First, I’m going to have to apologize; In the last overview of the seventh gen, I forgot to mention that in 2008, Iphone OS 2 came out. How could I??? It’s one of the biggest things to happen to gaming in the past 15 years!!!!
Iphone OS 2 introduced the App Store, and I’d argue it kinda kicked off mobile gaming as we know it. Sure, mobile games have been around for a while. I used to play a ton of them on my mom’s old flip phone. In Japan, which had smartphones for a long, long time, they were established pretty well. But the Iphone was big shit, and I’d argue the higher fidelity and the touchscreen, as well as the proliferation of phones that were all exactly the same, helped boost a new kind of mobile gaming. I mean fuck, the first Call of Duty game I ever played was World At War: Zombies for the Ipod Touch (I had to resist every fiber in my body to not call it the correct name, Nazi Zombies). It’s weird. Over 10 years later, mobile gaming is still seen as something else.
But I digress. 2009.
You know what came out this year? League of Legends!!!! It’s hard to quantify just how influential League is. I wouldn’t argue that it helped boost the popularity of the MOBA genre, but at the same time, I feel like that was a given anyway, due to the ongoing economic crisis from the recession and the subsequent lost decade that America experienced. Free games were going to be popular no matter what. But I do feel that League was more than being in the right place at the right time, and over a decade of sustained influence has shown that it has an influence far beyond the “MOBA fad”. Also; Riot Games was one of the earliest western investments of Chinese tech and media giant Tencent, having bought 22.8% equity interest in Riot the year before. (which, in another mistake, I forgot to mention the already huge and influential games that they published earlier in the seventh gen, Crossfire and Dungeon Fighter Online, in my last article – these aren’t as big in the west, but as China becomes more of a cultural giant in the next decade, expect to see them).
But League would be underselling 2009 as a year for gaming, especially in the seventh gen. For one, It marked off another year of completely insane indie releases – VVVVVV, Mechanarium, Plants Vs Zombies. Super Meat Boy. Spelunky. And probably most importantly, Minecraft. Probably. You gotta understand, Plants vs Zombies, Man. Also, Devolver Digital, one of the most famous indie labels, was founded by a bunch of people who had been active in the pre-indie scene on the publishing side for years. Chiefly Mike Wilson, the guy who came up with the “Romero will make you his bitch” ad for Daikatana.
Minecraft didn’t really come out in 2009, of course – it slowly came into being over several years of public alphas and betas, followed by a meteoric explosion of popularity that abated into becoming one of the most popular video games of all time, owned by one of the largest tech companies of all time. I am not going to sum up that story. Not even going to try. But I’d just like to point out one thing; In my previous edition a couple months ago, I pointed out how one of the games that influenced minecraft was Dwarf Fortress – and here we are, with minecraft, a few years later! Games move incredibly fast. I hope by this point in the series this has been hammered down.
And in Japan, a huge, symbolic event occurred.
At the 2009 Tokyo Game Show, Keiji Imafune infamously said that “Japan is finished”, referring to the games on the show floor. This is generally treated as the discrete moment that Japanese games Got Bad. Or that Japan started losing. Or that the west really stopped caring about Japanese games.
Of course, this isn’t due to any discrete event at all – since the year 2000, Japanese games had been on a bit of a backslide compared to their dominance in console gaming in the 90’s. Studios had been closing, or risking closing. Sega almost went under. SNK did. Capcom was bleeding talented staff. Nintendo had sold one of the most popular consoles of all time, but increasingly the games weren’t selling. But more importantly, the culture had tilted towards the West, with games such as Call of Duty, Halo, Gears, World of Warcraft, et cetera dominating the world. It was a far cry from when Japan had been, in a sense, the center of the gaming world.
People treat these things as caused by distinct things, and this is why I started this series – there were real structural causes that caused the Japanese gaming industry to (kinda) enter a decline.
