Sunday, December 6, 2015

The Games of Decade Past

10 years ago, Microsoft released the Xbox 360, the absurdly-named successor to its short lived Xbox machine. With it, Microsoft ushered in a new age of gaming. And I don't mean that in the grandiose way that overexcited middle age men in suits promise every year.

"But not me fellow youths. I just want to talk to you about the revolutionary new GameBox 10. With the power of the digi-cloud, it's going to solve world hunger and feature tight cutting-edge graphics."

For better or worse, Microsoft set the stage for the last generation of consoles. But they were not alone. In the last decade, countless hardware manufactures, developers, publishers, and even everyday normal cool gamers like us have changed gaming as we know it immensely.

Here are just some of the things that have defined video gaming since then.


The popularity of game genres tend to come in and out of fashion. During the 16 bit era, waves of platformer after platformer crashed onto consoles' shores. During the 32 bit era, Japanese role playing games cut a swath through the industry. The PS2/Xbox/Gamecube generation was a period of transition, but the result is now clear in the absolute domination of the first person shooter as the premier game experience.

Absolutely nothing characterized the last 10 years more than the act of aiming down the sights of a high powered weapon and firing hot lead into somebody's child. More barrels were stared down than in a marathon game of Donkey Kong. The physical motion of pressing the left trigger then the right trigger has become instinct. Future generations of children will be born knowing how to pull off sick headshots.

Rest in peace, xX_420Sniper_Xx.

The Halo series was already very popular at the start of last generation (and until this year's Halo 5 was the final hold-out on the iron sights takeover), but it was the release of 2007's Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare that set off a nuclear bomb of first person devastation. It delivered an action filled campaign unprecedented in its level of grandeur, and a unique, addictive multiplayer experience that has been copied so much it's become the industry standard. Its explosive popularity spawned a legion of wannabes and neverwills.

You'll  have to take my word for it that these are all different games.

One of the most important things Call of Duty did was...

Last generation, mainstream audiences learned what nerds knew all along.

Leveling up feels good, man.

In days long ago, experience points were exclusively the domain of the Dungeons & Dragons and Final Fantasy set. Leveling up was the result of vile creatures vanquished and rewarded with magical spells learned. Call of Duty 4 changed all that. Infinity Ward paired the age old carrot and stick method to first person shooter multiplayer action and gaming hasn't been the same since.

Keep chasing that high.

Before Call of Duty 4, when a multiplayer match ended that was pretty much it. You killed as many people as you could, your mother's honor was questioned a few dozen times, and you went on with your day. You left the experience the same as when you began and you soldiered on for the fun of it all. After COD, 'Persistence' became the word of the day. Everything you did was part of a larger metagame. You kill enemies for points to level up, you unlock more powerful weapons to make killing easier and thus leveling up faster to unlock more guns. And when you hit the max level, you start over and do it again. It's much easier to convince yourself this is fun when you're watching the bar fill up, inching ever so closer to the next reward. The phrase "with RPG elements" has become so ubiquitous it's essentially worthless.

Since then, developers have applied this philosophy to every kind of game imaginable, from racing games to open world action games.

Or in the case of GTA V, open world racing action games.

OK, that's enough about Call of Duty.

The success of Call of Duty ushered in a new era of mega-blockbusters in video games. Spectacle and extravagance were emphasized, and it all came with an advertising budget in the billions. With this, however, came raised expectations. Every publisher gambled on large projects on the hopes of creating its own money printing franchise. In almost every case, this blew up in their face. Games that would have been a huge success 10 years ago were considered failures as publishers worked under the assumption that throwing money at a game guaranteed a hit.

Because the market does not work like that, this left developer after developer closing its doors. Suddenly, there was no room for modest hits. The rise of the AAA game left the AA's and the A's with nowhere to go.

Here's a list of only some of the development houses closed just between 2006 and 2012.

