The year in games

Developers, critics, gamers and analysts weigh in: What they loved, what they learned, what they worried about.

Published December 22, 2004 8:30PM (EST)

Editor's Note: Salon's longtime game reviewer, Wagner James Au, is now thoroughly ensconced within the industry he once covered for us. But since, as we learned recently, everyone in the gaming biz is now hopelesslessly overworked, Au could not find the time to sum up the year in gaming for Salon. So he did the next best thing: He rifled his Rolodex for a swath of experts -- developers, critics, analysts -- and asked them for their thoughts.

The result is below, roughly divided into three categories: a look back at the significant trends (or lack thereof) in gaming this past year, an idiosyncratic handful of mini-reviews of notable games, and a sobering look at some of the burgeoning problems in the world of computer gaming.

The trends

I think we're firmly in the age of the blockbuster now, and I don't know how I feel about that. Most of the biggest games of the year were "events" that cost a crazy amount of money to develop and took many, many years to polish and get right. That's a bit of a scary trend, because I don't see where it stops --projects will get bigger, teams will grow, tech will continue to become more important, and all the rising costs will inevitably lead to fewer risks in design. I'm a sucker for unusual and innovative games, so this worries me.

On the other hand, I am seeing a rise in interesting indie games. Stuff like "Gish, the physics platformer, and the emphasis on new control mechanisms that we see with games like "Karaoke Revolution," "Donkey Konga," "EyeToy" and the touch screen on the Nintendo DS sure feel like the industry pushing in some new directions.

-- Raph Koster

Raph Koster is chief creative officer for Sony Online Entertainment, overseeing games such as "EverQuest II," "Star Wars Galaxies: Jump to Lightspeed" and "PlanetSide: Aftershock." His new book, "A Theory of Fun for Game Design," has just been published.

The continuing and lamentable "E.A.-ization" of the conventional games industry: consolidation into a handful of publishers with developers organized into dronelike factories and teams of dozens or hundreds, and eight-figure budgets.

The more hopeful burgeoning of mobile and downloadable games, offering an alternative distribution channel for (potentially) more innovative product.

-- Greg Costikyan

Greg Costikyan is a longtime game developer, currently working as a researcher for Nokia Research Center. His most recent games are the mobile-based "Alien Rush," and "Paranoia XP," the new edition of his award-winning tabletop role-playing game set.

Games like "Half-Life 2" and "Halo 2" integrated physics and complex character-animation technology -- creating Hollywood-quality "entertainment" in the game space. "Fable," "Thief 2" and "Deus Ex 2" tried to blend that directed, narrative action with a more open-ended simulation. "The Sims 2" pushed simulation even further -- giving its characters emotion, fears and desires.

What I'm interested in is the intersection of these three movements. How can we blend "entertainment" (where you watch stuff happen and think "wow -- that was cool!") with open-ended play (where you make stuff happen and think "wow -- I did that!"). Can we take those blends and add characters that really ... tug at our heartstrings -- either because we directed them and they grew on us -- or because we talked and adventured with them -- and they impressed us?

There is a lot of work to be done here -- in academia and commercial development. I am excited to see where various projects and collaborations (in graphics, A.I. and game design) take us over the next few years.

-- Robin Hunicke

Robin Hunicke is finishing her Ph.D. at Northwestern University in A.I. and games. Her thesis work is on dynamic game adjustment -- making games adjust in real time to individual players.

The whole idea of emergent gameplay -- [player-driven "narrative gameplay," in which unique, unplanned events result from the players' interactions with the A.I. and the environment] -- really seems to be taking off. I mean, it used to just be Origin and Looking Glass making (frankly) nichey games that focused on player-driven experiences. Then "Deus Ex" (if I may...), "Grand Theft Auto 3"-"Vice City"-"San Andreas," "Fable" and others came along to take the idea to new levels of player control and mainstream acceptability. Now, emergent gameplay is popping up all over. About bloody time, if you ask me!

-- Warren Spector

Warren Spector is the former studio director of Ion Storm, producers of "Deus Ex 2." He is "working on setting up a new gig, but nothing to announce just yet."

I think the two most significant trends in gaming in 2004 were the increased emphasis on in-game product placement and advertising, and Valve's sale, and, perhaps more significantly, authentication, of "Half-Life 2" over the Steam service. [Steam is Valve's broadband distribution system for delivering games via the Internet.]

The implications of the former are obvious, and as for the latter, I think there are probably some other developers in a similar strong position like Valve's, interested in how distributing a game via a service like Steam can increase their profit margins while also allowing an added degree of control over solutions to piracy and cheating as well as an enhanced ability to distribute patches and offer technical support.

-- Stephen "Blue" Heaslip

Stephen "Blue" Heaslip is editor in chief of Blue's News, one of the Internet's leading computer game news sites.

