Dec. 30, 2010— -- It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. I'm talking, of course, about the video game industry in 2010.
One of the most thrilling and chaotic years in decades, technical and creative innovations abounded, even as shifting trends and tides signaled game over for many development studios and software titles.
"We've never seen so much change in such a short period," Electronic Arts and Digital Chocolate founder Trip Hawkins said earlier this year.
But even he couldn't have predicted just how profoundly countless new developments -- from social to cloud gaming and free online titles to mobile apps -- would reshape the business.
Noteworthy trends included a resurgence of retro revivals ("NBA Jam," "GoldenEye 007," etc.) and a rise in online multiplayer support (see: "Call of Duty: Black Ops," which sold 5.6 million copies in a single day).
The launch of new motion control systems, such as Sony's PlayStation Move and Microsoft Kinect, also let players really get in the game. Digital downloads soared in popularity, along with social games, such as FarmVille and Nightclub City.
Even such humble institutions as handheld gaming got an extreme makeover, with players increasingly turning to the iPhone, iPad and mobile devices for portable on-demand entertainment. Witness smash hit successes such as "Angry Birds," downloaded almost 50 million times, and currently being shopped around Hollywood as a film and TV show.
Thankfully, there was no shortage of amazing titles such as "Heavy Rain," "StarCraft II" and "Red Dead Redemption" to keep players busy either.
The following are among the year's biggest happenings (for better or worse) and how, in 2011, they all promise to take gaming to the next level.
Motion Controls – Despite critics' skepticism, the wand-like PlayStation Move and hands-free Kinect each went on to sell millions of units, and ignite the public's imagination. Proving that the Wii's gesture-tracking features weren't a fad, and that demand for active gaming remains high, even more new ways to play will appear in coming months.
Downloadable Content (DLC) – Downloadable games like Limbo and DeathSpank and services such as Steam, Impulse and GOG.com clearly offered some of gaming's top values. Value-priced add-ons (e.g. new missions, maps and levels) for titles like Battlefield: Bad Company 2 and Infinity Blade also helped shoppers stretch every dollar further. As a result, millions more are suddenly browsing and buying without leaving the couch, and many titles never need to collect dust on the shelf.
Hardcore Gaming Strikes Back – While social and mobile games scored more headlines, traditional (a.k.a. "hardcore") video games such as sci-fi role-player Mass Effect 2 and gory Greek tragedy God of War III were among the year's best. With developers increasingly returning to themes like horror, sci-fi and fantasy (titles for 2011 already include Bulletstorm and Deus Ex: Human Revolution) gaming's core audience remains a force to be reckoned with.
Social Games – Whether running a restaurant or managing a Mafia family, millions of people spent hours on Facebook when they should have been working instead. Offering free play, family-friendly themes and bite-sized time commitments, titles for social networks have quickly become gaming's hottest sensation, propelling companies like Zynga and Playdom to unprecedented success.
Cloud Gaming – Amidst endless debate regarding whether streaming on-demand games were the future, or even technically possible, a funny thing happened. Companies like OnLive and Gaikai quietly began debuting these services, which not only work, but promise to let you run high-end games on virtually any device without expensive hardware.
Top Misses of 2010
Studio Closures Continue – Countless jobs were lost and studios closed as game developers struggled to adapt to changing business models and increasing user fragmentation across platforms and devices. From Bizarre Creations (Blur) to Realtime Worlds (APB) and Cing (Little King's Story), casualties were many, and the gaming world is poorer without them.
Too Many Sequels – Notice something familiar about today's bestselling games? Most look suspiciously similar to 2009's, apart from a new number or subtitle. Risk-averse publishers face rising development costs and market competition, so they stick with cookie-cutter sequels and trusted brands instead of original, innovative titles.
Profits Come First – Massive audience aside, social games are designed to keep enthusiasts actively engaged and clicking, not dazzle them with artistic merits or stimulating play. Happily, with Facebook now clamping down on the spammy messages once used to attract new fans, developers are increasingly having turning to old-fashioned methods to prompt user sharing -- e.g. quality gameplay.
Extra Charges – DLC's obvious benefits aside, some developers are using it as an excuse to leave in-game content off the disc and charge extra for it later. Regardless of whether you feel titles like Marvel vs. Capcom 3 are right to bill players for additional characters and options, get ready. Being nickeled and dimed may be the new normal.
Risky Business – In a world where shoppers increasingly prefer cheap impulse buys or titanic blockbusters, there's little margin for developers to make mistakes. That means either smaller, less ambitious games or giant gambles. Sadly, it puts even the biggest franchises just one or two hits away from possible extinction.
Scott Steinberg (@GadgetExpert on Twitter) is the head of the technology and video game consulting firm TechSavvy Global, and creator and host of the online video series Game Theory. He frequently appears as a high-tech analyst for ABC, CBS, NBC, FOX and CNN.