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Holiday Retrospective: What happened in March 2011

Paw over your memories of a major hardware launch, GDC, a rapidly worsening legal tussle, and the world's most expensive natural disaster in modern gaming's homeland.

Before we dive into the gaming news of March 2011, we should pause for a moment to consider the ongoing impact of the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. Japan is one of gaming's three major centres, and many gamers feel a strong connection with the nation which was only reinforced on Friday, March 11,when the country was struck by a record-breaking earthquake, the first symptom of a massive geological disaster. The world watched in horror and sympathy as tsunamis swept away whole towns, leaving thousands homeless; fires broke out; landslides swallowed buildings or threw them into the sea; and nuclear reactors went into meltdown. Over 15,000 people were killed. Nearly 6,000 where injured. Over 3,000 remain unaccounted for. To this day, thousands of Japanese citizens live in shelters as the country struggles to rebuild; cope with reduced agriculture, manufacturing, water and power production capacity; and deal with the aftermath of radiation leaks.

Although many local developers and publishers were hit hard, the Japanese games industry proved a staunch supported of charity efforts. The Tokyo Game Show, on of the year's major events, came close to seriously downsizing. Overseas gamers were quick to jump on board, support or initiate fundraising and cost-saving efforts.

The games industry bounce back from the disaster has led some gamers to forget that the sorely-beset nation is still working to rebuild. Remember Japan - and other disaster-struck nations - in your gift-giving these holidays.

Busy, busy
Nevertheless, the world ticked onwards. GDC went massive this year; if you look at just one report, heck out Gears of War designer Cliff Bleszinski's scorching keynote.

Back in the UK, the Baftas were headlined by a rather lovely speech from Peter Molyneux.

3DS launch
On to happier things, although the launch of the 3DS provided an excellent excuse to give currency to a Japanese company. The system released in Europe on Friday, March 25, and in the US on Sunday, March 27. Nintendo declined to set a UK price, resulting in a sub £200 price war, with US gamers forking out $250 and Australians a whopping $350.

Pre-orders were high - 71% higher than the PlayStation 3 and double that of the Wii on Amazon, for example - and analysts guessed the system might sell 200,000 on its first weekend in the UK alone.

It's hard to market a 3D device
using 2D media. Ninty tried hard.

The launch itself was something of a gala affair, with huge queues at many major stores hosting midnight launched. UK retails reported delight at the console's success.

The launch line up was considered a bit tired, but the reception was generally positive, although critics were disappointed that the 3DS came to market without its eShop; a firmware update would add the online portal months later. Reports of a "black screen of death" arose but quickly faded away, and Nintendo continues to weather a media-driven shit storm regarding the system's alleged negative effect on children's eyes and player health in general.

The system shifted under 400,000 units in its first week at US retail, well below the half million record set by the cheaper, holiday-friendly DS launch. In the UK, 113,000 sales were recorded, with a total of 303,000 across Europe. Nintendo had touted 140,000 UK pre-orders and was expecting to match the PSP's launch record of 185,000.

It all looked a bit grim.

Ball's in your court
Despite the fanfare over a rival hardware launch, Sony made headlines all through March, but probably not for the reasons it would have liked. The ongoing case against PlayStation 3 hackers - figureheaded by GeoHot - was turning nasty. A court gave Sony the chance to peek at the IP addresses of visitors to GeoHot's website, and to subpeona records of donations to his legal fees.

Accusations flew back and forth. GeoHot's defence claimed the company had misrepresented the facts; Sony accused GeoHot of absconding to South America with his hard drives - something which turned out to be untrue, but kept us entertained for a while. Sony accused GeoHot of lying about his PSN usage - and thus, his acceptance of the company's terms of service, and GeoHot was on the backfoot to explain it.

Pokémon Black & White version.

Sony and LG's bizarre legal wars continued, with the latter managing to secure the confiscation of thousands of consoles. It wasn't all one sided; courts evntually lifted an injunction against Sony, allowing 30,000 warehoused PS3s to continue on to retailers.

