A ten year study of any nature is a daunting task, especially with regards to the money-making machine that is the entertainment industry. The intricacies of design changes would best be presented in a book, not a stand-alone essay. Yet, I will attempt to present a broad overview of the evolution of video games. This article is by no means complete, and there are many games and perephirals which deserves to be discussed in detail. I will focus on the tension between AAA- and Indie developers, as well as development growth in the European market.
This essay starts at a troublesome time, to which the Teacher would comment: “[...] and there is no new thing under the sun” (Ecclesiasted 1:9). By 2006, AAA video games became repetitive cash cows - the status quo of AAA video games remains undoubtly the same. Various technological inventions changed the experience of video games and diversified gameplay, including peripherals connected to the Wii, 3D glasses, smart phones, virtual reality, augmented reality, and others. But the essence of many AAA video games remain a tried and tested formula, despite technological innovations that elevated video game graphics to new peaks. Since AAA developers cannot risk creating video games outside popular demand, the evolution of video games is found amongst the titans, that is, Indie video games.
By 2006 many video games franchises were firmly rooted, including a variety of steal shooting games (first- or third-person shooters), simulators, adventure games, and roleplay games. These franchises included video game series including Hitman, Call of Duty, The Sims, Rayman, The Elder Scrolls, Final Fantasy, The Legend of Zelda, and many others. Although AAA developers increased the graphical quality of these franchises with each installation, gameplay- and design innovation are hardly risked.
Along came Tomb Raider: Legend in 2006. The critical- and commercial failure of Tomb Raider: Angel of Darkness (2003) forced published Eidos Interactive to hand the franchise to developer Crystal Dynamics. Tomb Raider: Legend was not only a critical-and commercial success, but also reinvented the game and the chief protagonist, Lara Croft. Meanwhile, Peter Molyneux enjoyed his last critical success with the 2006 expansion (Battle of the Gods) to the 2005 game, Black and White 2. The Lego video game franchise cemented their popularity with Lego Star Wars II, and developer Rockstar released Bully, a game regarded by many as the all-time best game from the developer. Indie developers released many obscure titles, but significant contributions were far and infrequent. The future of video games were uncertain.
Thankfully 2007 brought along significant entries that secured an innovative future for video games. The Valve Corporation released The Orange Box, notably containing the game Portal. The standard for video game graphics were raised with the release of Crysis, and Crystal Dynamics recreated the original Tomb Raider (1996) game resulting in Tomb Raider: Anniversary; since then, many games were rereleased for newer platforms (notably consoles with updated graphics), often under subtitles such as ‘HD’ or ‘Special Edition’. The release of Penumbra: Overture marked two important events in video game history: the rise of Indie developers as major players in the video game market, and the shift of video game production out of the United States. Asia (notably Japan) hosted various video game developers that was seen as the official opposition of American developers, but the entry of Penumbra: Overture awakened a prominent Eurocentric spark that weakened the American dominance of video game production. The release of The Witcher in 2007 both strengthened the Indie cause and the shift towards European development. The critical- and commercial failure of Lair caused AAA developers to rethink the damage-value of bugs in video game sales.
Dead Space was one of the more imaginative AAA video games to be released in 2008. Spore also pushed the boundaries of creative game design, whilst the release of Jonathan Blow’s Braid marked the official entry of Indie games into the mainstream market. De Blob (developed by students at the Hogeschool voor de Kunsten Utrecht in the Netherlands) also contributed interesting design concepts. 2009 was a seminal year for Indie games, including gaming titles such as Scribblenauts, Plants vs Zombies, Angry Birds, and Farmville. Both Farmville and Angry Birds became worldwide sensations, with players playing these titles through social media and smartphones; these two games shifted video gaming towards the social media- and mobile phone market.
The Finnish AAA developer Remedy Entertainment released Alan Wake in 2010, shifting developer attention to Scandinavia. The Swedish developer Frictional Games strengthened this notion with the release of Amnesia: The Dark Descent during the same year. One of the most remarkable games of 2010 was the French developed title Heavy Rain, praised for its narrative interaction with the player. Heavy Rain used motion capture to further its animation, as did L.A. Noire in 2011. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim was also released in 2011, regarded by many as the most influential video game ever created. Blizzard steadily lost their grip on the MMO market, especially with the release of WildStar (first unveiled in 2011) and Star Wars: The Old Republic. Sweden’s gaming developers became an international sensation again, this time with the Indie game Minecraft.
2012 was a stellar year for Indie games. Telltales released their take on The Walking Dead, whilst Sweden dominated mobile gaming with Candy Crush. Journey, and The Unfinished Swan were popular Indie games on the PlayStation 3, whilst Thomas was Alone and Fez were equally successful. The ‘game changers’ in 2013 were created by AAA developers. The Last of Us focused on narration, as did as the reboot of Tomb Raider; this marks an important milestone for AAA developers, since it was the second time the Tomb Raider franchise reinvented itself. Although not always warmly received, SimCity reinvented the way city-simulators worked. Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons was an important Indie game, winning a BAFTA award for ‘Game Innovation’. 2014 was another fantastic year for Indie games, including titles such as Goat Simulator, Monument Valley, Five Nights at Freddy’s, Shovel Knight, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, and Octodad.
In 2015, Finnish developer Colossal Order took design concepts from SimCity and stabilised the gameplay, resulting in Cities: Skylines. South African Indie developer Free Lives enjoyed notable success with Broforce. The most important entry of 2015 was The Witcher III: Wild Hunt, developed by CD Projekt Red; apart from being a spectacular critical- and commercial success, The Witcher III firmly ensured Poland as a part of European game development. Furthermore, many consider The Witcher III as a seminal game of the new millennium, whose importance rivals that of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. DICE introduced Star Wars: Battlefront, a game whose representation of the Star Wars universe is unparalleled. DICE made another fantastic contribution to gaming in 2016 with Battlefield 1, shifting the popularity of war-shooters from World War II to World War I. AAA developer id Software released Doom, whilst That Dragon, Cancer and Firewatch also made important Indie contributions.
Whilst AAA video game developers will continue to push video game graphics into new directions, innovative game design remains with the experimental risks taken by Indie developers. Not enough AAA franchises are reinventing themselves, and Tomb Raider is one of the few franchise whose status is elevated above that of a cash cow. Perhaps it is the competitive nature of the lone Indie developer versus established AAA companies that also stimulates the need for game design innovation, an aspect that could be interpreted as ‘commercial survival’. The tenacity of European developers is good news; strong competition within a Western context will force American AAA developers to reimagine their creative approaches. The history and evolution of video games is an art to be studied, and thankfully a field of study where both AAA- and Indie developers are winners. However, Indie developer Sarah Woodrow warns that the future of AAA games might wane with the continual rise and success of Indie developers, commenting: