Sunday, December 28, 2008

Obligatory Year-End Post: Five 2008 Disappointments

I was hoping to do some writing while I was visiting the family for Xmas, but as evidenced, that didn't happen. Sorry folks. In an attempt to make up for this, I'm doing my requisite End of the Year series of posts for the next three days. I'm not going to post a Top 10 lists or anything like that. Honestly, our industry has enough quantitification of things that needn't be quantified (no offense intended to those that did the top 10 thing, it's just not to my taste). Instead, today I'm going to discuss five things in 2008 that left me disappointed, since I'm a "bad news first" kind of guy. Tomorrow, five things in 2008 that pleased me greatly and on Tuesday I'll finish up with five things I'm looking forward to in 2009. As always, I'm interested in what other folks think, so feel free to put those thoughts down in the comments. Note: none of these will be in any kind of order, beyond the sequence I thought them up in. Without further ado ...

Five Things About 2008 That Were Lame and Disappointing

Nothing Even Came Close to Unseating WoW as the God-King (Lich King?) of MMOs

As a prelude, I have nothing against WoW or Blizzard. I had the WoW needle deep in my arm from launch day until just before The Burning Crusade came out. I slayed Nefarion countless times and led raids in Ahn'Qiraj. But WoW has been dominating the MMO space for a long time, and that worries me. Anytime someone's on top for that long, things get stagnant. Worse, other organizations try to replicate that success by creating largely the same thing, sometimes with a few enhancements (Age of Conan, Warhammer: Age of Reckoning), sometimes with just a new skin (Tabula Rasa). Of course, they tried to do this without the experience and playerbase of WoW and, not too surprisingly, didn't succeed. Though rare, even seemingly interesting MMOs (e.g. Pirates of the Burning Sea) can't seem to compete against the WoW juggernaut.

I feel there's a great deal of potential in the MMO space, but I worry that's not going to happen when the options are 1) WoW or 2) new project seeking to be WoW. A few niche MMOs like Eve and City of Heroes are doing well, and I think that's absolutely fantastic, but I'm not even sure there's much more room in the niche MMO area. So what will come next? Bioware's officially announced The Old Republic, which may be able to shake up the MMO space. It's hard to predict what may happen, but if TRO is a big success, it may allow a few other new MMOs to grow up in the space between it and WoW as well. Only time will tell.

DRM vs. Piracy Resulting in Countless Civilian Casualties

Gamasutra identified piracy as one of their biggest disappointments of 2008, but I think draconian DRM is as much of a problem as piracy is. Don't get me wrong, I think piracy is absolutely vile and people who "protest" DRM by stealing (see: Spore) are only giving more fuel to executive's arguments that even more DRM is needed. 2D Boy's statement that some ~90% of World of Goo installs are pirated might have disappointed me more than anything else this year (if you haven't played World of Goo yet, do so). Ultimately, the only people that really get hurt by the salvos between pirates and DRM advocates are the paying gamers that just want to play their games. Why draconian on-disc DRM schemes are even still being considered when services like Steam are available is beyond me. But if the whole Spore debacle spurred EA to put some of their games on Steam, I suppose some small amount of good might have come from that mess.

The Fall Glut

Lots of other people have complained about this as well, but I too was quite dismayed by that October-November stretch where something like 2/3 of the year's major games were released. Lots of excellent games were lost in the shuffle and, while I certainly didn't feel this way, some more experimental games that would have otherwise been received with some degree of interest were found lacking in the face of some supremely polished, more familiar offerings. Indie games released during the torrent were also hit pretty hard, and some folks I know personally lost jobs because of this. I really hope the industry can grow up and stop thinking holiday sales are the only target that matters.

Obsession with First Week Sales Numbers

I wish we'd stop evaluating a game's commercial success entirely on its first week sales. This is nothing new to 2008 of course, but the fall glut may have exacerbated things, making this even worse than in years past. I think this is something we inherited from the film industry using opening weekend sales as a bellwether. I've got pretty hardcore film geek friends and yet even they get caught up in guessing how much a movie is going to make on opening weekend. Honestly, does it matter? Given a bloated release period, opening weekend/first week might not be an accurate reflection of how well a title will ultimately do commercially. Crysis dealt with this when it was released, but it was able to maintain consistent sales and ended up doing pretty well. Mirror's Edge (a supposed commercial "failure") seems it might be doing the same. With analysts, executives and stockholders clamouring for numbers, I understand why. I just wish we could all take a slightly longer view before rendering a verdict.

A Seeming Fear of Innovation

A lot of this year's AAA titles seemed pretty binary- they were either new IP with some pretty radical design decisions or iterations on existing proven formulas that offered "bigger, better, faster." Now, I'm totally bias, vastly preferring lofty goals not quite realized to safe bets. That being said, I'm surprised at how hostile the general reactions were to the titles that tried to do something different. It seems like there was a lot of depth that was missed, in FarCry 2 and Mirror's Edge especially. Honestly, FarCry 2 might have made a more interesting statement about games, violence and conflict than any other game I've ever played. Some other bloggers noticed this, but the general reaction seemed to be "a good shooter, bad guys respawn too much." Are we even playing the same game? I'd make the worst reviewer in the world, but I find there's much more to praise in something that shoots for the stars and misses than turning the crank on smash hits from a year or two ago, ala Gears of War.

And that's the five things I least liked about 2008 (probably). Tomorrow we'll be more positive and I'll talk about five things about 2008 that were awesome, and they totally outweigh these.

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