2007: Gaming Ground Zero

Maybe you’ve heard of cultural ground zero: 1997.

Now let’s talk games, because unlike other institutions of culture, the games industry kept on growing and innovating for another 10 years.

Then 2007 happened, and as far as the bigger publishers are concerned, games reached their peak and no more change or risk was required or even advisable. Gameplay seemed to stop changing almost entirely after 2007, and the extent to which it did change is usually in the negative, involving the watering-down of mechanics and general reduction of difficulty.

Of course, there were plenty of amazing games prior to 2007, and plenty after, but when it comes to innovation, all the big players seem to have lost it, and it’s indies that keep the flame of gaming alive. But in 2007 there were still great games made by AAA publishers – games that had great gameplay and amazing production and presentation.

Don’t take my word for it. Just look at what came out in 2007:

  • Mass Effect
  • Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare
  • World of Warcraft: the Burning Crusade
  • Crysis
  • Bioshock
  • Portal
  • Team Fortress 2
  • Assassin’s Creed
  • The Witcher
  • Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune
  • Unreal Tournament 3
  • Super Mario Galaxy
  • Lord of the Rings Online
  • Halo 3
  • God of War II
  • Rock band
  • Lost oddessey
  • Overlord
  • Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn
  • Crisis Core: Final Fantasy 7 (PSP)
  • Metroid Prime 3
  • Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass (DS)
  • And even Peggle came out in 2007

If you include a few titles from 2006 and 2008, like Gears of War, Final Fantasy XII, Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, Far Cry 2, Fallout 3 and Persona 4, you basically have a list of every modern foundational game of every genre, along with demos of the most important game engines of the generation, Unreal Engine 3 and Cry Engine.

So what happened in 2007, and just as importantly, what happened after 2007?

2007 was within the first year of the 7th generation of gaming consoles, which includes the Playstation 3, Xbox 360, and Nintendo Wii. Even though these released earlier (and hence why I mention some launch titles above), most of the “big games” of that generation landed in 2007 or took off in 2007. The graphical fidelity leap was immense, more than any that followed, and just as large as between each of the 4th through 6th generation of consoles (SNES, ps1, ps2. These new “next gen” consoles released as physical media consoles, but were transformed over their lifetimes into (mostly) digital consoles.

That’s a big shift. Games companies of course want to emphasize the digital game now, mostly because it directly attacks the used games market. You can’t resell or trade away a digital game. This generation saw the ubiquitous “Day 1 DLC” and day 1 patches of games, but most of these trends hadn’t caught on in 2007. For the most part, games shipped finished, just like on the PS2.

The Ps3 and Xbox 360 also shifted to being online-play focused consoles, with perhaps one gigantic title to blame:

Call of Duty 4

Shooters can effectively be separated into before CoD4 and after CoD4. This game single-handedly turned the console into the preferred fps machine, much to the chagrin of old-school PC shooter fans, who preferred the faster gameplay and precision of mouse and keyboard controls. Crysis also released in 2007, and on the pc, they had to add separate lobby rooms for controller players.

After Modern Warfare, Call of Duty became a yearly installment of the same game, much like sports games. A new installment has new maps, some new uniforms, a few gameplay tweaks, but is ultimately the same experience, over and over, for over a decade. Other shooters, like Battlefied, followed suit, trying to catch the puck of CoD. Modern Military Shooter became its own genre, with virtually all innovation lost as time went on.

Gears of Wars produced similar effects in the “Cover-based shooter” genre, being replicated even in other established franchises, like gameplay reduction that occurred between the original Mass Effect (also from 2007) and its sequel, which was turned into Gears of War, but with a dating sim, and in space.

As time went on, the message from big publishers was this: Do what is successful. And thus virtually all AAA games play like clones of themselves and earlier games.

But this stagnation was not limited to big-budget console games. The MMO space, the massive cash-cow of companies like SOE and Blizzard, and the Holy Grail of gaming profit (get players to play every month!!) peaked in 2007 and likewise stalled-out, thanks to the still-reigning behemoth of the genre:

World of Warcraft

Blizzard released the first WoW expansion, The Burning Crusade, in January of 2007, and it pushed the game to new, unseen limits. Though I prefer Vanilla, TBC was in many ways the pinnacle of not just the game, but the genre as a whole.

