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The First Decade: Ten Influential Games

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Posted December 21, 2009 - By Andrew Pfister











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Much can change over the course of ten years. Tastes evolve, trends disappear and emerge, technology advances, ideas blend together, and theoretically, we keep moving forward by making things better. The last decade of game development has seen some remarkable changes, and if you think back to the type of games you were playing at the end of 1999 compared to the ones occupying your disc trays (or hard drives!) now,we've come a long way in such a short time. Distilling a decade of development into ten choices is a difficult task, and there's plenty of room for argument -- we've made our 10 picks, feel free to suggest changes, additions or subtractions in the comments below.

 
The Sims (2000) -- The Rise of the Casuals

The SimsWhy It Was Influential: For us traditional gamers, The Sims provided the opportunity to screw around with digital people, building rooms without doors (or bathrooms) and watching the digital nervous (and digestive) system break down. It was a science experiment without any controls or psychological repercussions. But for the millions of people whose experience playing The Sims was the first time they ever touched a video game, it was a chance to build fantasy versions of themselves...what they'd like to be if money and real-life social awkwardness were taken out of the equation -- a different version of life that was more under control. A flurry of expansion packs kept the fire burning, and prior to the splash Blizzard would make a few years later, The Sims absolutely dominated the PC gaming space.

Effects Still Felt Today:  The Sims established the perfect mix of traditional and what would become to be known as "casual" gaming, and it made an entire new segment of the population more comfortable with the idea of playing games -- something Nintendo would eventually capitalize on six years later in a monumental way.


Madden NFL 2001 (2000) -- The Opening Kickoff

Madden NFL 2001Why It Was Influential:  Electronic Arts had decided not to throw its mighty support behind the Sega Dreamcast, preferring to bet the farm on the PlayStation 2. This meant that the only place to get Madden football, which was just emerging as a true cultural zeitgeist, would be on Sony's new machine. Now, thanks to the rolling momentum of the PlayStation, the PS2 would assuredly had been successful had Madden not been exclusive...but its role in cementing the October 2000 launch lineup cannot be understated. Television news crews were dispatched to overnight launch lines across the country, lines that probably wouldn't have existed based on FantaVision and Ridge Racer V alone. Some saw the value in PSone backwards compatibility and the DVD player, but college kids scrounged up the nearly $400 (including the game and a second Dual Shock 2) because they just had to have that Madden.

Effects Still Felt Today:  Seeing the true power of their #1 franchise, Electronic Arts locked up NFL exclusivity in 2004 and maintain that "competitive advantage" (i.e. monopoly) to this day. Coincidentally, the PS2 went on to sell well over 100 million units worldwide over the course of the decade, and Sega announced they would cease production of the Dreamcast in early 2001, leaving the hardware business entirely.


Halo: Combat Evolved (2001) -- Hail to the Chief

Halo: Combat EvolvedWhy It Was Influential:  Credit where credit is due, 1997's Goldeneye 007 on the Nintendo 64 broke first ground. But it wasn't until Microsoft convinced Bungie to make their first-person shooter Halo the cornerstone launch title for their Xbox that the industry started to take console first-person shooters really, really seriously. This epic space sci-fi shooter finally made the game pad a viable and comfortable alternative to the PC's mouse-and-keyboard combo, it made it okay to just have two weapons on hand instead of 10, and it introduced us to perhaps the most iconic character of the decade: the Master Chief. The game's multiplayer was incredibly popular, even before Xbox Live made its debut: the concept of networked Xbox machines running matches of Oddball prepped the battlefield for Halo 2, which propelled online console gaming to new heights.

Effects Still Felt Today:  The Halo franchise made a huge impact during the decade. Halo 2 would establish the matchmaking system as the most popular way to design online shooters; the promise of Halo 3 combined with Microsoft's year-long head start on Sony meant that the Xbox 360 would be massively successful (and while they waited for Halo 3, a little game called Gears of War was born in the interim), and slowly but surely, more FPS started to gravitate to the console and away from the PC...Modern Warfare 2's changes to the PC version being a prime recent example. Sony never had a strong answer to Halo and were slow out of the gate on an online service, which could be attributed as a reason why the PS3 currently lags behind the Xbox 360.

Grand Theft Auto III (2001) -- Building a Better Sandbox

Grand Theft Auto III

Why It Was Influential: It was a matter of timing and technology. The PlayStation 2 was doing well, but there was something...missing. That one game that defined the system. Madden was there, Final Fantasy, Gran Turismo and Metal Gear Solid would get there soon enough. But in the meantime, the fumes kept building and building and building...until Rockstar Games dropped the match: Grand Theft Auto III. The first two GTA games were lesser-known quantities: 2D top-down action romps through the criminal underworld that were appreciated by those who "got it." But when it switched to 3D, GTA seemed to click with everyone. And how could it not? A playground where our inner bad guy could come out and wreak guilt-free havoc, and as they got into Vice City and San Andreas, Rockstar showed how you could create a cohesive gaming world filled with biting (and oftentimes sophomoric) social satire, flawed but appealing characters, and killer licensed soundtracks.