I'm very excited about the promise of Steam as a vehicle for online content delivery without having to saddle up the ponderous bulk of the retail behemoth for every little jaunt. As a reader and a writer, I love novels; but I also love short stories. Imagine if there were no magazines, no anthologies, and the only thing publishers were interested in printing were massive epics, blockbusters and trilogies. That's where the game industry is right now.

-- Marc Laidlaw

Marc Laidlaw was a writer-designer for "Half-Life" and "Half-Life 2," from Valve Software.

I found it interesting that the big titles of this year ("Doom 3," "Half-Life 2," "Halo 2," "Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas") are all extensions of intellectual property originally created by independent developers in the game biz (that is, not from Hollywood or the corporate machine).

-- Alex Seropian

Alex Seropian says, "My technical title is Baron of Denmark, but I usually go by President of Wideload to avoid the hordes of adoring Danes." He is currently developing "Rebel Without a Pulse," a PC Xbox title starring Stubbs the Zombie -- hero, lover, eater of brains -- for a 2005 release.

I'm not sure there were any particularly big, defining trends this year, come to think of it. My bias is that I'm interested in new styles of play, and the problem with the world of gaming is that it's now entirely a hit-based, Hollywood-style industry; it's very hard for even the most well-intentioned game executive to greenlight a weird new form of play, because they have no guarantee it'll make back the multimillion-dollar cost of development. With economics like that, it's no wonder we're living in the land of the sequel.

Indeed, consider this year's most anticipated and hottest-selling games. They're all sequels: "Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas," "Halo 2," "Half-Life 2," "Doom 3," "The Sims 2," "Metal Gear Solid 3," the new "Metroid Prime," etc. Now, I'm not complaining about these games; they're all quite superb! And there's nothing inherently wrong with sequels; indeed, you could argue that games are becoming almost like TV shows -- intelligent serializations of a single premise. But still, I'd love to be surprised by some new gameplay, and nothing I saw this year offered any.

-- Clive Thompson

Clive Thompson writes about science and technology for the New York Times Magazine, Wired, and New York Magazine, and is the video game columnist for Slate. He also publishes the blog Collision Detection, devoted to interesting trends in science and tech.

The games

"Halo 2": I don't even know why you'd need a second video game.

-- Seanbaby

Seanbaby is an outrageous funnyman. He writes a regular column in Electronic Gaming Monthly called "The Rest of the Crap" and also contributes to XBN, GMR and Computer Gaming World.

"Katamari Damacy": Like everybody else, I've had it about up to here with Japanese whimsy. But I gotta admit, this one worked for me. You roll all these dogs and people and chickens and cows into a ball and then shoot the writhing clump into space where they cling to each other and scream silently into the void for all eternity.

It's some serious Clive Barker shit, but it's colorful and the music's real catchy so it's easy to miss all the horror. The expanding ball of junk is the best game metaphor for escalating power since the stat bar. In fact, it's the only game metaphor for escalating power since the stat bar. Think harder, game developers!

-- Erik Wolpaw

Erik Wolpaw says, "I write about video games for money." He is also the co-founder of the late, lamented Old Man Murray.

"City of Heroes": The MMORPG [massively multiplayer online role-playing game] market seems to be recapitulating the history of the tabletop RPG market. One classic fantasy title ("D&D," "EverQuest") spawns a host of fantasy imitators, followed by licensed products, followed by attempts to take the paradigm to other fiction genres. (The next stage, it may be devoutly hoped, will, as in tabletop RPGs, be attempts to innovate with the basic paradigms of the genre, as well as to build new, original worlds better suited to gameplay.) "CoH" does it for superheroes and does it remarkably well.

-- Greg Costikyan

"Half Life 2": Utterly beautiful and immersive -- because of the facial animations, I actually care about NPC [non-player character] sob stories, which helps sell the feeling of oppression and desolation. While some argue it's too easy, I think the designers have done a good job of creating a cinematic experience but one in which I trust them to make it challenging without being frustrating and where I don't have to quick-save every few steps or backtrack for health.

-- Brian Yeung

Brian Yeung is a designer with an eclectic pedigree, currently surviving crunch time on "The Matrix Online" at Monolith Productions. He rarely updates

"City of Heroes": Oh my god ... someone actually made a massively multiplayer online game that I actually liked! "City of Heroes" gets so much right -- intensely fun character creation and great ongoing character customization opportunities during play, instanced dungeons so there's no waiting around for monsters to respawn, great visual effects, streamlined inventory management, easy to get into, easy to play, easy transportation and communication so teaming up with people is a piece of cake ... just an all-around nice effort. Thanks to "City of Heroes" I can't say "I hate massively multiplayer games" anymore -- it's not the game type that's lacking; it's most of the games. Might not have had the staying power of some other MMORPGs but, man, the first three months were thrilling to me.

