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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 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.
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.