Mortal Kombat lost its appeal, failing to secure an Australian release. Ubisoft's adult party game We Dare raised a number of ripples around the world, most notably in the UK, where release was cancelled. Still with the French publisher, but at its Montreal arm, Ubisoft was granted an injunction against the alleged headhunting of former employee turned THQ studio lead Patrice Desilets. Also in Canada, Silicon knights was permitted to go ahead with its suit against Epic over the allegedly incomplete supply of Unreal Engine tech.

But back to games. THQ launched Homefront, its bid to carve off a slice of the shooter market with a new franchise. Both the publisher and developer Kaos threw themselves wholeheartedly into the game's support, even going so far as to install local servers in Australia - an uncommon practice.

Haunting live action trailers and some well-publicised marketing stunts saw the game pull in more pre-orders than any game in THQ's history. Demand for the game's multiplayer outstripped initial sever capacity. The future looked rosy - THQ even assigned another studio to the fledgling franchise, much as Activision has multiple Call of Duty teams.

In launch week, THQ shipped 2.4 million units to retailers wordwide, and sold through 1 million. The game took third spot in the NPD Group's March US sales report, but reviews were decidedly mixed. The company's stock dropped 26%, which analysts linked to a less than stellar Metacritic average.

Homefront was so much in the headlines - kudos, THQ PR - that you'd almost be forgiven for thinking nothing else released. In fact, March produced a number of important titles. In its first week, Pokémon Black & White, mysteriously developed for DS rather than its newer cousin, the 3DS, shifted over 2 million copies in the US alone.

Homefront launch trailer.

Anticipated sequel Dragon Age II arrived to follow up BioWare's RPG hit Dragon Age: Origins, released less than 18 months earlier. BioWare had made noises about moving to capitalise on the first game's success, and when the new game failed to capture critical hearts, gamers theorised a short development cycle was to blame. The game generated an interesting discussion when one fan complained that it did not contain enough generic females for his avatar to give a virtual bonking, to which BioWare responded with scorn.

Crysis 2 arrived, sequel to one of the most graphically accomplished games of its time, and scored well across the board. It arrived too late in the month to make much of an impact on the March charts, but sold over 3 million copies. EA kept 'em coming, unleashing uh, firing off NFS Shift 2 Unleashed.

Square Enix made two PSP releases which performed far better in Japan than abroad - The 3rd Birthday, a new entry in the Parasite Eve canon, and Dissidia Duodecim, the followup to the PSP fighter which pits Final Fantasy characters against each other.

On the DLC side, Mass Effect 2 gained its final piece of DLC, Arrival, which proved unpopular with fans despite its dramatic lead-in to Mass Effect 3's plot.

A handful of other well-received but generally unacknowledged releases made for a busy month for reviewers; indie darling PixelJunk Shooter 2; sports sims MLB The Show and MLB 2K11; cult favourite Yakuza 4; Lego Star Wars III: The Clone Wars; and Dynasty Warriors 7.

Dragon Age II launch trailer.

In the March NPD report, Pokemon Black and White dominated software sales, with Homefront and Dragon Age II close behind. The Clone Wars made sixth, with Crysis 2 seventh and LMB the Show at ninth.

Despite the 3DS's somewhat disappointing launch, hardware sales jumped 12% year on year in March. Sony and Microsoft both reported continued growth, but no new milestones, and software sales were down 16%.

The NPD Group also reaffirmed its dedication to tracking digital sales, announcing it would include non-traditional sales in its monthly reports.

Digital Frontier
The PC Gaming alliance had some good news, releasing a report showing the PC market growing every stronger despite years of marginalization. EA made the startling claim that 40% of all games sales are now digital.

Panasonic finally gave up on its dreams of entering the console space, hammering down the lid of the Jungle's coffin. (In my notes, I've marked this "ANASFWGTD".)

