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Look Back to Look Forward

The next decade looks set to be more exciting.

Published as part of our sister-site GamesIndustry.biz' widely-read weekly newsletter, the GamesIndustry.biz Editorial is a weekly dissection of one of the issues weighing on the minds of the people at the top of the games business. It appears on Eurogamer after it goes out to GI.biz newsletter subscribers.

Despite the best efforts of killjoys who attempt to impose a more accurate definition of a decade upon the rest of us, there's something rather exciting about the point when the digit switches over from one decade to the next. As meaningless as it may be in real terms, the changing of the decade brings with it an opportunity to take stock, to ponder the past and present, and speculate upon the future.

And, of course, to make a lot of rather arbitrary lists.

The turn of the decade comes at a particularly exciting time for the videogames business. The advent and hastening adoption of speedy broadband technology has opened new doors for the sector. Ambitious online ventures are springing up left, right and centre, with money being poured into promising new business models and suggestions that this is the twilight of the physical, boxed product.

A new console has stunned the market by reaching a vastly wider audience than any previous platform, leaving the two warring giants of the platform holder business bickering over scraps in its wake. After a decade of solid growth, the industry feels on the verge of a breakthrough, only a few steps away from standing alongside film, television and music on the world stage and demanding recognition as a fully-fledged entertainment medium for the 21st century - if only the occasional tantrums of the traditional press and right-wing pressure groups over violent content in a medium whose adult audience they still don't quite comprehend would just go away.

I'm talking, of course, about December 1999. The heady days just before the turn of the millennium were strangely similar to those the industry is experiencing today. The games business had caught dot-com bubble fever - online gaming and digital distribution, while not quite a reality yet, were certainly a key part of the future that just about every self-styled Mystic Meg in the business was seeing in their crystal ball.

The PlayStation had created new markets all around the world, finally calling time on an era when there was some uncomfortable truth to the idea that games were mostly a pursuit for adolescent boys (although, 10 years later, this news still hasn't quite reached some parents, journalists and legislators). Giant franchises such as Final Fantasy, Tekken and Resident Evil - the Grand Theft Auto of the nineties, at least from the perspective of the Ban This Sick Filth crowd - looked set to challenge the global cultural dominance of Hollywood.

If today's hopes and concerns seem very similar to those of a decade ago, however, it's not because the industry has failed to move forward in the past 10 years. The stories might be the same, but the stakes are bigger. If the PlayStation and PS2 brought gaming to an adult audience, the DS and the Wii have stood on those broad shoulders and opened the market to, well, just about everyone else. If online gaming was a thrilling prospect back then, today it's a multi-billion dollar market where subscription games like World of Warcraft boast player-bases larger than small countries - and freemium titles like Farmville outnumber even some pretty large countries (like, say, the UK).

So the numbers are bigger, representing unprecedented growth in the past decade - growth whose surface is barely even scratched by firms like NPD and GfK, whose assessments of retail sales are increasingly unrepresentative of the true scale of a business which now absorbs vast revenue from a wide spectrum of online and offline transactions. The very fact that the tills continue to ring so loudly at game retailers is a striking endorsement of the industry's growth - retailers' share of the pie is unquestionably shrinking, but the pie itself is growing so incredibly fast that it almost doesn't matter, at least not yet.

Yet in other regards, the past 10 years have been a little disappointing - if only because it's slightly deflating to sit here, 10 years older, a little thinner at the temples (and recently the unwilling target of regular white hair hunting expeditions by my partner) and find myself saying that we're on the cusp of things which we all thought we were on the cusp of a decade ago (when white hairs were something that only happened to very, very old people).