The Designer's Notebook: Ten Years Of Great Games

By Ernest Adams

Ten years ago this month I started writing The Designer's Notebook for Gamasutra. To celebrate this anniversary, I want to look over the last ten years of game history, highlighting games that I feel were especially important from a design standpoint. This is necessarily a personal view, and I don't expect everyone to agree with me. I'm especially interested in games that I feel showed great imagination, contained important innovations, or left a lasting legacy.

They won't necessarily be the biggest sellers or the ones with the highest critical acclaim, however. Sports and driving games, for example, are two of our biggest genres, but won't get much mention. Their designs tend to advance by evolution and refinement, not wholesale change. Likewise, I've deliberately avoided discussing sequels, for the most part -- sequels are frequently better games than their predecessor, but mostly because their gameplay has been refined than because their designs have changed dramatically.

Release dates are for the American versions. I'm relying on MobyGames for the details, though obviously I take responsibility for any errors.

1998: A Big Year

1998 was a huge year. We had StarCraft, Baldur's Gate, and Unreal, among many other excellent games. StarCraft raised the bar so high for RTS games that even now, almost ten years later, it's still the preferred RTS for pro competitions. However, I think each of those three were most notable for their high polish and excellent balance, rather than their design innovations. You don't actually need major innovations to make a best-selling game, and sometimes innovation can even hamper sales, as we'll see. Playtesting and polishing counts for more.

The most important thing that happened in 1998 was the inauguration of the Independent Games Festival, on whose jury I was privileged to sit. The IGF took indie game development out of the bedroom, made it respectable, and gave it media coverage. Indie games are now our most important source of innovation (Narbacular Drop, Darwinia, etc.) and my primary reason for optimism about the future of video games. The IGF is still going strong and always has a fascinating lineup.

LucasArts' Grim Fandango came out in 1998, and was one of the most original adventure games of all time. Its combination of Art Deco and Aztec visuals was stunning, and the storyline, a strange film noir tale based on the Mexican Day of the Dead festivities, was full of surprises. The theme was perhaps too unfamiliar to its intended audience, and the game was not a commercial success, but Grim Fandango is unquestionably a masterpiece of imagination.

Two excellent sneakers also appeared in 1998, Metal Gear Solid and Thief: The Dark Project. MGS smoothly interwove storytelling and gameplay to produce a true interactive movie (an oft-overused term, but at long last justified, I think), while Thief made stealing things an almost cerebral activity, with complex and fiendishly clever puzzles. Metal Gear Solid still required a lot of shooting, but in Thief, the ultimate challenge was to get through a mission without any violence at all.

Half-Life came out just before Thanksgiving and instantly put all other first-person shooters into the shade. Both its technology and storyline were impressive, and it introduced two major improvements: live scripted sequences instead of cut-scenes (the player does not lose control of his avatar while the scripted sequence occurs), and level-less play. Rather than being made up of clearly-defined levels with start and end points, the gameplay transitions smoothly from one "chapter" to the next without (much of) a pause. In addition, Half-Life gave its monsters a modicum of intelligence, something which had hitherto been rare in FPS games. Half-life's legacy has been enormous.

1999: The First Massive MMO

On April 20, 1999, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold murdered 13 people and wounded 24 more at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. This act of wanton brutality ignited a firestorm over video games that made the earlier Congressional investigations look like a tea party. An appalling tragedy for the friends and families of the victims; a bad time for the game industry.

1999 also saw the arrival of EverQuest. EQ was in its day what World of Warcraft is today: the dominant MMORPG bar none. It beat the well-established Ultima Online and saw off Asheron's Call as a competitor. Despite Sony's disapproval, EQ also changed the nature of cyberspace in a profound way, because its virtual artifacts became worth real-world money. In 2001 Dr. Edward Castronova published a paper demonstrating that EverQuest was the 77th richest country in the world in real terms, in spite of the fact that it had no physical existence. I think EverQuest contained the most important innovations and had the greatest legacy from 1999.

Like Grim Fandango, Planescape: Torment was a commercial disappointment, and for many of the same reasons: its world was unfamiliar to most players and demanded attention and commitment. The game's art, story, characters, challenges, and even language (based on 19th-century British working-class slang) are all unlike anything seen before in the role-playing genre, or any other genre, for that matter. Planescape now has a cult following, and I consider it one of the greatest games of all time. Among other innovations it managed to create a reasonable in-game explanation for why your avatar is resurrected every time he dies.


2000: Casual Gaming's First Star

The year 2000 produced the best-selling PC game of all time and ushered in the era of casual gaming. At the beginning of February, Electronic Arts published The Sims and changed the world.

