How does the game world spin once it’s been flipped upside down? Witness what happened during the last six months, one of the most surprising periods of gaming in years that was marked by a handful of trends radical even for a world ready for a motion-sensitive video game controller shaped like a TV remote.
By the start of 2007 gaming had been transformed, and an avid player could have reasonably assumed that the biggest shocks to the industry were over. Nintendo had gone from third-place GameCube maker to manufacturer of the hottest console on the market, the Wii. The PlayStation 3 had gone from impending juggernaut to embattled contender. “Gears of War” had emerged as the biggest new game on a console since “God of War.”
How could the first half of the next calendar year upstage what’s happened so far in 2007 — particularly when there wasn’t even an Electronics Entertainment Expo in May this year to provide a spring of surprises?
Looking back, it all seems obvious now. But here are some of the biggest shocks:
The Rise Of The Game Fragment
As one might have expected, some of the biggest-selling games of the first half of 2007 were standard, full-size games. “God of War II,” “Guitar Hero II” for Xbox 360 and the pair of “Pokémon” games for the DS all commanded full price for a full disk or cartridge of fun. The year began, however, with “World of Warcraft: The Burning Crusade,” which sold 2.4 million copies in its first day of release, according to its development studio, Blizzard.
Then February introduced America to “Wii Play,” a game so skimpy Nintendo bundled an extra remote with it in order to charge full price. It became the best-selling game on the hottest console of the year, outselling the Wii’s full-size “Super Paper Mario.” February also brought gamers the Xbox 360 game “Crackdown,” which guaranteed those who bought it a ticket to a surprise three-week chance to beta-test three multiplayer maps of “Halo 3″ — a ballyhooed game fragment if ever there was one. People have played pieces of games for years as game demos and expansion packs, but the first six months of 2007 brought the concept of playing pieces of games to the gaming mainstream. As a result, it’s not so jarring that the most eagerly received PS3 game announced in 2007 so far is currently set for only a partial, online-only release by year’s end. Which brings us to …
Sony Celebrating The Kid Within
The game that sent thousands of attendees abuzz at March’s Game Developers Conference was a title that exhibited the cuteness of a Nintendo game but is made for the PS3: “Little Big Planet.”
Almost two years earlier Sony defined the image of its upcoming super-console with an action-packed, dazzlingly realistic trailer for a first-person-shooter called “Killzone 2.” That was the buzz then, a game the kept step with the slick, aggressive, gritty entertainment that always defined the PlayStation brand: a compatriot of “Madden,” “Resident Evil,” “Metal Gear Solid” and “Grand Theft Auto.” That the trailer looked too good to be true was a bit of a problem, one clarified by the revelation that the “Killzone 2″ trailer was a concept video, not actual footage from a game running on the PS3.
The next showing of “Killzone 2″ would say much about Sony’s machine and the steadiness of its approach. The surprise of March, then, was not just that “Killzone 2″ finally re-emerged, shown as a more honest trailer at the end of a small press event one night of the Game Developers Conference. The surprise was that the assembled press paid it little mind, because it — like the thousands more who would attend a Sony event the next day — would be dazzled anew by the gameplay demonstration of “Little Big Planet.”
The new Sony game was no cousin of the “Metal Gear”s and “GTA”s. It’s a cute side-scroller, meant to be played by four people and built on technology that allows and encourages players to create levels and share them online. The game’s thumb-size characters look like teddy bears and big-headed princesses. They run across soccer balls, squash oranges and swing through the air, hand-in-hand, to land on a skateboard and slide away together.
More than a decade ago, Sony followed Sega’s lead of distinguishing itself from Nintendo by emphasizing edgier, more grown-up games. For all the efforts the company made with “Ratchet and Clank,” “Jak and Daxter” and “EyeToy,” it was always the less-colorful, less-kid-friendly content that took center stage. Not so at GDC 2007, where Sony was finally proud, if just for a moment, to win an audience with something whimsical.
Controversial Games That Are Actually About Something
Games have been in trouble before. The 1980s brought concerns about people spending too much time playing “Pac-Man.” The 1990s included congressional concern over “Mortal Kombat” and “Doom.” For much of this decade, the target has been “Grand Theft Auto.”
With advances in technology, games have not just become more realistic, they have become more familiar. As a result, critiques of them have surely but subtly become more sophisticated. General anxiety about games does remain. A move to classify such addiction as a disease was presented — unsuccessfully — to the American Medical Association just last month.
But in 2007, criticism of controversial games became more sophisticated, focusing on concerns not simply about the allure or violence of games but on the idea of what topics games should depict and what kind of tone they should adopt. The rejection of the homemade “Super Columbine Massacre RPG!” from the Slamdance Film Festival’s game competition in January sparked some of the first mainstream debates about how — and even whether — games should handle modern real-world events.
Then late June brought the ratings controversies of “Manhunt 2,” a game the British ratings board deemed unworthy of sale in the U.K. because of its “casual sadism,” “unremitting bleakness” and “callousness of tone.” Implicit in that critique was the idea that games produce emotional experiences and atmosphere beyond the adrenaline rush from getting a high score or eating a row of dots. That is one measure of the medium’s advance.
Not every surprise of 2007 has bowled people over or had the impact one might expect. The introduction of a third version of the Xbox 360, the Elite, failed to clarify Microsoft’s fortunes in the continuing console war. The spring departure of PlayStation creator Ken Kutaragi from Sony has yet to produce a meaningful effect for gamers. The announcement of the first game to jointly star Sonic and Mario was intriguing but not altogether encouraging, given the context of a game about the 2008 Olympics. And some aspects of 2007 haven’t been surprising at all: “Pokémon” sells, the DS rolls on, “Spore” is still a dream project a long time from completion.
Is the gaming world going to flip again? Looking to the next six months, things seem so safely predictable. No new home consoles should be popping up. “Grand Theft Auto IV,” “Halo 3″ and “Super Mario Galaxy” are promised for fall releases. All three are expected to be critical and commercial hits. All indications as of now are that the year will continue spinning on its new axis. But surely that’s been said before.
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