38 Studios - 2012
3D Realms - 2009
4mm Games - 2012
7 Studios (Activision) - 2011
ACES Studio (Microsoft) - 2009
Action Forms - 2009
Artech Studios - 2011
Ascaron - 2009
Atomic Elbow - 2008
Backbone Vancouver - 2009
Beam Software/Melbourne House - 2010
BigBig (Sony) - 2012
Big Huge Games - 2012
Bizarre Creations (Activision) - 2010/2011
Black Hole Entertainment - 2012
Black Rock (Disney) - 2011
Blue Fang Games - 2011
Blue Tongue (THQ) - 2011
BottleRocket - 2009
Brash Entertainment - 2008
Budcat (Activision) - 2010
Carbonated Games - 2008
Castaway Entertainment - 2008
Cavia - 2010
Cheyenne Mountain - 2010
Cing - 2010
Clover Studios (Capcom) - 2006
Codemasters Guildford - 2011
Cohort Studios - 2011
Concrete Games - 2008
Dark Energy Digital - 2012
Deep Silver Vienna - 2010
DICE Canada - 2006
Digital Anvil - 2006
EA Chicago - 2007
EA Bright Light 2011/2012
EA Japan - 2007
Eden Games - 2012
Eidos Manchester - 2009
Eds Hungary - 2010
Empire Interactive - 2009
Ensemble Studios - 2008
Etrange Libellules - 2012
Eurocom - 2012
Factor 5 - 2009
FASA (Microsoft) - 2007
Fizz Factor - 2009
Flagship Studios -2008
Flight Plan - 2010
Frozen North Productions
Funcom Beijing - 2013
FuzzyEyes - 2009
Gamelab - 2009
Game Republic - 2011
GRIN - 2009
Groove Games - 2010
Gutso Games - 2012
HB Studios Halifax - 2012
Helixe (THQ) - 2008
Hogrocket - 2012
Hudson Entertainment - 2011
Hudson Soft - 2012
Humannature Studio (Nexon Vancouver) - 2009
Ignition London - 2010
Ignition Florida - 2010
ImaginEngine - 2012
Impossible Studios - 2013
Incognito Entertainment (Sony) - 2009
Indie Built (Take-Two) - 2006
Iron Lore - 2008
Juice Games (THQ) - 2011
Junction Point - 2013
Kaos Studios (THQ) - 2011
Killaware - 2011
Killspace Entertainment - 2011
KMM Brisbane - 2011
Kuju Manila - 2009
Kuju Chemistry - 2009
Kush Games - 2008
Locomotive Games (THQ) - 2010
Loose Cannon Studios - 2010
Luxoflux - 2010
Mass Media (THQ) - 2008
Microsoft Game Studios Vancouver - 2012
Monte Cristo - 2010
Monumental Games - 2012
Midway Austin - 2009
Midway Newcastle - 2009
MTV Games - 2011
Multiverse - 2012
NetDevil - 2011
Ninja Studio - 2009
Nihon Telenet - 2007
Outerlight - 2010
Outspark - 2013
PAM Development (Take-Two) - 2008
Pandemic Australia (EA) - 2009
Pandemic LA (EA) - 2009
Paradigm Entertainment - 2008
Pi Studios - 2011
Pivotal Games (Take-Two) - 2008
PopCap Dublin - 2012
Propaganda Games (Disney) - 2011
Pseudo Interactive - 2008
Radical Entertainment - 2012
Rainbow Studios (THQ) - 2011
Razorworks - 2009
Reakktor Media - 2012
Realtime Worlds - 2010
Rebellion Derby - 2010
Red Octane - 2010
Redtribe - 2008
Rockstar Vancouver - 2012
Rockstar Vienna - 2006
Sandblast Games (THQ) - 2008
SEGA San Francisco - 2010
Sensory Sweep Studios - 2010
Seta - 2008
Shaba Games (Activision) - 2009
SideCar Studios - 2007
Sierra Online - 2008
Snapdragon Games - 2009
SOE Denver - 2011
SOE Seattle - 2011
SOE Tuscon - 2011
Sony Liverpool - 2012
Spellbound Entertainment - 2012
Stormfront Studios - 2008
Straylight Studios - 2009
Team Bondi - 2011
The Code Monkeys - 2011
Titan Studios - 2009
THQ Australia - 2009
THQ Digital Warrington - 2009
THQ San Diego - 2012
Transmission Games/IR Gurus - 2009
Ubisoft Brazil - 2010
Ubisoft Vancouver - 2012
Underground Development/Z-Axis (Activision) - 2010
Universomo (THQ) - 2009
Venom Games (Take Two) - 2008
Vicarious Visions California - 2007
Visceral Montreal - 2013
Vigil Games - 2013
Visceral Australia (EA) - 2011
Wizarbox - 2013
Wolfpack Studios - 2006
Yuke’s Company Of America - 2010
Zipper Interactive - 2012
Zoe Mode London - 2009
Zoonami - 2011
Zynga Boston - 2012
Zynga Japan - 2013

That's....that's like all of the developers right? Who's even left to make video games?