The Sims wasn't supposed to work. A game about people living in suburbia, doing perfectly ordinary jobs? A game about buying furniture? A game inspired by A Pattern Language, a book for architecture geeks? It just goes to show you that not all players like to be entertained the same way, and there's more to video games than adrenaline. The Sims established the age of user-created content by letting people take screenshots, caption them, and assemble the result into stories that they could upload for other people to read. Modding had long preceded The Sims, of course, but this was different -- it was easy and required no tools. The Sims' legacy is huge.

Ion Storm published two legendary games in 2000, one legendary for the amount of hype that preceded it and disappointment that followed it (John Romero's Daikatana), and the other for the richness of its story and characterization and its imaginative gameplay, Deus Ex. I'll pass over Daikatana without further comment, but Deus Ex combined shooter, sneaker, RPG, and even a bit of puzzle-solving adventure game into a single unique title. Deus Ex gets my nod for important innovations.

For pure imagination, I have to go with American McGee's Alice. The game offered a macabre twist on Lewis Carroll's sweet if slightly demented children's story. The graphics were quite stunning for its time, possibly the most surreal since Myst, though gamers complained that the gameplay didn't live up to the game's visual promise. For the most part, it was just a platformer and had some balance problems to boot. But I give it extra points for taking a cultural icon and turning it upside down and inside out in an imaginative way.

Finally, a special mention for The Longest Journey. Its protagonist, April Ryan, is one of the very few truly well-rounded female characters to appear in any computer game. She's not a butt-kicking uber-babe like Lara Croft or Samus Aran, nor a damsel in distress, nor a sex kitten. Rather, she's an inquisitive young woman with a sense of humor, moments of fear and vulnerability, a kind heart, and a good deal of resourcefulness. I like her.

2001: Not What You Think

2001 was another big year. We got Grand Theft Auto III, Ico, Halo: Combat Evolved, Pikmin, Max Payne, Rez and Black & White. The last three, while significant, all were ultimately slightly disappointing. Max Payne invented bullet time even before The Matrix, although the game wasn't released until after the movie came out. Many gamers complained that while Max Payne's story was good, it was too short. Rez was an imaginative musical shooter set in a Tron-like cyberspace landscape and inspired by the concept of synaesthesia, but it didn't sell well. Black & White further expanded the god game to give the god a physical avatar who walked the earth, but it was buggy and at times seemed like an engine in search of a game.

For pure imagination in 2001 I have to go with Pikmin, and it shouldn't surprise anyone to learn that the game was co-designed by Shigeru Miyamoto. A weird combination of real-time strategy and puzzle game, like Lemmings with fighting -- but that doesn't really begin to cover it.

Ico's important innovation was not its lovely environment or its tender storyline, but its context-sensitive camera. The camera always tracked the action appropriately no matter where the player moved the avatar -- which meant that there was a ton of design work involved in making sure that worked correctly. Context-sensitive cameras are tricky, because in high-speed action the player often needs a fixed perspective, but they make the experience far more cinematic. I'm convinced that they will ultimately become the default camera model for 3D third-person games.

Few games have had a greater legacy in the last ten years than Grand Theft Auto III. Yes, Halo is still around too and there has been a ton of hype about it recently, and Halo was probably the first really good console-based shooter. But GTA was more ambitious and made a bigger difference to the future of games, both for good and for ill. GTA III was the first really successful "open world" game, and became the template for many more to follow. It's too bad it had to happen in such a nasty context -- it made it that much harder to explain to non-gamers why the game is so important.

2002: A Little Less Exciting

2002 was a little less exciting, and I can't pinpoint any specific reasons for it. Notable games included Kingdom Hearts, Splinter Cell, Metroid Prime, Ratchet & Clank, Animal Crossing, and Battlefield 1942. Splinter Cell improved the sneaker yet further, while Ratchet & Clank brought a fun and imaginative series of weapons to the platformer genre. Metroid Prime revived gamer heartthrob Samus Aran after a long absence and gave her a new point of view.

For pure imagination I think the crown has to go to Kingdom Hearts. No one could possibly have predicted that Square Soft could make a dark, compelling, Final Fantasy-style game with... Donald Duck and Goofy?

Animal Crossing was a bit like The Sims with animals, but with more interesting things to do. Its innovations were small but many. For one thing, it included a lot of unlockable NES games, illustrating the continuing appeal of retro games. It also ran in real time, so that the GameCube's clock was the game world's clock, and holidays and other events duly took place on schedule. The game supported connections between the GameCube and Game Boy Advance, opening up new game-world regions on the GBA. Items in the game are also transferable over the Internet, an unusual property for a console game. Adding them all up, I feel it contains the most important innovations of 2002.

The lasting legacy title undoubtedly goes to Battlefield 1942. It took team-based outdoor shooter play to a whole new level, allowing players to choose from a variety of vehicles and roles. Because it's multiplayer and offers so much to do, this is the kind of game that produces great emergent stories.


