If nothing else, the 2000s will go down in history as the decade that video games finally came of age. With the Atari generation growing into adulthood, they took the games they'd known since childhood with them. Along the way, this continuous and growing demand helped video games surpass Hollywood in terms of total revenue generated.
Activision closed out the decade touting Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, released in November, as the biggest entertainment release in history, raking in more than $500 million U.S. in its first week. The mainstream media, although still unable to shake its perception of video games as "kids stuff," has been forced to finally take the business seriously.
A large number of games helped shift that perception and fuelled the industry's growth over the past decade, financially, technologically and creatively. A small handful, however, were the standard bearers — the ones that pushed boundaries and opened new possibilities.
As with lists of movies or music, a compilation of the most influential games is a subjective exercise that is sure to provoke disagreement. The list that follows is an effort to identify the 10 releases that have either created or redefined a genre, or that have proven influential to the industry itself or the world outside video games. Many were not the first to develop a particular innovation, but in most cases they were the ones that got it right.
The list is not meant to be comprehensive and there are other titles that probably deserve to be included, but there is certainly little doubt that all these games helped shape the industry over the past decade.
Some commonalities are evident. The 2000s saw the rise of online connectivity and complete player customization, as well as a wane in solitary and linear gaming. While video games are often compared to movies, when it comes to influence they are often more like music — a number of titles on this list are sequels, indicating that game designers often need a few releases to really find their groove.
We've included ratings from two long-running games websites, Gamespot and IGN, as well as links to their reviews, which provide further depth on what made these games so important. As always, let us know in the comments section what other games you think were influential.
10. LittleBigPlanet (2008) It's always hard to justify including a recent release on any decade-ending list, but LittleBigPlanet is one of those few exceptions, especially if current trends continue. While the game certainly didn't invent "user-generated content" — sports games and other titles including Halo 3 have been allowing for the creation and sharing of custom-built characters and levels online for some time now — it was the first console game that made it a central focus. LittleBigPlanet took the simple platforming idea of classic titles such as Super Mario Bros., where the crux of the game involves jumping from one platform to another, and gave it a contemporary feel. While the game itself featured a central single-player storyline, its main draw was the inclusion of tools that let players create their own levels and share them over the PlayStation Network. The gamer community took to it and pumped out all sorts of downloadable levels, thereby greatly increasing the game's replay value. In essence, the game's original designers let players make the game for them. Many game designers believe "user-generated content" will become a key component of all future games. If so, LittleBigPlanet looks to be the game that jump-started the trend.
- Gamespot rating: 9.0. "Immense customization and creativity potential."
- IGN rating: 9.5. "It's absolutely fantastic, an instant classic."
- Related games: ModNation Racers
9. Mario Party (1999) We're venturing a little outside of the 2000s but the influence of Mario Party, released for the now seemingly ancient Nintendo 64, was the beginning of an important trend and franchise that continues today. For most of their history, video games have been considered the playthings of solitary teenagers holed up alone in their parents' dark basements. Nintendo has spent most of its history trying to change that perception and really focused in on it in the past decade with games such as Mario Party — a collection of mini-games, like short races, that pit players against each other. The game, and all of its numerous sequels, was easy to learn, appealed to everyone and encouraged social interaction by bringing players together into the same room. It helped develop the "party game" genre without which there may not have been phenomena such as Rock Band.
- Gamespot rating: 7.2. "Playing with a group of friends makes this game shine."
- IGN rating: 7.9. "It's so damn entertaining with multiple players that it manages to stand out from the heaps of uninspired interactive board games out there."
- Related games: Guitar Hero, Buzz!, Rayman Raving Rabbids
8. Madden NFL 04 (2003) Sports games aren't exactly a model of innovation, with each annual release generally bringing slight improvements and roster changes over the previous year's. The Madden franchise has bucked the trend by consistently pushing the bar higher with each new release. It's tough to pick one as the franchise's high point, but the 04 iteration — with its introduction of online play and an owner mode that introduced the business aspect of running a team to the game — may be it. With SimCity-like precision, players could set ticket prices to games, run advertising budgets and even hire new coaches, all of which considerably deepened the game and others that copied it. But that's not the only way Madden exerted its influence — since the very first version of the game in 1989, the franchise has served as Electronic Arts' flagship product, helping to build the company into the world's biggest video game publisher. Madden also proved that the "life imitates art" maxim applies to games as well, with the NFL incorporating some camera angles — such as the overhead shots — in its broadcasts after they were first used in the games.
- Gamespot rating: 9.2. "A game that models the sport of professional football much more intricately than any other game before it."
- IGN rating: 9.5. "The best game in series history? Yes it is."
- Related games: FIFA Soccer, MVP Baseball
- Gamespot rating: 8.9. "Superb gameplay that deftly simulates the act of rocking."
- IGN rating: 9.4. "It is one of the few titles that everyone can and will enjoy."
