Soon, outlets big and small — our site likely included — will share with you some thoughts on what the games of the year were. It’s not exactly a methodical thing, or consistent, or even particularly meaningful, but it can be fun to revisit and relive some of the best moments in games over the year, and 2012 will have its fair share. Game of the Year will be handed out. Spike TV will put on an abysmal television broadcast. Awards will grace shelves, and all will be as it ever is.
But 2012 also brought a lot of movement and change within the industry itself, sometimes defining moments and sometimes sweeping trends that carried throughout the year. What is in some ways more interesting to me is what 2012 has brought to consumers, developers and publishers as the business of gaming inches ever forward, evolving year after year.
Here then, are a few of my thoughts on the defining issues and moments of 2012 in video gaming.
Kickstarter and Crowdfunding: 2012 was, if nothing else, the year of crowdfunding. If began in February when Double Fine Studios did something that at the time seemed both bizarre and brilliant, which, to be honest, should not be all that surprising considering Tim Schafer’s penchant for being both brilliant and bizarre. It kicked off an effort to fund its next project, an adventure game no less, through Kickstarter. And it was as if the entire industry asked, “Wait! You can do that?”
Nearly $3.4 million dollars later, it would appear that yes, you can do that.
What was particularly interesting, though, was that it did not turn out to be an isolated event. Others immediately tried to replicate Double Fine’s success, and did. Of the ten current most funded projects on Kickstarter, seven of them are videogame related, and all of them happened this year. Ouya, Project Eternity, Wasteland, Star Citizen, along with Double Fine Adventure and numerous other projects saw a massive outpouring of support from the game community. Though very few of these funded games have actually been released, and there is no guarantee that anyone’s money spent to "kickstart" these projects will be a good investment, crowdfunding is still going strong, though perhaps not with the fervor of spring and summer.
Layoffs, Departures and Bankruptcy. Oh my!: For as good as things seemed to go for developers and game makers willing to explore non-traditional funding options, it turned out to be an ugly year for a lot of developers working within the more typical publisher model. It’s hard to believe it was only a couple of years ago that people used the term “recession proof” to describe the videogame industry.
Curt Schilling’s 38 Studios likely began the year on a high note, preparing to launch a big new game and already hard at work on the MMO to follow. Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning hit store shelves in early February, and from that moment on a long, slow, painful and highly visible collapse began for the high-profile developer.
Whatever else you may be able to say, the one thing you really can’t say is that KoA:R was a bad game. It may not have been the best action-RPG ever conceived by man, but it had a lot going for it. However, whether a victim of the onerous publisher/developer model, a poster child for mismanagement, or doomed by a bad funding deal with the state of Rhode Island, the money went away far too quickly for 38 Studios, and in the end the company did what several others did in 2012. It fell into bankruptcy and died.
38 Studios was far from the only high profile gaming company in trouble. The once untouchable Zynga has suddenly become toxic. THQ seems perched on the knife’s edge of utter collapse, and is bleeding with layoffs and closures. Activision, Sony, Warner Brothers and Microsoft all announced major layoffs and closures of various sizes, to say nothing of countless development houses like Starbreeze and Funcom. Even Popcap wasn’t spared the sad news of lost jobs. Thousands of jobs ended for people at all levels of the gaming industry this year.
Still other jobs ended voluntarily(?) with multiple high-profile departures, not the least of which being the Doctors' Ray leaving BioWare. More recently Epic has been bleeding talent, with Cliff Blezinski most notably leaving the Gears of War developer, and now Mike Capps following suit. Of course departures are nothing new, but what's most troubling is the implication from many of these biggest names in gaming not just that they may be leaving their companies. They may be leaving the industry altogether.
WiiU Launches (also Vita): If the enthusiasm around the launch this year of the Wii U and the Vita is any indication, it’s not hard to see why there’s been such hesitation around kicking the next generation into high gear. I suppose it’s a bit subjective, and likely my opinion is informed by my utter apathy for both of these launches, but from the outside looking in, the tone and tenor has seemed decidedly muted. Consumers seemed far more interested in the latest iPad or newest phone than they did what might replace the aging Wii, which once had seemed to be on the verge of dominating all of gamingdom.
I feel like there’s something poignant and telling about a year in which Nintendo Power magazine finally closes its print doors within only a month of the launch of a new system. And who knows what 2013 may bring as Microsoft and Sony certainly consider their options for putting out new hardware, but right now the idea that a new generation should come seems more prescribed and perfunctory than driven by deep wells of consumer desire.