2003: Still Significant

We got some significant games in 2003, perhaps most notably Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, Call of Duty, and WarioWare. KOTOR put all of Bioware's famed skill at RPGs at the service of the Star Wars universe, with highly-lauded results. Since it was based on the d20 system and an existing franchise, I don't feel it broke ground creatively, but was an excellent title all the same. Call of Duty made the player feel that he was actually part of a battle beside his comrades, even in single-player mode -- an important step forward, as most shooters take the lone wolf approach. WarioWare was just sheer mayhem: dozens of "micro-games" that each took only a few seconds to play. It was gameplay reduced to its barest essentials, but in colossal variety.

Viewtiful Joe took the classic side-scroller and reinvented it with a twist: using Matrix-like visual effects to take out enemies. Instead of block moves, Joe can use VFX (visual effects) tricks: slow, mach speed, and zoom in, which can be combined for more powerful attacks. Also, at a time when most developers were concentrating on photorealism, Viewtiful Joe went for a comic-book look that was both attractive and entirely in keeping with its style of gameplay. It gets my vote for pure imagination.

Like The Longest Journey in 2000, Silent Hill 3 deserves a special mention for the depth of its female protagonist, Heather. The whole Silent Hill series has been unusually good about portraying real-looking women, but Heather is particularly distinctive. Moody, temperamental, and not conventionally attractive, Heather doesn't fit neatly into any of the traditional gaming stereotypes for female characters.

2004: What's A Katamari...?

Two significant industry events took place in 2004. Electronic Arts signed an exclusive 5-year deal with the NFL, thus freezing everyone else out of the serious football market -- a thoroughly practical, if ruthless and much-hated, decision. The same year, Acclaim finally declared bankruptcy and closed its doors, and the only surprise was that it took so long. I hate to see honest, hardworking developers lose their jobs on account of managerial incompetence.

2004 gave us World of Warcraft, City of Heroes, Katamari Damacy, The Chronicles of Riddick as well as numerous successful sequels such as Half-Life 2 and Halo 2. The Chronicles of Riddick broke ground by actually being better than the movie that it's based on. Games based on movies are not reliably good and many are distinctly poor, so this was an improvement of sorts. The other big thing that happened in 2004 was the release of the Nintendo DS, which broke just about every rule in the book. Two screens? A stylus? Wireless? What do people think this is, a Pocket PC? But it was hugely successful, opening up whole new markets for handheld gaming.

I don't there there's any question that the legacy crown for 2004 goes to World of Warcraft. You simply can't have a success that huge without it affecting everything that comes later. For the foreseeable future, WoW is the MMOG to beat -- or to avoid competing with directly, a much safer strategy. WoW didn't invent all the various improvements necessary to attract casual players (opportunities to play solo, instanced dungeons, consensual PvP play) but it did put them all together well.

Katamari Damacy only did one thing -- but that one thing was something gamers hadn't ever seen before, so I note it for its imagination. We had rolled balls around in games like Marble Madness, but in Katamari they picked up anything they touched like a snowball. The result was bizarre and hilarious.

Myst IV: Revelation made a number of innovations that unfortunately went unnoticed by much of the game community. The most important one was auditory. In most games the majority of the world is silent, except for a few ambient sounds from specific noisemakers. In Myst IV, you could click almost any surface in the game and hear what it sounds like when tapped.

There isn't a lot of gameplay need for this feature, but it represents a major step forward in making a virtual world truly alive. You could also take pictures of any in-game location, then type notes next to them for future reference; and you could access the memories of NPCs through a special amulet -- a new way to bring narration to the player.

2005: Expanding The Audience

2005 was notable for the PS3, Xbox 360, and Wii controller announcements, and for the Xbox 360 beating the others to market in time for Christmas. We also got a black eye this year: in a major industry gaffe, Rockstar lied about the notorious Hot Coffee mini-game in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, thus calling the whole rating system into question and bringing down yet more opprobrium on our heads. Take-Two lost over $20 million as a result.

On the other hand, Shadow of the Colossus came out! And so did God of War, Psychonauts, Nintendogs, and Guitar Hero. My nod for pure imagination goes to Psychonauts, which unsurprisingly was created by Tim Schafer, the man responsible for Grim Fandango. The game was a combination of platformer, comedy adventure, and just plain lunacy. Unfortunately -- again like Grim Fandango -- it didn't sell as well as it deserved to.

For important innovations, the hands-down winner in 2005 is Guitar Hero. No driving, no shooting, no jumping -- just rocking out to a variety of tunes using the special guitar-like controller. Guitar Hero did something no game had really managed to do successfully before -- make a player feel like a musician, even if he wasn't one. Music games are not new, but until Guitar Hero they were a niche. Now they're a genre in their own right.

