2007, a look backwards at a retrospective of the past in hindsight

It's not entirely inconceivable that interested consumers will look back on these closing months of 2007 as the golden age of the current generation of consoles. Wow, just...wow. I am possibly one of the most cynical and bitter people you are likely to find, a decade in the industry can do that to a man, but even I was moved to excitement by some of the amazing titles released of late. I can't remember a similar period in gaming history when so many high-quality games were thrown at us in such a short time, a lot of them pushing technology to new heights, some refining existing experiences to a whole new level of polish and enjoyment and some even trying out new IP with apparent success. It's a hard act to follow.

Aside from the games the industry itself has seen some major news items, like the merger of Vivendi and Activision creating our industry's biggest entity, the continued and seemingly unstoppable resurgence of Nintendo as a major hardware player, the triumphant fall and rise of Japanmanship, XBox games breaking into the top 10 in Japan, sales records broken, profit records broken, a new and laughable, but not in a good way, Duke Nukem Forever teaser, a controversy surrounding game journalism, the Red Ring of Death saga, the list goes on.

For games, technically at least, the bar has been raised tremendously. Some "merely excellent” titles were swamped in recent months and sank without a trace in the face of so many high-quality products. This is difficult to replicate next year, as there are far fewer announcements of upcoming titles and the sequels of the current crop probably won't see the light of day until late 2009. And with so many new IPs being introduced this year, it paves the way for more sequels in the future. Assassin’s Creed 2, Bioshock 2, all these things seem inevitable. As are the copycat products. I'll guarantee, with fingers only slightly crossed behind my back, that some cynical developer somewhere will be copying the Mario Galaxy worlds and gravity system, and probably do a bad job of it.

As for myself, Super Mario Galaxy obviously ruled the roost, it being of such polished quality and full of that elusive "fun" us developers like to talk about for hours on end, that the whole experience was overwhelmingly excellent. I stopped playing it after gathering 105 stars as I feared the inevitable frustration of getting those timed purple coins and other tough challenges would eventually ruin my perfect enjoyment of the title. I might pick it up again at some point in the future though.
Portal too was a definite highlight and one that made a gruff cynic like me both excited and depressed at the current state of the industry. Depressed because I hadn't worked on Portal and because I cannot envision a situation, especially in Japan, where I would work on such an original title, and excited because it invigorated my creativity by proxy. These people were students not too long ago and a company like Valve, with elephantine balls of steel, invested their resources in them and let them get on with it, and as a result we have two new internet memes, a great game lauded by all who play it and a new "paradigm" (how I hate that word).
Bioshock too was, overall, amazing, Its much hyped moral complexity was of course an utter failure and the story too didn't lead down too many dark alleyways. Especially in the last chapter I was duped into giving the writers far more credit than they deserved, thinking I was being primed for an almighty twist which never arrived. But those criticisms aside, the setting was, both in design and in art, absolutely amazing and the relative ease of the gameplay, attacked by some, actually fitted perfectly with my ever diminishing skills, making the game fun, rather than show-stoppingly frustrating. As one of the few games I actually finished this year it deserves an award alone.
Assassin’s Creed too, not without its fair share of problems, is undeniably jaw-droppingly gorgeous, raising the bar for graphical excellence even further. And though there are obvious problems in the design, just running and jumping over the rooftops of the ancient world is fun.

On the more casual side too things have been rosy. Puzzle Quest for XBLA was a joy and easily sucked up a lot of my time but rewarded me with a full 200 gamerscore points. Less perfect but equally anticipated was the XBLA version of Super Puzzle Fighter 2 Turbo HD Remix, now probably the longest game acronym in history. It's a testament to the original design that despite the less than perfect controls and the lack of single-player challenges, the game was still magnificent. This was also the year Popcap gave us Peggle, another astoundingly original game that was almost impossible to put down. The DS too had some games that could be filed under "casual" which were highly enjoyable, and though something like Arkanoid DS was basically an ugly let-down, it is nice to see some companies are still playing around with DS peripherals, in this case the Arkanoid jog button extension, sold separately through the Taito website.

Visually, being an artist, 2007 has been more than impressive, with aforementioned titles like Assassin's Creed et all, but the most striking example for me must be Team Fortress 2, showing us what real, dedicated and intelligent art direction can produce. Whereas titles like Bioshock referenced the art deco era beautifully, it was Team Fortress 2 that redefined, in my view, what art direction should do: not just create a solid and continuous style but have it strengthen the gameplay rather than just paint a pretty picture. Hopefully titles with this kind of strong art direction, like also Super Mario Galaxy and, to a lesser but real extent, Portal, can finally teach your average publisher to not masturbate over technology so much and show the consumer that raw processing power alone does not make a pretty game. Proof of this is Unreal Tournament 3, which obviously has a powerful engine at its core and shows graphics made by doubtless creative and highly skilled people but ends up a soulless murky mess, interchangeable with any sci-fi alien versus space marine shooter.

So what will 2008 bring? Personally I think it'll be a more interesting year for the business side of things than the consumers. There are a few high-profile titles announced, but nowhere near as many as were delivered in 2007. But will these titles perform? For the Wii we have of course Super Smash Bros. which is highly anticipated but may suffer from the same malaise as Super Mario Galaxy received; it'll sell well enough but probably nowhere near as many as we are all expecting. Mario Kart, may fare better, but who knows? What both these titles have going for themselves is most probably the multiplayer aspect. For this reason I also think we will see more mini-game collections and board-game affairs, I'm sad to say. The market for the Wii is definitely shaping up to be one of casual fun, with little room for actual hard-core or mature games, though I'm sure a few publishers will try, in vain. No more No More Heroes, more Wii Play. Make of that what you will. Wii Ware may also see its release in 2008, but may serve to highlight the Wii's shortcomings more than its strengths, i.e. harddisk space and a rather laborious on-line infrastructure. I fully expect the emphasis to remain on Virtual Console rather than new content.

