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Gamasutra's Best Of 2007

Compiling Gamasutra's happy multitude of end-of-year charts published over the last couple of weeks, including Top Developer, Trends, Poignant Game Moments, and more, we also reveal our Top Game of 2007 and compile reader comments.

Here it is: Gamasutra wraps up 2007 in a compilation of all of the lists we've been doing over the course of the past two weeks. Visiting such important topics as the Top Developer, Most Poignant Moment, and Top Trends, this offers the editorial staff's (hopefully) educated and personal take on the year as it draws to a close.

In addition, after publishing #10 to #2 of our Top 10 Game list recently, we finish things off by revealing our pick for top video game of the year. We also take a look at what you thought on our various countdowns, by including comments made upon the first publishing of many of these stories.

Top 5 Downloadable Games

First up, we take a look at the top 5 downloadable console games released this year, from Everyday Shooter through Pac-Man CE. The games picked are the editor's choice, and are chosen from the titles released in North America during 2007's calendar year to date.

5. PixelJunk Racers (Q-Games, PlayStation 3)

The folks at the Kyoto-based Q-Games (Star Fox Command), led by former Argonaut coder Dylan Cuthbert, have been trying to take things back to the '80s with simple, iterative self-funded downloadable titles for the PlayStation 3.

Racers is the first of these, and it's intentionally incredibly simple - just acceleration and lane changing needed, slot car style. Perhaps because of this, it's relaxing and addictive all at once, and bodes well for further titles in the PixelJunk series for PSN coming soon.

4. Jetpac Refueled (Rare, Xbox 360)

For those who grew up in Europe in the 1980s and remember the original Jetpac, this enhanced remake is even more enticing - but even for those who don't, the gameplay is beguiling.

It's particularly notable that the gravitational physics behind the Joust-style thrusting, transplanted wholesale from the Stampers' 1983 Ultimate Play The Game original -- the first ever title from the now-departed Rare founders -- work just as well almost 25 years later.

3. Everyday Shooter (Queasy Games, PlayStation 3)

A gloriously abstract shooter that originally won multiple prizes at the Independent Games Festival this year (Disclaimer: original writer Simon Carless is IGF Chairman), Jon Mak's title is particularly enjoyable because of its careful blend of strategy, stylish visuals, and action-generated music.

In addition, the concept of radically changing gameplay and look on a level by level basis -- something that Mak has compared to a music album -- is particularly progressive as a concept. It's also nice to see high scores as a success arbiter returning in such a prominent manner.

2. flOw (ThatGameCompany, PlayStation 3)

One of the games released this year that is least like a... game, the depth-based eating/growing experience that is flOw had already been well-tested in Flash by creator Jenova Chen and his associates.

The reason that flOw works so well is because of its serene experience, carefully basic motion controls, and simply understandable game mechanics. Even the state of navigating the game is relaxing. The fact that such an organic-feeling experience had an explicit end is sad, though -- algorithmically generated levels next time?

1. Pac-Man Championship Edition (Namco Bandai, Xbox 360)

The original Pac-Man is simply one of the best games ever created. And, in this world of enhanced remakes, the Japanese developers at Namco Bandai worked with Pac-Man's father Toru Iwatani and created something incredibly special - a remake that improves on the original.

With all the flavor and excitement of the original, the multiple new modes - many of them with explicit time limits and related high scores - layered even smarter strategic gameplay upon the peerless original. And with smart art direction, the title looks amazing in HD. Tremendous.

You said:

Jim McGinley: "What an odd list. I'll agree with Everyday Shooter, but the rest?"

Anonymous: "I think Space Giraffe (XBLA) is at least worth a mention. It is an absolutely gorgeous new IP with such a rich/deep gameplay for anyone who is willing to learn by playing."

Oliver Snyders: "Space Giraffe is exactly the kind of game indies shouldn't make -- it's caught in the 'complexity VS simplicity' conundrum of the days of yore with the visual confusion that is enough to alarm even hardcore players, let alone casuals."

 


Top 5 Most Affecting Characters

The end of the year tends to be a time of reflection, and it's been said that this is one of gaming's most prolific -- if not its best -- years yet. 2007 has seen all kinds of evolutions on the experience of gaming, and while we perhaps haven't hit yet on that elusive formula for true emotional engagement, this year's offering feels a lot like nudging up against the boundary of everything we've previously believed games are capable of being, in terms of the ways they can affect, immerse and even permanently change us.