So far as legacy is concerned, my prediction for 2005's crop is Nintendogs. Artificial pets have been around for quite a while, but Nintendogs was the first to make them seem real. It made excellent use of the Nintendo DS's stylus interface, and was a big hit with girls. I think we'll see a lot more such games in the future, and they'll borrow from Nintendogs's gentle, imaginative design.


2006: One's Barely Even A Game

In 2006, Gears of War made the third-person shooter more grimy and depressing than ever before, and was widely admired for it. (Why aren't shooter games ever set in forests full of bluebells? At least it would be a change.) Uniquely, Gears gives special rewards for efficiently reloading your weapons. Dungeons & Dragons finally got its own online game in 2006, which really should have happened ten years earlier. It was highly anticipated and of course the brand recognition is excellent, but WoW remains unconquerable.

Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion came out and corrected many of the errors of its predecessor Morrowind; it was a massive success for a single-player RPG and advanced the open world concept so ably pioneered by the Grand Theft Auto series. Similarly, Tomb Raider: Legend repaired the damage done to the Tomb Raider franchise by it's predecessor, Angel of Darkness. The biggest surprise of 2006 was Brain Age, which barely even qualifies as a game, but sold Nintendo DS machines all by itself.

For pure imagination, nothing I've seen from 2006 tops Okami, winner of a BAFTA for Artistic Achievement (I was on the jury and voted for it). The player plays the Japanese sun goddess Ameratsu, who has taken the form of a wolf. Departing from photorealism, the game Okami is rendered in Japanese brush painting style, despite the fact that it's 3D -- a visual triumph. In an extraordinary innovation, when the player casts a spell, the game world flattens into a 2D painting and the player invokes the spell by painting on the world with a brush; the world then becomes 3D again and the effect of the spell is shown. And there's one other little item of gratuitous beauty: when Ameratsu runs really fast, she leaves a trail of flowers behind her.

Predictions are dangerous, but Wii Sports will probably have the greatest legacy -- not because the games themselves are terribly imaginative, but simply because they introduced vast numbers of non-players to video gaming. Stories abound of unexpected converts thanks to Wii Sports, from developers' own puzzled family members to elderly people in nursing homes. By providing an easy, fun, familiar set of games at launch of the Wii and its motion-sensitive controller, Nintendo has quite simply revolutionized gaming.

2007: You're Living It

That brings us up to 2007, and of course it's not over yet. One key event this year was the non-existence of the Electronic Entertainment Expo. E3 had been a glorious extravaganza of self-congratulation, but by 2006 it was collapsing under its own weight. The noise, flashing lights, smoke machines, and booth babes turned it into a seizure-inducing monument to tastelessness.

Speaking of tastelessness, Manhunt 2 was big news this year, but perhaps more in the mainstream press than among gamers. Just as graphics are no substitute for gameplay, gratuitous gore isn't either. The antidote to Manhunt 2, for those in need of a detox, is Viva Piñata, which made its way to PC this year. What a lovely and strange little game this is! It's an artificial life game about living piñatas. They have their own ecosystem and life cycle, and they want nothing more than to go to parties and be broken. The gameplay is fun and the graphics particularly colorful and attractive.

S.T.A.L.K.E.R: Shadow of Chernobyl finally came out after having been vaporware for several years, and did something unique in video gaming: in the guise of a shooter, it memorialized a true human tragedy and allowed the player to explore a genuine, rather than a fictitious, poisoned and decaying landscape. I don't think S.T.A.L.K.E.R. will have much of a legacy -- it's a bit of a one-off -- but I feel it's important for what it tried to do.

The most important game of 2007 thus far, and I predict overall as well, is BioShock. The game possesses that rare quality of being multilayered, and rewards replay and close attention. On the surface, it's a survival horror shooter, and you can enjoy it purely at that level, doing what you must to stay alive. At a deeper level, it offers a moral dilemma: do you kill the Little Sisters or try to save them? You can choose how you wish to play. And at a deeper level still, it's a savage satire on Ayn Rand's philosophy of Objectivism. Ken Levine imagined what would happen if things started to go wrong in a utopia of unfettered individualism, and the result is the nightmare that is BioShock. The art and architecture is stunning, too. It's even worth stopping to read the advertising and propaganda posters on the walls; everything contributes to the mood of the whole.

Several big games have yet to reach my hands. Both Crysis and Rock Band are much-anticipated, Crysis because it will undoubtedly be spectacular if you can afford the PC it needs to run on, and Rock Band because it will expand on the Guitar Hero experience. But whether they will really be fun or important only playing them can determine.

That's my round-up, and no doubt many readers will be furious that I left out a pet favorite. My knowledge of games is not encyclopedic -- I'm not made of money, after all -- and is naturally influenced by personal preferences. But even if I've forgotten a more important game, I think nobody can deny that all these games did something new or important for the art form. It has been a fun ten years, and I'm looking forward to the next ten.

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