The Game Industry Gets Nimble. Finally.

I like N’Gai’s list of 10 Most Important Games, but I’d like it even more if it didn’t snub Wii Play, the definitive surprise hit of the year. It was a modestly reviewed game so slight that Nintendo bundled it with a spare Wii controller to justify selling it in stores. Thanks to that clever move, it became one of the top-selling games of the year and a blueprint other companies seem eager to copy (more on that later).

I want to make sure we’re not just talking about game theory in these exchanges, but that we also really look through 2007 and what it means for games and gamers.

Looking back at my year in gaming, I’ve had all sorts of vivid memories, the kinds of things that don’t get written about in reviews—where the discussion of a game is done before most people have had a chance to play it—and that instead pop up on blogs and in message boards, where some of the most interesting thinking about games is brought to light.

Some favorite moments from my 2007 experiences: I had short, torrid fixations with the games Picross DS and Super Stardust HD. I enjoyed a gradual yearlong indoctrination into Halo that included a four-day stretch in which I played all three Halo games from beginning to end. I suffered tortured sessions with the lauded Final Fantasy XII, a 2006 Game of the Year winner that I so wanted to enjoy but sought intervention to help me justify quitting. I was walloped by a Tooth-Fairy-ain’t-real heart-sink when the latest Zelda got me feeling like I might not be able to be excited by that series anymore. And I was mesmerized by a fascinating 10-minute stare at what turned out to be a malfunctioning copy of ultraviolent first-person-shooter The Darkness, during which a first-person snuggle on the couch involving my player-character and his girlfriend initially depicted—as it was programmed—the girlfriend falling asleep on my hero’s shoulder, but then made my controller’s buttons stop working. And I waited 10 minutes for her to wake up and stop snoring, thinking I had found some clever developer-designed suggestion that the only way to pacify a violent gaming anti-hero is to get his lady to snore in the direction of his collarbone. Unfortunately, it was just a glitch.

I played a lot of games this year. I haven’t counted. I usually wait until Dec. 31 to do that. Last year I determined that I had started 102 games for pleasure (I didn’t count those played just at trade shows, for example). I completed 21 of them, including several that took more than a dozen hours to finish.

I’m swimming in this stuff, so I’d like to try to identify some of the currents. Here’s one theory I quite like:

Tightening of the turnaround: Up until about a year ago, this decade’s dominant—or at least most attention-getting—form of video game was the behemoth. Grand Theft Auto games and Halo games, many of 2007’s gems such as BioShock, and even Mario games are large enterprises developed over dozens of months. Many of them were released on gaming consoles, themselves the products of years of development and cemented into the marketplace, if successful, for more than a half-decade. This development cycle has ensured that gaming seems anything but nimble, as slow-turning a creative form as there is. Game publishers bet on what would be big four years into the future, committing to paths that are too hard to correct before financial disaster and the chase for the wrong trend might run them aground. So rigid was the medium that even clichés took long to take root. In my view, for example, only in 2007 has every developer started painting the morality of their big-budget war games in shades of the war in Iraq.

While so many of us were focused on the assembly of slow-turning battleships at the start of the 2005 console race, we failed to foresee the coming success of the relatively low-powered Nintendo Wii, a spiritual follow-up to the global phenomenon of the low-powered, 2004-launched Nintendo DS. These graphically crimped machines now lead the race and set the technology threshold so low that game developers and publishers who just woke up to the platforms this year can already jump on board. Had the PlayStation 3 been a runaway hit, game-makers who had initially shunned it would likely still be only halfway toward making a potential, horse-power-harnessing blockbuster that might be ready in late 2008 or 2009.

The success of the Wii allows and even encourages game-makers to react more quickly than they used to. In this new era, a Wii title like Carnival Games that didn’t even begin development until early 2007 can be released and be a hit in August. It hasn’t worked like that on gaming consoles in a long time.

The other factor that’s accelerating the game cycle is the Internet, and, more specifically, the rise of the downloadable game. Even on the battleship consoles such as the PlayStation 3, the boutique downloadable title is ascendant. Such games are released with nary a warning, incubating for a scant six or eight months in development, maybe made by one person or four, then released onto the PlayStation 3 as a novelty of the week.

These factors—Nintendo’s however temporary slow-down of the technology race and the rise of the small, quickly delivered game on all platforms—suggest a medium finally equipped to be nimble and therefore finally, potentially, ready to be relevant topically and creatively. I’m thrilled at the prospect of developers reacting, through their work, to the real world and to one another with greater speed. I’m excited that publishers may no longer feel they only have to make two- three- and four-year bets and that they can react both creatively and cravenly to changing winds in a year, if need be.

The old joke was that gaming was good for gamers because it sharpened reflexes. In 2007, I’ve seen signs that the medium and the industry itself may finally be getting some quick reflexes of its own. A good thing.

Do you guys agree? Or am I swimming in this current alone?