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.
Xbox 360 Hits Shelves, Does Not Stay There
In November of 2005, the biggest news in gaming was the sell-out North American launch of the Xbox 360. Even if first-party titles like Perfect Dark Zero and Kameo were slightly disappointing, it's hard to argue with a launch-day lineup featuring cult hits like Amped 3, Condemned: Criminal Origins, and the Xbox Live Arcade standout Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved.
The launch was just the first of many successes for the Xbox 360. The system's focus on online integration with Xbox Live set the standard for the generation, leaving Nintendo and Sony playing catch-up years into the generation. System-wide achievements and Gamerscore likewise took on a life of their own and inspired copy-cat systems throughout the industry. Xbox Live Arcade was the first widely accepted form of digital distribution in the console space. And beyond that, the Xbox 360 would eventually give Microsoft's console gaming business its first taste of profitability.
But all those stories would have to wait. In November of 2005, the big news surrounding the system was about what a hard time Microsoft was having coordinating major North American, European, and Japanese launches to happen within a matter of weeks. That manifested itself primarily in concerns about shortages. Shortages in North America. Shortages in Europe. Shortages in… well, OK, Japan looked like it would be getting all the Xbox 360s it could ever want.
Those launch window shortages were exacerbated by faulty hardware. Less than a week into the system's life, users will already reporting creative ways to solve problems with overheating, including suspending it in the air with string while it was running. A representative addressed the reports at the time, saying, "Because Xbox 360 has three powerful processing cores, customers may notice that it runs a bit warmer than other game consoles, but this heat output is well within the acceptable and safe range for a CE device of this type and has passed all applicable safety certifications."
The rep added, "There is no systemic issue with Xbox 360. Each incident is unique and these customer enquiries are being handled on a case-by-case basis."
Two years later, Microsoft would be whistling a very different tune.
Mark Rein Provides a Wii-ality Check
As much as we can look back on the Xbox 360 launch and say there were warning signs of the debacle that would be known as the Red Ring of Death, we couldn't really have predicted that happening with any sort of certainty. Then again, sometimes you can see the train coming from miles away, as Epic Games' VP and co-founder Mark Rein did with the Nintendo Wii (still known at that time as the Revolution). It seems Rein had kicked a hornet's nest when he told IGN that the Revolution controller would inspire developers to produce "gimmicky, crappy, cheap, I-wish-I-hadn't-bought-it games."
As Rein clarified to GI.biz, "I actually said Nintendo's going to make amazing games. I never really passed a judgement on the controller itself. I think the controller's cool... I wasn't bashing Nintendo, I wasn't bashing the controller, I was really just saying that a by-product of having a device like this is that people are going to make games that possibly are just there because of the controller, as opposed to being great games of themselves, and I said it badly... I regret that."
A full year before the Wii was ever launched, Rein was already accurately predicting the dichotomy between the amazing first-party offerings and the flood of third-party shovelware. It's safe to say history has vindicated him.
Creative License For Sale
Sometimes it's difficult to look at the events of 10 years ago and make them relevant to today's industry. That's one reason why these retrospective columns haven't really focused on the slow-motion car crashes of Gizmondo or Infinium Labs' Phantom streaming game console. They're just as grimly fascinating a decade down the road, but there's not really much else to learn from.
Other times, it's entirely too easy to pull a lesson from old stories, even when you know that lesson is a gross oversimplification. For example, "Choose your licenses carefully."
In November of 2005, there was a bumper crop of licensing deals announced. Activision extended its rights to make games based on Spider-Man and the X-Men comics all the way to 2017. A couple weeks later, it struck a separate deal covering adaptations of the Spider-Man movies and TV shows that lasted until 2018. And in between those two deals, it signed a "long-term" deal with DreamWorks Animation that would give it the exclusive rights for DreamWorks animated movies like Shrek 3 and future blockbusters like Kung Fu Panda, How to Train Your Dragon, and Madagascar 2.
Meanwhile, EA landed the rights to make games based on another animated money factory, The Simpsons. While the deal was initially for a next-gen console game (which eventually saw release in 2007), it launched the partnership that would eventually produce The Simpsons: Tapped Out, one of EA's most successful mobile games ever. Clearly, EA and Activision's decisions on these licenses helped pave the way to future success for both publishers.
On an unrelated note, November 2005 also saw THQ acquire the rights to make games based on Conan the Barbarian and Monster House. (Although to be fair, that Conan game wasn't bad and the Monster House movie brought in $140 million at the box office worldwide.)
• With all the talk these days about eSports being ready to explode and everybody putting together grand plans for eSports on television, it's worth pointing out that we've been down this road before, and maybe eSports can realize its potential in the industry without a hockey stick growth curve.
• 2005 marked the height of E3 insanity. Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo all showed off their next-gen systems, the show had a record 70,000 attendees, and hype for the annual summer show had become a year-round affair. For example, in November of 2005, Nintendo announced the date, time, and location of its E3 2006 media briefing, promising to "reveal all the incredible details about Nintendo's upcoming games and hardware, including our next home console." Can you imagine if Nintendo fans were already whipped into a frenzy of anticipation for the company's E3 2016 media briefing? Wait, never mind.
• Activision has grown a lot in the last decade. Back in 2005, its September quarter ended with revenues of $222.5 million. This year, Activision Blizzard posted revenues of $1.04 billion in the same quarter, and shelled out $5.9 billion to acquire Candy Crush maker King while they were at it. The merger with Vivendi and Blizzard helped, but so did having franchises like Guitar Hero and Call of Duty, which at the time was just about to hit its stride with Call of Duty 2 becoming the breakout hit of the Xbox 360 launch.