The expansion shipped with the most content of any version of the game save the original, and that content was better and more refined in every way. Loot was nearly perfect. Class balance and utility in raids made every player feel valuable and important. Professions were the best they ever were. The community was huge and very social, and raiding was a BIG deal. The sheer amount of things to do in the game was almost overwhelming. And of course, the world pvp that was dialed back after level cap and the acquisition of flying returned with an absolute vengance with the release of the Isle of Quel’Danis.

Some of my very best memories of the game were during TBC. But it wouldn’t last.

Ultimately, the game would peak in popularity in the following years (Wrath of the Lich King was released in 2008), and then decline as the near-perfect systems of TBC were watered-down to appeal to a wider audience, and paradoxically, the popularity declined.

But just as important as the the game was, again, the influence. Every MMO that came after TBC had to be made as an imitation of that version of WoW, including adding in flying mechanics (looking at you, Aion in 2009). EA’s oversight of Warhammer Online, probably killed the game through their insistence that it be exactly like the already successful World of Warcraft.

“WoW clone” became a popular put-down afterward. Even though virtually none of the core design of WoW was original to the game (having been taken from other games like Everquest), WoW was the game other devs looked at to try to emulate, and thus innovation ceased. MMOs had to have a list of specific features, or else it was believed players wouldn’t like them.

Even years later a behemoth like The Elder Scrolls Online couldn’t escape the design shadow of the first WoW expansion.

2007 Also saw the beginning of the end for Bioware Studios. They released Mass Effect, which launched a huge franchise, but two years later they would release their last truly good game: Dragon Age Origins. After that, the studio fell into the same pattern as all others: repeat previous game, reduce gameplay complexity. Dragon Age Inquisition had the player walking around open environments picking flowers. Why? Because Skyrim and WoW had flower-picking, that’s why.

Assassin’s Creed, a very promising original game, suffered a similar fate, losing it’s special gameplay elements until it got subsumed into the modern trend of “genreless” “openworld” games with its last two entries: Odyssey and Valhalla.

You hate to see it, but that’s the pattern that occurs over and over again, most prominently in western-developed games, since 2007.

The Mud Genre

So-called “openworld” games have become ubiquitous in the “AAA” games industry, with every franchise over the past decade slowly morphing itself into what some people call the “Mud Genre” – it includes everything mixed together, but there is nothing definable about it.

This is the result of viewing game design as a feature list, rather than as a set of core gameplay mechanics. Just like in the MMO space, the sentiment is that games were successful because they included certain elements, so your game should include those elements as well.

Ok guys, our game needs:

  • Open world the player can explore freely
  • It’s got to be photorealistic, full of natural colors.
  • Kill enemies, pick up their weapons!
  • Level up, gain power!
  • Cooking and crafting? Yeah, Skyrim had those, let’s put ’em in. Better put in flower picking, too.
  • Maybe a stealth mechanic of some kind?
  • We need ranged and melee weapons!
  • How about quests you can pick up in the world as you explore. Yeah!
  • But we still need a totally epic story, with full voice acting.
  • Maybe horses or vehicles? We should also have fast travel, too.
  • You should be able to customize your look, you know? Put in some cool armor. Studio exec: Perfect, we can sell skins. Also we need LOTS of dlc. Get the interns to work.
  • Maybe we should put in some romance options…

If it seems like the above is describing every game, it sort of is. What changes from game to game is the aesthetic presentation (sort of – they all tend to look brown) and the arrangement of the map. It should be very easy to stand out in this crowd, yet no western developers seem to be able to.

This also puts the emphasis on “content” since the gameplay is essentially a stock set of features. Quests, map areas, and characters have to be substantial, since the way the player interacts with the world is a familiar and bland set of features.

Looking back at 2006 you have more or less the foundational game of the mud genre: Oblivion. You got the same setup with guns in 2008’s Fallout 3. What I think is missing from the copypasta of Elder Scrolls is the knowledge that Oblivion, at its core, is still an RPG. Management of classic CRPG systems is necessary for success – it’s not just roaming around shooting things and smashing faces, though it can seem that way at level 1. It also has LOTS of content in a world full of deep lore, making exploration of the open world more rewarding than the games that have since followed it.

This is also true of Skyrim, but it is more an exploration game, more mud genre, than an RPG, which is why I generally prefer Morrowind and Oblivion.

