It’s like a disease. In the game industry, everyone starts off the new year listing their favorite games from last (we’re guilty). This year is different — because, when I stopped to think about it, there were so many games I just wasn’t able to play. How did that happen? It starts with three words:
I dislike Microsoft. Okay, that’s an understatement. Growing up at a time when the only way to survive as a young company was to hope Microsoft bought you (because the alternative was to be put out of business by their anticompetitive practices), they didn’t exactly engender much love. Stifle innovation much? Oh yeah.
So when the original Xbox hit, it was nauseating. Another embrace and extend from the master of idea theft, only this time they were moving off the desktop and into the living room. It was bad enough to see Microsoft own the office but attempting the same for the rest of our lives (using the trojan videogame console to monopolize online content distribution) was too much to bear. And paying a monthly fee to play online? No thanks. It didn’t help that they joined the fight with testosterone aplenty, either. I mean black and green on every imaginable surface? (And remember when Bill Gates bizarrely gave away signed keychains to bewildered Japanese Xboxers?) Wrong on all counts, then. Thankfully, Sony won that round of the console wars going away.
But this round? PS3 fell down out of the gate, Xbox 360 stole the hardcore (except for Japan), and Wii? We all knew it would take some time for it to get traction; that much was clear once it was left for dead at E3 2005. When the Wiimote startled us at E3 2006, it was too late. Plans had long solidified to spend the big dev dollars elsewhere and turning the boat would take time. After all, making a AAA title takes a minimum of 2 years — 3 if you like weekends.
The shadow of those early decisions still looms over the industry today, from stories of Wii ports added to the docket at the last minute and outsourced to second rate contractors, to stories of PS3 being the de-facto dev platform because porting to it is such a nightmare (see Burnout Paradise). All signs point to the boat being more fully turned come Christmas 2008, but it’s likely to be slim pickings on Wii for some time to come, even as it sells through the roof.
Gamewise, then, 360 is the biggest beneficiary of the current way of things. This year saw BioShock (talk about environment design), Crackdown (mmm…agility supplements!), Portal (most with the least), Halo 3 (well, co-op, anyway), Rock Band, E4, Forza 2, PGR4, COD4. (They’re a lot of shooters and racers but, for better or worse, they’re also some of the best videogames available.) That’s why many of the Wii faithful I know — the deepest of the deep purple Nintendo fans — did the unthinkable this holiday and bought into the Microsoft agenda, accepting the golden handcuffs of Xbox Live. More surprisingly, it wasn’t even like they struggled with the decision; no, after all the talk, they acted as if buying an Xbox was the natural way of things. And, well, I suppose they might be right. Gamers follow great games plain and simple. As much as we want to believe in the Wii dream, most of the heavyweight developers are still trying to figure out what building games for it means (some are coming). They already understand 360 because it’s an evolution, not a Revolution. I finally bit.
The last time we made this kind of painful choice, we were giving up Dreamcast for PS2. This time is easier because we know Wii won’t die like Sega’s final console, but it’s harder because we’re buying in to an ugly history that we swore not to. Okay, full disclosure: playing great games helps dull the pain a bit.