[6 January 2010]
Staggering layoffs, a slew of delays, console price drops, promising new technology and two new gaming platforms: For fans of video games, 2009 was one heck of a roller coaster ride.
Looking back over the past year in video games it’s surprising that so much good and so much bad happened in just 12 months.
Perhaps the biggest news of the last year was that despite the teeth-gritting optimism of industry leaders, 2009 proved that video games are not actually recession-proof. Console makers Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo all saw drops in sales and both Sony and Microsoft cut expenses and staff to deal with the losses.
Electronic Arts, Activision and THQ all had deep cuts. Midway Games, founded in 1958 and once the U.S. distributor of Space Invaders, was shuttered. Other victims of the recession included Eidos, Atomic, GRIN and Microsoft Flight Sim makers ACES.
The recession also lead to price cuts for all three major consoles, with the Playstation 3, Wii and Xbox 360 all dropping in price.
But not everything was doom and gloom for the industry in 2009.
Apple finally got into gaming, realizing the potential of its iPhone and iPod Touch and seemingly single-handedly reinvigorated the mobile game market.
Early in the year Nintendo released its DSi portable console. While the DSi includes two cameras and a microphone, the biggest change is its ability to download games directly to the device from an online Nintendo store.
Sony’s PSPgo took that concept and ran with it, doing away with the disc drive entirely and making its latest portable a download-only device, with gamers using the Sony store to purchase and install their games, television, comics and movies.
While the Playstation 3, Wii and Xbox 360 all have the ability to purchase games online and download them directly to the console, Sony’s decision to go 100 percent download offered an interesting peek into what will surely one day be the norm.
What that peek showed was an online system entirely too slow to handle quick purchase and playability and savvy retailers either reluctant or outright refusing to carry a device that could one day make them obsolete.
Nintendo’s DSi, with only its toe in the water of downloadable content, managed to fare better than the PSPgo, though the download offerings for 2009 consisted mostly of previously released content broken up into smaller chunks and re-purposed.
Fortunately for Nintendo, the company spent much of 2009 riding high on the Wii’s ability to grab the interest of non-gamers and get them to pick up a console.
The Japanese developer’s Wii Fit fused exercise with gaming when it hit in 2008, and continued to garner attention last year. The second best selling video game in history, it wasn’t much of a surprise when Nintendo announced a sequel in 2009.
While the release of Wii Fit Plus didn’t have the splash and sizzle of games like Modern Warfare 2 or Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, it did well enough to draw the attention of some major new retailers.
In November, Sports Authority, the largest sports good retailer in the country, started selling the exercise game and the Wii console in a special section of the store.
The Wii’s ability to attract an audience outside the norm seemed to have convinced both Sony and Microsoft that there was something to motion controls. Both companies announced projects they were working on to deliver motion-control gaming to their consoles.
Sony’s still-unnamed motion controller uses a microphone-like wand and a camera to track movement, while Microsoft’s Project Natal will use just a camera and no controller to allow gamers to play titles without anything in their hands.
Nintendo, meanwhile, concentrated on its lucrative portable market, announcing an over-sized version of the DSi called the DSi XL. The portable, which hit Japan in November but won’t be here until later this year, comes with an oversized stylus and larger screen with bigger type. Nintendo says the device is bigger so a group of people can gather around a game and play, but it looks more like something designed for an older audience.
Not all of Nintendo’s efforts at innovation in 2009 involved its portables; Nintendo also unveiled a new help system. The Super Guide’s ability to take over different difficult portions of a game and offer video tutorials could lead to a whole new way of gaming for casual gamers. Its appearance in New Super Mario Bros. Wii was met with some skepticism and apprehension, but the potential long-term impact of the concept can’t be argued.
Now just a week into 2010, the slate of last year’s titles pushed into this year are already starting to hit stores. The Consumer Electronics Show is preparing to kick off, perhaps with some new gaming news, and developers seems eager to embrace a new year full of potential.
Brian Crecente is managing editor of Kotaku.com, a video-game Web site owned by Gawker Media. Join in the discussion at kotaku.com/tag/well-played.