In the short history of video games there have been plenty of landmark years. In 1972 Pong astounded the public, paving the way for a new form of entertainment. A decade later the young industry explosion seemed perilous, following the great video game crash of 1983. Then, in 1994, Sony took the market by storm by launching the PlayStation, and in 2007.
Well, certainly for many, it was a year to remember. It was the year when the gaming industry finally looked set to fulfil its promise, taking its chance to reach into the mainstream and grab the imagination of the public.
A year of numbers
Above all, it was a year of numbers. December saw news of a record-breaking $19bn merger between two of the biggest names in gaming: Blizzard and Activision. Blizzard’s biggest game, the online fantasy World of Warcraft, passed the nine million subscribers mark, and the entire games industry was valued at in excess of $30bn.
However, it was Sony that started the number-crunching trend when it finally released its flagship PlayStation 3 console in March. The machine entered the record books by selling 165,000 units in the UK in two days. It breathed life back into the Japanese electronics giant, which had taken a beating the previous Christmas from its rivals.
The PlayStation might have made its mark in the battle for gamers’ affections, but the tussle was far from over. After all, Microsoft had an ace up its sleeve: Halo 3.
The latest instalment in the massively popular franchise laid waste to all before it when it hit the shelves in September. On paper, the game seems unremarkable – a standard shooter tied together with a typical alien warfare storyline. But the game’s killer combination – fantastic graphics and multiplayer online gaming – has turned Halo into more than just a great title: it is a genuine pop-culture phenomenon.
Sales making history
That status was underscored when it racked up $170m of sales on its first day in the US, making it the highest grossing first day in entertainment history – even outstripping Hollywood blockbusters like Spider-Man and Pirates of the Caribbean.
In Britain, gamers picked up nearly half a million copies in just a few days, handing over more than £20m to Microsoft in the process (this was a welcome fillip for the Seattle corporation, which has seen little profit from its massive investment in gaming).
“It’s far too early to say what the financial return will be for our investment,” Microsoft’s Shane Kim told the BBC at the launch. “But if we can’t make a profit in the year Halo 3 comes out, then when will we?”
That optimism was in sharp contrast to another major event of the year – and one that will stick in the minds of many: the banning of Manhunt 2, Rockstar Games’ controversial slasher sequel.
When the game came before the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) in June, it was refused a certificate and criticised for encouraging “casual sadism”. As a result, it became the first game to be banned in Britain for a decade – and, with elements that the censors described as “sadistic, brutal and bleak”, the headlines simply wrote themselves.
The controversy was not just in the media, however. Arguments were stirred up inside the industry as well. Some felt that the ban was an inevitable consequence of Rockstar’s desire to court controversy as a marketing opportunity (Rob Fahey, columnist with website Gamesindustry.biz, summed it up by saying “Rockstar has crossed the line – and crossed it at a full-tilt run”).
Others thought that the gratuitous violence was fair enough, given that it was in a title that was clearly aimed at adults, and plenty of supporters pointed out that some of the most gruesome Hollywood movies have been given certificates.
This plurality of views is likely to be reflected in a forthcoming government review of games and the internet, which became another talking point when it was announced in the autumn. The investigation is set to look at the effects of these new media on children, and will report back next spring. While at first the news was treated with scepticism (after all Tanya Byron, who is leading the investigation, is best known as a TV psychologist) it became clear that she was not merely going to rubberstamp the tabloid line that games are a malicious influence.
“Children seem to know quite a lot more than we think they do, and they know a lot about the technologies that they’re using,” she told the Observer in an interview. “For different kids, particularly kids with learning difficulties, these technologies have transformed their learning and enthused them to learn.” (See page 22 for Tanya Byron’s article on the government review.)
The return of Nintendo
While controversy was a persistent theme for the industry, the real story of 2007 was far more wholesome. Nintendo’s return to peak form has to be the landmark trend of the past 12 months, not only shaking up the industry but also helping the whole gaming fraternity to break into new territory. Nintendo’s decision to take a chance on its own quirky vision of the future – far removed from the high-powered, realistic graphics favoured by its competitors – seemed like it might backfire. But, in fact, it is paying off in spades.
The company’s charge to the top of the charts was led by the Wii, released last Christmas and still in huge demand thanks to its innovative controller and unashamed emphasis on fun. The combination of classic franchises such as Mario and family-oriented titles like Wii Sports (which swept the board at this year’s awards ceremonies) has proved irresistible with the public.
DS makes further inroads
And while the Wii emerged top dog against the PlayStation 3 and the Xbox 360, the diminutive DS handheld also made further inroads. This son-of-Gameboy is now in the hands of more than four million people around Britain, and thanks to games like Brain Training it has reached to new generations and crossed into the mainstream.
All these factors (the return of Nintendo, Sony’s big sell and Microsoft’s record-breaking games) not only sum up a massively successful year for the games industry, but could also give an indication of where the future lies.
While there may be a growing divide in the gaming world – between hardcore gamers who relish their powerful technology and those who spend their time playing accessible, casual titles – success in one field no longer precludes it in the other. While in previous years the two worlds were mutually exclusive, both forks are now bigger, better and more popular than ever before. The legacy of 2007 is yet to be determined – but if the past year proves anything, it is that we are no longer playing a zero-sum game.
Bobbie Johnson is technology correspondent for the Guardian