While 2009 was no slouch in terms of major video game industry events, most of our picks for 2010's weightiest news pieces have greater potential for wider industry impact compared to last year's developments.
This year's major events only make us even more curious about the year ahead: What's next for Bungie? Will motion controls have legs in 2011? Will the 3DS fend off increasing competition from mobile gaming? Will we be carded when we go to pick up Grand Theft Auto V?
2010 not only provided us with interesting events for the here and now, but also a solid starting block for the year and years ahead.
5. Activision Signs 10-Year Deal With Halo House Bungie
In April this year, Halo creator Bungie signed an exclusive 10-year deal with industry heavyweight Activision. With Bungie having split from Microsoft in 2007, the deal was the first realization since the studio's new-found independence that it would be going multiplatform with a new franchise sans Master Chief.
Not only was the scope of the deal a surprise -- 10 years is a long time -- but the partnership came just weeks after the emergence of the fiasco between Activision and its internal first-person shooter studio, Call of Duty maker Infinity Ward. But Bungie, which will continue to own the new IP that Activision will publish, was unfazed by the controversy, happy with the reach and resources made available by the gaming giant.
The deal is yet another feather in the cap for Activision Blizzard, already home to the industry's leading franchises, not the least of which are Call of Duty and World of Warcraft. And with Bungie's online multiplayer expertise and Activision CEO Bobby Kotick espousing Activision's online future, we'll be on the lookout for a new, highly online-centric Bungie experience.
4. Infinity Ward Reboots
The post-holiday game industry lull was shattered in early March this year when reports emerged that Jason West and Vince Zampella, co-founders of Call of Duty creator Infinity Ward, were ousted from the studio by parent company Activision.
The publisher soon confirmed that it was conducting an "internal human resources inquiry" to examine possible breaches of contract on the part of West and Zampella. Lawsuits from both sides followed, as the pair established a new studio, Respawn Entertainment, and signed a publishing deal with Activision rival Electronic Arts, recruiting several ex-Infinity Ward staff in the process.
The drama played out for several months before dying down. Activision was confident since the beginning of the conflict that the Call of Duty brand would remain strong as ever, despite some brain drain at the studio that created the multi-million-selling franchise. Today, Infinity Ward is back to work.
In November, Activision released Call of Duty: Black Ops, developed by internal studio Treyarch, the same house behind Call of Duty 3 and Call of Duty: World at War. With Black Ops, Activision sold-through $650 million in the title's opening five days, up from 2009's Infinity Ward-developed Modern Warfare 2, which generated $550 million, serving as a clear sign that Activision has put the debacle behind it from a business standpoint.
3. Nintendo Unveils The 3DS
As reports in Japanese business papers mounted about a top secret successor to the Nintendo 3DS, media outlets received one of the most anticlimactic press releases about one of the most exciting pieces of gaming hardware in recent years -- the Nintendo 3DS.
The original Nintendo announcement for the 3DS had virtually no details about the machine, only that more information would come a few months later at the annual E3 games convention and that the new device would have the ability to display stereoscopic 3D images without glasses. The quick official acknowledgment of the 3DS helped Nintendo preempt further media rumoring.
When Nintendo officially unveiled the 3DS at E3 in June, the company seemed to turn skeptics into believers. By putting the device in the hands of attendees, users saw that the technology works, helping generate positive buzz around the handheld. Nintendo also already has a long list of third-party developers on board for the 3DS, as the hardware maker is taking steps to make its consoles and handhelds more attractive to external game makers.
The device has much commercial and creative potential, and it may also serve as a bellwether for the future of the portable gaming business, which is diverging between dedicated portables like the DS and mobile devices. If something as technologically appealing as the 3DS is cast aside in favor of mobile gaming, the relevance of dedicated handheld gaming devices could be brought into serious question.
2. New Motion Controllers Arrive
Four years after the arrival of the industry-shaping Nintendo Wii, competing console makers Sony and Microsoft brought their own motion control answers to market in 2010 with the PlayStation Move and the super-hyped Xbox 360 Kinect sensor, as the core gamer-centric companies make a play for the mass market.
The Kinect represents a reboot for Microsoft, which is trying to soften up Xbox's image as first-person shooter central, with family-friendly games like Dance Central, Kinectimals and Kinect Adventures. For Sony, the company is trying to distinguish its motion controller offerings from Microsoft and Nintendo by focusing the Move more towards the core gamer.
Both new controllers are off to a healthy start, according to Sony and Microsoft. The Move has shipped 4.1 million worldwide since its September release, and Kinect sell-through hit 2.5 million in the device's opening 25 days since its November launch. Microsoft expects to sell 5 million Kinects through the holidays, making the device a fairly hot item.
It's difficult to forecast just how much of a game-changer a three-way motion control war will be in the coming year. There's already concern over Nintendo's strategy, as rivals adopt their own versions of the Wii's primary distinguishing feature -- motion control -- and Wii graphics that look increasingly dated compared to competitors.
But if the new controllers prove to have legs that last through 2011, maybe we can see a continuation -- even to a somewhat lesser extent -- of the mass market video game adoption that marked the Wii's earlier years.
1. Supreme Court Reviews Violent Video Game Law
In November, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments for and against a California law that would restrict sales of violent video games to minors -- and the outcome of those hearings could have the widest impact on not only the video game industry, but entertainment media as a whole.
The years-long controversy surrounding the video game law came to a head when California lawmakers, video game industry representatives and lawyers converged on Washington D.C. to debate and discuss the merits of the 2005 measure, backed by California Sen. Leland Yee and Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.
If put into practice, the law would make it illegal for a retailer to sell a minor a video game deemed excessively violent. Retailers would be fined $1,000 per violation, and game packaging would require an extra 2-inch-by-2 inch label displaying the number "18."
The nation's top judges heard the arguments of Schwarzenegger vs. the Entertainment Merchants Association with interest, and while they expressed serious concern about the law's accordance with the First Amendment, the justices criticized the games industry's supposed tendency to downplay violent games' possible effects on children.
Opponents of the law argued that the law is too vague to be effective, and would instead cause a chilling effect -- game creators would be wary of crossing the line into "excessively violent," and would essentially self-censor themselves.
Major companies and organizations from all corners of entertainment such as publishing, movies, television as well as video games, spoke out against the law by filing numerous amicus briefs with the Supreme Court, knowing that if the law should pass scrutiny by the highest court in the land, their own industries could be the next targets for similar laws with the potential for creative and commercial stifling.
Prior to its appearance before the Supreme Court, the law -- and several similar laws in other states -- was already deemed unconstitutional by lower courts. But until the top court officially decides on the legality of the California measure, the video game industry and other entertainment sectors will just have to wait and see, and hope for the best when the ruling arrives next year.
Other notable industry events of 2010 included:
- UK government nixes game developer tax breaks
- Disney's purchase of Playdom for up to $763 million
- Viacom puts Rock Band creator Harmonix up for sale
- Ngmoco acquired for $400 million
- Facebook changes its notification policies to limit spam, and in effect, virality