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The most important game of 2010


'Tis the season for reflection. Peering into my 2010 rear view mirror, it's easy to spot the Bioware Space Opera, the Bungie Space Opera, the Blizzard Space Opera and the Nintendo Space Opera. Ever the nonconformist, Rockstar bucked the interstellar trend with a Sandbox Oater. We also got more war games.

One game looms large in this rear view mirror of mine, but you won't find it listed on any GOTY lists. This game isn't the best or most innovative game of 2010, but I contend it's easily the most important game released this year. 

Infinity Blade, the first mobile game to use the Unreal 3 Engine, is the game that will matter most in the long run. It comes closer than any previous game to leveling the playing field between handheld devices and consoles, and it caps a year in which mobile gaming finally proved its case.

The bad news for Nintendo and Sony: Infinity Blade demonstrates why dedicated portable gaming devices like the DS and PSP can no longer assume superiority among gamers looking for "serious games." The next wave isn't here yet, but Infinity Blade is the harbinger of its imminent arrival. If I wanted to make Ian Bogost blanch, I'd say Infinity Blade is a game changer. Wait, make that GAME-CHANGER!

2010 is the year of the mass handheld migration. The game-on-the-go casuals are abandoning the DS/PSP for Angry Birds, Doodle Jump, and Cut the Rope. Seven of the ten top-grossing iOS apps this year were games. A Media Measure study published last week says 52 percent of tablet owners use the devices to play games, outnumbered only by the 58 percent who use them for web surfing.

Other numbers are more telling. 2010 is the first year a Pokémon game release failed to crush all other portable contenders. HeartGold/SoulSilver did well enough, selling 9+ million copies worldwide; but it hardly compares to Angry Birds' 42 million. Granted, "only" 12 million of those were iOS purchases. The wildly popular Android version of the app is free. But it's worth noting that developer Rovio monetizes that free version with ads that generate well over $1 million per month.

The numbers look worse the more you scrutinize them. Nintendo reported total unit sales of 1.7 million for all new DS titles through the first nine months of 2010. The top handful of iOS games routinely surpass that number in nine days. 

I'm no market expert, but it's hard to see how publishers can continue to sell handheld games for 30 bucks a pop when high-quality titles go for less than $10 - usually less than $3 - on iOS and Android. Maybe a market for $30 Zelda or Mario or Pokémon games will always exist, but as major devs like Epic, Sega, and id jump into the iOS pool - playing catch-up to established mobile devs like ngmoco and Chillingo - the prospects for 3rd-party development on Nintendo and Sony hardware appear to have dimmed. Perhaps the forthcoming 3DS and rumored PSP phone will prove me wrong. Nintendo has rounded up an impressive list of devs for its new system. We'll see how many of them stick around.

The app store game avalanche is just getting started. Epic Games VP Mark Rein announced last week that the Unreal Dev Kit used to create Infinity Blade is now available to iPhone and iPad developers. This is the same scalable tech used to build Gears of War and Mass Effect and includes bump offset mapping, normal mapped architecture, texture blending, global illumination, dynamic specular lighting, and real-time reflections and animation. I have a vague notion of what all this means, but a couple of game dev pals I consulted tell me it's mighty impressive stuff.

Apple doesn't need to convince us that its app store contains a satisfying array of accessible casual games. Infinity Blade - along with id's Rage HD and other 'hardcore' games on the way - suggest tablet and mobile devices are viable platforms for games at the opposite end of the spectrum. All the major games media outlets who regularly ignore iOS games - Eurogamer, 1UP, Destructoid, IGN, Joystiq - reviewed Infinity Blade (quite positively, btw) and covered its development for months.

Most-interesting-man-in-the-world Why is Infinity Blade the most important game of 2010?

The least interesting thing about Infinity Blade is the game itself. It's a repetitive, fantasy-medieval hack'n'slasher on rails. Punch-Out meets Groundhog Day on a touchscreen. Nothing wrong with that well-worn formula if it works (and it mostly does), but novelty doesn't matter in this case because Infinity Blade is more proof of concept than full-fledged game, and there it fully succeeds.

As every nearly drooling reviewer has noted, this game is goooorgeous. Infinity Blade is the iPhone/iPad game you force your buddies to stop and gawk at. The designers at Chair/Epic clearly love their visuals too because they take every possible opportunity in the game to establish locations with sweeping camera views and rising crane shots. It gets tiresome after awhile, but I must say I never stopped admiring the view.

Fortunately, Infinity Blade's charms are more than cosmetic. The game also boasts remarkably responsive controls. Swipe to slash or block; tap to stab or dodge - it all works beautifully and intuitively. Infinity Blade is the first iOS game I've played that imparts tactile gesture control of an avatar.. At no moment playing this game did I long for a controller.* Did it surprise me to learn Infinity Blade was originally conceived as a Kinect title? Nope.

Infinity Blade is the fastest-grossing app in history of the iTunes Store, grossing over $2 million in its first four days. One might argue the game's relatively high price ($5.99) diminishes that feat; but I contend its price suggests another reason the game matters so much. It successfully demonstrates that iPhone/iPad owners are willing to spend more for premium games, which will inevitably attract more premium game development to the space. 

I hope no one misinterprets me to mean the current crop of iOS developers is somehow lacking. The arrival of developers like Epic and id doesn't suddenly add respectability to a field of 2nd-tier studios. I've poo-pooed iOS games for two years in this very space, only to concede the unmistakable quality of games like Osmos and Mirror's Edge on the iPad. Did you know World of Goo is now available for iPad. Did you know it's the best version of the game on any platform?

2010 will be rembered as the year mobile/tablet games came of age, and Infinity Blade will likely be forgotten. Other more remarkable games will transcend it, and we'll all take for granted the viability of ambitious games on these miraculous devices we carry with us. Infinity Blade proves such games are possible, and that's why it's important.

*For what it's worth, I played Infinity Blade on an iPad using a BoxWave Stylus, but I also played the game with my finger and saw no decrease in performance. I prefer using the stylus because it adds a bit of useful distance between my hand and the screen and feels more natural to me for fast-paced games.