Sony Online  /  Lucas Arts
The massive game space of 'Star Wars Galaxies' proved to be a bit too empty for some.
By Columnist
msnbc.com

The year 2003 was a relatively quiet year for the game industry.  American publishers churned out titles based on movies or previous best-selling games.   Japanese companies felt a little “lost in translation” as many of their titles foundered overseas.  A Finnish cellular company introduced a hand held.  But the year lacked the pizzazz of 2002 or 2001 when new consoles hit the market.   That’s not to say that 2003 lacked for news.  In the spirit of the “12 Days of Christmas,” I’ve listed 12 highlights of the year in games.

Twelve girls (out of a hundred gamers) gaming
Where are these little girl gamers?  An August report by the Electronics Software Association, pegged girls ages six to 17 as comprising 12 percent of the gamer universe.   “Game players are a more diverse gender, age and socioeconomic group than ever,” trumpeted the report’s press release which also noted that 17 percent of the gaming population is over 50 and 26 percent are women over 18.  The 26 percent comes as a shock to anyone who has attended E3 -- ESA's annual industry expo -- where often the only women in sight are wearing bikinis and wielding foam swords.

Eleven war games battling
As our world devolved into Liberty City, reality and gaming crossed paths.  Take-Two Interactive released "Conflict Desert Storm."  Sony registered -- then dropped -- the phrase "shock and awe" with the United States patent office.  Game developer Kuma Reality Games promised a game -- due in February -- with real footage and missions based on Gulf War II.  The mod community -- developers who modify off-the-shelf titles -- introduced "Iraq War: Operation Shake and Fear" and "Desert Combat."  While the industry saw the war as creative fodder, real-world players saw P.R. opportunities.  The U.S. Army and the Hezbollah offered free games.  At least one developer used games to make a political statement.  In "September 12" killing one terrorist creates two more; a simple premise illustrating the difficulty of a war on terror.  And a gamer sent President Bush a PlayStation 2 and copies of "SOCOM: U.S. Navy SEALs" and "Conflict: Desert Storm" so the president could fulfill his "militaristic fantasies other than actually fighting wars."  In the end, however, 2003 belonged to World War II with "Call of Duty," "Medal of Honor: Rising Sun," and PC add-ons for "Battlefield 1942" and "Medal of Honor." No matter how terrible the Taliban, gamers prefer gunning down the Axis.

Ten Game companies news making
Hoping to lure the trucker hat, retro-nostalgic crowd, in 2003 France's Infogrames changed its name to old school game great Atari, a brand Infogrames has owned since 2001.  Industry consolidation continued in 2003 although not to the level analysts predicted in 2002.  The largest merger occurred overseas between Enix Corp. and Square, Japan's fourth and fifth largest game publishers.  2003 also saw some game companies close shop.  Game developers and publishers  3DO and Mucky Foot shut down as did Capital Entertainment Group, a hyped industry middleman, founded in part by Xbox creators Seamus Blackley and Kevin Bachus.  In July the SEC investigated the books of four game publishers -- Activision Inc., Acclaim Entertainment Inc., Midway Games Inc. and THQ Inc. -- to determine whether or not the companies deliberately understated revenue in order to artificially inflate earnings at a later date should business turn for the worse. 

Nine Link's a' leaping
2003 was not kind to the Nintendo GameCube. As console sales slipped to third behind the Xbox, Nintendo temporarily halted production to clear the shelves of excess inventory. Third party publishers openly questioned their commitments. But there was at least one high spot.  Link, the hero of the “Legend of Zelda” series returned in March with "Zelda: The Wind Waker."  "Wind Waker," the ninth official game in the series was the first to sport cel-shaded animation and the first set on the sea. In October Nintendo hit upon a possible solution to its problems by bundling a compilation of classic Zelda titles -- including a playable demo of "Wind Waker" --  with the GameCube for $99.99. October sales jumped 50 percent higher than any other month in 2003. Link may save Nintendo yet.

Eight games "N-Gaging"
What’s that metallic burrito attached to your ear?  Oh, it’s the N-Gage -- the combination cell-phone, mp3 player, game platform.  Nokia took a risk when they introduced N-Gage on the streets for a staggering $299.  In addition to being expensive and rather large for a portable device - albeit one with many features - the N-Gage turned out to be a chore to use.  After catching a glimpse of the eight games available at launch - none that 'engaging' - gamers figured it wasn’t worth the effort.  In October Nokia reduced the price of the N-gage to $199.   Will it be enough to pull people away from their $99 Game Boy Advance?  What’s Finnish for “no”?  Then again, never underestimate any company based in a land where it's night six months of the year.  That's plenty time for gaming.

