The Imminent Rise of the Self-Help Video Game

Seth, good call on Civilization for the DS. That game hooked me for a time as well. And, N’Gai, good call on co-operative game-play having a heyday (heyyear?) in 2008.

I’d like to wrap up my contribution to our club by citing some other notable releases this year.

•  You Have To Burn the Rope: Here we had a free game you could play from beginning to end in about three minutes. Not only that, but it had something to say about the challenges developers make us face in games. It may be the perfect accompaniment to my games-as-gym-equipment metaphor from my previous letter. And while I could say more, I think people should really just open a new window in their browser for a moment and play it. As an added bonus, its ending-credits theme is the best song released in a video game—and made about video games—in 2008. Play the game. Listen. And think about it.

•  Wii Fit: To save us the embarrassment of not having deeply discussed 2008’s biggest gaming newsmaker, I must add that this game served a number of interesting roles. It presented to average people the idea that playing a game could be good for you, it convinced some gaming executives that fitness gaming is the next trend that must be followed, and it expanded the currently unlabeled category of Self-Help Video Games that Nintendo’s brain-workout Brain Age software opened up in 2006 (and which may someday force gaming-sales charters to give self-help games their own list, the way the New York Times had to in 1983).

•  The Korean release of FIFA Online 2: I knew nothing of this game until last month, when it was the first thing on EA Sports chief Peter Moore’s mind when I asked him what the biggest success of 2008 was for the Madden-making sports division. But I do know of games like it, and they excite American gaming executives quite a lot—they look like your standard American-released sports and racing games, but their economic model is predicated on a free-base product that you can buy items in. Some items improve the look of your character. Some improve his/her/its abilities. These micro-transaction games aren’t new, but they’ve yet to make it big in the United States. Still, what we saw plenty of in 2008 was game publishers trying to find ways to sell small add-ons long after people purchased the original disc. It seems more likely than ever that the future of many people’s gaming lives will involve not just paying for a game once but continuing to pay for it, or pay to add more to it, month after month. This change could prove similar to the way people went from not paying to watch TV programming in the middle of the 20th century to now paying for multiple services to see their favorite programs.

•  Any iPhone/iPod Touch game: Apple, the company that typically projects an image that it knows what we want better than we do, never made an impressive step into the gaming world until 2008. And the company did it not by being a leader but by standing (somewhat) back and letting everyone from amateur developers to professional studios create hundreds of applications and games. The result? An Apple that once used to advertise how much cooler its machines were than Windows computers—even though Windows computers were the only computers worth playing video games on—now makes commercials showing off iPhone games. Now that Apple finally thinks video games are cool, cell-phone gaming has suddenly become a lot more interesting, and Nintendo has a reason to sweat for the first time in a couple of years.

Guys, it’s been fun to talk about the year in games with all of you. May you all have more time to play in 2009.


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