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Look Back to Look Forward

After the stunning growth of the 2000s, the next decade looks set to be altogether more exciting

Despite the best efforts of killjoys who attempt to impose a more accurate definition of a decade upon the rest of us, there's something rather exciting about the point when the digit switches over from one decade to the next. As meaningless as it may be in real terms, the changing of the decade brings with it an opportunity to take stock, to ponder the past and present, and speculate upon the future.

And, of course, to make a lot of rather arbitrary lists.

The turn of the decade comes at a particularly exciting time for the videogames business. The advent and hastening adoption of speedy broadband technology has opened new doors for the sector. Ambitious online ventures are springing up left, right and centre, with money being poured into promising new business models and suggestions that this is the twilight of the physical, boxed product.

A new console has stunned the market by reaching a vastly wider audience than any previous platform, leaving the two warring giants of the platform holder business bickering over scraps in its wake. After a decade of solid growth, the industry feels on the verge of a breakthrough, only a few steps away from standing alongside film, television and music on the world stage and demanding recognition as a fully-fledged entertainment medium for the 21st century - if only the occasional tantrums of the traditional press and right-wing pressure groups over violent content in a medium whose adult audience they still don't quite comprehend would just go away.

I'm talking, of course, about December 1999. The heady days just before the turn of the millennium were strangely similar to those the industry is experiencing today. The games business had caught dot-com bubble fever - online gaming and digital distribution, while not quite a reality yet, were certainly a key part of the future that just about every self-styled Mystic Meg in the business was seeing in their crystal ball.

The PlayStation had created new markets all around the world, finally calling time on an era when there was some uncomfortable truth to the idea that games were mostly a pursuit for adolescent boys (although, ten years later, this news still hasn't quite reached some parents, journalists and legislators). Giant franchises such as Final Fantasy, Tekken and Resident Evil - the Grand Theft Auto of the '90s, at least from the perspective of the Ban This Sick Filth crowd - looked set to challenge the global cultural dominance of Hollywood.

If today's hopes and concerns seem very similar to those of a decade ago, however, it's not because the industry has failed to move forward in the past ten years. The stories might be the same, but the stakes are bigger. If the PlayStation and PS2 brought gaming to an adult audience, the DS and the Wii have stood on those broad shoulders and opened the market to, well, just about everyone else. If online gaming was a thrilling prospect back then, today it's a multi-billion dollar market where subscription games like World of Warcraft boast player-bases larger than small countries - and freemium titles like Farmville outnumber even some pretty large countries (like, say, the UK).

So the numbers are bigger, representing unprecedented growth in the past decade - growth whose surface is barely even scratched by firms like NPD and GfK, whose assessments of retail sales are increasingly unrepresentative of the true scale of a business which now absorbs vast revenue from a wide spectrum of online and offline transactions. The very fact that the tills continue to ring so loudly at game retailers is a striking endorsement of the industry's growth - retailers' share of the pie is unquestionably shrinking, but the pie itself is growing so incredibly fast that it almost doesn't matter, at least not yet.

Yet in other regards, the past ten years have been a little disappointing - if only because it's slightly deflating to sit here, ten years older, a little thinner at the temples (and recently the unwilling target of regular white hair hunting expeditions by my partner) and find myself saying that we're on the cusp of things which we all thought we were on the cusp of a decade ago (when white hairs were something that only happened to very, very old people).

Such is reality, however, and the games industry cannot bear the brunt of the blame. I read a commentary recently which suggested that decades never truly end on December 31st of their final year - rather, that they come to a close with resounding events which draw the curtain on the culture which has defined the decade. So, the hedonistic culture of the seventies only truly ended when the world woke up to the awful reality of HIV in 1983, while the greed-is-good eighties closed up shop early, with the fall of the Berlin Wall in late 1989. The culture of the nineties, the author argued, ended with stark finality on September 11, 2001.

It's sobering to read back on enthusiastic editorials from December 1999 and to consider that for the games and wider technology and media industries, the end of the optimistic, bombastic 1990s was only mere weeks away. On March 10, 2000, the technology-heavy NASDAQ index peaked at 5132 - the Matterhorn-like point of its curve looking, today, like the needle that pricked the dot-com bubble. Within a year, the market was trading below 2500. By late 2002, kicked while it was down by the economic gloom created by the 9/11 attacks, it bottomed out at less than 20 per cent of its peak value.

With it went much of the optimism which had fuelled the games industry's predictions for the decade. As the market fell, many of the ambitious companies on which hopes for a digital revolution had been pinned were shown to be wearing little but the Emperor's New Clothes - they burned through their venture capital and went bust, many of them without ever managing to post an operating profit. High Street retail, print media and old-fashioned publishing business breathed more easily - perhaps a little too easily in fact, since their subsequent ignoring of digital media for almost half a decade would frustrate consumers to the extent of driving a thriving and widespread culture of digital piracy.

This is not, of course, a happy thought with which to close the decade - but if the comparisons with 1999 are fascinating, so too are the contrasts. While some commentators today are concerned about the potentially faddish nature of Nintendo's Wii, and the difficulty of getting our newfound audience of downstream consumers interested enough to engage more deeply with the market, there is nothing to suggest that we are sitting on top of a new bubble. In fact, if anything, the industry emerges stronger and wiser than ever before, having weathered macro-economic crises and learned what it takes to sustain real growth even as the world's established industries fall around you.

Our hair may be greyer, but our optimism is more grounded - and it's backed up by a decade of technological R&D which has delivered new tools to the arsenal, new control methods and graphics technologies, fantastically powerful mobile devices and quick, always-on wireless broadband connections, and the social tools and educated consumer base required to make them all work for us. If the 2000s were "only" a decade of growth and development, where the cusps we believed ourselves to be upon in 1999 were not entirely realised, then the 2010s promise altogether so much more.

At the start of this decade, our three steps forward were compromised by the technological world taking two steps back. As 2010 dawns, the growth, the revenue, the audience and the technology itself is real, requiring no optimistic projections or hopeful futurism to justify its worth. Revenue and market growth will continue, keeping executives and CFOs happy - but for game consumers and creators alike, the next decade looks set to be a much more exciting one than the one which came before.

On which note, I hope all of our readers have an enjoyable, comfortable, over-indulgent and peaceful Christmas and New Year - and return in 2010 ready to surprise and delight us all over again with your creations.

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Rob Fahey

Contributing Editor

Rob Fahey is a former editor of GamesIndustry.biz who spent several years living in Japan and probably still has a mint condition Dreamcast Samba de Amigo set.

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