2008’s Game Over is just around the corner and that means it’s time to look back at the top gaming stories of the past twelve months.
With so much happening in 2008, it wasn’t easy to trim the list down to just 15 stories. But we managed, so, without further ado:
15. No Taxation Without Representation: Several states looked into levying "sin taxes" against the purchase of video games and consoles in 2008. Such measures were proposed by legislators in Wisconsin and New Mexico, but ultimately failed to pass. In New York, Gov. David Paterson’s 2009 budget proposal would add a sales tax to digitally-delivered content, including DLC. On the other side of the coin, an increasing number of states are offering tax breaks as an incentive to lure game developers to set up shop.
14. War. Huh. What is Good For? As the US Army made increasing use of its popular America’s Army recruiting game, anti-war protesters marched at a number of Army-sponsored gaming event around the country. Protesters also gathered outside Ubisoft’s San Francisco offices to protest the console version released by Ubi a couple of years back. In addition, the American Civil Liberties Union charged that the Defense Department’s use of the game violates United Nations protocols which bar the recruitment of children into military service.
13. Defectors! The Entertainment Software Association began the year with 28 member companies. Following a number of defection by companies both large (Activision, LucasArts) and small (Crave, NCsoft), it will finish the year with, at most, 21. The economy certainly had something to do with it, but some reports indicated dissatisfaction with new ESA boss Mike Gallagher.
12. Spore Triumph Turns to Controversy: It was supposed to be legendary game designer Will Wright’s crowning achievement, but Spore will be remembered more for install limits and loading unwanted Securom DRM on player’s computers than for its game play. Yes, EA eventually backed off on some of the security measures but not before several class-action suits were filed by consumers. The game’s DRM issues fueled a debate about piracy that is still raging.
11. ESRB and Retailers Earn High Marks: The Federal Trade Commission released the results of its annual secret shopper study and the video game industry did itself proud. According to the FTC, retailers properly enforced M ratings 80% of the time, with GameStop earning an eye-popping 94% grade. Clearly, the ESRB is getting the word out to parents and retailers are doing a better job of training their clerks to enforce game ratings. The ESRB also expanded its parental outreach program with a very cool ratings widget and continued wooing political figures with the lure of free advertising via ESRB-funded public service announcements.
10. Rise of the Game Consumer Movement: The Entertainment Consumers Association (ECA) continued to expand its representation of issues important to gamers by addressing DRM, Net Neutrality and Universal Broadband, among other concerns. Gamers showed themselves to be a very powerful grassroots force, using the power of the Net to mobilize against Spore’s DRM and respond to author Cooper Lawrence, who blithely – and incorrectly – trashed Mass Effect on Fox News.
9. In the Eye of the Beholder: Rensselaer Polytechnical Institute in upstate New York invited Iraqi-born artist Wafaa Bilal to present his controversial Virtual Jihadi game exhibit and then booted him from campus when the school’s Republican Club protested. Forced to use a private art gallery in neighboring Troy, Bilal again found himself shut down when Republican city officials drummed up a long-ignored building code violation. Bilal eventually returned to Chicago where he teaches art. The ACLU sued city officials in federal court.
8. If You Can Make Video Game Law There, You Can Make it Anywhere: Led by Republican State Sen. Andrew Lanza, New York passed a video game bill in 2008 and Gov. David Paterson (D) signed it into law. However, the law, which takes effect in 2010 is essentially a showpiece and lacks teeth. Game sales will not be restricted in any way. How can you be sure? Easy: the video game industry did not file its usual constitutional challenge. See the Rest of the List After the Jump…
7. EA Fails to Acquire Take-Two: For the better part of the year, Electronic Arts chased Grand Theft Auto publisher Take-Two Interactive. EA’s bid eventually turned hostile when T2’s Strauss Zelnick spurned EA CEO John Riccitiello’s offer. The pursuit, which received approval from federal regulators, was followed closely by the gaming community for nearly seven months. In the end, EA backed off. In retrospect, T2 shareholders might wish they had taken EA’s $25.74 offer. As of now TTWO shares are trading at less than $9.
6. Recession-Proof? With the global economy tanking, there was a good bit of talk that the video game industry was "recession-proof." It’s not looking that way, however. Share prices are down industry-wide. Fueled by high demand for the Wii and DS, only Nintendo seems to be dodging the economic bullet. EA, for example, is scaling back operations. Midway might not exist a month from now. NCsoft is dropping its Tabula Rasa MMO. UK developer Free Radical has ceased operations. And on and on…
5. The Pipe Fitter’s Show in the Basement: There is universal agreement that the video game industry’s big dance, the E3 show in Los Angeles, was amazingly bad this year. Veteran attendees (yours truly included) were stunned by the degree to which the one-time spectacle was humbled. Ubisoft North America CEO Laurent Detoc came up with the most memorable line of all, describing E3 2008 as resembling "the pipe fitter’s show in the basement." The ESA, which runs the show, has promised to make it bigger and better next year. Even so, E3 2009 attendance will not be as large as that of PAX 2008. It remains to be seen whether or not the glory days of E3 are a thing of the past.
4. Battleground UK: In March Dr. Tanya Byron released her government-commissioned report on the effects of video games and the Internet on children. Game issues have been a source of national discussion ever since. Parliament debated the issue at length but has yet to reach a conclusion. Meanwhile, industry-favored content rating body PEGI is in a hotly contested battle with the British Board of Film Classification over which organization will take over the UK’s game ratings.
3. America’s Game-Crazy Presidential Election: The 2008 U.S. presidential campaign was met with an unprecedented wave of game interest as dozens of Flash games appeared online. These included official offerings such as John McCain’s Pork Invaders Facebook app as well as unofficial games spoofing the candidates and issues. Republican VP nominee Sarah Palin was a favorite target of Flash designers. Even commercigame developers got into the spirit. McCain and Barack Obama showed up in a trailer for THQ’s Saints Row 2, while Palin and Obama were offered as DLC for EA’s Mercernaries 2. Supporters of Republican Ron Paul held a rally in World of Warcraft, while Republican candidate Mike Huckabee kicked back with Rock Band. Speaking of support, when it came to political contributions, game industry types went for Obama in a big way. But the biggest campaign news was surely the Obama campaign’s purchase of in-game ads on Xbox Live.
2. Jack Thompson Disbarred: After several years of struggling with the Florida Bar, the high-profile anti-game violence crusader was permanently disbarred by the Florida Supreme Court in October. Earlier in 2008, GamePolitics published exclusive transcripts detailing testimony at Thompson’s December, 2007 Bar trial on ethics charges. After Thompson’s license was stripped, former ESA boss Doug Lowenstein slammed the gaming press for covering Thompson.
1. Grand Theft Auto IV: The April 29th launch of Grand Theft Auto IV dominated the game scene for several weeks before and after its release. The game would go on to revered by fans, reviled by politicians, banned from buses, watered-down in Australia and even mashed-up with Barack Obama. Both politically and culturally, GTA IV was the biggest gaming event of 2008.
FULL DISCLOSURE DEPT: The Entertainment Consumers Association (ECA) is the parent company of GamePolitics.