Japanese gaming had been based on console development for a while, but the consoles had changed during the shift to the seventh generation. While PC and Console AAA merged, online multiplayer started to reign supreme. Now, there’s no inherent reason why Japan didn’t jump on this earlier, but the truth is, they didn’t. My pet theory is that Japanese companies, especially in this time period, didn’t really have middleware in the dev pipeline. For those unaware, middleware is the tools that are used in the production of games. Think engines, art tools, that sort of thing. The thing with using middleware is that it helps cut down on costs – instead of having devs create tools, they can work directly on other parts of the game – the parts that actually sell. It lowers training costs for new employees. So with less adoption of middleware, Japanese games were generally more expensive to develop. The old AAA games that japanese companies used to make – the blockbusters like FF7, couldn’t cut it, and with higher costs comes a need for greater profit, and so we see the two directions Japanese games take in this era; either increasing the budget and making it a title meant to compete with those western AAA games that were taking over the gaming world, or developing for lower spec systems to bring costs down.
These are trends that had been active for a while, but it was this point where they really accelerated, and it seemed a given that Japanese games were moribund. The reasons are diverse – lower spec systems like handhelds didn’t sell as many games, or the older, more hardcore genres that were seen as specialities of Japan weren’t as appealing. Or perhaps that with a global financial crisis and recession depressing how much money people could spend, they bought less games. A key part of the blame was that Japanese games – especially the more hardcore genres, the tough as nails rpgs, fighting games, action games, et cetera, were just not as appealing to the west anymore. Japan, the narrative was, had fallen into a design rut.
Another way to look at this is as a reshuffling.
In 2009, Platinumgames, which had formed in 2006 out of several ex-Capcom employees, released its first 3 games; Madworld, Directed by Shigenori Nishikawa (later the lead designer of The Evil Within) and probably one of the coolest games to come out on the Wii; Bayonetta, directed by Hideki Kamiya and becoming a cult classic as a tough-as-nails old school action game, and Infinite Space, developed in collaboration with Nude Maker, and a less known cult rpg for the DS. Capcom, where much of Platinum cut their teeth, released Street Fighter IV for home consoles. The Fighting Game scene had been in a decline since the early 2000’s, with fighting game releases getting few and far between. The genre was essentially moribund, kept alive by a small core of the FGC. The release of SFIV, along with it’s adoption by the FGC, was a shot in the arm to the fighting game genre, leading to the resurgence, and some would argue, a renaissance of the genre in the years since. That same year, Fromsoft released Demon Souls exclusively for the PS3. Widely considered one of the hardest games ever made, a brutal, punishing, experience. This is a game where it gets harder the more you lose. If you want to talk about influential RPGs of the seventh gen, this is the one.
So was it a design rut? Or was it that those hardcore games were still games people wanted? Well, kinda both. All of these ended up being, in retrospect, highly influential, but at the time, they didn’t sell nearly as well. But these studios and games helped lay the groundwork for the return of Japanese gaming to the fore nearly 7 years later in the 8th gen. But that’s a different story.
There is one more huge, structural, change in video gaming this year. People don’t talk about it, but it might be the single biggest thing to happen to gaming in that whole decade.
On July 13, 2009, Illinois State governor Patrick Quinn signed the Video Gaming Act into law, which legalized putting “video gaming terminals” (a.k.a slot machines, video poker, etc) in truck stops, bars, and similar businesses. The state of Illinois had been faced with budget problems for years, and it was promised that legalizing gambling more widely would result in a flush of funds the state could use to fund it’s assorted troubles. That wasn’t really the case, as taxes on gambling were low, Chicago banned gambling already, and cheating taxes was common due to an incredibly small department tasked with enforcing all those gambling laws. But this was a huge event in gaming, because it marked the first shot in a long, continuing, process of casino-fying gambling. Before gaming even started looking at using all kinds of psychological tricks to get people hooked, casino designers had mastered it back in the 50’s, and took it to a refined art. With the spreading legalization of gambling since then, it’s led to a further entrenchment of gambling, and gambling – like practices in gaming. You can draw a straight line from gambling money to crypto money – many of the same institutional players go for both. Atari, for example, has been on the gambling thing for a while, and is now also all in on crypto.
And speaking of casino-fying gaming, it isn’t a coincidence that FIFA 09 came out this year. You know what it innovated in this iteration? Better weather, a different goalkeeper system, all that? Well, in 2009 it also was the first fifa game to introduce player packs. “Lootboxes” have become a key aspect of making money for AAA games, and while it doesn’t start with FIFA, it’s impossible to deny it didn’t have an impact.