For the 360 we already have a line-up of early 08 releases from Japan, including some schmups, which I'm personally quite excited by. These won't, however, make any real impact on the market, but will further serve, as I've pontificated about before, to build up the XBox brand in Japan in preparation for being taken seriously when the next generation is released. I do expect that more western developed 360 titles will find small sales increases in Japan, though nothing that will make the analysts sit up and take notice. What could be a possibility is that those few companies that kept on making niche Dreamcast games until well after the console's death may look to the 360, as heralded by ports of Rez and Ikaruga scheduled for release on XBLA next year. This could mean more dating sims, adventure RPGs and schmups for the rather empty Japanese XBL Marketplace. The Video marketplace will remain empty, as I don't think the Japanese have bought into that yet. The otaku will buy their anime DVDs and the rest will watch their television programs (I wouldn't call them "shows"), so there is little impetus to put anything up for download.

The year will definitely be one for Sony to make a splash, but will they? They might. Metal Gear is one of those few titles that causes a stir in Japan, like Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest and Monster Hunter, it's the kind of game that people will queue up for. And with the recent cheaper models going on sale for less Yen the Japanese public seems to be biting. This trend may gather pace with the release of Metal Gear. However, Sony's main problem is that it has too little on offer for the female and younger players, especially those superglued to Nintendo. Social networks, like Mixi, are very popular so maybe Home could help combat that dearth, but they should probably, even as a hard-core provider, give some more attention to casual. Of course, if Blu-Ray wins the odious format wars it could have a good effect on sales of the PS3, it being the cheapest player out there right now, but this is more of a long-term strategy and probably won't come into play this coming year.

Obviously the above is all conjecture based on personal observation and, I'm afraid, preferences, but even if I'm wrong on all counts it still makes for an interesting year ahead. I'll be keeping my breath baited. In the meantime let's reflect with wonderment and joy at the splendour and excitement of this quarter. Gamers never had it this good, and probably won't again for a while to come. Now I have to get back to my stack on cellophane-wrapped backlog. There just aren't enough hours in the day.

15 comments:

  1. I'm really looking forward to what Vivendi and Activision start producing.

    It has been a very interesting time, and I for one am glad to see the back of gritty urban sci-fi shooters dominating the shelves. I like primary colours! They are usually a lot more interesting.

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  2. I think 2008 will be much better than this year. It's almost a replay of 2001. A new GTA, Metal Gear, Gran Turismo, Resi Evil, Smash Bros, Soul Calibur, Fable, TimeSplitters, Fallout, Silent Hill, Final Fantasy, Ninja Gaiden, Devil May Cry, Burnout...and original games like LittleBigPlanet, Alan Wake, Lost Odyssey, Braid, Too Human...

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  3. You make a convincing argument, Mr. King. Still, next year is *mostly* sequels, which will be very good of course, but I'd say this year we saw some very cool new IP. For that consumers, who always harp on about wanting originality, should be greatful. I certainly am.

    Ms. Peney, to be honest I don't think Activision Blizzard will do anything amazingly surprising. What would be interesting to see is how the competition reacts.

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  4. I agree that this year saw some great new games, BioShock and Portal being the most important in my eyes. Though it's somewhat ironic that most comments from critics, particularly with games like Assassin's Creed and Mass Effect, say that those games will really take off with the sequels.

    So did this year plant the seeds? Those original ideas will likely get perfected in their next chapters. I thing this could apply to a lot of games, new and old. I guess it's hard for devs to nail a unique idea on the first shot, which basically means sequels are almost integral to quality in our industry, perhaps the opposite of what happens in the film industry. There’re exceptions of course, it's hard to see what Valve could do to make Portal better. Though I think it means the attitude towards sequels shouldn't be as negative as it often is else where.

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  5. Thanks for your post, I'm not the only one thinking that Unreal tournament 3 looks like shit. Or, a game made by retarded teens with too much time on their hands. Too much details, too much textures, too much post-processing, too little lighting, too little Art direction and too little everyhing else that make a good picture, color schemes, style, composition... Art is not a sport.
    When I tried the demo I was reading the comments of the Valve Art director and the contrast was striking. Why the only intelligent people in the videogames industry seems to be working at Valve and not near me?

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  6. Suny2000, yeah. Unreal *is* ugly, which is a shame as it's obviously well-made. The code and art teams obviously know their stuff and are talented people. Maybe they should have invested in a decent art director. It's just so...empty and vapid and soulless...

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  7. While I agree that portal was an amazing game, I am in the minority in thinking BioShock was not so great.

    From an art point of view, I DO agree that it was really well designed and implemented. But from a gameplay point of view I found it very stale. I didn't see anything new or interesting in the gameplay from a FPS point of view. It was basically the usually run and gun. These days there are so many FPS style games that I need something that stands out to make me interested. This year I found FPS games like Stranglehold (which uses the max payne slowmo feature, but in a somewhat new and interesting way, and with an uncommon HK theme) more interesting that BioShock. And 3rd person games like Assassin's Creed were also more interesting from a gameplay perspective in my eyes. Bioshock looked nice, but got old and boring fast for me.

    I guess a great game needs both great art design AND interesting gameplay for me to classify it as a "great game".

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  8. Concerning Mario Galaxy's last 15 stars:

    The most difficult star in the game, by far, is the purple coin one set on the giant pixelated Luigi (in the toy galaxy). If you can do that one, you can most likely handle all the others. There actually -is- a pretty cool bonus for getting all the stars this time out.

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