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Gamasutra's Best Of 2008: Top 5 Disappointments

Gamasutra's Best Of 2008: Top 5 Disappointments Exclusive

December 9, 2008 | By Leigh Alexander

December 9, 2008 | By Leigh Alexander
More: Console/PC, Exclusive

Throughout December, Gamasutra will be presenting a year-end retrospective, discussing notable games, events, developers, and industry figures of 2008, from the perspective of our position covering the art, science, and business of games.

We first took a look at the top five downloadable games released in 2008. Next, we go in-depth on 2008's top five biggest disappointments, from rampant piracy to the oft-downplayed impact of the economic downturn on the games industry.

5. Wii Software Is Still Weak

Sure, it's a tough sell to assert that the Wii is a disappointment of any stripe. It outsells its fellow consoles handily, has brought gaming into the mainstream family living room, and has done a goodly heap of shiny white image control for an industry that many still want to relegate to the domain of the basement nerd.

But the Wii's banner success seems to do little good overall for anyone other than Nintendo -- its lineup of successful third party titles is still too thin as the console comes up on its third Christmas, while the company's own Wii Fit and Wii Sports remain top sellers.

And while Nintendo has long promised "something for the hardcore," few rejoiced to know that Animal Crossing: City Folk was that something, and barely iterative on its predecessors to boot.

Nintendo can easily keep in riches through the whims of the faddish mainstream trendline -- and that's only sensible, the well-earned fruits of brilliant business savvy and an admirable marketing campaign. But it's disappointing to see that arguably the most successful console of all time has so little to do with the rest of the video game industry.

4. Rampant, Unrepentant Piracy

Piracy has always been a problem for the game industry, and one could even argue that an increase in the variety of copy protection mechanisms and the success of distribution services like Steam has actually lessened the issue in recent years.

But unfortunately, we've got few reliable ways to measure it concretely, so all we know is that whether it's a high-budget, long-lead title like Spore or a wildly innovative indie success story like World of Goo, alarming numbers in the audience still think it's fair to steal en masse.

Some digital rights management methods are controversial, as are the publishers that continue to employ them despite widespread protest, and the industry has yet to offer compelling data that demonstrates the extent to which piracy hurts the business.

But turning a profit on a game is a high-risk proposition already, and any activity that shaves those profits harms innovation and the medium's future health -- and it's disappointing to see continuing volumes of people who believe there's any rationale for that.

3. The Holiday Glut

Last year, we were promised that 2008 would be a breakout year for a maturing medium, and this holiday saw one of the most impressive release slates across the board in terms of quality and differentiation than we have perhaps ever seen.

But did anyone, whether critic, reviewer or consumer, really have time to give any of these titles more than a cursory fifteen minutes of fame? The year-end crunch meant hype-driven flashbangs that dissipated far too fast before cultural pressure demanded attentions turn to the Next Big Thing -- which is a shame, when what we've asked for all along is titles with enough depth for us to savor at length.

And the holiday glut tactic actually turned out to create additional challenges for the industry as the floor fell out from under the economy -- better sales from better titles earlier in the summer might have boosted investor confidence ahead of tough times. Let's hope that next year publishers space their crown jewels out a bit better, for everyone's sake.

2. Lack Of Critical Vocabulary

The critical reception for many of the year's interesting titles often seemed inconsistent and stilted throughout the year. It seemed like many reviewers (among whom this editor includes herself) struggled to find a new language through which to evaluate the offerings of a medium whose complexity -- both technically and creatively -- ramped to new heights in 2008.

Reviewers even argued amongst themselves the merit of the assertion that they might be missing the forest for the trees, as the old "product guide" methodology continues to translate ever more poorly to the modern era.

Discussion and media coverage of games -- which is capable of creating ambassadorship between the culture of games and the culture of more established mainstream media -- would do well in 2009 to embrace the distinction between "review" and "criticism," and to better incorporate the idea that games are now a much more subjective, experiential medium than they were in the days of pixels and bloops.

1. We Are Not Recession-Proof

Former U.S. Presidential candidate John McCain received a widespread backlash when he faced the darkening economic horizon and claimed, "the fundamentals of our economy are strong." He later clarified that, in making this assertion, he was referring to the spirit of the American worker, but general consensus held it was still something of a naive statement.

And the fundamentals of the game industry may indeed still be strong -- monthly NPD is still growing, with declines largely due to mitigating factors in year-over-year comparisons. Hardware is still selling, and a raft of analyst opinions and retailer surveys show that even the cash-strapped consumer is still buying video games.

But even the stalwarts among the industry's major publishers feel the pinch when investors -- themselves cash-strapped consumers -- get skittish. And lowered share values, sales declines or profit gaps that might be statistically insignificant to them can be outright punishing to smaller or more challenged companies.

In the end, nobody likes reporting on layoffs, but we did quite a lot of that as the whispered word "recession" grew into a roar, and the industry indeed felt the impact from the bottom to the top. Companies like Electronic Arts, THQ and NCsoft tightened their belts and terminated projects and staff.

Midway now threatens to buckle under the weight of its backers' credit crunch, and many smaller studios were jettisoned, acquired or shuttered. Those that remain face major challenges -- a credit crisis can spell the end for promising venture-backed startup studios who may now never see their projects get off the ground.

So it'll likely be another successful holiday for the video game industry, even more impressive and positively portentous considering what it's up against. But even when products sell, when people are hurt, "recession-proof" is the wrong word.

Rather than parrot the gratifying refrain, it may be wise to prepare to consider how the displacement of talent and the climate of increasing risk aversion will affect the creative direction of the industry in the coming years.

[Do you agree or disagree with these picks? Feel free to comment below. We'll pick the best reader comments on each list for our final retrospective, to debut on Gamasutra close to the holidays.]

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