Even Nintendo isn’t immune to the call of the Mud Genre. The swan song for the Wii U, which was also a launch title for the Switch, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild was actually a “nogenre” game. This game was immensely popular, and I caught some flak for saying it was actually quite mediocre – perhaps even the worst Zelda game I’ve played.

The unique aspects of Zelda games – dungeons and puzzles requiring special items, as well as special combat moves – were watered-down and separated by hours of wandering around an empty world fighting random enemies of a set strength, picking up their weapons, gathering cooking ingredients, etc. etc. At the end of the day, it was a boring game that didn’t respect my time as a player and offered me too little and too far apart. Though I really enjoyed the first 20 hours, it’s the only Zelda game I never bothered to finish.

Dragon Age: Inquisition is another good example. All of the engaging tactical gameplay of 2009’s Origins was pushed to the side for exploration, gathering, and even follower missions – which showed up in World of Warcraft the same year, oddly. But it looked nice, I guess.

It seems like everywhere, you get the same message from publishers:

“Once again, but more like that other game, please.”

But why?

My hypothesis is that the industry grew large and profitable. Large publishers consolidated to the point where the industry in the west is dominated by EA, Activision, and Ubisoft. Budgets grew, and so did the demands that every game be a sweeping, cinematic, epic, experience.

As opposed to a fun game.

Like the music and movie industries, consolidation and the chasing of the blockbuster dollar resulted in most of the popular art being highly homogeneous, with a big gulf before you get to the truly creative indies. It’s pop culture ground zero, but in video game form.

I’m happy to say that despite this, there are still great games being made today – and some of them are even “genreless” “openworld” games. The really unique experiences are concentrated in the indie market, where things are not designed to be catch-all experiences, but to appeal to a certain group of players.

And let’s also not forget that the best selling game of all time is an indie game (and also “open world”) with terrible graphics just made by some guy:

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16 Comments

  1. Matthew L. Martin

    I enjoyed Breath of the Wild, but I can’t argue with your statement that it’s very much derivative of the ‘nogenre’ formula you discuss. What I appreciated about it was that it’s the first game since the original to really give me that sense of being dropped into the middle of a world and told ‘go exploring.’

    I would characterize BotW as, overall, a good half of a Zelda game–specifically, the Overworld half. The Underworld half has been headed on a downward trend since the games switched to 3-D, with more and more emphasis being placed on the Overworld.

    • I loved the overworld… for the first 10 or 15 hours. After that, it became an annoyance between where I was and where I wanted to be. After climbing the 50th cliff and finding nothing you realize there is nothing to find. After clearing out the 100th camp of the same enemies just to get weapons to replace the ones you just broke killing the mobs… I realized there was no point to combat.
      That’s the big problem with the game, imo, and that’s really quite apart from the terrible weapon shattering mechanics.
      Then the dungeons were small, and you had a bunch of little mini puzzles spread out, which were fun, but ultimately left me feeling like I had to run around enemies to play a puzzle mini game.

      • Matthew L. Martin

        Yes, I think their emphasis on ‘complete nonlinearity’ in BotW wound up handicapping a lot of the design by requiring everything to be theoretically accessible and completable with just the baseline tools, which winds up producing a sense of sameness to so much of the game. And then there were the gratuitous stealth sections and the fact that every weapon winds up being disposable …

  2. Alot of these “AAA” games all aim to make a game that can be anything or do anything but the results always fall short of what they advertise. Cyberpunk 2077 made it’s self out to be a game like that, go anywhere you want, do what ever you want, but it didn’t end up that way. Now even for a game like Halo which had a linear single player campaign is going to be a open world game where you can go exploring, (in a limited environment),but why?
    Sometimes I think back to when I was younger playing games thinking to myself and with others “image if the game had this, or if you could do this”, but with “mud genres” it seems that this wishful thinking is quite dominate among developers, trying to make games that are everything all at once, but it forgets about building a foundation before you start building rooms, or even building expansions to the building before the building its self is even finished.

  3. So what you are saying, if I am reading this correctly, is that beauty can only be achieved through imperfection?
    Call of Duty 4 was a beautiful game because it was limited. No battle royale mode, no crafting system, no open world . . . it chose ‘something’, did it really well, and then was made better, almost intrinsically, because it did some ‘other’ things poorly, such as having linear, run-down-the-street stages.
    But it was that imperfection of the features it lacked which emphasized the beauty of the rest of the game even more?

