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Gamasutra's Best Of 2010: Top 5 Disappointments
Gamasutra's Best Of 2010: Top 5 Disappointments
December 13, 2010 | By Kris Graft

December 13, 2010 | By Kris Graft
More: Console/PC

[Gamasutra continues its 2010 retrospectives with this year's top five game industry disappointments, from companies that are super-secretive about digital sales to a promising developer crushed by its own MMO. Previously: Top 5 Trends, Top 5 Major Industry Events, Top 5 Surprises of the year.]

Because the gaming industry is so fast-moving, it's a hotbed not only for exciting, welcome developments, but also some crushing disappointments.

In 2010, we saw proof that certain projects can take on a life of their own -- in a negative sense -- and come back to bite the ones who have been spending so much time intending to deliver a good product.

Also this year, an entire region was let down after its government reneged on a guarantee, and one major publisher might have missed out on an opportunity to make a statement about free speech and video games.

As for the industry's digital sales, they're on the rise, but most are still almost completely in the dark as to the exact extent of their relevance. What can the industry learn from some of the biggest disappointments in 2010?

5. Digital Sales Figures Still Shrouded In Mystery

As businesses move beyond boxed models, it's becoming increasingly unclear what's working in digital, what's not, and exactly how healthy or unhealthy this industry is. That's because we are still seeing very little in the way of online and digital sales figures, despite their increasing relevance.

Many companies continue to shroud online sales in mystery. We're able to determine the performance for some digital and online games through things like online leaderboards. And when a company like Activision sells millions of units of a map pack, publishers are happy to brag. Some indies are also quick to share their sales figures with the world, whether or not their games were huge hits, and publishers sometimes break out their digital revenues.

But meanwhile, NPD Group's monthly (scaled back) U.S. boxed game-focused video game report shows that November was the first month of sales growth since March this year in the U.S. That reflects seven months of retail game losses following a down 2009 in the U.S.

We just wonder how much better the industry would today look if we actually had more digital transparency from game makers.

4. Final Fantasy XIV Fail

As the first Final Fantasy MMORPG since 2002's Final Fantasy XI, Final Fantasy XIV was supposed to be the game that brought the beloved RPG universe into the next generation of MMOs.

Instead, FFXIV's launch has turned out to be a massively multiplayer online blunder. The Windows PC version launched on September 30, and early adopters have been greeted with stability, performance and functionality issues, problems that developer and publisher Square Enix is apparently working around the clock to fix.

The game's problems were serious enough to lead Square Enix to extend the game's free 30-day trial period twice in order to appease players. Last week, the company restructured the game's development team, bumping the producer down to a supporting role and bringing in staff from other projects to take over.

And to top it off, Square, probably wisely, decided to delay the launch of the PlayStation 3 version of the game out of March 2011 and into the next fiscal year. Really, there was only one other MMO launch in 2010 that was more disappointing than that of Final Fantasy XIV.

3. "Taliban" Rebadged In New Medal of Honor

There are two tiers of disappointment regarding the Medal of Honor "Taliban" standoff from earlier this year: the controversy itself and Electronic Arts' response to it.

October's Medal of Honor franchise reboot is set in Afghanistan, where the militant Taliban group operates. Naturally, EA, focused on delivering a more realistic war game, decided that it would make sense to have multiplayer modes that pit allied forces against the Taliban.

But after word got out that gamers would be able to take the side of the virtual Taliban and frag virtual allied troops, the mainstream media, military and outspoken friends and family of fallen soldiers decried the real-world setting of the game and gamers' ability to take on the role of Taliban fighters.

It was disappointing to see that once again, the video game industry was being singled out from other forms of entertainment for acknowledging real-world events such as war. While films like Green Zone and The Hurt Locker have provided entertainment about war and death to flocks of popcorn-chomping moviegoers, some groups still find that the interactive nature of video games is enough reason to declare that games shouldn't touch on similar realistic subject matter or scenarios.

It was also disappointing to see industry juggernaut EA cave to what seemed to be a vocal minority. The publisher, prior to Medal of Honor's release, changed the Taliban faction in multiplayer to the more generic "Opposing Force."

It's debatable whether or not it was a wise commercial decision in the first place to give players control over a group labeled "Taliban" in a modern war game. But the issue goes deeper than that -- this controversy happened in a year when the games industry was readying to fight for its First Amendment rights before the Supreme Court.

Game designer and author Ian Bogost was frank when he said EA's dismissal of the importance of the "Taliban" label in Medal of Honor was one of "commercial political convenience."

2. UK Government Nixes Tax Breaks

Following years of lobbying by UK-based video game industry advocates, the UK government in March this year said it would include tax breaks for video game developers in its budget for 2010.