The idea of two guys in a basement creating a hit game was killed by ballooning budgets and sky-high expectations.

Or was it...

For the first time, the tools for creating a video game have became accessible that enough that anyone with the ambition and talent can create something remarkable.

Although it's possible to release something with neither.

The proliferation of digital distribution services on consoles and Steam have allowed all of those aforementioned unemployed developers to work on smaller scale projects, making the kinds of games you can't make when hundreds of millions of dollars are on the line.. Almost in response to mainstream gaming becoming more and more commercialized and commodified, the independent games have became more niche and experimental.

This is all very self explanatory.

Developers like Johnathon Blow and Edmund McMillen became household names overnight.

Well.....certain households.

Over the course of these last 10 years, these small games have evolved from novel little time wasters you play between your real games, to a driving force in the industry.

Though they still tend to fit into one of a few categories.
Sony and Microsoft have spent a lot of time and resources to secure exclusive indie games for their machines. On Steam, the bigger studio games are drowned in an ocean of  pixel retro platformers and roguelike-like-likes. It's become a very crowded market thanks to the lower stakes, but it's clear that indie games aren't going anywhere.

With all those giant ballooning budgets, you better believe that publishers have thought of as many ways as they can to get more money out of each project. When the 360 was first announced, it was explained that for the first time game makers would be able to sell additional content for their games straight to the consumer. It was an exciting concept, but the more cynical among us were quick to point out how easy this could turn exploitative. It wasn't long before seemingly the worst of the fears were realized, when Bethesda had the gall to charge real human money for an innocent set of armor for an in-game horse.

Look upon this beautiful beast, and remember well Bethesda's sin.
It was a laughingstock at the time. A testament to how bad this whole microtransaction thing was, and a harbinger of the death of gaming.

But a lot can change in just a few years.

Paying for content that's already present on the disc, paying for the real ending of a game, paying for in-game clothes, paying for cheats, for in-game currency, for competitive shortcuts, it's all so commonplace now that no one bats an eye. It's simply a matter of course that the game you pay $60 for is now simply the base platform for all the doodads and whatsits they'll add down the line. Most games now launch with a "season pass", sometimes the price of a game itself, that simply ensures you'll be able to play most everything a game has to offer. Publishers have raised the price of games without raising the price of games.

Of course, that's all well and good to ask for money after you've put out a good product. It takes a lot of  balls to ask for money for a game before it's even finished. Double Fine's landmark Kickstarter (for what had eventually become Broken Age, by all accounts a pretty fine game) was a huge moment. Here was a pretty famous developer. asking people for donations for a game that at the time didn't exist in any form. And it worked. Rather well in fact. Not well enough as it turns out, as they could only release half a game with the hopes that sales would fund the second half, but hey. It broke records. From then on, gamers had a way to help finance games the market decided it didn't have room for, and developers with little more than a neat idea and a slick pitch video had a way to fund their crazy/cool/crazy-cool dreams.

Steam has since launched the Early Access initiative. With that, developers can release what is essentially a demo, charge money for it, and add more content to it if they feel like it. It seems like every other game released on the service is in Early Access. It's a pretty good idea in theory. Fans can be a part of the development cycle, devs get money to keep making the game. Win-win. There have been a few instances of developers essentially taking the money and running, but that's a risk you take when you donate to a Kickstarter game or get early access to an Early Access game. I sound cynical about the whole thing, and I am, but the option is out there for people to use or ignore. I just miss when a game just came out and you bought it and that was it. But that model is old, and while it will never go away completely, there's plenty of alternatives now and they're here to stay.

Everybody likes to feel like they're getting shit done. Playing video games is fun and all, but what do you get for all the hours spent playing other than memories of the princesses rescued and aliens murdered? Before 2005, not much. A few ambitious folks mastered games so thoroughly that they made their own challenges. Beating a game without taking damage, beating it in 5 minutes or less, beating it in co-op with a girlfriend who has to ask constantly where the R1 button is. But even after accomplishing the impossible, no one wold ever believe you. A dusty Polaroid of the high score screen was as convincing as Caitlyn Jenner. But with the 360, Microsoft gave everyone the chance to settle once and for all whose time was worth less.

It didn't take long for the competition to realize the addictive power of meaningless digital checklists. Sony quickly and inelegantly patched "Trophy" support into its games, Steam added its own twist on the idea called....well, Achievements. iOS has 'em, Android has 'em, they've been retroactively added to classic games. There's no where you can go to play games without the inflated ego boost Achievements bring.

