I’ve written a few stories about “the golden years” and their oversized imprint on gamers, developers, publishers and the industry around them. But if we’re going to talk about years that made an impact, it would be deeply unfair not to recognise the astonishingly monumental effects of 2007 not just on that era of video games, but every year ever since.
If the middle to late ’90s was where many franchises got their start, or properly solidified their popularity, 2007 was similarly profound. But it wasn’t just the year that saw a string of new franchises absolutely explode onto the market. It was the year of massive industry overhaul, enormous acquisitions that would fundamentally change some studios forever, and the permanent establishment of new competitors that would redefine the business of video games.
Also, it’s genuinely crazy just how many good games we got in 2007.
Guitar Hero 3: Legends of Rock / Rock Band
Remember when completely nailing Through the Fire and Flames was the video game achievement? 2007 was a year where the video game music peripherals were still exceedingly popular. Activision claimed that Guitar Hero 3 was the first game to sell over a billion dollars at retail, which is something Grand Theft Auto and good Call of Duty releases can now do in a week.
Rock Band was just as brilliant, creating perhaps an even better party-like atmosphere. If you had the money for the peripherals, smashing the drums in Rock Band was one hell of a fun time. I couldn’t sing for shit, but I know mates who could, and there were plenty of killer nights with people starting their own mini-bands (and future karaoke careers) warbling sounds into that dodgy PS3/Xbox 360 microphone.
And if we’re talking highlights of franchises, then we can’t ignore how good a year 2007 was for multiplayer. For many Halo fans, Halo 3 is and will always be the GOAT. The game made $US300 million in its first week, a return that any publisher would be thrilled with in 2021. Its impact on the entertainment industry was so huge at the time that movie executives blamed Halo 3 for tanking box office recipes by almost 30 per cent.
Halo 3 introduced the Forge, which basically brought the endless creation and creativity seen on PC in other shooters (like Call of Duty, Quake 3, Half-Life and more) to console. Halo 3 might still be the one of the highest benchmarks you can set for the amount of stuff a competitive multiplayer shooter could and should have at launch, and how high the quality for each individual level should be.
Well, it would be the highest, except for one other game I can think of.
Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare
It feels apt talking about Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare in a week where the ex-Infinity Ward leads would found a studio (Respawn Entertainment) that would win an Oscar for a Medal of Honor game. It’s worth noting that Call of Duty‘s success is primarily thanks to Medal of Honor. A group of employees who worked on Medal of Honor: Allied Assault were fed up with their contract at EA, so they left their current studio to start up Infinity Ward, which practically became a money printing machine once the Modern Warfare series began. A contract dispute saw in the heads of Infinity Ward suing Activision, and they would eventually go on to found Respawn, which is now back at EA delivering one banger after another.
Funny how things work out, isn’t it?
Putting aside the 15-plus million copies that COD4 would eventually sell, not to mention the endless piracy for the game, it was the structure of the multiplayer that fundamentally rewrote the design logic of video games. COD4 introduced the idea of levelling up and unlocks to first-person shooters, rewarding players with micro-amounts of XP for various actions in-game. That allowed the developers to lock certain guns, perks and benefits behind different level tiers, which effectively elongated the game’s play time and encouraged players to stick with COD4 for weeks, months, even years.
Infinity Ward also delivered on a pretty serviceable, modern military shooter campaign for the time — with the exception of All Ghillied Up, which still remains as one of the best missions in a shooter campaign to this day. It was a complete change of pace from the blockbuster design, action-heavy thrillseeking of the previous missions, forcing players to be patient as they waited for patrols and scouts to work past. It was fundamentally a stealth mission, but the vibe that accompanied it was what really made All Ghillied Up work so well, something many games years later have yet to learn.
Super Mario Galaxy
And if we’re talking about the scrapping of conventions, then Super Mario Galaxy has to be mentioned. Moving on from traditional “worlds”, Super Mario Galaxy was set in space. That changed the traditional levels into spherical puzzles, each with their own gravitational pull.
But moving into space didn’t just transform the core platforming. It freed up the designers to think more unconventionally about what Mario levels could feature, and what Mario could do in those spaces. The studio focused on levels and ideas that were fun, rather than focusing on an experience that funnelled players from start to finish.