Now, on the topic of gambling, I have to mention this. It was going to come up eventually, so might as well be now.
In 2010, Konami released Dragon Collection, which is now widely considered the first gacha game. All the elements had been there independently – the rise of social media, then mobile games, which used real money, maple story having gacha tickets, and the increasing penetration of mobile phones into the Japanese market. But Dragon Collection synthesized them into a whole, and helped create a new genre. It’s hard to find info about this game. As you can imagine, “Dragon Collection” is a very common collection of words, but it seems it’s still alive. But if you’ve heard about gacha in the past decade, it probably wasn’t this game. But still, the history of this genre – which has now embedded itself in both older franchises such as Fate and helped kickstart new ones like Granblue Fantasy. And it starts here
And finally, because talking about gambling is killing my soul, TF2 added lootboxes this year.
Looking at games that, at this point in history, didn’t nickel and dime you for everything, 2010 was uh. A Year. Halo Reach came out, marking the final entry in the Halo series developed by Bungie. The franchise passed on to Microsoft, and well, if you’ve paid attention at all in the past 11 years to the series, it’s been rocky! Bungie would go on to do stuff that, depressingly, falls outside the scope of this series, but Halo in the Seventh Gen is a fascinating beast, and I feel like now is the best time to talk about it. The late 6th generation and early 7th gen was, really, Halo’s time. Master chief was a gaming icon. But by the time Halo 3 rolled around, the tides were changing. While 3 would sell incredibly well and etched itself into history, it was outsold by Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. Just a few years later, Bungie would exit the Halo franchise altogether, and probably the most influential Call of Duty game would come out, with Black Ops arguably becoming the single definitive CoD. And it’s important to note for another reason – Black Ops is the subseries made by Treyarch, which, before then, had only worked in a support studio role and on World At War. A hallmark of the CoD series is the fact that it’s done on a revolving rotation of 3, massive, studios, each of which has a few years on a game before it ships, thus ensuring that there’s a release every year. This is a model that can only be propped up by incredible amounts of crunch, abusive labor, and a massive amount of smaller studios kept in support roles. I’m not here to enumerate the many, many, shitty things that the bosses at Activision-Blizzard have done. But I feel it’s important to note that part of why the game industry has ended up like this is the total imbalance between studios and publishers, such as, for example, the need for an annual entry in a game series being so great that separate studios are brought in.
And Acti-Blizz isn’t the only party guilty of abusive working environments. This same year saw Red Dead Redemption release, but what I want to talk about is the labour conditions surrounding that release. Crunch has been part of game development for a long time. But as far as I can tell, doing the research, RDR was the first game where the fact that employees had crunched on it was a news item (there had been controversies before, about EA, but this is both before the scope of the article and wasn’t focused on one game). The Rockstar Spouse controversy, as it was called at the time, was focused on a blog post from a spouse of a dev at Rockstar San Diego, detailing abuses by Rockstar management, including working weekends, 12 hour shifts, and benefit cuts.
It was not going to get better in the years that followed.
In the indie world, the indie boom really got going. Edmund McMillen released Super Meat Boy, an instant classic and probably my favorite platformer that isn’t a Fancy Pants game. Amnesia: The Dark Descent really popularized the formula that Frictional had first created for Penumbra a few years earlier, and became immediately a lasting influence on the horror game genre. Mount and Blade: Warband expanded on and further popularized Mount and Blade. Project Zomboid, which is weirdly in a renaissance right now? Came out this year. It’s pretty clear. The Indie Boom had legs, and it wasn’t stopping. Steam had essentially opened the floodgates and made it relatively easy to self-distribute games, and with that, things had started to shift. Smaller games were selling more, and there was a real sense that these small indies were going to change the industry. The large publishers and large developers were going to fall.
This was the popular narrative of the day, and you see it catch on with a lot of press about indies in this time. It’s an extension of the popular narrative that’s applied to all tech. Indies were “disrupting” tech, changing the entire sphere, and the old, rotten, publishing corporations were going to go the way of the dodo. Pay attention to that narrative.
