Videogames are a young medium, one that's been around for less than an average human lifespan (suck it, written word and music, you old dipshits!) and as such it's fascinating to witness the industry's evolution not through history books or lectures, but firsthand, in real time. Through this lens it's amazing to see where gaming has arrived, increasingly digital, wonderfully diverse (in terms of genres/audiences), and these days the single biggest title on earth is a download-only free-to-play early-access cross-platform battle royale game (DAMN THAT'S A LOTTA HYPHENS). But if you were paying attention, all the current trends that we celebrate or deride had their groundwork laid at a specific point in time, that period was the year 2009.
Here's 5 Reasons why generations after us will look back on 2009 as the moment gaming was brought kicking and screaming into the 21st Century:
Here's the the tale of two developers, one in Osaka and one in Tokyo, who both broke away from what they saw as a constrictive and repetitive culture of publishing in order to make something truly unique for the kind of gamers who they believed had been massively underserved, the players just like them. Under the newly-formed company PlatinumGames Hideki Kamiya brought the world his spiritual successor to the Devil May Cry series, Bayonetta, challenging players to execute perfect combos and maintain multipliers with a level of fast-twitch precision that could only be achieved through the most tightly-honed reflexes. Meanwhile, Hidetaka Miyazaki at FromSoftware saw an opportunity to take over a near-abandoned RPG project to craft a kind of game that he felt no longer existed, one that valued caution and deliberate traversal of a hostile environment, a project that eventually became Demon's Souls.
While both games were considered unsuccessful from a sales perspective, the dedicated few who were STARVING for games like these became the vanguard of a fiercely loyal following. As the years went on these games built up a cultural cache that made each follow-up title more beloved than the one before it, eventually building up to modern blockbuster hits like Nier: Automata and Dark Souls 3. Two wildly different takes on a "Gothic Pan-European Horror Action Game" that nonetheless were like a breath of fresh air after Western AAA games grew over-reliant on tutorials and quick-time events. 2009 is when a new generation of Japanese developers first asked their audience to get good, with spectacular results.
2009 was also the year that put the final nail in the coffin on the longstanding tradition of bulky gaming peripherals. Dating as far back as the original Magnavox Odyssey in 1972, racing wheels, light guns, and all sorts of unique limited use controllers were as integral to videogames as cartridge slots and composite cables, and while the trend had its ups and downs the advent of the Nintendo Wii and the rise of the Guitar Hero (and Rock Band) series loaded the American living room with tons of plastic crap. Yet it wasn't until the catastrophic THUD of products like the Tony Hawk Ride board and the DJ Hero turntable that consumers finally had enough. Both of these flops quickly made their way to bargain bins and doomed other future follies like the Kinect and the uDraw Tablet before they even hit store shelves. 9 years later and most gamers don't have the time/energy to set up and store these bulky monstrosities and the most popular party games now just require you to whip out the phone you already have in your pocket to play along. No disrespect to the turntable though, at least that thing actually worked.
Bolstered by the technological leap from the SD era, major publishers cemented the status of their top-tier franchises with two sequels that started a reign which only recently is showing signs of weakness. Infinity Ward's Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 burned the words "No Russian" into our collective psyche and ran away with over 20 million copies sold. In Montreal, Ubisoft improved upon the framework of their original historical throat-slitter by leaps and bounds (that's the best pun in the whole post, sorry) with Assassin's Creed II, introducing the world to the flamboyant and infectiously confident Ezio Auditore da Firenze. While both games are classics in their own right, they also delivered so much raw spectacle that gamers were quickly trained to expect massive leaps in refinement and fidelity at an unsustainable rate. It's here that I believe the bloated, overbudget, overhyped AAA sequel machine kicked into high gear. Pushing studios to deliver groundbreaking graphics and novel mechanics (but not too novel, can't change things too much) at a rate that can only be achieved with near infinite money and a strong anti-union culture. This was the dominant wisdom in game publishing until the next entries on this list planted a seed that would someday break the very Earth beneath these titans' feet.
You know what's better than paying hundreds of people to make a multi-million dollar franchise? Having a small handful of people create BILLION dollar juggernauts that sideswipe an entire industry like a runaway semi-truck. 2009 is when two seemingly niche humble pieces of software began their climb to worldwide dominance, and forever changed the way games were developed and paid for. Besides popularizing the now ubiquitous crafting+survival mechanics (step 1: start punching trees) Notch created a game that was different from other popular titles by offering automatic updates that continuously added new content, keeping an engaged community enthralled and contributing to the game's development. Also important is that Minecraft was able to do something that was previously thought impossible, get users to pay for a product that was nakedly incomplete. Meanwhile, the team at Riot Games had finished three years worth of work to release something that would change the world, a free standalone version of a free mod of Warcraft 3.
League of Legends dropped with a mere 17 champions (compared to the Pokemon-like number of 141 as of this writing) and a unique business model where the game was free to start playing, but all future cosmetics and champions were to be purchased with in-game currency, some of which was earned through playtime, while premium currency cost real money. This simple business model hadn't even spread to mobile games by this point (the app store at the time was dominated by mobile ports of AAA games that shockingly, cost full price for a contained experience). Another thing both these games did beautifully is that they were both deceptively simple to start with near endlessly deep strategy and mechanics to learn, plus they could run on even low spec hardware. While millions of people owned PS3s and XBOX 360s, there were billions of people with access to a crappy PC, even if it was just through school or an internet cafe. That untapped audience is what let Minecraft become an underground hit with the grade-school set and made League of Legends an international sensation. So if you were surprised to see the meteoric rise of Fortnite, just remember where the building/crafting/free to play/multiplayer/competitive fad started.
This final one is more of catch-all category, but it's the only place I can acknowledge all the titles that, while maybe not paradigm-shifting, were still so good that you have to sit back and think "dang, these all came out the same year?" It makes sense, the history of videogames is littered with moments when publishers are free to expand upon the ideas that they rushed out the door to launch new hardware, and devs have had enough time to make the most of each console's unique strengths to push out previously impossible visuals. 2009 is the year we got Batman: Arkham Asylum (which raised the bar for melee combat AND elevated superhero licenses beyond the cheap cash-ins they had become) and Uncharted 2: Among Thieves not only made PS3 owners feel like their $600 investment was worth it, it established Naughty Dog's reputation as one of the most polished studios working today. The hits keep coming with games like Resident Evil 5 (still the best-selling entry in the franchise, like it or not) and Left 4 Dead 2 bringing addictive online co-op to the genre of zombie slaughtering. While Infamous and Prototype battled it out over the title of "best open world superpower action game (until Saints Row 4 comes out)", or you could bust out your Nintendo DS to play revolutionary carts like Scribblenauts, The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks, or Rhythm Heaven.
This is going to sound cynical, but I feel like we're going to see a lot more nostalgia for 2009. The kids who were 12 years old back then are now graduating college and entering the adult world and it's around this time that the nostalgia instinct will start spreading to the rest of pop culture. 9 years doesn't seem like that long ago, but we're feeling its reverberations to this day.