It was the year of hacking, the year of breaking records and the year of flinging birds at pigs. The year of gaming in 2011 had plenty of ups and down and that doesn’t even include all the video game titles that were released. While the explosion of social and mobile gaming continues to affect all games, it was a hacking incident that focused attention on the dark side of online gaming.
Gaming Network Hacked
In April, Sony confirmed that its PlayStation Network, the online service that has more than 77 million users and allows online play for it PS3 consoles, was hacked and taken offline.
It was more than just a denial of service ploy. Sony said that personal data, including credit cards information, was accessed and compromised. While they stopped short of saying “stolen,” the company recommended that its customers keep an eye on their credit card accounts and watch out for identity theft.
An outside security agency was hired to find out what happened and the network service stayed offline for several days while changes were made to prevent more intrusions. Sony also offered special incentives to bring back gamers after they fixed the issues.
But in October, the PlayStation Network was hacked again – this time affecting “only” 93,000 accounts. This intrusion affected thousands of user IDs and passwords.
Sony said the lessons they learned from the April hack prevented more information from being illegally accessed. A teenager inLondonwas quickly arrested in connection with the crime.
And before you think this was just a PlayStation problem, Microsoft announced that its Xbox Live customers were the targets of a malicious phishing attempts to scam personal user information. Microsoft was quick to point out that their online gaming service was not hacked and there was no breach of security.
Earlier in the year, the hacker group LulzSec released a data file with names, email addresses and passwords they said could be used to get into Xbox Live accounts as well as other accounts.
Breaking Entertainment Records
You know gaming is big when the release of a game smashes entertainment records for sales.
For the third consecutive year, the “Call of Duty” franchise raised the bar with the release of “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3” by earning more than $400 million and selling more than 6.5 million units in North America and the United Kingdom in the first 24 hours.
If that wasn’t enough, the game had more than $775 million in sales during the first five days. “Modern Warfare 3” also broke the record for peak concurrent players on Microsoft’s Xbox Live online gaming service.
According to Activision Blizzard, the all-time sales for the “Call of Duty” franchise exceeds worldwide box office sales for “Star Wars” and “Lord of the Rings.” There were more than 13,000 midnight openings at retail stores worldwide for the release of the new title.
Last year, “Call of Duty: Black Ops” sold $360 million on its first day while “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2” sold $310 million on its first day in 2009.
Mobile/Social Gaming Explosion
Gaming has transformed from being played on computers to home consoles to mobile phones. With it, game developers recognized they have a new audience to appeal to with games designed to be played quickly and with others electronically.
Zynga, a social network game developer responsible for “CityVille,” “FarmVille” and “Words With Friends,” recently filed an initial public offering with the SEC and began trading on NASDAQ. While the stock failed to rocket as previous dotcom stock did in the heyday of the tech bubble, the market for social and mobile is still very much a battleground.
Companies are developing games for smart phones and tablets and incorporating chat or other social features to allow players around the world enjoy games together. Atari recently announced they were changing their mission to work exclusively on social and mobile gaming while publishers like Electronic Arts continue to push big names (“Madden”) to the small screen. EA also bought Popcap Games for a whopping $750 million.
Facebook made it even easier for game play on their social network while Apple’s inclusion of the Game Center on their iPhones reflect the growing interest by the public toward gaming with others while on the move.
More Than a Gaming Device
Kinect for the Xbox was introduced with the idea of making motion gaming easy and fun for users. But creative people began “hacking” the device and make use of its cameras and sensors for more than just play.
Some people have used the Kinect to create very life-like movies using CG rendered figures. Other use it to manipulate video playback so that multiple screens can be created or erased as the user needs.
Kinect is also a watchdog for your home. A program turns on the Kinect when it senses motion and takes pictures of the “intruder’s” face, which can be stored or even sent online.
While hacking the Kinect wasn’t new this year, the ingenuity at which people were including the motion sensing device rose to new and exciting levels.
“Angry Birds” vs. The World
“Angry Birds” moved out of the gaming arena and into the pop culture spotlight with their inclusion in commercials, being released as stuffed toys and the very real possibility of a full length movie in the near future.
It is also notable for the people who play – U.S. Senator Chris Coons, basketball star Kevin Durant and UK Prime Minister David Cameron, who plays the iPad version of the game.