Except for Nintendo games, of course. But The Big N has been quietly shuffling to the beat of its own Donkey Kong bongos for a while now, hasn't it. Which brings us to the next thing...

Coming out of the Gamecube generation, people were wondering what the hell Nintendo was going to do. Its last console was at best a modest failure, and the N64 before it didn't fare much better. It was becoming pretty clear this whole "Playstation" fad was gonna last a while, so Nintendo had to pull a last minute fuck-it maneuver. I don't know if anybody expected them to present gamers with a TV remote you have to jiggle as its revolutionary new thing. Around the world, the announcement was met with a "....the fuck?" (translated to the appropriate language, of course). What the hell was Nintendo doing? They had announced a game system where you had to move to play. We all started playing games because we didn't want to go outside to play football with the rest of the kids. This was it, we all mourned. Nintendo was dead, and with it, our childhoods. This was going to finish what the Virtual Boy and Tingle the "fairy" started.

Started by whatever malicious squid aliens these controllers were designed for, probably.

Well, as anyone even passingly familiar with Earth could tell you, Nintendo politely nodded at such criticisms, took a shit all over them, and rode a waggling train of money all the way to the bank. The popularity of the Nintendo Wii as as explosively sudden as it was unexpected. Every child, adult, and crusty octogenarian wanted to play with their Wiis. Launching with the mini game compilation/tech demo Wii Sports, Nintendo created a cultural phenomenon of virtual bowling.

It wasn't long before everyone saw the mountains of money forming around Nintendo headquarters and wanted a piece of the action. Microsoft introduced the world to Project Natal (what later became the Kinect), and Sony announced the Playstation Move. In classic fashion, Microsoft developed a slightly different take on a competitor's idea (your body is the controller), while Sony stuck a Playstation logo on the competitor's product when they thought no one was looking.

"Put balls on our phallic controller. No one will suspect anything." - Sony Executive

Surprisingly these did pretty well for themselves too. People were pretty OK with video games becoming mostly exercise. A new age of gaming was born.

And died.

The public's appetite for dancing and swinging in front of our TVs could only last so long. Some people bought Wii's for Wii Sports and nothing else. The Kinect never really delivered on its promise of real time full body tracking, and the Move...stopped moving. It was a weird, wonderful time in gaming, but our sprained wrists and sore backs were happy to see it end.

Shooting things at other things is a big part of gaming. Not being one of the things being shot is the other part. Before 2006, running around wildly and standing behind a wall were your only real options for defense in shooter games. Gears of War, taking a lot of cues from an earlier but mostly ignored game named Kill.Switch, showed the world there was another way: crouching behind boxes and twiddling your thumbs until the enemy stops firing before popping up and shooting wildly at their cover.

"Did you hear something?"
"I'll check in a minute. It's our turn to shoot soon."

This fundamentally changed the way third person shooters were designed. Now you'd walk into an environment, see tons of carefully and conveniently placed waist high obstacles, and just know shit is about to go down. You'd think the world is just filled with 3 foot tall cement slabs and stacks of wooden crates. Suddenly not shooting is the hottest thing in shooting.

Admittedly, it's definitely more realistic. Shooters before were little more than Rambo simulators. And as cool as it is to just walk into a room and blast the hell out of everyone with little or no concern for personal health, sometimes it's alright to just slow things down and take turns shooting volleys like gentlemen.


There are lots of ways gaming has been transformed over the last decade. Trends rose and fell, companies came and went, people found new and different ways to play, and the audience of potential gamers was expanded from most people to all the people.

There's too much to chronicle in one article; the plastic instrument novelty, the rise of digital gaming, game re-releases, the marginalizing of the single player game, consoles becoming more multimedia focused, and the evolution of the "phone game" from simple distractions to big business. The list goes on and on. There's a lot of pessimism surrounding gaming today. Do consoles still have a place in today's market? Are half baked unfinished games ruining gaming? Is the flooded market headed for another crash? Maybe some of the concerns are valid, but it's clear from the last ten years, and the ten years before that, and the decade before that, that video games are a robust industry. Things may change, but people are always going to want the kind of escapism only games can provide. As long as there are people to play them, good games will always be in the process of being made. And whether we're swiping like drunken hobos at invisible virtual reality zombies or playing laser tennis on the moon, that's all that matters.


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