But efforts by the UK video game industry to make the region more hospitable to current and potential game companies were dashed in June, when Chancellor George Osborne decided tax breaks for the industry were "poorly targeted," and too narrowly focused on a single industry.

The renege was a blow to the morale of those who see greater potential in the UK game industry. The effects of insufficient tax breaks in the region already seem to be taking hold: There is a slow but sure migration of talent from the UK to more game-friendly nations like Canada, and the UK game industry employs 9 percent fewer people than it did in 2008.

The bad news on the UK tax breaks front may continue into 2011 and beyond. Just this month, UK Minister for Culture, Communications and Creative Industries Ed Vaizey said if the industry pushes solely for tax breaks, it "could mean a hiatus for three or four years [or more] before it realistically comes back onto the table."

1. Realtime Worlds Collapses After APB Release

Realtime Worlds had a lot going for it. Headed up by industry icon and original Grand Theft Auto and Lemmings creator Dave Jones, the Dundee, Scotland game studio had an experienced management staff, a fun-focused game design mentality and a creative leader with a knack for raising tens of millions of dollars of venture capital.

With the 2007 release of the open world Xbox 360 action game Crackdown, the rapidly-growing Realtime showed big promise. The next game on the slate, APB, was supposed to fully realize the creative and commercial potential of the talented studio.

But in 2010, the much-delayed launch of the MMO cops vs. robbers action game All Points Bulletin marked the studio's undoing. After years of development and tens of millions of dollars invested, the game launched in late June, and was a genuine commercial bust by mid-September.

APB went offline in dramatic fashion as Realtime went into administration, shedding nearly 300 jobs, a substantial blow to a region whose influence was already slipping in the global games industry. The studio shuttered as another formerly secret project, MyWorld, was picked up by ex-Realtime Worlds chair Ian Hetherington.

In 2010, Realtime's demise exemplified the risk involved in investing tens of millions of dollars into a massive online retail game -- still a common business model. Perhaps Realtime's collapse wouldn't have been so disappointing if expectations for the studio weren't so high.

Other disappointments of 2010 include:

Harmonix's proposed sale makes music game downturn official
Tony Hawk skating games continue to fall far from their commercial heyday
Q4 release schedule crush continues in 2010
Crummy App Store versions of major game franchises

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Mark Harris
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I wonder what data the publishers have that we don't. There has to be a reason, beyond sheer stupidity, for the holiday crush.

Granted, we all know that a huge percentage of gift dollars are spent during the holiday period, but the average age of gamers is in the 30s now, isn't it? It follows that a good portion of gamers have jobs and money to spend on their own games throughout the year. As a personal example I normally get one game as a gift for Xmas, but I buy another five or six for myself throughout the year. Now, where is the bigger portion of revenue for ye olde publishre?

Red Dead launched outside of the holiday window and sold gangbusters because it was a good game. Bioware is launching Dragon Age 2 in March, Deus Ex is coming early 2011... so maybe the industry is learning this lesson. We're just learning it absurdly slowly.

Robert Boyd
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Why limit it to just FF14 instead of just a general "Final Fantasy was disappointing in 2010" statement? I think more people were looking forward to FF13 than the MMORPG and were subsequently disappointed. Between 13 & 14, the whole series has lost a lot of credibility in a very short period of time.

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Agreed FF 13 was a disappointment, beautiful but disappointing.

Jonathan Escobedo
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Yeah but to be fair, a lot of people (myself included) had bad vibes about 13 for awhile, so to some of us it kind of wasn't a surprise. As for credibility, they don't really need at this point. The series has become so famous (or infamous depending on how you look at it), that all it will do is have the name "Final Fantasy" and will be guaranteed to sell over a million copies easily.

Charles Forbin
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Some of us enjoyed FF13 quite a bit, so, you know, subjectivity or something. Lists like this need to stick to more objective disappointments.

Mark Harris
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No such thing, really. But to be fair the article is about XIV and not XIII, the comments dragged that version into the mix.

Neil Sorens
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I have mixed feelings about #3. On one hand, it's pretty callous to make the killing of American soldiers on behalf of the Taliban in a current, real-world setting a goal for players. If some random jihadi sympathizer put out a flash game where you did the same thing, it would probably be viewed as repulsive anti-American propaganda. And the comparison with movies isn't a good one, as those movies are not designed to stimulate the brain's reward system when they pantomime the act of killing American soldiers. On the other hand, the game is divorced from real world context and consequences to such a degree that "Taliban" and "Americans" are nearly meaningless labels. It's army 1 vs army 2, with real-world dressing to cash in on the tragedy of a familiar war.

On #5 - I wonder what the biggest problem is: getting a given company to cough up data, or trying to make that data collection comprehensive. There must be hundreds of companies that would have to sign on. Perhaps major digital distributors will start forcing developers to allow them to share that info with NPD or whoever else as a condition of being on the platform.