-- Warren Spector

"Mario and Luigi: Superstar Saga": It took me over six months to play this game -- on the train, in airports, waiting in line at the post office and grocery store. The Game Boy makes this game portable, but the game design makes it easy to leave and come back to. The familiar Mario-style gameplay has a slight role-playing gamer (RPG) twist -- so you can experiment a bit with items and equipment. And when people in line (children, curious adults) express interest, it's easy to hand over for a bit. What could be more fun than ... sharing your fun?

-- Robin Hunicke

"Star Wars: Jump to Light Speed": "Star Wars Galaxies" was clearly lacking an essential game element until this add-on came out. It actually motivated me to start playing SWG again, after I gave up playing out of disgust for the ongoing nerfs that seemed to pop up every other hour [in online games, a "nerf" is software patch that degrades a preexisting feature]. It is very cool to be able to really crew a spaceship, running around to make repairs, shooting from its turrets, and yelling at each other to work as a team. Between flights, I'm waiting to see if my character finishes grinding the Village and makes it to Padawan before the developers figure out yet another nerf to piss me off. Even if they do, I will still have fun flying the ships ... until they figure out a way to nerf the fun out of that.

-- Maj. Jason Amerine

Amerine is a Special Forces officer who works as a technical advisor for the "America's Army" computer game.

"Burnout 3": This game was able to turn a lot of people who weren't racing fans on to the genre, though not for racing's sake. There's something hugely satisfying about trying to rack up combos and create the most wanton destruction possible.

-- Brian Yeung

"Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas": Made me nostalgic for Dr. Dre and the early '90s ... Driving a tractor through downtown L.A. was a real treat.

-- Kurt Squire

Kurt Squire is an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a participant in the upcoming GAPPS initiative (games and professional practice simulations research group).

"Katamari Damacy": This is kind of confrontationally weird -- you roll a sticky ball around and pick stuff up to re-create the cosmos. You sort of forget how weird it is as you play, of course, but every now and then something like a pigeon riding a shoe with a can on its head will charge you or you'll be knocked into a sumo wrestler by a rocket-mounted grizzly bear and it will hit you again -- this is madness.

-- Seanbaby

"Ninja Gaiden": This game had a terrifically well-designed fighting system and wonderfully engineered play: Tecmo hit upon the perfect balance between being hard and being way too hard for its own good. The game continually threatens to be just too bloody difficult to be any fun but never actually crosses that threshold. That is the essence of excellent play design.

-- Clive Thompson

"Crusader Kings": The latest game from Swedish developer Paradox Plaza. Something of a prequel to its super "Europa Universalis II," "Crusader Kings" places you in the role of a medieval monarch -- anything from King of France to Count of Athenai -- over the course of 400 years of history. Interestingly, most of the things you expect to do in this kind of grand strategic game, you can't do: You can't build up your armies, because each province can field only so many men when levied; you can't work to improve your technology, which simply spreads from places where people know it; you can improve your economy only in modest ways. Instead, you spend most of your time dealing with the concerns of the time: marrying your children in wise ways, waging wars to extend your demesne and quite often in service to your liege.

-- Greg Costikyan

"Test Drive: Eve of Destruction": One of the dumbest things I read this year was an essay on game journalism where the following was stated for what I guess the author assumed to be the permanent record: "The goal for game journalism should be to point readers toward the truths that matter in life." "Eve of Destruction" is a terrific demolition derby racing game that, like the best game journalism, points players toward one of life's truths: Man, it's cool when cars smash into each other. For some reason, it got lukewarm reviews and didn't sell well. Just more evidence that I'm either dumber or smarter than everyone else.

-- Erik Wolpaw

"JFK Reloaded": It's a rather creepy game, deeply offensive to many people, and the $100,000 prize for being the most accurate killer of JFK was incredibly exploitative. But for provoking interesting conversations about what games and simulations mean, "JFK Reloaded" was incredibly useful.

-- Clive Thompson

"Oasis": Winner in the Independent Game Festival's best downloadable game category, this title, developed by veterans Marc LeBlanc and Andrew Leker, is aimed squarely at the burgeoning market for games available as downloads and not generally at retail. That market consists largely of puzzle games such as "Bejeweled," but "Oasis" is something different, with gameplay reminiscent of the German adult board game market. It's possibly our best hope for expanding the downloadable market into more thoughtful and innovative titles. At present, it is not available for sale -- the final version is under development -- but PopCap has picked up the rights, and it should be available soon.