Effects Still Felt Today: Two simple words: "open world." Grand Theft Auto derailed the action game, and suddenly we were free to go wherever we want and do (almost) whatever we wanted. A legion of imitators followed suit -- some of which put their own spins and improvements on the idea -- and an entirely new genre was born. The game's unreserved takes on violence and sex, however, made Night Trap and Mortal Kombat seem like Saturday morning fare, and the mainstream media would start using GTA as the prime example (read: easy scapegoat and talking point) whenever something bad would happen in the world. As Rockstar pushed the boundaries of taste and society wrung its collective hands over the alleged effects on our nations' youths, it inadvertently made the concept of moral choice an issue video games would start addressing in their stories.


Half-Life 2 (2004) -- Steam Works

Half-Life 2 StriderWhy It Was Influential: Technology drives games, and games drive technology. So it was with Valve's Half-Life 2, the long-awaited sequel to the groundbreaking 1998 first-person shooter. Built using the flexible and hopefully long-lasting Source engine, Half-Life 2 was an epic adventure through a fully realized world of oppression. By putting us once more into the slightly nerdy glasses of a silent protagonist, Valve set new standards for game narrative that were dependent on direct interaction with the environment -- instead of experiencing the story through cinematics, the entire experience was cinematic in itself. But content aside, Half-Life 2 was the all-important catalyst for Valve's new Steam initiative, bringing the phrase "digital distribution" to the forefront. A rocky launch plagued by technical issues wasn't the best foot forward, but the kinks got ironed out, and today it's Valve, not Microsoft, who's leading the way in the PC gaming space.

Effects Still Felt Today: Next time you're in your local electronics retailer, take a gander at the PC section...it's not what it used to be. The mentality of downloading games directly to your PC's hard drive is paving the way for the same thing to happen on the game consoles. And with Microsoft continuing to drop the ball on some sort of unified PC gaming initiative, players are pretty pleased with Steam's convenience and its sense of community.


World of Warcraft (2004) -- Massive Is An Understatement

World of Warcraft

Why It Was Influential: In the days of Ultima Online and EverQuest, MMORPGs were seen as solely the realm of the unfairly labeled "nerds"...stat hounds and fantasy fanatics. But it was Blizzard's World of Warcraft that made that first "M" truly something massive. It's weird if you think about one game with orcs, warriors, and elves being more popular than another game also featuring orcs, warriors, and elves, but Blizzard's artistic approach to WoW had a friendly and inviting Disney-esque quality to it -- it also didn't hurt being based on one of the most popular PC franchises of all time. The player base skyrocketed, which meant that development and support teams expanded, and the world of Azeroth evolved dramatically as Blizzard provided regular new content and balance adjustments. Everyone knows at least one person who canceled their account only to reactivate it when the two expansions kept the party going.

Effects Still Felt Today: Five years later, WoW is still going strong. The third expansion, Cataclysm, is currently under development and will dramatically change the face of the game's "old world," which players have been accustomed to since the launch in 2004. It's also made a surprising impact on popular culture, with celebrities freely admitting that they've rolled characters, and an entire episode of South Park was based on the game. WoW is such a juggernaut, other MMO developers and publishers need to think long and hard about their business strategy.

 

Brain Age (2005, Japan) -- Train a Nation in Millions a Day

Brain AgeWhy It Was Influential: On paper, the Nintendo DS is fairly absurd. A portable gaming device with two screens, one of them touch-sensitive, that will instantly be competing with the Game Boy Advance juggernaut. Many wrote it off as an impending hardware disaster on par with the Virtual Boy. But what we didn't know was that deep within the walls of their headquarters in Kyoto, Japan...Nintendo president Satoru Iwata had a plan. Super Mario 64, Mario Kart, Castlevania...these traditional games would have no problem selling to the gamers already eager and willing to buy them. But it was going to take something else, something completely different, to capture the attention of people who have never played a video game in their life. That something was Brain Age, a test of cognitive rapid reaction marketed as some sort of enjoyable science. Its eventual massive success fueled DS sales for years to come and ushered in the era of the "non-game," lifestyle software designed to appeal to a much broader audience.

Effects Still Felt Today: The dominance of the DS and the unimaginable death of the Game Boy brand, the casual-friendly business strategy driving the success of the Nintendo Wii, the glut of 3rd-party shovelware lifestyle games, and the cries of spurned and self-described "forgotten" Nintendo fans who curse the names of Brain Age, Nintendogs, and Wii Fit.