There would be changes in perspective from 3D to 2D and back again. There’s galaxies like Toy Time Galaxy, which is less of a galaxy and more Nintendo finding a way to turn a 3D robot into a playable platforming level. The Bonefin Galaxy broke traditions for Mario boss fights, while Gusty Garden Galaxy has some great traversal mechanics that force you to catch the wind with flowers.
Unsurprisingly, everyone loved Super Mario Galaxy. It was, and still is, universally praised. It sold millions of copies worldwide, and reaffirmed Nintendo’s excellence in making accessible, brilliant games that could be enjoyed by all ages.
The Orange Box (Team Fortress 2, Portal, Half-Life: Episode Two
After spending so long in development it was assumed to be vapourware — articles promoting Team Fortress 2 started appearing in game magazines and websites in the late ’90s — Team Fortress 2 finally launched in October 2007.
But it wasn’t alone. In a massive move by Valve that singlehandedly rocketed the player base of Steam, Team Fortress 2 also shipped with an expansion episode for Half-Life 2, and the incredibly entertaining puzzler Portal. Any other publisher would have sold each game separately: Valve made the decision to bundle all three together, along with two games that had already shipped (Half-Life: Episode One and Half-Life 2).
It was a move that, rightly so, was called “the best deal in video games” of its time. The sheer value on offer from Team Fortress 2 alone would have justified the price, as would have the Half-Life episodes by themselves. Portal ended up being the hit that everyone didn’t know they wanted, while TF2 would go on to become a multiplayer staple with a fanbase that still persists today
Beyond the bravery of the business logic, however, the move also brought more people onto the digital Steam platform. Valve’s marketplace was the first proper digital distribution platform to challenge the hegemony of Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo, and the huge success of the Orange Box helped make it so.
The origins of Garrus thirst properly began in 2007, but it wasn’t just the release of Mass Effect that would become a fundamental pillar of Bioware’s future. Earlier that year, EA announced its plans to acquire VG Holding Corp, the parent company of Bioware and Pandemic Studios, the latter of which had a studio in Brisbane’s Fortitude Valley at the time.
Pandemic and Bioware had merged a couple of years prior, under a $US300 million deal organised by John Riccitiello, the former EA President. Riccitiello returned to EA as CEO in early 2007, but two years later, Pandemic’s Brisbane studio closed. 1500 employees would ultimately lose their jobs, impacting Pandemic, Maxis, and the developers on the Command & Conquer series.
EA’s ownership of Bioware continues to this day, although the nature of that relationship has undoubtedly changed in recent years given the reception of games like Mass Effect: Andromeda and Anthem. But in the initial years, Mass Effect was an astronomically successful, smashing all expectations and reminding publishers how valuable big-budget stories could be.
It also paved the way for a new form of mainstream criticism. Mass Effect‘s fairly timid sex scenes caught the ire of some sections of the media, the majority of whom would later admit to not having watched or seen the scenes in question before criticising them. The panel clip below from FOX News is a great illustration of how mainstream media perceived video games at the time, questioning “what happened to Atari, pinball and Pac-Man“.
Mass Effect‘s portrayal of mature relationships also didn’t fly in some territories. Singapore initially banned the game over scenes that could show a female character and female alien kissing, although it would later be re-rated M18 on review.
The English version of Pokemon Diamond/Pearl didn’t hit Western audiences until 2007, and it understandably had an impact. Even the success of Halo 3 and Call of Duty 4 couldn’t quite match up to the juggernaut that was the Pokemon franchise, with the series selling almost 10 million copies by the end of the year.
It helped that the DS Lite, a lighter and beloved redesign over the original DS, launched internationally just the year before. The DS Lite was a killer console for Nintendo, but it wasn’t until 2007 when the console rocketed into the stratosphere:
The combination of adding online play, 100 new Pokemon to discover and the improved presentation courtesy of the DS hardware — coupled with Game Freak’s sensibility in not messing too much with the classic formula — made Diamond/Pearl an absolute smash hit. Diamond/Pearl was the first Pokemon game for a lot of gamers too, particularly since the lower cost of the DS/DS Lite at the time meant the handheld was the first console for a lot of people growing up. It’s no surprise, then, that Nintendo is banking hard on the Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl remaster later this year.
Out of the games that defined the mid and late ’90s, one that left a strong impression on many designers was the System Shock series and the works of Looking Glass Studios. A bit of a prodigy studio for the time, Ken Levine had founded Irrational Games in 1997 from some ex-Looking Glass members, and Irrational actually worked alongside Looking Glass when they worked on System Shock 2.
