Gamasutra's Best Of 2008
December 31, 2008 Page 6 of 15
Top 5 Surprises
Next, we'll cover this year's biggest surprises, recalling some of the year's most talked-about news stories, listed with no particular ranking imposed on importance -- "surprise" is subjective, after all!
Perhaps it shouldn't be so surprising -- we always suspected that Nintendo's adept address to the mainstream consumer was an enormously powerful strategy.
But in the same month that people finally began to use the word "recession," two million people turned out to buy a video game console -- a record-breaker for any non-December month.
And thanks to the recent Xbox 360 price cuts, Wii isn't even the cheapest console on the market, so its sales juggernaut is something of a monument to the industry's resilience -- or Nintendo's, at least. The company boasts that it's carried 198 percent of the industry's year-over-year U.S. growth on its shoulders.
But the most interesting revelation to derive from Wii's eyebrow-raising performance isn't that Nintendo's console sells like hotcakes. We knew that already.
The company's November numbers provide incontrovertible proof of a nagging suspicion that longtime traditional game fans have quietly nursed over the year -- they are now officially a niche, and the majority of "gamers" comprise an audience they hardly even knew existed.
The news for Atari hadn't been good for quite a long time. The company went into debt as it struggled to restructure, received numerous NASDAQ delisting warnings, and finalized its merger in full with French parent company Infogrames, who seemed likely to turn the once-noble Fuji into a distribution house.
But then, Phil Harrison left a prominent post as Sony's head of Worldwide Studios, where he'd become a recognizable face behind the PlayStation strategy. His new role?
To head up, in the words of the surprising announcement, a "transformational leadership team at Infogrames that will grow the Atari brand into a leading online game company."
And the transformation seems to be underway. Under Harrison's direction, Atari gathered up some of the promising orphans from the Activision-Vivendi merger, Chronicles of Riddick: Assault on Dark Athena and Ghostbusters from the newly-merged Activision Blizzard, along with kid-friendly film game The Tale of Despereaux dropped in the Brash Entertainment collapse.
Just recently, the company picked up City of Heroes/Villains creator Cryptic Studios, thereby gaining the team's upcoming Champions Online. Here's to more surprises from Atari in 2009.
"We're not in the business of producing standalone games for every artist that's out there," said Van Toffler, MTV Music, Films and Logo group president on a surprise conference call -- but the Beatles are not just any artist.
It was revealed that an exclusive partnership among Apple Corps, MTV Games and Harmonix would bring one of the most venerated bands of all time to the world of video games through a single music title from the Rock Band developers, wholly devoted to the Beatles music.
It wasn't only an exciting announcement for fans of music and games both, but it was a serious testament to the power and reach of the Rock Band developers, and the real relevance it increasingly holds for musical artists of all kinds.
Renowned designer Suda51 and his Grasshopper Manufacture have earned acclaim for risk-taking, creativity and a distinct style -- but not so much for high sales and big profitability numbers.
That's why it came as a surprise to many that Electronic Arts announced a publishing partnership with Grasshopper for an upcoming horror title -- Resident Evil creator Shinji Mikami as producer was the icing on the cake.
Of course, it's up for debate which part is more surprising -- that EA, a Western publishing giant with a past reputation for putting profits ahead of just about everything, would see the potential in Grasshopper; or that Suda51, who describes his studio's games as "punk style", would hitch his star to EA, who's had a bit of a checkered past when it comes to properly valuing talent.
Still, this was the year that EA's reformation efforts finally began to gain attention thanks largely to the overtly repentant attitude of CEO John Riccitiello and publishing relationships with well-respected studios like Valve and Harmonix.
The Grasshopper announcement was the moment, though, when the publisher drew a line in the sand and made it clear to industry-watchers that it really seemed to mean what it was saying.
Think Final Fantasy, think PlayStation? Not anymore. In a year with few big reveals coming out of an ill-timed E3, Microsoft's announcement that the upcoming FFXIII would cross sanctified platform lines was nothing short of a shock.
Square Enix's Final Fantasy XIII
Sony's Jack Tretton said that "disappointed is clearly an appropriate term" regarding Microsoft's efforts to "curry favor" with third parties, while Square Enix corporate executive Shinji Hashimoto said the objective behind the move was "to provide FFXIII to as many fans as possible in the world."
Microsoft kept the deal's only shortcoming close to its chest for as long as it could -- that it covered only the game's Western release, and did not apply to Japan, where Xbox 360 was at the time desperately in need of traction.
Turns out Tales of Vesperia made strides to help the console out there -- but if the PS3 continues to be widely outpaced by its rival in 2009, the FFXIII decision may turn out to be a black chapter in Sony's history book.
Jay Lee: "Among gamimg surprises this year there is no doubt FF XIII was the biggest 'surprise' to hit this year. Certainly made the biggest spalsh I've seen in gaming commmunties in a long time. Not surprising that it did happen however."
David Delanty: "The other big surprise of 2008 was the runaway successes of Braid, Geometry Wars, N+, and Castle Crashers. As the big-name companies are putting greater emphasis in well-established IP, implementing their strengths into sequels and the like, I was expecting the year to be defined by "var(product) = Last Year's Hit + 1." Seeing independent projects like these making their way into the mainstream and getting a substantial quantity of press coverage, it was a very pleasant surprise to me upon reflection. It gives quite a bit of hope for aspiring game designers."
Nathaniel Smith: "Not too many shockers in '08 compared to '07. but Nintendo's Wii sales continue to amaze. At the rate the Wii is selling the console can actually surpass 200 million in its life cycle."
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