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The Big News Countdown: 10-1

The ten most important news stories of the year

Continuing on from the first part of The Big News Countdown, here we complete the list with the top ten most important stories of the year.

Number 10: The Byron Report

Although this still has the potential to shake up the industry, in the UK at least, there were a lot of jangling nerves in the build-up to the release of Dr Tanya Byron's government report into the safety of children, both online and with regards to videogames.

In the end the results were largely welcomed, initially at least, although the recommendation to give the BBFC more responsibility at the expense of industry voluntary body Pegi ruffled more than a few feathers, and kicked off a very public feud between the two.

The publishers themselves were also wary, concerned that more BBFC involvement would lead to games being more expensive in the UK, as well as releases being delayed when compared to other territories.

That particular recommendation has now been through a period of public consultation, and a final decision is expected early in 2009.

Number 9: LittleBigProblems

From the first time we saw LittleBigPlanet used as an alternative for PowerPoint at GDC Paris in June, the potential for Media Molecule's user-generated heaven was obvious - and it was the exact kind of thing that the PlayStation 3 needed to differentiate it from the other consoles.

As expected, the hype machine rolled into action, and it became Sony's highest priority - but disaster struck when one of the backing music tracks apparently contained blasphemous references, and Sony did the right thing in recalling the game just before it was due to be released.

As a result, the official release was delayed, and it then strayed into the same territory as other key releases - something of a double whammy, and very unfair on an otherwise excitingly original prospect.

Number 8: GTA IV

Last year's Halo 3 release was a huge deal as far as videogame releases go, but not even that could stop Grand Theft Auto IV from becoming a record-breaking title.

The biggest surprise probably wasn't that it made USD 500 million in the first week on sale, but that certain sections of the mainstream press didn't go overboard on references to joyriding and prostitute-killing.

Always destined to be a landmark title, it was refreshing to see the game largely taken on its merits.

Number 7: The Rebirth of Atari

Atari started 2008 as a washed up, debt-ridden problem that few honestly thought would see out the remainder of the year, either as Infogrames or anything else.

But when former EA exec David Gardner took the reins, people began to look a bit more closely - and then Sony Worldwide Studios president Phil Harrison joined him, which was definitely a shock to the industry.

They must know something we don't, was the prevailing opinion, and while it remains to be seen whether or not they can pull off one of the greatest videogames business escapes ever, the MMO-boxed product-browser games Holy Trinity plan sounds intriguing, and other key talent clearly thinks so too.

Number 6: /wave at HD DVD

One of the biggest criticisms levelled at Sony's PlayStation 3 strategy was the delay in getting the hardware to market which most people put firmly at the door of the Blu-ray player.

But when Toshiba finally conceded defeat and abandoned its HD DVD format, Sony's decision suddenly looked a lot smarter - after all, it meant the company could now effectively target both gamers and home cinema audiences at the same time.

In fact, for a few months it looked like the Blu-ray's format victory could have been the single biggest defining factor in the success of 2008's next-gen battle - until Microsoft cut the Xbox 360's price point twice, and the US subprime situation went toxic, two factors that have made it a lot tougher for Sony to sell its premium product.

Number 5: £129.99

Talking of price points, that's the next most important story in the industry year, as Microsoft cut the SRP of the Xbox 360 not once, but twice, in a hugely aggressive move to market the console as the cheapest next-gen hardware on the market.

Not only did that succeed in boosting sales massively in a crucial part of the year, it looks an increasingly smart move in light of the wider economic picture, and coupled with the New Xbox Experience stands a decent chance of ushering in at least some of the more mainstream gamers out there.

Number 4: The Mario Factory

That said, the hardware sales story still belonged to one company, and one company only - Nintendo. With sales figures for both the Wii and DS Lite trouncing opposition in the vast majority of sales months in each of the three big global markets, the runaway success of this generation's shock market leader continued apace in 2008.

And then the company released the DSi in Japan, which has also sold like hot cakes, and made even more money.

Everybody's favourite E3 catchphrase - that "fad was no longer operable" as a description for Nintendo's products (thanks, Reggie) - certainly seemed to ring true, even if people will persist in questioning the Wii's future for reasons ranging from poor third party sales to a fickle user base.