Seven universities theorizing
In November a Wall Street Journal column called for the game media to approach their reviews with an intellectual rigor.  While the WSJ searched for gaming’s Pauline Kael, the bleeding edge of game criticism was offering up Michel Foucault.  Web sites like Ludology.com and conferences like Level Up became hip places for a new generation of media philosophers to analyze the impact of interactive entertainment.  And the University of Southern California joined M.I.T., New York University, the University of Washington, Carnegie Mellon, the University of California at Irvine and Georgia Tech, among other major American universities, in offering classes in game design and theory.  Here's hoping that such studies won't take the fun out of games like undergraduate courses in French deconstruction took the fun out of life.

Six "games-are-good-for-you" studies publishing
During 2003 researchers claimed that games could increase social interaction (the University of Loyola); improve workplace productivity (University of Utrecht); improve literacy (University of Wisconsin); cure phobias (University of Quebec in Outaouais) and improve public policy (Woodrow Wilson Foundation) and improve visual skills (University of Rochester) in 2003.   I’ll pay attention when a study announces that video games cure male pattern baldness.

Five court appearances
Despite the positive press (see above), video games remained the great bugbear for society violence in some circles.   The United States Congress saw the introduction of a bill making it a federal misdemeanor to rent or sell games depicting sex or violence to anyone under 18.   While H.R. 669 sat, Indianapolis, St. Louis  and the state of Washington passed their own versions.  All laws were eventually blocked by federal courts.   Meanwhile the "Grand Theft Auto” series producers Rockstar Games and TakeTwo Interactive were sued for $246 million by the families of two people shot by teenagers in Tennessee.  The two perpetrators, ages 16 and 14 years old, allegedly played the rated M for mature game before the shootings.  The lawsuit continues. 

Four (million) Neos
2003 was the year of licensed content.  SpongeBob SquarePants, Frodo, Charlie's Angels, a younger (and alive) version of Steve McQueen; for better or worse , they all starred in video games this year.   "Enter The Matrix" took licensed content to a new level.  Development and marketing costs exceeded $20 million and its pre-release shipping orders - at four million - set records.   Alas the game turned out to be as memorable as Keanu’s acting.

Three cheaper consoles
All three consoles found themselves stuck in the doldrums of their product cycle with slowing sales and talk of the next generation of consoles dominating analyst reports.  Microsoft, Nintendo and Sony responded with price drops.  The PlayStation 2 and Xbox went from $299 to $199 while the Nintendo GameCube plummeted to $99 from $150.  The new price points were enough to make 2003 what market analyst U.S. Bancorp Piper called "the peak year for unit sales of current generation hardware sales" with an estimated 22.3 million consoles sold in the United States.  Alas, it's all downhill from here until the next generation of consoles.  According to U.S. Bancorp Piper market saturation may cause 2004 sales to dip to 20.3 million units.  By then everyone and their grandmother will own a console.

Two MIA Shooters
The holidays just seem a little emptier without a little digital ultra-violence (sigh).  Hopes of reuniting Gordon Freeman with his crowbar before the end of 2003 were dashed in September after someone lifted "Half-Life 2's" source code and posted it on the Internet.  Gabe Newell, Valve's managing director, would later post his theory that the hacker may have exploited Microsoft Outlook's security holes to hack into his email account.   Meanwhile, Activision announced that "Doom 3," another eagerly anticipated first-person-shooter, would appear in early 2004 and not late 2003 as expected.

And a Jedi Knight in "Star Wars Galaxies"
The July release of "Star Wars Galaxies" initially had Lucas-heads and aficionados of massive multiplayer online role playing games (MMORGs) all a titter over the opportunity to aspire to Jedi Knight-hood in the Star Wars universe. But the reality of the experience (at $15 a month) seemed to some as more on par with intergalactic serfdom with a dash of Breshnev-era economics. Players found themselves repeatedly doing useless tasks such as building houses and tearing them down for no reason save advancement.  By November, however, a lone player managed to rise above the tedium and advance to the level of Jedi initiate.  So SWG players, there is hope for you.  Now get back out to Toshi Station for more power converters!

When not babbling about computer games, Tom Loftus produces interactives for MSNBC.com

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