One of the things powering this rise in indie games was the influx of new, experimental, tech along with these newer, experimental, games. 2010 saw Xbox and Playstation both get in on the motion control trend, with the xbox kinect and playstation wave respectively. While both would go on to power only a few games and ended up really mostly being notable in having the tech transferred over to voice recognition and vr tech respectively, a good amount of the money sloshing around the experimental tech sphere went to indies as well as these – as well as more avant garde stuff such as Gamification, which is a whole can of words I don’t want to touch right now. Both of these are pretty much remembered as failures – with only a few games actually made for each, and the money that was going to people developing these slowly going to VR instead. But the Kinect is unironically one of the best devices made in the last decade. No! Stop Laughing!
In the indie sphere, Terraria released, showing that the formula Minecraft had pioneered had legs. And, while on the topic of Minecraft, it moved out of beta and into a full release with update 1.0 – the adventure update, an event I remember very, very, well (I hated – and still kinda do hate – the changes to the terrain generation algorithm). Edmund McMillen released a little game he had been working on for a short period, flush with cash after the success of Super Meat Boy. That game, binding of ISaac, would ironically end up being probably the more popular and well-known of the two, for a lot of good reasons. Limbo released, and it still rules hard. Supergiant Games released their debut, Bastion, published by Warner Brothers Interactive. These are the classic, highlight, releases, but just as important was that the scene itself became defined as A Thing. Indie Games had caught on in the wider gaming public, and they weren’t going away. But remember what I said about that narrative about indies destroying the old corporations? That narrative was still going strong at this time, but let’s look at that. While Warner was just a publisher and didn’t put funding towards the game – keep in mind, at this point all games needed to be published by either microsoft or a third party. And this gets to the crux of the problem – for all the disruption that indies were promising to bring, the playing field and infrastructure for releasing an indie just wasn’t equal. This idea of the scrappy indie bringing bloated software giants, fat on old patents and royalties, was just that. An idea. Like much of the ideas about tech in the 2010’s, there was a utopian current of magical thinking, that problems would simply go away, that while there was a war with defined enemies – taxi monopolies and their associated unions, or video game publishers, you just needed to vibe hard enough and those enemies would be defeated. While taxi unions were crushed with the rise of rideshare apps, let’s be real – it’s because taxi unions could not be co-opted into rideshares. Indies could easily be co-opted by publishers.
Of course, it’s not like this started with Bastion. It has been wrapped into the scene from the start. But it’s an illustrative case.
In the non-Indie sphere, this year saw a lot of iconic releases for the big games – Skyrim, Arkham, Uncharted 3, Yakuza 4, Portal 2, Duke Nukem Forever, etc etc. Fromsoft dropped Dark Souls, popularizing the formula they had pioneered a few years back with Demon Souls. Also in the realm of “games about fighting cool fucked up dudes with swords” Infinity Blade released, proving just how powerful phone hardware had become and how interesting phone games can be. That game fucking rules. This year also saw one of the biggest acquisitions in the seventh gen, with Tencent acquiring a majority of interest in Riot Games. As the decade wound on, Tencent would proceed to make even more investments in western tech – chasing greater returns in areas that aren’t bound by the restrictive Chinese market. League was also one of the first successful “live service” games in the west, and Tencent became known for having very profitable expertise in this space. As the decade wound on, Tencent acquiring equity in companies became the most predictable story in gaming.
I’ve already talked way too much about Japanese games, but this year is illustrative. Looking at Japanese games in 2010, you have 2 classic standouts – Super Mario 3D Land, and Dark Souls. If you’re a FF fan, Type-0 and XIII-2 came out this year, but, being real – I never hear anyone talk about those, and I hang with some real FF heads. The rest? Well, there’s Yakuza: Dead Souls, Rhythm Heaven Fever, and Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate. All cult classics, but uh, not blowing up the world the way that DS did. (Now, 3 Ultimate is my first, and favorite, Monster Hunter game, but I’ve been a Monster Hunter player for a long time, and nobody besides my friends was playing that.)
One could take this as proof that the Japanese gaming scene was moribund, but I take it differently – it was living as hell, it was just held back by either being on platforms that weren’t big in the west (Handhelds, The Wii) or by appealing to the West. There was a market, a real desire, for the kind of tough as nails, old school, japanese design, something painstakingly polished and designed like Dark Souls was – where every part moved in harmony.
The success of DS proved this, but it took longer for these ideas to really take hold.