Phil Manning
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I wonder if anyone cares about the families of the Taliban fighters who are killed defending their country from invasion? Nah, it's all about the American families!

(PS: @Jeffrey: The RE5 racist thing WAS idiotic, and now YOU'VE revived it!)

Tim Carter
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If the game industry wants the vaunted cultural significance it strives for, it needs to be sensitive to the impact it *might have* in trivializing an ongoing war.

If others find it trivializes the conflict, then arguing mechanically that it doesn't entirely misses the point - and game designers have revealed their thinking patterns to be very mechanical.

In The Hurt Locker, you are not placed into the role of planting bombs to blow up US and Coalition troops - and innocent civilians for that matter. The violence isn't trivial (done to rack up "frag points") or meaningless.

I remember in the early 1980s when the first Vietnam War roleplaying game came out (RPG being, de facto, a tabletop, non-electronic product back then): Recon. Even then it was viewed as a little insensitive, owing to the recent bad memories of that war.

The game industry can have all the freedom of speech it wants - but if it descends into perceived vulgarity in doing so, it will consign itself to a place in the cultural gutter.

E Zachary Knight
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Yet at the same time, if the mainstream games industry will not release anything that even resembles a documentary without fear of controversy, we will never gain that cultural significance.

As long as we fear controversy and censor ourselves when faced with controversy, we will be consigning ourselves to the cultural gutter.

Mun Lee
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If digital downloadable game revenue is so great and everyone is jumping into it... why don't we get the actual book on revenues like box game sales provide. Is there something to hide under the carpet.... Or is it too shameful to know what it "REALLY" generates...oh yeah, I forgot "POTENTIAL" is the keyword.

Nicolas Godement-Berline
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There is a bit of that, digital revenue is still behind retail by many accounts - at least on console.

But there is also the simple fact that digital distribution isn't yet a mature industry. As such it takes time to get organized until a group like NPD or else can have access to sales figures. The online stores just aren't sharing them because they have no real reason to do so.

Marcus Miller
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I predict that the Kinects platform will be in the top 5 disappointments of 2011. I think it will the emperor has no clothes syndrome of 2011.

Jonathan Gilmore
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If you keep saying the same thing over and over it must eventually be true, right Marcus?

Scott Galloway
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that just gives me a desturbing look into the future and seeing "Manbird" (Ugly Americans) the Kinect fighting game

Bart Stewart
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I agree that it was a significant disappointment for 2010 that there's still no good tracking of digital revenues (though not just of unique sales but of ongoing subscription and microtransaction revenue as well).

But it should be stressed that this information gap is a particular problem for the PC segment. Pretty much everyone agrees that digital revenue is making up more and more of the total income on the PC side; what no one knows is how much that is in either relative or absolute terms.

When Activision acknowledges that something like 70% of its revenue came from WoW, it's clear that digital revenues are non-trivial on the PC side. For that segment to attract the investment dollars required to make the kinds of games it can uniquely host, it's important that this lack of information is not a repeat disappointment for 2011.

gus one
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MoH turned out to be one of my favourite games of the year. The SP is immersive and captures the feelnig of being in Afghanistan (rather than some non existent fictional country [insert made up name]+stan. There are some beautiful set pieces where you are severely outnumbered by waves of Taleban. Really enjoyed the SP and my only criticism is that it was rather short at 5.5 hours. Still it was a great return of a franchise and more than deserve the MoH branding.

As for the MP it's the jewel in the crown. I was disappointed of the name change but in reality when you play the game you don't notice it. The OPFOR look likes Taleban, act like Taleban and fight like Taleban. I like the way you play boths side per map, once as US and then OPFOR or vice versa. Again the immersion is fantastic. Play the US and you feel like you are with your US buddies up against the diehard warriors who fight REALLY hard. Play the Taleban and you feel like you and your brothers are defending your homeland against the infidels. It's so much better than two generic opposing sides of no real country/side. It adds to the us against them feeling. Plus it a brutal MP and totally merciless and the hardcore mode is quite simply stunning, as are the graphics. The guns feel real unlike CoD and Left 4 Dead pop guns and with decent recoil. It's somewhere past CoD but before Operation Flashpoint Dragon Rising/Arma realism games and throughly recommened.

Oh and before anyone questions my partriotism enjoying playing Taleban I give 33 ($50) a month to the Help the Heroes charity which rehabilitates injured soldiers. It's the least I can do since they are puting their lives on the line for me. Maybe EA should have made a contribution to Veteran charities for every sale made to smooth the palava. I guess they missed a PR trick there.

Chris Daniel
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May I ask where you have been in Afghanistan since you seem to know how it is there?

Did you have to fight? Did you meet afghan people?

gus one
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I was in Kabul in June 1991.

Jose Resines
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To be fair, MoH was a disappointment in itself, Taliban or not.