-- Greg Costikyan

"Katamari Damacy": Beyond the unique gameplay concept and charmingly odd story -- Katamari has wonderful pacing and stunning music. At the end of each level, when your ball of junk becomes a star, you're rewarded with a deep bass choral theme. Watching your heap of earthly crap ascend into the sky, with that theme playing in the background -- it just makes you feel so ... happy! When was the last time a video game gave you such pleasure -- and a moment to really savor it? And on top of all this -- it's only $19.99!

-- Robin Hunicke

Everything in my neck of the woods was dwarfed this year by the release of "Half-Life 2" on the PC, which raised the bar for interactive storytelling in an action game for all that follow. To my tastes, this is the best computer game of all time.

-- Stephen "Blue" Heaslip

The problems

From the inception of games as a commercial medium (with the publication of "A Journey Through Europe," by Carrington Bowles, in 1759), the history of the field has been characterized by bursts of innovation: A new game style is published, featuring a new set of mechanics and type of gameplay, spurring a host of products pushing that style in new directions, and creating a new audience of players. As budgets continue to soar, and as publishers become increasingly conservative and wary of innovation, there is a danger that the industry will become an uncreative, repetitive field, with little to no innovation to alleviate the tedium of sequels and licensed drivel.

The sad fact is that unless your last name is Wright or Miyamoto, it is virtually impossible to get an innovative product funded today. The industry is in desperate need of a parallel distribution channel for lower-budget, more innovative product with lower production values -- something like the indie music and film industries, which serve as venues for the creation of new artistic styles that, when successful, can be adopted by mainstream industry.

Unfortunately, at present, there is no such indie games industry and, given the audience's lack of acceptance of lower production values in exchange for innovative gameplay, coupled with the lack of an obvious distribution channel for such product, it is hard to see how one can be created. The rise of downloadable and mobile games is a hopeful sign in this regard, but those fields have already become quite stereotyped and resistant to innovation, with the first market dominated by "pick three" puzzle games, and the latter by arcade game retreads and inferior versions of games available on other platforms.

-- Greg Costikyan

The way the fourth quarter is bulked up with all the year's best games. Nobody in their right mind has enough time to make significant dents in "Halo 2," "Half-Life 2," "GTA: San Andreas," "Knights of the Old Republic 2," "Metal Gear Solid 3," "Metroid Prime 2: Echoes," "The Sims 2," "Burnout 3," "Need for Speed Underground 2" ... not to mention all the extraordinarily time-consuming MMORPGs -- "EverQuest 2" and "Worlds of Warcraft" and "City of Heroes." I understand companies need to book revenue, but if the industry were better at pacing overall, I'd like to think business would boom on an even grander scale and would be less reliant on holiday sales. Plus, people would get to really enjoy their games rather than trying to squeeze them all in at once.

-- Jennifer Tsao

Jennifer Tsao is the managing editor of Electronic Gaming Monthly.

Electronic Arts is not the only alleged culprit on the overworked-and-underpaid issue. I would love to see a "Norma Rae" scene at a few developers around the country but am doubtful that this will happen for fear that even more jobs will be exported. Unlike actors whose names and faces often make or break a film, these brilliant game designers, artists and programmers are virtual unknowns to the game-playing consumer. Therefore, if the developers leave in protest due to the horrific schedules, then another person will take their places and the consumer will never be the wiser. As more kids grow up playing games and learn that there actually are jobs making video games and they now have several choices of universities offering a game-development education, then there will always be someone ready to take the departing developers' places. And I fear that if we attempt to unionize the industry in order to better regulate working conditions or hours or ensure that folks are compensated for their time and effort, then the publishers can simply look at using talent in other countries where folks will work those long hours and for less money.

-- Melanie Cambron

Melanie Cambron, aka the Game Recruiting Goddess, has recruited for game industry leaders since 1997, frequently served as a moderator and panelist at GDC and E3, and has consulted for the city of Austin's Interactive Industry Development Committee.

Games are hard to build -- harder than most people realize. As with any software development project, you have to steer clear of bad ideas and useless features, and grow your tools as the underlying technology changes. And with each new trend (physics, real-time lighting) or platform (Xbox 2, PS 3), a lot of core tools must be discarded or rebuilt. It's an expensive and time consuming process.

When faced with the realities of development (tight deadlines and ballooning budgets), the common solution has been to work harder, not smarter. As a result, people burn out (see the IGDA Quality of Life paper) and turn to other industries for stable, rewarding employment.

This churning turnover saps knowledge and expertise from the industry. Without experienced contributors, projects are more likely to slip or become "death marches" -- which drives down quality (and drives away new hires). If we want to attract and keep good people, cultivate new ideas, and support innovation as an industry, process management and H.R. practices must evolve. Period.

-- Robin Hunicke

By Wagner James Au

Wagner James Au is a frequent contributor to Salon, and also writes "Notes from a New World," an online journal for Second Life, an upcoming MMOG.

MORE FROM Wagner James Au

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