As the industry struggled to find that magic balance between story and gameplay, compelling characters took front and center. The reasons we play span from getting the opportunity to be a hero -- or a villain -- to experiencing a new perspective, a different ability, a new angle on the world, a new sense of a self that is not us.

It can be argued that the key to a game experience is a lucky cocktail of features that make us love -- or loathe -- our characters, that our final impression will hinge on what that character was, or was not able to do. With that in mind, we take a look this week at five of the year's most aberrant, interesting, compelling and effective characters in games. Minor spoilers.

5. Frédéric Chopin (Tri-Crescendo's Eternal Sonata, Xbox 360)

Aside from some pretty colors and lovely music, as an RPG, Eternal Sonata was ordinary in most ways -- and that's the remarkable thing. That one of the most derivative genres in console gaming could so seamlessly integrate the life, history and musical work of a real-life composer in such a facile, cavalier way stands out as one of those examples of the kind of engagement that games can make possible.

After all, Frédéric Chopin is not a fictional character, and the interpretation of his life as a dream in a fantasy game encouraged more than a few RPG fans to learn about him, maybe play a piano tune or two. And a character becomes much more thought-provoking given the concept that everything you are playing and seeing might just be a dream in the head of a man as he dies.

4. Kratos (Sony Santa Monica's God of War II, PS2)

The first God of War made a compelling anti-hero of the haunted soldier, and God of War II brings us Kratos as a God. With character conventions that could serve as a primer on Greek tragedy, the piquant conflict between Kratos' condition of power and his inner torment and powerlessness gives greater relevance to the almost artful, ravenous violence that characterizes the gameplay, with each brutal stroke conveying the desperation of bitterness and a quest for redemption and absolution that remains ever out of Kratos' reach.

3. Andrew Ryan (2K Boston's BioShock, PC/Xbox 360)

The architect of BioShock's Rapture serves as a cautionary example of the danger of pure philosophy. Though he's introduced as an antagonist, Ryan quickly becomes as sympathetic as he is so bitterly wrong -- despite his hard-line objectivist-influenced ideals that delineate artists from parasites, men from slaves, his greatest crime save for fatal arrogance was perhaps believing in humankind too much.

When the ensuing conflict forced him to compromise, over time, his ideals, that uncompromising faith in his beliefs were worth sacrificing his life to attempt to convey to his son. BioShock's one weakness was that, as that son, the player couldn't elect to adopt that philosophy to thwart his own abuse.

2. GLaDOS (Valve's Portal, PC/console)

The sleeper hit of the year, Portal, couldn't have brought phrases like "I'm doing science" into common parlance without GLaDOS, the decaying mainframe computer with a personality disorder. The relationship between GLaDOS and the protagonist has been called everything from passive-aggressive to maternal to an out-and-out feminist manifesto.

An antagonist who joyfully lies and then admits it, and then contradicts it again, who praises and then excoriates, threatens and begs, who sings you a song when you defeat her -- Portal is undoubtedly an excellent game, but GLaDOS is what really makes it happen.

1. You (You, Everywhere)

This year's trends showed us clearly that networked gaming is here to stay. Social virtual worlds inspired by game concepts did a tentative introductory dance around gaming itself, and social networking, communication and personalization quickly distinguished themselves as lynchpin features that suddenly no game can do without.

Blizzard's unshakable World of Warcraft nation seems invincible, Mass Effect allowed players to customize the protagonist to an unprecedented degree -- from every response he or she has, right down to the width of the eyes. Much was also made this year of choice in games as an absolute necessity -- the player wants to personalize the experience, see themselves reflected in it.

After chafing for years under conventions that forced film-like linear stories on players perhaps too hard, gamers have quickly declared that they're quite happy to make their own stories, to place their preferences and their own character concepts front-and-center in an open world. The audience has set a new bar for the year to come, as gamers begin demanding game experiences where their own will is the star.

 


Top 5 Overlooked Games

This time around, we take a look at the top 5 most overlooked games released this year, from Nintendo's green-minded Chibi-Robo Park Patrol to Harmonix's iPod debut Phase. The games chosen -- all from titles released in North America during 2007's calendar year -- enjoyed considerable cult enthusiasm, but, for various reasons, failed to garner mass attention.

5. Chibi-Robo Park Patrol (Nintendo, DS)

Chibi-Robo's sophomore outing was given a limited release that saw it -- in a somewhat tenuously argued case -- sold near exclusively at Wal-Mart because of the company's "strong environmental program and social giving campaign."

While exclusivity tactics are usually reserved for obscuring sub-par games, Park Patrol was an exception to the rule, and managed to pack big charm into its diminutive body, with a mostly non-combative and environmentally-minded ethos typical of the lineage of the staff at developer Skip.

