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10 Years Ago This Month - January 2006

A decade ago, the hottest trends were handheld game systems, acquiring doomed developers, and protecting our kids from the moral scourge of 25 to Life and/or virtual graffiti

The games industry moves pretty fast, and there's a tendency for all involved to look constantly to what's next without so much worrying about what came before. That said, even an industry so entrenched in the now can learn from its past. So to refresh our collective memory and perhaps offer some perspective on our field's history, GamesIndustry.biz will run a monthly feature highlighting happenings in gaming from exactly a decade ago.

Handheld heyday

In case you missed our year-end coverage, handhelds died in 2015. (In lieu of flowers, please send spare AA batteries.) A decade ago, the situation was very different indeed. Console hardware and software sales were sliding as the industry headed into a generational change-over, but the handheld market was so strong it pushed the US retail game market to record results. Portable software sales were up 42 percent year-over-year on the strength of the DS, PSP, and even the Game Boy Advance.

While early indications on the PSP were encouraging, much of that boost was due to Nintendo's competing product, so much so this site dubbed 2005 "the year of the DS". The DS was in short supply at many Japanese retailers in January (some 14 months after its launch), prompting Nintendo to offer an official apology. Those shortages led to reports that Nintendo was emptying retail channels in anticipation of launching a redesign of the DS, a notion Nintendo of Europe brushed aside as "pure rumor and speculation." All of 10 days later, Nintendo unveiled the DS Lite.

The DS and the PSP had done so well in fact that Microsoft was exploring the idea of launching its own gaming handheld. At the time, then-head of Xbox Peter Moore said if Microsoft did pursue such a project, it would need a differentiating factor to succeed.

"It can't just be our version of the iPod," Moore said.

Microsoft's version of the iPod, the Zune, launched in November of 2006.

Acquiring Minds

What's the 10-year survival rate of acquired studios? If January of 2006 is anything to go by (and it really shouldn't be), it's about 33 percent. A decade ago, Sony acquired SOCOM developer Zipper Interactive, and Take-Two Interactive acquired Irrational Games, which was at the time hard at work on a new IP called BioShock. Zipper was closed six years later, and Irrational was functionally shut down in 2014 (although founder Ken Levine has kept the name for his new team at the publisher).

Not all acquired studios met with such unhappy endings, as Vivendi Universal also acquired High Moon Studios, which to that point had only really been known for the supernatural Old West first-person shooter Darkwatch. After Vivendi and Activision merged their gaming businesses, High Moon hit its stride with the Transformers Cybertron series, and more recently has been hard at work assisting Bungie on Activision Blizzard's hit Destiny.

Moral Panic

January 2006 also saw a bumper crop of anti-game hysteria. Even though California's recently passed law banning violent game sales to children was blocked from taking effect with the New Year, legislators across the US saw an opportunity to jump on a rare issue with support in blue states and red states alike.

In Maryland, one state senator wanted to ban the sale of AO-rated games to minors with a $5,000 fine and up to a year in jail, while another proposed his own law based on the California law with a soft-on-crime $1,000 fine for the business owner. A pair of state senators in Indiana also announced their own legislation to keep violent games out of kids' hands, while a Florida bill again modeled after California's passed through a Senate Committee hearing.

Even as other legislators looked to California's law for a template, Utah Representative David L. Hogue scored points for originality by proposing an amendment to the state's existing obscenity laws that would have made "inappropriately violent" games fulfill the criteria for what is obscene. Grouping Mortal Kombat in with hardcore pornography might not have had a chance of withstanding legal challenge, but at least it was a novel approach to the problem. It was also equally successful, as none of these proposed laws ever came into force.

While much of this legislative flurry could be attributed to the success of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas and the scandal of the Hot Coffee sex minigame from the previous year, other games were also being targeted by concerned parents and politicians. The US National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund took aim at the Eidos-published cops-and-robbers game 25 to Life because players "role-play shooting gang members and police officers and using civilians as human shields." The group called on retailers not to stock the game, which had been released just days earlier. It's tough to say if the petition was successful, as the game was low profile enough (and critically trounced enough) that retailers probably wouldn't have had much interest in carrying it anyway.

Games weren't just being blamed for felonies; they were also targeted for misdemeanor vandalism. Atari took heat for Marc Ecko's: Getting Up: Contents Under Pressure from the Anti-Graffiti Association in the UK and from a handful of politicians in Florida. Both groups argued that the game, in which players fight back against a corrupt local government, would encourage kids to vandalize their neighborhoods. Meanwhile, New York City officials were levelling complaints about video game graffiti against Sony, which had actually been spraypainting buildings in multiple cities across the US with guerilla marketing ads for the PSP.

Notable Quotables

"The amount of money people are willing to spend on video games is getting less every year" - Nintendo president Satoru Iwata, giving insight into why the Wii would be priced lower than the competition, and perhaps also why Nintendo would hold out on free-to-play business models for so long.

"It's almost impossible today for a brand new company to come into this business and get up to speed. The largest videogame company in the world took a look at this business, put their foot in this business, and concluded that they couldn't do it on their own and had to pay a lot of money to get into it." - Glu Mobile CEO Greg Ballard after the EA acquisition of Jamdat, blissfully unaware of the mobile market turmoil to come.

"We encourage community building among our players with others of similar interests, and we understand that guilds are one of the primary ways to forge these communities. However, topics related to sensitive real-world subjects - such as religious, sexual, or political preference, for example - have had a tendency to result in communication between players that often breaks down into harassment." - Blizzard's official explanation for disallowing LGBT-friendly guilds in World of Warcraft. In a matter of weeks, the company would apologize and change its stance.

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Brendan Sinclair avatar

Brendan Sinclair

Managing Editor

Brendan joined GamesIndustry.biz in 2012. Based in Toronto, Ontario, he was previously senior news editor at GameSpot in the US.