The last, full, year of the Seventh Generation. With a full 7 years developing for one set of consoles (and correspondingly, PC hardware), game devs had mastered squeezing every last bit of performance out of these things, and as a result, as compared to, like, Call of Duty: World At War, most of these games looked damn good! Halo 4 holds up from a visual standpoint! Mass Effect 3 looks pretty damn alright!
2012 brought us those, with Halo 4 being a divisive disappointment to many, while Mass Effect 3 was uh, also a divisive disappointment. Blizzard released Diablo III, a game that was uh, a disappointment primarily due to the presence of an auction house within the game where people could sell their rare loot for money – which, with the game balanced around that, meant that all loot had an incredibly small drop rate, resulting in a game that was deeply unsatisfying to play (psst. Remember how I was talking about how gambling was increasingly taking over gaming earlier in this article? Keep that “deeply unsatisfying to play” part in mind when people talk about NFT gaming). Valve released CS:GO, a game that was, well, maybe not disappointing, but early versions of that game weren;’t as well received due to a lack of new content for the classic gamemode and the notorious, though rare, bugged hitboxes.
I think you can see the throughline I’m hitting here. It’s not like newly released games were never divisive, but I’m cherry picking a bunch that came close together to illustrate something that I felt changed towards the end of the seventh gen: With social media changing from large forums and blogs to things like Facebook and Twitter, the tenor of fandom changed. These things became more common, and more noticed by the big press. It’s a trend that would continue into the next generations, and to now, as internet consumption shifted to the Racist Blue Websites. These widespread tussles over game releases were a kind of canary in the coal mine, looking back.
And it isn’t just in the AAA game sphere that this was a thing. Indie Game: The Movie, a movie which spends a shockingly large amount of time looking at Jonathan Blow’s habit of getting into internet arguments about his game and the internet abuse that Phil Fish got for taking so long to release Fez, came out this year.
Ok, let me talk about Indie Game: The Movie a bit more. Looking back, it’s a weird piece, not only because 2 of the people covered have turned out to be total assholes, but the general, breathless, tone that it takes towards the disruptive potential of indie games is something that has ended up setting the tone for all of tech. From Theranos to Cryptocurrency, everything is framed as a Sole Genius, who had dreamed of ____ since childhood. Since this narrative has been cynically been used to promote whatever the latest tech boondoggle is, it’s gained a cynical edge.
It hasn’t aged all that well.
This same year saw technology old money – I’m talking about Tencent again here – acquire a 40% stake in Epic Games, another technology old money company, after CEO Tim Sweeny realized that the old model of selling games wasn’t as profitable as this new model of live service games. This is what the tech world calls disruption – a bunch of existing, already wealthy companies finding ways to make more money.
But, being a pretty entertaining documentary, it did end up propelling indie games even further into mainstream consciousness – and this was perfectly timed, as Steam started it’s program of outsourcing storefront curation to the users of the platform with Steam Greenlight, which essentially finally started to bust down the barriers for Indies. Rather than having to rely on obscure approval systems, working with a publisher, or just throwing games onto the internet, indies could finally be sold on a storefront that people actually used. With the rise of PC gaming over the next 10 years, it turned out to be perfectly timed.
It seems fitting, in a way, that 2012 saw the end of the seventh generation as well, with the Wii U releasing towards the end of the year in November / Early December 2012. Building off of years of hype for the next Nintendo console after the Wii broke sales records and normalized motion controls, the Wii U came out to a…slow, to say the least, start with sales reaching about 1 million worldwide by the end of the year. Keep in mind, the Wii U sold 600K units in the first week. There are a lot of reasons why this happened, and I’m not going to litigate any of my own theories, but it seems that Nintendo wasn’t able to catch that lightning in a bottle again.
2013 was a year. It might be the first year I started getting more into video games, though my memory of my middle school and early high school years is pretty foggy. Given that I had a crappy laptop I mostly stuck with indies and lighter games. But I actually paid attention to the other games people were getting and playing, in the hopes that one day, eventually, I’d have enough saved for a console. (I eventually got a gamer rig that, years later, I typed this on).