4. Dungeon Maker: Hunting Ground (XSEED, PSP)

XSEED generated a tiny amount of radio static with its localization of Dungeon Maker, but the game's bottom-up approach to dungeon delving -- where players themselves architect ever more elaborate surroundings to attract ever more powerful enemies -- made less of a dent than it deserved.

With a DS version already on Japanese shelves, a localized port might bring that handheld's wider and more adventurous audience to discover why the game was one of the most one-more-round addictive games of the year.

3. Earth Defense Force 2017 (D3, Xbox 360)

Cult and import enthusiasts won't have missed this one, but the first Stateside release of the Earth Defense Force series shows how even a low-budget concept -- carbon-copy insect models that have hardly progressed since the series' 2003 debut and appear to be ripped straight from stock art catalogs -- can have thrills and tension nearly as high-impact as the AAAs, if you play the numbers right.

The very definition of economic design -- choose two weapons from an arsenal of hundreds and face off against wave after tidal wave of enemies in any style you prefer -- the game pulls off a surprising amount of strategic flair for using so few tools out of the industry's box.

Its attempt at squad mechanics and the honestly disappointing lack of Live integration made it a bit of a step backward from the last in the series, but with any luck Sandlot's toiling away at a proper sequel as we speak, or D3 might find it in their hearts to support the still vital PlayStation 2 with a surprise release of the superior second.

2. Raw Danger! (Irem/Agetec, PS2)

Probably truly the most woefully overlooked game on the list, Irem's follow-up to its original disastrous adventure (also released by Agetec in the States as Disaster Report) keys up not just the catastrophe, but the story-telling ambition as well. Hidden beneath its b-movie cover and budget price is -- stay with me here -- one of gaming's first great interwoven storyline equivalent to films like Short Cuts, Magnolia, or Three Colors.

Played out over a tragic Christmas holiday, the game is broken into a series of episodes following the progression of a cast of characters including a wrongly-accused prisoner, a tormented teenage schoolgirl, and an amnesiac that has to literally piece together fragments of his former self (through a cleverly designed minigame), all of whom cross paths at key moments, each under the player's control from every angle.

With pitch-perfect comic relief and a (albeit more lo-fi) suffering slow-crawl scene that pre-dates Call of Duty 4's emotional climax by over a year, the game deserves far more careful industry attention than it was ever given.

1. Phase (MTV/Harmonix, iPod)

At the top of the list, though, sits Harmonix's little-sister to Rock Band's big-daddy that, perhaps simply by nature of its platform and the timing of its release (just a few weeks before Rock Band took the stage), seems to have gone generally yet-unnoticed by the industry at large.

Even driven as it is without the human touch given to the rest of Harmonix's output, its note-chart algorithms show a near Turing-test-passing understanding of what drives music and connects it to a listener.

Anecdotal evidence, like the game somehow knowing to place an iPod wheel sweep in Feist's "My Moon My Man" at precisely the same point as her dramatic music video twirl, is just some of the reason that Harmonix has made it a thrill to plumb the depths of music collections.

Other recent music-based releases have shown just how confidently and skillfully the studio can execute on obvious ideas, with a result that's less about beat matching as it is rhythm-feeling.

Jeffk: "Dungeon Maker is my latest handheld-crack game (following lengthy, thumb-punishing addictions to Puzzle Quest and Planet Puzzle League). It really is Harvest Moon or Animal Crossing for people who would rather not be seen playing either of those games but who enjoy a little light grinding and quasi-meditative repetition -- your dungeon becomes a little Zen garden, but with bosses, loot drops, and tough interior-design choices."

Danielle: "Chibi Robo: Park Patrol is a DELIGHTFULLY CHARMING game. It's a pleasure to play and I've abandoned my AC:WW town to grow flowers. It's quite crazy how great this little game is."


Top 5 Trends

Picking out the five "best" trends is pretty tough. Almost more than ranking games, judging the positives and negatives of any of these trends is an exercise in subjectivity.

Some trends are good for business but could easily be argued to stifle creativity. Some might have no positive or negative effect, or fade away as fast as they arose. But these trends all seem significant and compelling in their own way.

5. Consolidation

Here's the one that might be the most debated on whether it's good or not: consolidation. While it's not an innovation in business, the consolidations of 2007 were extremely significant -- chiefly BioWare and Pandemic being folded into Electronic Arts, and the announcement of Activision and Blizzard's merger. There were others, of course, and of no less significance to the players involved, no doubt.