- Related games: Wii Music, SingStar, Brutal Legend
6. Halo: Combat Evolved (2001) First-person shooters have always been popular among hard-core gamers — they generally blend great graphics with fast-paced action. Halo, the game that launched Microsoft's foray into home video game consoles with dramatic success, elevated the genre to new heights with its cinematic storyline, impressive artificial intelligence and simple control scheme. The game starred the super soldier Master Chief as he fought off an attack by the alien Covenant and Flood races and, although he spoke little in the game, players got a sense of his importance by how the other characters in the game revered him. Speaking of which, Halo featured other characters — both friends and enemies — that behaved in life-like ways: They ran away from grenades and covered each other while firing, providing for some of the smartest AI found in a game yet. Halo also let players drive various vehicles, such as the Warthog jeep. Today, shooter games that don't offer the same capability seem strangely incomplete. Over all, Halo's mammoth success — it single-handedly drove Xbox sales — expanded Microsoft's influence over the PC video game market to home video games, where it is now a major force. Halo 2, the sequel, was also immensely influential as one of the first games to successfully bring the sort of large-scale online multiplayer capability found in PC games to consoles.
- Gamespot rating: 9.7. "It's easily one of the best shooters ever."
- IGN rating: 9.7. "You have no idea how great this game is."
- Related games: Call of Duty series, Gears of War, Resistance: Fall of Man
5. The Sims (2000) The argument could be made that The Sims was user-generated content before there officially was such a thing as user-generated content. Way back in 2000, the makers of SimCity — the game that allowed players to build and control a city — focused their attention down to micromanaging the lives of a suburban family. The Sims, a PC game, allowed endless customization, from the clothes the characters wore to how quickly they used the toilet. The humorous game drew its appeal from putting players in the "god" seat, where they got to dictate every aspect of their characters' lives, a popular theme that proved incredibly addictive and that developed into the endless customization found in many games today, a subtle but strong influence on gaming overall. The Sims also proved its influence as one of the first games that was heavily marketed to females, which drew many girls and women into gaming.
- Gamespot rating: 9.0. "If you relished the feeling of complete control of building a city in SimCity, then you will doubtless enjoy the experience of building a domestic life in The Sims."
- IGN rating: 9.5. "The game isn't just addictive, it's downright dangerous."
- Related games: Second Life, Spore, World of Warcraft
4. Counter-Strike (2000) If there's been one clear trend over the past decade, it's the rise of online multiplayer gaming, which has coincided with the uptake of high-speed internet services. First-person shooter PC games were front and centre in taking advantage of this new connectivity, and a long list of franchises duked it out for the right be considered the best by the hard-core gamer community: Quake, Battlefield and Call of Duty, just to name a few. Counter-Strike, a modified version of Half-Life that was originally available only as a download, went on sale in retail stores in 2000 and quickly became an influential force in internet gaming. The game let players play as terrorists and counter-terrorists, and was unique in that it was multiplayer only, with no real single-player component. Games such as Counter-Strike didn't just influence other titles, they also exerted pressure on internet service providers to improve their networks to match the rising demand.
- Gamespot rating: 8.4. "Counter-Strike is undeniably influential, and has already helped inspire countless similar mods and games."
- IGN rating: 8.9. "Never before has a multiplayer game blended all the elements of true competition and sweat-soaked-shirt anxiety as well Counter-Strike."
- Related games: Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, Halo 2
- Gamespot rating: 7.8. "Simple gameplay that's accessible to almost anyone."
- IGN rating: 7.5. "These revolutionary controls make the old new again."
- Related games: PlayStation Motion Controller, Xbox Project Natal
2. World of Warcraft (2004) A few of the games on this list have made it relatively easy to justify their inclusion — World of Warcraft for the PC is certainly one of them. Few other games have sold as many units or sucked as many hours out of players as WoW. The game took the somewhat tired fantasy role-playing standbys — elves, spell-casting, swords et al — and translated them into an online world that worked, and worked well. It eliminated the monotony of gaining experience found in many RPGs and replaced it with fast-paced variety that frequently rewarded players with new treasures or abilities. The game also allowed players to adventure together, or to face off against each other online. It also evolved into its own economy by allowing players to swap in-game items for real-world money, an addiction-fuelled phenomenon other game makers could only dream of. Like Guitar Hero, World of Warcraft even had a South Park episode devoted to it. Now that's influential.
- Gamespot rating: 9.5. "The worst thing about World of Warcraft is that you can't just play it all the time."
- IGN rating: 9.1. "This is a game that understands fun."
- Related games: Call of Duty series, Elder Scrolls: Oblivion, Second Life
1. Grand Theft Auto III (2001) Subsequent releases in the series sold more, but Grand Theft Auto III is really the most influential game of the decade. The first three-dimensional game in the franchise, originally released for the PlayStation 2, GTA III set a new standard in the concept of "sandbox" games, where players follow a non-linear plot. Rather than being led through the storyline, which involved a small-time hood's rise through the world of organized crime, players were presented with a vast option of missions, side quests and mini-games, to be played through in whatever order desired. GTA III also pushed video game hardware to the limit with its huge, fully three-dimensional Liberty City (modelled on New York), and set new standards for what a game's sound should be, incorporating an eclectic mix of 1980s music with often hilarious DJ banter, both of which could be listened to on the in-game car stereos. GTA III also pushed what was acceptable in games with its central themes of sex and violence. Ultimately, the game broke new ground in gameplay, technical innovation, sound and thematic content, all of which has been imitated in numerous games since.
- Gamespot rating: 9.6. "An incredible experience that shouldn't be missed by anyone mature enough to handle." it.
- IGN rating: 9.6. "The makers of Grand Theft Auto III have created a complete videogame experience like few, if any, before it."
- Related games: Assassin's Creed, True Crime, The Godfather, Scarface