This year, crucially, saw the reveal – and release – of the next gen consoles offered by Sony and Microsoft; the Xbox One and the Playstation 4. Infamously, the Xbox One came with a highly restrictive system where you, among other things, couldn’t play used games or lend games to other people. (After a whole generation locking in digital storefronts and DRM, and in a cultural moment where the hottest avenue for investment is DRM for web pages, it seems quaint, huh? When’s the last time you lent a disc of a current gen game to a friend?).
As we all very well know, the Xbox One was smoked by the Playstation 4. Due to the early, restrictive version demoed at the reveal, it fought against terrible publicity from the start, despite being a good machine, despite having, being real, the Playstation having a much more miserable launch (but looking back? The launch slate for both consoles was terrible).
This was what dominated games at the time, mostly because every AAA game had already begun to shift towards development for the 8th generation – though seventh gen releases would come out for years afterwards, such as with Destiny, for example. But those were for the new consoles first, and the seventh gen releases were afterthoughts – ports to get more sales. But of course, I’m gonna have to mention the big games anyway.
GTA V came out to massive sales and critical acclaim. And why wouldn’t it? The Rockstar method of creating pastiche video games of iconic crime movies (In this case, among many other things, Heat, which is frankly a step back from the more avant garde choice of Brothers for 4, but whatever) brought a slew of success. As we all know, GTA V is synonymous with GTA now, and for good reason.
This same year saw Naughty Dog release The Last of Us, building on what it had been doing the rest of the seventh gen by also increasingly lifting from movie scripts. TLOU is weird, because while it is a culturally huge game, widely considered one of the best for the PS3, it kinda didn’t have an impact on gaming. Despite its success, there wasn’t even a wave of imitators also making serious, linear, story games that mediated on wider themes. But it sold a lot of copies!
In the Indie Sphere, the indie boom continued at full speed, with the barriers to releasing a game torn down by Steam Greenlight. Don’t Starve. Kentucky Route Zero. Outlast. Risk of Rain. Papers Please. The list goes on. But I’m going to highlight two games in particular;
Rogue Legacy isn’t the first game inspired by Rogue. That game has been inspiring people since it came out. It isn’t even all that new in it’s own take – 2D platformers borrowing permadeath and progression elements from Rogue had been around for a while, with Spelunky, for example. And Risk of Rain came out that same year. But it marketed itself as a “rogue-lite”, and that’s a term that caught on as a descriptor for this newer wave of games that were inspired by Rogue, but less hard core. Now, as a genre it’s unseated basically every other indie genre.
Gone Home is a game that was very weird when it came out, but rapidly became the standard for a relatively new genre: the “Walking Simulator”. Games about exploring some environment had been around since forever, especially puzzle games. But the more narrative focus with this game was fresh, interesting, and new, and spawned one of the larger movements in Indie gaming over the next generation. Walking Sims are less of a thing now – people are making different games, and weird gallery type games seem to just not be in the zeitgeist right now. But, maybe we wouldn’t have rad stuff like the Kid A MNESIA Exhibition without it.
Culturally, the rise of the Indies was interesting to see. Not being a gamer as a kid, it felt interesting to see my peers go from playing Halo, platformers, etc etc to games that I could play, such as flash games, or Minecraft Classic in browser, only to then leapfrog me with stuff on XBLA. From 2010 to 2013, Indies went from a minor, albeit rising, force to something pushing the shape of culture in it’s own right. Culture in general had entered a seismic shift after the recession in 2007 ushered us all into a long decade that was capped off with a (at the time of writing, 02/2022) pandemic that still has not ended.
And nothing represents that shift in culture more than gaming itself. Video games were already huge by the time 2005 rolled in. But by the time we rolled out of the seventh gen, they had become one of the largest forces of entertainment in the world, possibly matched only by the Internet itself.
So is it a coincidence that both were marked by big corporations, under the guise of innovation and disruption, and ended up concentrating more of both industries into near monopolies, a process that has not ended since?
Maybe. But that’s beyond the scope of this series, which was to point out how much the seventh gen sucked. But as I wrote it, I realized, 12,357 words later, that you know what? It wasn’t that bad. The indies were good at least, and we wouldn’t have the cool shit we have now without them.
And it might have been the years of gears as well. And you know what? Gears rules! Theres a bunch of tiny things about those games that feel great. The way your last few bullets do more damage. Stuff like that.
So In the end, I proved myself wrong. I also spent half a year writing about video games instead of playing them.