When Gamasutra spoke with him, BioWare's Ray Muzyka had nothing but positive things to say about the merger with EA, his respect for its management team, and the promise of a stronger future for the developer's creative drive under EA.

Of course, the Activision Blizzard merger, on the other hand, is being viewed chiefly from a financial perspective, which isn't to be ignored. Either way, these are significant moves that point towards an evolving future for the structure of the industry.

4. Catering to the Wii Audience

While there haven't been as many practical examples of this just yet as we might like -- Take 2's Carnival Games hit hard -- the fact is that 2007 seems to be the year developers really got a handle on the Wii and started to play to its strengths.

Developers are focusing on creating games for the system that take advantage of its controls and its audience -- which may be less interested in the sort of games that developers are used to making and publishers are used to selling.

One of the major flaws with the Gamecube wasn't necessarily directly Nintendo's fault: publishers would port their PS2 games to the system, watch them sink in the marketplace, and then abandon ship. The massive success and innovative control of the Wii have forced everyone to rethink this strategy (for the most part.)

Perhaps most notably, Ubisoft CEO Yves Guillemot's widely-reported statement that the company's Wii games would have "Nintendo-like quality" acknowledges that developers understand what they're up against. The metamorphosis of Majesco into a publisher of casual games with a focus on the Wii and DS -- to the point of commissioning original games from top minds in the industry -- is another interesting reflection of this shift.

3. The Rise of the Shooter

If 2007 could be said to belong to any one genre, it's got to be the shooter, and it doesn't seem like this trend is ending anytime soon. Since Gears of War launched late last year and began to define the Xbox 360 experience, through to Halo 3's massive sales this year, we've experienced a boom in the genre.

Call of Duty 4 is another staggering success for the genre, one so huge it seems to have blotted out the light from the latest Medal of Honor. The Orange Box brought together Valve's best work in one convenient package; Lost Planet was perhaps the first credible (and successful) attempt from a Japanese developer to conquer the genre.

Mass Effect showed that even RPG stalwarts BioWare felt the need to adopt the trappings of the genre to appeal to the Xbox 360's hard-bitten core audience. And there are plenty of other hits, and even more also-rans.

Next year shows no letup: Army of Two and Haze both stand out (as refugees from this year's onslaught) while Killzone 2 will be one of the most significant PS3 games of the year.

2. Indies Going Major

While the PlayStation Network can't offer the same breadth of popular content as Xbox Live Arcade, it has two of the most significant games released to the console download market this year: Everyday Shooter and flOw.

Both originated outside of the game development mainstream and gained big audiences based on their quality. And for a game that's indie in a different way, Xbox Live Arcade ponied (or is that llamaed?) up Space Giraffe, supporting the fever dreams of iconoclastic English developer Jeff Minter. The evolution of student indie Narbacular Drop into one of this year's most-praised titles, Portal, is nothing short of heartwarming, really.

And the talent keeps coming. The Independent Games Festival -- run by CMP, as is Gamasutra -- received a record-breaking number of entries this year. Microsoft used its XNA platform to encourage indie developers, awarding two prizes (and publishing deals) to games that entered its competition.

Indie developers have been around for years, but their produce is inspiring everyone and, most importantly, finding an avenue to engage with mainstream audiences in all new ways.

1. Mainstreaming of Handhelds

Barring an absolute miracle, the Nintendo DS will be the bestselling console of the year in the U.S. Its sales in Japan and Europe are also astounding. Many discount the PSP by comparison, but Sony's handheld is the first credible competitor to Nintendo's unbroken chain of successes, and was Sony's bestselling hardware platform this November.

But more importantly, the mainstreaming of the handheld is catching on. The Brain Age games aren't showing signs of fading; other Touch Generations-style games have begun to make their impression on western audiences; Disney is, according to its general manager Graham Hopper, the number two handheld publisher through September 2007 (and what's more mainstream than Disney?)

One of the most significant moments, however, was the announcement at the tail end of last year that Dragon Quest IX, the full-fledged sequel of Japan's most popular game series, would be debuting on the Nintendo DS. Has a series of this caliber ever debuted its prime sequel on a handheld before?

Since that time, the stock in the system has only risen dramatically. Nintendo sold over 1.5 million DSes in the U.S. in November. Electronic Arts has publicly admitted it misjudged the market by focusing on the PSP. What is left to be said?

 


Top 5 Developers

This time, we give careful consideration to the game developers who have done the most to advance the art and science of gaming worldwide in 2007. This chart may have some overlap with the 'best games' chart coming later this week, of course.