Ultimately, it's impossible to argue with that level of success.

Number 3: The Lady Doth Protest Too Much

By lady, here we're referring to Take-Two in one of the most speculated upon acquisitions that never was.

Back in February it became public that Electronic Arts had submitted a USD 2 billion bid for Take-Two in the hope of snapping up its rival publisher in time for the release of the aforementioned world-beating GTA IV.

But Take-Two's management didn't want to be snapped up, probably because they were confident that GTA IV would be a world-beating product, and so they declined ther offer.

What followed was a seemingly endless cycle of offers and rebuttals that saw the GTA IV release come and go, and then - just when Take-Two management looked like they'd changed their minds, EA picked up its ball and went home.

It's difficult to find a winner in the story really - arguably, while EA would have significantly boosted revenues by bringing GTA IV into its portfolio, whether a USD 2 billion acquisition would have been a good thing to take into a worsening economy is difficult to say.

On the other hand, while the revenue boost that Take-Two enjoyed as a result of staying independent through the GTA IV release was good, shareholders must be looking at that USD 25 per share offer and wondering - now the Take-Two price sits at less than a third of EA's offer - what might have been.

Number 2: A Behemoth is Born

Set against the spectacularly inefficient acquisition efforts of EA and Take-Two, the completion of the Activision Blizzard merger was tame by comparison - but while it yielded much less in the way of juicy newsprint, it did create a publishing monster that's more than capable of going head-to-head with former big fish EA.

The continued performance alone of Blizzard and World of Warcraft - which was effectively the source of Vivendi's USD 1 billion annual revenues - looks like good business with every passing subscription day, and we suspect it won't be until the middle of 2009 that a clear picture is evident.

If most people believe that MMOs and the very biggest franchises will be relatively recession-proof, World of Warcraft plus Call of Duty plus Guitar Hero is a pretty nice portfolio to use as a foundation.

Number 1: The Economy

Without a doubt, the single most important story for the entire videogames industry this year is the economy - even though it's really only started to bite us in our corner of the world in the past few months.

However, it's the story that will continue to have a far-reaching effect on everybody, regardless of their part in the chain, from developers, to publishers, to retailers, distributors and even the media - even if it's only by indirect means.

For example, in the UK the historic general retailer brand Woolworths - much loved by the public but sadly less relevant in today's supermarket-led society - buckles under the economic pressure.

That had a knock-on effect for distributor EUK, which it owns, and which also goes under - in turn taking with it about 30 per cent of the UK's videogames distribution infrastructure.

Not only does this affect publishers - Sony's subsequent troubles with Resistance 2 is a prime example - but also other retailers such as Zavvi, for whom we can only wait and see what actually happens.

Elsewhere investments made by media mogul Sumner Redstone have a profound effect on the industry landscape in a couple of ways. Firstly, his National Amusements company - which itself is in trouble - leads Redstone to sell Midway for USD 100,000, a move which inadvertently allows the publisher's creditors to call in as much as USD 240 million of debt if they so choose, an amount it couldn't pay, which would thereby send it out of business. It hasn't happened yet, but the Midway situation is desperate indeed, with this latest development no real fault of its own.

At the same time CBS - of which National Amusements has a controlling stake - decides that it must consolidate on its USD 1.8 billion acquisition of CNET earlier this year, which in turn means job cuts in GameSpot's US office.

Nobody really knows how far the economic problems will affect the industry, and many hope that strong sales over Christmas - buoyed by the continued spending of core gamers - will boost confidence in the sector and therefore on the part of investors.

But while the games industry is likely to be less badly affected than some other industries, it's also less likely to get bailed out by governments - and relative comfort might still be very uncomfortable indeed.

Speculation as to who might be most affected currently points in two directions - Nintendo, which might see its huge but relatively transient gamer base melt away through lack of loyalty, and any small-to-medium publisher, thanks to a renewed focus on the part of consumers for key franchise titles.

Of course, nobody knows, and several companies have already voluntarily trimmed the excess now, rather than be forced to do it later. Ultimately the consumer will decide, but at the end of it there are likely to be some serious lessons learned.

Whatever happens, we wish everybody the best of luck.