Despite the game’s enormous critical acclaim, and the cult status with which it has maintained decades later, System Shock 2 didn’t sell that well. Its performance was the reason why EA knocked back a pitch from Irrational to make a System Shock sequel.
So after working other games that were solid but not enormous commercial hits — Tribes: Vengeance and Freedom Force, as well as The Lost, a game that was finished but not shipped due to legal problems — Levine wanted to have a crack at the System Shock 2 formula again. The experience of being knocked back from EA helped result in a redesign of the setting to Rapture’s underwater environment, while inspiration was drawn from Resident Evil 4 and its sandbox approach to combat.
The story of BioShock‘s development — both from the perspective of the publisher and the developers themselves — is absolutely fascinating. The game’s critical success led it to be upheld as a shining example of the new wave of storytelling in video games, and the value of subverting player control. But BioShock also became a cultural lightning rod: it changed the conversations people had about video games, and the conversations people making games had with themselves and their peers.
What happens when you make history playable? That was the central conceit that worked so well for the Age of Empires series, but arguably nobody eeked as much drama, action and success out of it as Ubisoft.
Borne out of the Prince of Persia series, Assassin’s Creed was initially conceived as a game where you’d play as the bodyguard of a Prince. It was a suggestion from Ubisoft’s marketing team to roll with Assassin’s Creed, and Ubisoft would spend two years developing their own in-house engine to support the open-world that Assassin’s Creed would need.
The original Assassin’s Creed had its flaws: the game was exceedingly grindy at points, and the open-world parkour wasn’t completely refined. And if you felt the collecting side quests were tacked on, that’s because they quite literally were. The son of Ubisoft’s CEO had played the game less than a week before the retail build was being burned to disc, and found it boring because there wasn’t anything to do outside of the main assassinations.
So the studio literally built the side quests within days, according to the game’s lead on the AI’s fighting system.
so we're all ready to ship the game, first submission goes pretty well, and then
The CEO's kid played the game and said it was boring and there was nothing to do in the game
— Charles Randall (@charlesrandall) May 23, 2020
oh yeah I forgot the key part. he says "we have to put all these side missions into the game in five days, and they have to be bug free, because the build is going to be burned directly to disc and released to retail."
— Charles Randall (@charlesrandall) May 23, 2020
The first Assassin’s Creed would go on to sell 8 million copies and become a tentpole franchise for Ubisoft, complete with spin-off games and its own movie.
Puzzle Quest: Challenge of the Warlords
There were plenty of megahits in 2007 — I’ve not mentioned games like Oblivion or Crysis for instance — but one game that was utterly transformative for one studio in Australia was Puzzle Quest. Made by Infinite Interactive in Victoria’s St Kilda by the same creator of the Warlords series, Puzzle Quest took the accessible success of the Bejeweled franchise and transformed it into a medieval RPG system.
It’s directly because of Bejeweled that Puzzle Quest was created, as the studio founder Steve Fawkner was addicted to the time. Using elements of Final Fantasy Tactics and Magic: The Gathering, the Aussie studio struggled to pitch the game to publishers until D3 Publisher, a Japanese firm, picked up the title. Expectations were low at the time, and D3 weren’t even sure how much money to invest into the game, according to an interview.
Coupled with the difficulty of getting cartridges from Nintendo, it meant that Puzzle Quest only had 40,000 copies available during its first run on the PSP and Nintendo DS. They all sold out within a fortnight, and the success of pattern matching allowed Infinite Interactive to expand to 70 employees in the late ’00s, a true luxury.
Of course, not all successes last. Puzzle Quest never quite hit the same highs, and Infinite Interactive’s staff — but not the brand — would end up merging with Firemint, another Melbourne studio that continues to exist today as Firemonkeys (or EA Melbourne). Fawkner left EA/Firemonkeys in 2012 to make games independently once more, and his rebooted studio Infinity Plus 2 would go on to make the mobile hit Gems of War in 2014.
Publisher 505 Games eventually bought out the Melbourne studio in a $5.79 ($US4.5 million) deal earlier this year. At the time of the acquisition, 505 Games (through its parent company Digital Bros Group) noted that Gems of War had made “5.6 million [euro] revenues in the last fiscal year and more than 22 million [euro]” since 2014 — a result any Australian studio would be proud of.
What games from 2007 do you remember the most? Let us know in the comments!