertise in designing tables and the well-crafted, modular nature of buying/importing new content shines through. Add to that best-in-class social integration with regard to individual/friend high scores, plus perfect simulation and compelling gameplay, and you get easily one of the most fun games of the year.
Joe Danger (Hello Games, PSN) Joe Danger is a lot of fun, but it's the polished, careful, almost reverent attitude to making 'an arcade game' that really impressed. When the independent games scene is increasingly about deep thoughts and artistic statements, it's great to see a title that's just intended to be a lot of fun -- and, more to the point, delivers.
Chime (Zoe Mode, Xbox Live Arcade/PC) Despite some deliberately warring game mechanics -- which may even spice up the tension in the title -- Chime feels like a serene, wondrous audio-visual feast. It particularly helped that the soundtrack was bang on my tastes, spanning Lemon Jelly and Orbital notables, but the biggest shame was the lack of DLC.
Christian Nutt, Features Director, Gamasutra:
Heavy Rain (Quantic Dream, PS3) It drew a lot of attention for delivering storytelling outside of the norm for games -- and this is good. Heavy Rain was gripping and emotionally affecting, and most importantly tied gameplay and story together instrinsically.
Nier (Square Enix, Xbox 360/PS3) Nier also told a very affecting story and did it while playing with Japanese RPG and action game tropes, coming from left field to be Square Enix's best game of the year (in a year with two mainline Final Fantasy releases.)
Kirby's Epic Yarn (Nintendo, Wii) It may have been Entertainment Weekly's Worst Game of the Year but was also as charming as the series has ever been, and an exemplar of inventively tying aesthetics to gameplay.
Kris Graft, Senior News Editor, Gamasutra
No More Heroes 2 (Grasshopper Manufacture, Wii) More than a streamlined sequel, No More Heroes 2 adds more assassins with more character to the No More Heroes formula. And the anime-loving, murderous protagonist Travis Touchdown shows a slight hint of inner conflict about his profession... but not so much as to spoil the fun.
Amnesia: The Dark Descent (Frictional Games, PC) One of the scariest games in recent memory, Amnesia immerses players in an eerie, atmospheric castle inhabited by seemingly omnipresent, evil creatures. The tension can bear down so hard that you might need to step back, collect your sanity, and remind yourself that this is only a game.
Call of Duty: Black Ops (Treyarch, Xbox 360/PS3/PC/Wii) You can knock Call of Duty: Black Ops' fist-bumping machismo, but the game knows what it is: an unapologetic, violent shoot-fest. An intriguing mind-bending story that plays with history and over-the-top multiplayer (that adds killer packs of dogs!) means Black Ops will keep players busy till the next Call of Duty entry. Oh, and it generated $1 billion in sales, too.
Simon Parkin, European Editor, Gamasutra:
Just Cause 2 (Avalanche Studios, Xbox 360/PS3/PC) One of the first games to elevate explosions into an in-game currency from mere window dressing, Just Cause 2's National Geographic photo-spread of a world is one of the year's most enjoyable to visit both as a tourist and as a terrorist.
Dragon Quest IX (Square Enix, NDS) Yuji Horii's latest may enjoy contemporary flair by way of its multiplayer component, but the fairytale aesthetic is as traditional as it ever was, and repairing this world, one quest at a time, is one of the year's most engaging and affecting journeys.
Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit (Criterion Games, Xbox 360, PS3, PC) Criterion trimmed away the fat of its previous title, Burnout Paradise and returned to the schizophrenic Need for Speed series' first principle of cops vs. robbers for this startling re-imagination. But it's in the introduction of Autolog, an always-on competitive social network overlay, that this release becomes a game-changer, evolving the humble leaderboard to an obsessive, prodding competitive pursuit.
Kyle Orland, Contributing News Editor, Gamasutra:
Monday Night Combat (Uber Entertainment, XBLA, PC) The best of squad-based combat meets the best of tower-defense in an eminently approachable yet surprisingly deep multiplayer experience.
Dance Central (Harmonix, Xbox 360 Kinect) The best game for showing off the potential of the Kinect is the one that doesn't use your real-world movements to control an on-screen avatar. Instead, it takes the heart-pumping action of Dance Dance Revolution into the real world without such a maddening focus on rhythmic precision to create the world's most accessible rhythm game.
Limbo (Playdead, XBLA) Short, yes, but the combination of foreboding, minimalist aesthetics, clever, outside-the-box puzzles and amusingly gruesome death animations made sure I couldn't put down the controller until the very end.
Tom Curtis, Editorial and Production Intern, Gamasutra and Game Developer Magazine:
Scott Pilgrim vs. The World: The Game (Ubisoft Montreal, XBLA/PSN) As a modern throwback to traditional arcade brawlers, Scott Pilgrim shines through its unwavering celebration of both its source material and classic gaming culture.
Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood (Ubisoft Montreal, Xbox 360/PS3) While best known for introducing multiplayer to the franchise, Brotherhood also offers the series' most robust single player campaign yet, with a slew of optional objectives, missions, and subsystems that make the game's historical setting a joy to inhabit.
Puzzle Agent (Telltale, Wii Ware/iOS, PC) Telltale's Puzzle Agent stands apart from other brain-teasing titles like Professor Layton by offering puzzles that blend seamlessly into the game's overall narrative, and its charming art, writing, and voice work add levity to the game's spooky plot.