    Thank you for all the research you put into this article.

    • I’d say the best game design comes from focus. You can’t do everything perfectly, but if you can do a few things really, really well, players won’t mind other things being sub-optimal. CoD had the small multiplayer map down. Other things being a little simple or even annoying are quickly forgiven to get to what matters.
      Similarly, Morrowind has very bad combat in general, but you forgive it because the focus is on the RPG systems and the deep world.

  4. A great example to show the importance of focus is the Thief series. The first game had very clear ideas about how the game should work, which affected every aspect of gameplay. For example, Garrett should be a skilled thief but not a great warrior or superhuman. This meant that the game heavily went away from combat, but also put a huge focus on sound design (because the player needed to know where enemies were to successfully avoid detection, but the main character Garrett couldn’t see through walls or sense auras, so it became essential to use sound to track enemies). Similarly they intentionally did not use minimaps but instead limited the player to the types of partial or publicly available maps which Garrett could conceivably get his hands on, which in turn meant that levels had to be intuitive to navigate (for example an aristocrat’s mansion should have a logical layout as a house, not as a series of connected videogame encounters).

    The 2014 reboot of Thief was mad as a mud game: character advancement, tons of loot, side quests, minimaps, and a focus on nifty animations. But it lost what made the original Thief games work. Sound design was abysmal, because mud games don’t focus on sound, so they were forced to add the ability to “visually detect noise”, fundamentally changing both how the game was played as well as making it far less immersive. Level design was no longer logical because levels, in the modern tradition, were designed as a series of setpieces connected by loading zones (making the minimap essential to understand where anything was). And basically in every aspect of the design they screwed up what made the original games work and hastily patched it over with something from modern games.

    From interviews the designers seemed to have wanted to make a faithful Thief game, but they approached development like they could make a standard mud game first and then fine tune some window dressing to make it a Thief game. But you can’t do that: what made the game what it was was something fundamental to the whole structure of the game.

    • The original thief was awesome. Still a great stealth game with a great atmosphere. I played “Styx” a few years ago and that one was likewise totally focused on the gameplay (and the story, I suppose). No filler. The only drawback was huge load times on my ps4, which made dying and reloading really, really annoying.

  5. Thomas Defelstrock

    Other than Nintendo which is it’s own separate thing, you’ve focused entirely on Western developers. Japanese studios have kept producing innovative games and game formulas. Some of those studios are pretty profitable and pretty large. So it’s safe to say it’s likely not enterprise value or profits that have driven Western AAA gaming into this mess.
    Maybe something else has…awoken…in the Western gaming industry, some kind of cultural gestalt that has opened the gates of gaming to cultural forces that don’t really care much about good game design, but instead want to transition the industry towards other agendas.

    • Yes, I focused on the west, because this is an extension of Cultural Ground Zero of the west, not the east. Japan has its own trajectory and its own path. Corporate culture in the west isn’t about profit per se. That’s a trope that’s been drilled into us through political discourse, but if you take a step back and actually look at what corporations DO, the profit motive is woefully inadequate to explain what goes on. So when I talk about corporate culture, its usually about the large-scale-ifying and same-ifying paradigm it exists to perpetuate.

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  7. Great analysis. I really stopped gaming after the GameCube and stuck mostly to retro 8-bit, 16-bit, and PC games until I had kids of my own (not that I really play games; I play with my son occasionally) so I didn’t notice this trend, but you make a compelling case.

    Even the Pokemon Sword game my son loves has a lot of these mud elements (I love that term!) that make me wonder, “Why?” Of course, I do know the answer: it’s padding. In my opinion, this stuff–the cooking, crafting, collect-a-thons, neverending fetch quests–help to justify the massive price tag for what is otherwise a relatively short and simple game. Like you, these are the reasons I prefer Morrowind, and hell, Daggerfall, to Oblivion, which I got bored of some 10 hours in (I never bothered with Skyrim).

    Indies are where it’s at with everything. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: money ruins everything if you let it.

  8. The only good “exploration game” I’ve ever played (albeit my experience is limited) was *Outer Wilds*, which made it work by putting you into a Groundhog-Day style time loop mystery plot. There’s a lot of hand-crafted content to explore, but you have an actual motivation to go and explore it because there’s too much to the mystery to explore it all in the 22 minutes you have before the loop resets, and the puzzle pieces are scattered all over that hand-crafted content.

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