But we're picking top developers for their attention to detail, grit, and willingness to push the envelope, not necessarily simply on the finished product's overall quality - though all of this year's Top 5 Developers have worked on spectacular titles.

The developers picked are the editor's choice, and for every one settled on, there are many others -- from Infinity Ward through Insomniac to Nintendo EAD Tokyo and Naughty Dog -- that we also greatly appreciate. Here's our line-up:

5. BioWare (Mass Effect)

While it may verge on the over-complex in some gameplay mechanics, BioWare's masterful Mass Effect feels like a genuine space opera. It has whirling emotions and a genuine story arc - so genuine, in fact, that you start to realize how basic the story in many other games is.

In addition, the character customization using Unreal Engine 3 made players even more acutely aware of their immersion in the action. And with fruits from Dragon Age to the "mysterious" MMO still due under new taskmaster Electronic Arts, one can't help but think that the golden age of BioWare's story-driven epics has only just begun.

4. Bungie (Halo 3)

Some cynics might say that Bungie not being #1 on this list means that they've failed, given the stratospheric expectations for Halo 3. Well, hardly -- the single-player game was still rapturously received. But where the newly independent developer scored, for me, was in the multiplayer immersiveness.

With social networks ravenously engulfing the rest of electronic media, the incredibly complex stat tracking and multimedia upload capabilities of Halo 3's online modes make for a world in which tracking and replaying your interactions mean as much as the gameplay itself. Games still have a long way to go on their path to social media, and Bungie blazed the trail in 2007, while quietly setting up as independent of Microsoft.

3. 2K Boston/Australia (BioShock)

Of course, the team we'd all love to call Irrational always knew that BioShock was a critical darling, but to break out to commercial success - and with such a relatively odd, highbrow setting -- was a surprise to many.

But Ken Levine's team (and their counterparts in Australia) took their time and presented a carefully structured game world where morals mattered, dynamic and emergent gameplay was rife, and Daddies were Big. It may already be a "franchise", but as an original piece of art, BioShock rocks, and 2K Boston and Australia should be proud of the iteration and perseverance in birthing it.

2. Harmonix (Rock Band/Phase)

When a developer thrives after its signature franchise has been taken away from them - that's when you know they're destined for greatness. And Boston's Harmonix did just that with Rock Band, possibly the best multiplayer game of all time -- while sneaking in officially overlooked (see above) iPod breakthrough title Phase along the way.

It's not just the pure technical execution, either. In the innards of Rock Band, you can feel the love of rock music screaming out to be heard from the developer, something that's widely agreed to be somewhat lacking in Neversoft's still competent Guitar Hero III. It's a game that makes you feel -- and most often, that feeling is great. Bravo, Harmonix.

1. Valve Software (The Orange Box)

Sure, plenty of other developers shipped a great game this year. But, let's face it, how many of those developers shipped three great titles all in one year, while simultaneously owning and operating a major PC game distribution portal?

Thanks to the puzzle humor genius of Portal, the beautifully art-directed multiplayer smartness of Team Fortress 2, and the pitch-perfect storytelling and humanistic drama of Half-Life 2: Episode 2, all packaged up neatly in The Orange Box, Valve deserves Gamasutra's award for the 2007 Developer Of The Year. (Mind you, expect a Halley's Comet-style gap until they next release this many titles in 12 months!)

You said:

Robert Chang: "To say that Valve brought nothing to Portal is like saying Valve brought nothing to the FPS genre with Half-Life. This is what Valve does best -- they work with established game mechanics/genre and then bring their unique storytelling, gameplay philosophy, and beautiful art direction to the table."

Caswal Parker: "Although most of these games lack 'innovation' what they do show is sheer polish. They put in the last 5% to really make their games great. 'Good enough' wasn't good enough for them. They put in that last little bit, which always takes more time than you think."

 


Top 5 Freeware Games

This time, we look at the top five freeware games of the year -- games by and large created outside commercial constraints, labors of love from aspiring and soon-to-be developers that will have an impact on the industry in the coming years.

Whittling down a list to a small handful is becoming increasingly difficult year over year as the tools available to amateur and hobbyist developers become more accessible -- a trend reflected in the continual record numbers of Independent Game Festival entries each new year brings.

This year has seen a number of noteworthy games that didn't quite make the list but should be mentioned, from the compelling mechanics and wanton violence of Death Worm to the slapstick comedy of Sumotori, and all of the games recently showcased at Kokoromi's Gamma 256, especially Jason Rohrer's somber pixelated memento mori,

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