Guitar Hero (2005) -- Believe in Music

Guitar HeroWhy It Was Influential: What Konami's Guitar Freaks got wrong, RedOctane got right...it's all about the music. Guitar Hero's approach wasn't just about being a rhythm game, it was about turning you into that rock 'n roll god that you wanted to be since high school. (Or while currently in high school.) Hitting the notes at the right time was an important part of the game, but when you missed it you weren't disappointed over the lack of points, you were disappointed about the missing screech of the solo. Fantasy-fulfillment is a primary reason why we all play games, and Guitar Hero's pitch perfect execution launched an entire micro-industry that not only influenced video games, but the music industry as well.

Effects Still Felt Today: Music games are everywhere, for better or worse. Peripheral-based gaming is currently peaking thanks to the heated rivalry between Electronic Arts/Harmonix and Activision/Neversoft. Artists are choosing to debut new music over Rock Band and Guitar Hero, while others are reaching back into their recorded and live catalogs in an attempt to get a piece of the action. The amount of plastic instruments some of us have in our living rooms is alarming (as is the cumulative amount spent on downloading additional songs), so we'll have to see how much longer the show can go on.


Wii Sports (2006) -- Motion in the Blue Ocean

Wii Sports

Why It Was Influential: As the GameCube limped to a regrettable finish, many speculated that much like Sega at the beginning of the decade, this was Nintendo's last hurrah as a hardware manufacturer. Oh, how wrong these people were. Their success with the DS proved that their "blue ocean" approach (that is, cultivating a new audience) was viable, so they needed something similar to shake off the "disappointment" of the GameCube. At the 2005 Tokyo Game Show, the world found out why Nintendo codenamed their new project "Revolution" -- a simple remote control that detected 3D motion. The first images pf the controller get-up were stunning...in that "they have completely lost it" sort of way. But early reports about a functioning version of Metroid Prime 2 were almost entirely positive. But Metroid wasn't even close to "blue ocean," so something else was in order: Wii Sports. A collection of mini-games that highlighted the features of the motion control was included with every single Wii system sold in the United States. For many months after its 2006 launch, it was nearly impossible to find a Wii system on store shelves because the buzz around Wii Sports' bowling game -- bowling, if you can believe it -- was everywhere in the mainstream media. The interactivity and novelty of Wii Sports resonated with children, adults, grandparents...regardless if they knew what "Nintendo" was. As such, it was the most important pack-in game of all time.

Effects Still Felt Today: If somebody told you in 2004 that Nintendo would be back in first place, comfortably ahead of Sony's PlayStation 3, the ensuing fit of laughter and derision would have been legendary. But here we are in 2009, with both Microsoft and Sony furiously at work on their own motion controller technology in an effort to claim some of the pie. Longtime Nintendo fans are still dealing with abandonment issues (despite the promise of more Mario, Metroid, and Zelda), and sales of the Wii have cooled significantly during this economic downturn, but for now, Nintendo's in the driver seat.


Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare (2007) -- Perks of the Job

Call of Duty: Modern WarfareWhy It Was Influential: For the better portion of the decade, the online shooter was Bungie's world, and we were just living in it. But then a funny thing happened on the way to Normandy -- in 2007, Infinity Ward decided that the curtains should fall on WWII as a theater of combat, and it was time for warfare to be a bit more modern. Call of Duty 4's single-player campaign was a tightly scripted nuclear blast of an experience, but it was the game's multiplayer that started to shift the balance of power from Master Chief to "Soap" MacTavish. Infusing it with a reward system that doled out experience and player upgrades at a perfectly-tuned pace was a master stroke by Infinity Ward, and millions of FPS players were kept firmly attached to the teat. It was as simple as visually displaying the "+10" for every successful kill...a constant sense of progression and growth.

Effects Still Felt Today:  Modern Warfare 2 has sold over six million copies just months after its release. The experience-based multiplayer system is making its way into more and more online shooters, and while it can be argued that tolerating the average COD player exercises the limits of human patience, the power of Modern Warfare is such that Microsoft did not feel the need to put out a first-party game this holiday season -- it is the game to own for the Xbox 360.

Honorable Mention


Phantasy Star Online (Dreamcast, 2000):  The first serious instance of viable online console gaming.

Devil May Cry (PlayStation 2, 2001) -- Defining 3D action games for the decade to come (God of War, Ninja Gaiden, Bayonetta...)

Battlefield 1942 (PC, 2002) -- What GTA was to the single-player sandbox, Battlefield '42 was to the multiplayer.

Animal Crossing (GameCube, 2002) -- Nintendo was way ahead of the "social gaming" curve.

Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved (Xbox 360, 2005) -- A strong opening statement for small downloadable games.

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