The IGF awards honoured the best in indie gaming, which in early 2011 meant Minecraft, Minecraft, Minecraft, more Minecraft, and Amnesia: The Dark Descent.

The Samaritan demo - direct feed.

Epic gave a presentation at GDC called the "Samaritan", in which it showed off a new engine with unrivalled graphical capabilities. The Unreal Engine developer said it wanted to show the next batch of console manufacturers what the next generation should be capable of. Even compressed for web, it's amazing.

Valve also unveiled a new technology - this time, a system called Steam Guard which asks for email verification whenever you log into your Steam account from a new location. So trustworthy is this system, Gabe Newell declared, that he gave away his username and password.

True or False?
After much anguish and petitioning, Atlus finally confirmed it would indeed bring Catherin to the west. In other "we knew that already" reveals, THQ officially unveiled Saints Row: The Third.

Sucker Punch took the covers off a promised big reveal, announcing the inclusion of UGC tools in InFamous 2, and its adoption into Sony's Play.Create.Share banner.

In Indie-land, the amazing mech sim Hawken burst into gaming consciousness. Minecraft developer Mojang announced its second project, the card battle game Scrolls. Not to ruin the surprise, but this would later cause furious legal problems.

New indie effort, Hawken.

We had yet another report that Mirror's Edge might resurface one day; maybe we should organise some sort of drinking game for this particular chestnut. We also got some clues as to Quantic Dream's next project - not very good ones, mind. Better were rumours of Grand Theft Auto V linked to domain names and casting calls. We took a good long look at Syndicate rumours, too, and concluded that it was definitely real.

Bethesda had a concrete announce though, revealing Prey 2. the sequel looks set to go in quite a different direction to the original, but still looks more complex than a bog-standard shooter. And Nintendo won a number of hearts by finally making official a European release for Xenoblade Chronicles - although The Last Story and Pandora's Tower, the other two JRPGs in operation rainfall's trinity, were nowhere to be seen.

Marketing and PR
DICE brought Battlefield 3 to GDC, knocking everyone's socks off, and then-EA Games boss Frank Gibeau very gently launched the back-and-forth sniping which would characterise the shooter market over the rest of the year, by announcing EA's intention to "compete" with the juggernaut, Call of Duty.

Nintendo president Satoru Iwata told a fairly massive fib in saying there would be no successor to the Wii any time soon. Bungie's Aldridge also told a fib, but precisely when remains to be seen; the developer first said that the Halo developer's next game was an MMO, and then said he'd been joking.

Microsoft was probably telling the truth about the 6.3 billion achievements unlocked since 2005, though.

Hatched, Matched and Dispatched
Microsoft's recruiting page revealed it was in the market for hardware engineer, which, as usual, was hailed as the wake before the good ship Xbox 720.

Konami announced that HudsonSoft, the development arm of its acquired publisher Hudson Entertainment, was to serve as its social games studio. Titles which had been in the works were assumed to be cancelled, but Konami wasn't quick to pull the trigger.

We saw a couple of major executive resignations this month, with Sony marketing leader Peter Dille and Cryptic CEO John Needham heading to presumably greener pastures. Looking back, Needham's exit should perhaps have rung some warning bells.

With this next one, you get the set up, but not the punchline - Irrational games boss Ken Levine went public with a criticism of motion control. Perhaps he wasn't aware of how perfectly he'd swum into Sony's E3 nets.

After ragging on cheap mobile games last month, Nintendo of America boss Reggie Fils-Aime attempted to backtrack by saying the company has no problem with indie devs - but not hobbyists in their garages. Angry Birds developer Rovio dismissed the whole scandal by saying it'd probably be worried about cheap games if it was flogging expensive plastic.

Duke Nukem Forever, now in its eleventh year of on-again, off-again development, was delayed, which was pretty funny. Less funny? Capcom cancelled Mega Man Universe.

That's it for March; tomorrow, we'll revisit April, and if you've any kind of memory, you're well aware of what's about to explode headlines.

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