Last year was dubbed one of the worst years for gaming. Many of the most-anticipated games were delayed until 2013 (Bioshock Infinite) or until further notice (The Last Guardian). US statistics from NPD Group report 29% less games were released last year, and 22% less was spent on hardware. And perhaps there was a lack of those big, jaw-dropping moments that define a year. But that didn't make it any less meaningful for me; just different. Here's why.
Indie Kicked The Crap Out Of Triple-A
Big-budget games didn't have the best year, it's true. But anyone complaining of the industry's unoriginality, or mentioning the best-selling games all had a "2" or "3" in them, failed to notice how much the indie sector was picking up the slack. Sure, Black Ops 2 was samey. They claimed to be dramatically innovative in their multiplayer while giving you the equivalent of a couple of extra grenades each round.
But such samey gunplay used to have the advantage of unparalleled polish. Now, we can look to the indie sector and see games like Tribes Ascend, an indie shooter with a level of craft that belies its indie roots. It can't compete on graphics, but there's movement to master as well as aim, along with clever maps, constant updates, a great community, and it's free.
Shooters were probably the most visible area that indie stuck it to Triple-A, with other such success stories as Natural Selection 2, Primal Carnage, and Blacklight Retribution. But let's not forget two titles that collected many GOTY awards, Journey and The Walking Dead, are also indie.
Black Ops 2 sales may have broken that headline-making first-day sales record again, but after that, momentum dropped for it and other blockbuster franchises, suggesting the beginning of a lack of interest.
Meanwhile, other indies prove that being small doesn't limit you to critical success - you can be a commercial success now, too. Minecraft sold 500k units on Christmas Day alone, and all up, The Walking Dead sold 8.5 million episodes.
It Was An Amazing Year For PC
You remember when all those people, a few years back, were writing "death of the PC" articles? This is the part where we throw up a few obnoxious fingers and say "neener neener".
Sure, there was a fundamental shift in the industry when games started being made for the consoles and then ported to PC. Console games are harder to pirate, and the usefulness of games like Crysis, which ran on about 1 per cent of personal computers in the world, was questioned. Expecting the PC version of a multi-platform game to be lacklustre was normal.
But the landscape is different now. Hardware has progressed so rapidly, a years-old PC can comfortably play any game. Meanwhile, developers are complaining that the current console generation is long in the tooth, which is stifling innovation. Motion control wasn't the revolution we were sold, and core gamers, which have been shown to be a more decisive market factor than previously thought, would kindly like to get back to their core games.
And when it comes to certain genres, no console beats the PC. FPS? Mouse and keyboard wins. RTS? Nice try, Halo Wars. Slow news day or not, anyone who doubted the platform made an error.
MMOs Are Growing Up
Pre-2012, if you asked me which genre was the most stagnant, I would have said MMORPG. Even during the "gold rush" of everyone trying to imitate the World of Warcraft formula and horde subscribers, very few new ideas were introduced. There were exemplary games like Lord of the Rings Online, which didn't do much new, but did what it did very well. But for the most part, people were reluctant to move past the rigid party formula of tank, healer, damage dealer. Min/maxing was king. Combat was a complex formula, a mostly static rotation of abilities, and carefully meted out rewards were how to keep people interested. In terms of mechanics and dynamics, very little had changed since the pen & paper RPG days.
But that school of thinking is now in the past. For years, Korea has taken advantage of its lighting-fast internet to bring the same action mechanics we see in games like God of War to the MMO genre. Without the latency limitation, they're free to make a real game. And now that those games are being brought to the West, we can enjoy titles like TERA Online and Mabigoni Heroes too.
More and more, the subscription model is being tried, and then ditched for free-to-play. It's been said that free-to-play is destined to be the winner in any survival-of-the-fittest competition between business models, and I say good riddance to subscriptions. Planetside 2, while starting out with a harsh upgrade system, is a remarkable achievement. Thousands of people engaged in twitch-reflex gameplay, on one map, in a game that's free to play.
The success of Guild Wars shows you don't need to design games around systems that prioritise keeping players in the game, as opposed to concentrating on genuine fun. After a once-off fee, you're free to enjoy the game how you want. No need to commit to a four hour dungeon to make the slightest bit of progress.
Which means, on the development side, they didn't need to worry about hooking players and were free to make a real game.
Games For Good
As mentioned above, the tricks used to keep players hooked have infiltrated different genres, and even outside of the games industry, where it's known as gamification. Our worst possible trait has been exported, and its label paints us all with the same brush.
But a game came out last year that uses gamification in a different way. Rocksmith, with the use of normal lesson-like scales, several mini-games, and some Guitar Hero styled gameplay, uses these reward systems to teach you how to use the guitar. It has a dynamic difficulty that always pushes you further, and after every session you feel better playing the songs you love. On a real guitar.
While it doesn't look like Rocksmith is the start of a trend, it's certainly a good example. A normally work-heavy endeavour is made much easier and more fun with these tricks, and at the end of the experience, instead of a virtual spikey pauldron to show for it, you have a new, impressive skill. Rocksmith is a success.
There are also a few games we'll regularly be quoting when the "Games as art" debate comes up, as it always does. Journey won several game of the year awards, and through limited, controlled interactivity with a companion, tricks us into feeling. It must be a damn hard thing to bring out emotion in a player. I never really cared for Flow or Flower, but with Journey, they nailed it. There really isn't anything else like it.
Another I'd put forward when the meaningfulness of games is questioned is Papo & Yo. In terms of bringing out emotion, this title had the advantage of giving players the prior knowledge that the game is about a relationship with an abusive, alcoholic father. Through that lens, it's hard to not feel empathy when you, and those around you, are dragged into chaotic violence by a companion character you need elsewhere.
If you're using broad semantics like what's "good for gaming" when talking about 2012, these meaningful experiences are probably not more, but just as important as memorable, iconic gaming moments like All Ghillied Up from the first Modern Warfare.
We Can Decide What Gets Made
While not starting in 2012, the Kickstarter/self publishing movement went from strength to strength in 2012, and we still haven't had that one "grab & run" scenario that many were predicting.
Confidence is high in self publishing, and even though it's a fair point that the public is prone to acting in the same way as a publisher when regarding investments, there are still plenty of games being made that wouldn't have otherwise.
Even if the campaign is a failure, it can be treated as a form of free publicity test. And the tendency of people to back projects that promise an open development with lots of community involvement, and in some cases behind-the-scenes videos, is giving us more insight into the world of game making.
Well then. Glad I got that off my chest. Do you agree with the 2012 naysayers? As games become more diverse, our experiences are becoming more personal, so I suspect there are those who had a great year of gaming. What do you think defines a year, and makes it "good" or "bad"?
Year passing photo from Shutterstock