Games as a Service
Steam has been around seriously since Half-Life 2 launched on it in 2004, but it seems that this year Steam really came into its own. It took until 2008, but finally most publishers, even EA, have some of their games available on Steam. The only shocking thing about that is that it took so long. Sure, I realize they don't like giving a cut to Valve, but it can't be worse than a retailer's pound of flesh. And aside from Valve's cut, which I assume covers bandwidth, et al., it doesn't cost the publisher anything. And it actually gives a lot of control back to the developers/publishers, instead of leaving it at the mercy of big box stores and pawnshops disguised as game retailers.
It can also help solve one of our industry’s largest problems- out of print titles. By making a publisher's back-catalog available at any time, important "vintage" games are still accessible to those that may have missed them the first time, even if there isn't enough demand to warrant another run of the title for retail. It seems like most people have found one gem on Steam they meant to play when it was released but never got around to it. For me, that was Vampire: The Masquerade Bloodlines. I picked it up for something like $10 during a Halloween sale in 2007. Made by post-Interplay Tim Cain, Leonard Boyarsky & Jason Anderson as Troika, it's wonderfully dark RPG that knows exactly what it wants to be.
Some people worry about putting all of the eggs in one service's basket, but Valve (or rather, the folks currently at its helm) are one of the few organizations that appear honest and decent enough to assuage these concerns for me. Steam isn't the only digital distribution service for games; Hothead's Greenhouse focuses on hand-picked indie titles and I've heard Stardock's service is pretty good as well. Regardless of which service it is, 2008 was the best year games-as-a-service has seen so far and I hope it's a harbinger of even better things to come.
Interface Improvements Abound
This one is especially indulgent, but I'm a big interface nerd, so I couldn't avoid it. If 2007 was a year of horrid interfaces (see Mass Effect), 2008 was the year of what I consider to be some significant advances. Aside from a few missteps, I loved a lot of this year's interfaces. Alone in the Dark and Dead Space integrated inventory completely in the game world, FarCry 2 keep you perpetually rooted in the tactile nature of the game and Mirror's Edge was without any kind of HUD at all. Hell, even Mass Effect's PC version had its awful interface fixed.
One of my gaming pet peeves are the interfaces that accomplish game tasks (e.g. inventory, not saving/loading or changing settings) but do so completely removed from the game world. Resident Evil may be the worst offender here, where you could be mere inches away from getting a chainsaw in the face, but if you push Z, you can take as long as you want to rearrange the herb garden in your pockets. Seeing this disappear more and more is fantastic.
The Summer of Downloadable Indie Awesomeness
In retrospect, it's somewhat amazing that World of Goo, Braid and Castle Crashers were all released in the same two month window. Braid and World of Goo were two of my favourite games this entire year, and Castle Crashers’ co-op glee has been exceeded only by Left 4 Dead. Summer may have seen the best of the downloadable indie games, but it certainly didn't have a monopoly. Hothead Games released two episodes of On The Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness (made by Ron Gilbert and some other great folks here in Vancouver, and if you haven't tried it, I highly recommend doing so, even if you're not normally into Penny Arcade), Sam & Max: Season Two hit last November through April and Strong Bad's Cool Game for Attractive People may be the best game based on existing IP since Goldeneye or Lord of the Rings Online (which I embarassingly forgot to mention when talking about MMOs yesterday). This is just scratching the surface; there are lots of gems to be found in the downloadable indie space. More than anything else, working for an indie developer myself, it was incredibly enlivening to see other folks achieve this kind of success.
Three Peaks of the Fall Glut
While I maligned the Fall Glut yesterday, it was problem because there were simply so many excellent games released seemingly at once. From the downpour, there were three titles that I absolutely loved. Sequentially, that would be FarCry 2, Fallout 3 and Mirror's Edge. Other folks have written more eloquently about them (especially this one) than I could hope to, so I won't wax too poetic. But to me, they represent three of 2008’s great bastions of success. One an ambitious and extremely dark treatise on the nature of conflict whose depths many seemed to have missed. Another, the brilliant, polished and almost unbelievably expansive modernization of a beloved franchise. The last, a much maligned attempt at taking a well known genre in a completely new direction. I'm not sure if I could pick a favourite, since these plus some of the indie games mentioned above all affected me in different ways. That being said, I haven't finished Michael's holiday podcast roundup of favourite games bonanza yet, but if nobody on there picked Mirror's Edge, it might well have been what I would have picked. If you all don't hear from me again, it's likely because the angry spectral hand of Mitch Krpata reached through the internet and strangled me.
(Aside: Left 4 Dead would have muscled its way in here too, except it seems almost everyone I'd like to play with opted for the 360 version, and I'm a PC guy at heart. If I could play it with non-strangers more, I would have found a space for it here somehow)
Excellence in Thoughtful Conversations about Games
Yup, I co-opted Michael's tagline and it's entirely deliberate. While thoughtful writing about games certainly precedes 2008, I think things really gained momentum this year. And often the best work wasn't coming from paid writers with professional editors, but from bloggers, both inside and outside the industry. Bloggers who care deeply and think critically about what games are, and more importantly, what games could be. The blogs I have linked over there on the right are just a sample of the excellent writing being done about games. I've wanted to work in games for a while, but I'd be lying if I said my move into the industry had nothing to do with the fantastic articles and post I've read over the last year. Thoughtful gamer writers, you all inspired me and helped me believe I do have some interesting and meaningful contributions to make. I thank you all genuinely and if there's one thing in the last year that's made me happiest about the medium we all love, it's talking about it with you all.