There is also a yoga philosophy that uses the characters and gameplay mechanics to explain its teachings. Rovio, the company that created the game, opened its first official retail story in Helsinki and plans another somewhere in China.
3D Game Console Released
With much fanfare and hype, Nintendo released a new handheld console – the 3DS – that would let players experience 3D visuals without the use of special glasses. It was supposed to revolutionize what the gaming experience was going to be.
The console was released inJapanin February and inNorth Americain March. But by August, Nintendo dropped the price on the device by $80 after demand for it was softer than expected.
As of March, Nintendo had only sold 3.61 million units – far short of the 4 million the company was expecting to sell. To appease early adapters who bought the 3DS at the early price, Nintendo offered 20 free downloadable games – ten free NES Virtual Console games and ten Game Boy Advance Virtual Console games.
The device also suffered from a perception problem as the company stated publically that the 3D mode should not be used by players 6 years old and younger. While there has been no scientific data to show any harm to the development of eye sight in children, some players did report experiencing headaches after continuous playing.
New Gaming Hardware
This year, two major gaming hardware companies announced they were going to come out with new gaming consoles.
At the Electronic Entertainment Expo inLos Angeles, Sony showed off its new handheld game console, the PlayStation Vita, while Nintendo introduced its newest home console, theWiiU.
The Wii U announcement has been described as the next generation of gaming consoles and is expected to be fully backwards compatible with the Wii. The controller will have an embedded single-touch screen and the console will be able to produce high-definition graphics.
There were worries that the console will be too expensive to compete with the PS3 and Xbox 360. Nintendo has said the Wii U will be released after March 2012.
In contrast, the PlayStation Vita, Sony’s new handheld console and the successor to the PSP, was released inJapanin December and is expected to hit North American andUnited Kingdomshores in February. It boasts touch screens on the front and back as well as dual analog joysticks.
Vita will also be available in two versions: one with 3G support and one without. The 3G service will be provided by AT&T in theUSand Vodafone inEurope.
Moving from subscription to free-to-play
“World of Warcraft” wasn’t the first, but it has been the most successful subscription based game for massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPG) with 10.3 million subscribers as of November.
So it stands to reason that others would try to take a slice of that very large pie. “DC Universe Online” wanted to capitalize on the power of DC Comics and online gaming in a big way.
The game allowed players the opportunity to act out their comic hero/villain fantasies in the DC Universe and interact with iconic characters like Superman, Joker or Wonder Woman. Initially, players paid a monthly fee (around $15 in the U.S.), but by September, there were reports that the game was not doing as well as Sony, Warner Bros., and DC Comics would have liked.
In November, it was announced that the game would be free to play for anyone who wanted to play, but offered optional in-game microtransactions in place of the subscription fee. Two other paying levels were offered with different levels of in-game abilities being released as the price increased.
The strategy worked as “DC Universe Online” experienced a 2,500% increase in total playtime per day and a 1,000% increase in their user base.
More Affordable PS3
Perhaps feeling the heat from their hacking incidents or maybe just an attempt to chip away at Microsoft’s lead in the console market, Sony announced a price drop for their flagship console, the PlayStation 3.
The price drop put the cost on par with the Xbox 360, but didn’t include any bundling with the Move controller (that came later in the year). Some analysts wondered if Microsoft would respond with a price drop of their own – something that did not occur.
The Xbox 360 has traditionally been the top selling gaming console in the U.S.
The Season of 3
Finally, you can’t talk about the year in gaming without talking about games. This year, many of the popular franchises produced sequels with many of the shooter titles sporting the number three in their titles.
“Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3,” “Battlefield 3” and “Gears of War 3” all brought back familiar gameplay and characters while putting them in new situations and scenarios.
“Uncharted 3,” featuring the treasure-seeking ways of Nathan Drake, closed out that franchise. “Resistance 3” also brought an end to the alien invasion of Earth. And “F.E.A.R 3” finally stopped making us dread little girls in darkened hallways.
X-Play host Morgan Webb said all these sequels and finale installments are happening for a reason – new consoles on the near future.
“We’re nearly the end of a console cycle so series that have begun at the beginning of the console cycle, they’re starting to finish up the series,” she said. “People have made the investment in the franchise and they’ve got the art together and they don’t want to create something completely new when new consoles are starting to be on the horizon.”