One can almost smell the coming headlines of the death of the consoles as they once wrote about the death of PC. They will, again, be wrong of course, but it’s becoming increasingly hard to deny that the industry is cyclical, and I still remember the gaming crash of the 1980s.
Curse of the 3: If your game had a 3 in the title this year, then you probably had some dark days. Or weeks. Or months.
Mass Effect 3 was BioWare’s highly anticipated climatic swan song for one of the most prized series in gaming. But, like a nervous gymnast who cracks under the pressure of competition, they botched the dismount and, some would argue, landed flat on their face. The outcry and even outrage from gamers around the ending of Mass Effect 3 was almost unbelievable, and whatever BioWare may say about their satisfaction with the narrative, it is telling that they could not move fast enough to create DLC to “clarify” the story.
Diablo 3 would fare no better in the eyes of fans. Mired in controversy around Real Money Auction House transactions, the lack of offline modes of play, and a brief, ill-fated idea by Blizzard to limit people who purchased the game digitally to a glorified demo for the first 3 days, it seemed Blizzard could do no right with one of the most important franchises in gaming history. But, in the long run, Diablo 3 remains successful and is one of the top-selling games of the year with an expansion already in the works. Many of the most vocal raising concern around the actions of Blizzard are those who spent tens or hundreds of hours combing through the dark in search of the elusive epic loot. It’s tough to say how much money the RMAH has generated for Blizzard, but even a cursory glance shows no shortage of players eager to exchange hard-earned greenbacks for the one piece of equipment that will finally make their character all powerful.
Still, there is no denying that Blizzard continues to lose goodwill with its fanbase, and has been on a steady downward trajectory that seems all the more marked since its union with Activision.
Max Payne 3 did not suffer the same kind of poor PR hits and gamer outrage as Diablo 3 and Mass Effect 3. In fact, what it suffered was almost no gamer interest at all, or at least not in the volume that Rockstar and Take Two were expecting. The one thing you can’t say about the other two games is that they sold poorly, but In its earnings report following Max Payne 3’s release, Take Two specifically called out the game as an under-performer and a key reason the company fell short. The publisher couldn’t talk quickly enough about how great a year 2013 was going to be with games like BioShock Infinite, and investors shouldn’t pay any attention at all to the fact that, despite being a good, generally well reviewed game, Max Payne 3 just couldn’t seem to get anyone to care about it.
Even Assassin’s Creed 3 was not impervious to the struggles of games-with-a-3-in-the-name. Though AC3 seemed poised to break the trend, it’s launch was surprisingly buggy, and the fan response was inconsistent. Some loved it, others not so much, and universally everyone seemed to agree that it started painfully slow. Though it probably fared the best out of the bunch, AC3 still managed to find several ways to disappoint.
E-Sports: Depending on how the industry chooses to look at it, E-sports are either a growing cultural shift that is on the precipice of being mainstream entertainment, or a niche market with sketchy ROI and an underwhelming revenue model. For viewers, though, events like Dreamhack, MLG or The International DOTA 2 tournament have become must-see Intenet TV, as people who don't even play many of the games featured watched in the millions. It’s hard not to imagine E-sports as a force to be reckoned with, watching final matches that have packed arenas of cheering, screaming, tech-savvy fans. This year continued to see the movement’s growth as League of Legends and DOTA 2 continued to build upon the enthusiasm that Starcraft 2 helped lead in 2011.
While the technology and infrastructure to deliver content to potential fans has steadily improved, the costs match pace, and there are some rumblings of concerns about when these tournaments will really begin to generate sustainable revenue beyond investors. E-sports is truly a world of the 1-percenters, with a small fraction of gamers and game teams soaking up the vast majority of the big prizes, and many of the remaining professional gamers and their sponsors struggling to stay afloat. While the year has certainly seen a lot of growth, it has also seen a few major team collapses, and a lot of the strongest Korean players increasingly less willing to play in the “foreign” tournaments. The effort is gaining a sizable fanbase, this year more than ever before it seems, but it still has a lot of questions to solve.
I hope the community can break through before investors lose faith.
An Old Debate Quieted: I bring up this last issue not because it was a defining item of 2012, but precisely because it wasn’t. I don’t quite know when it happened, but the hot-button issue of games as a negative influence on kids/society/morality/violence/whatever has seemed to evaporate like so much morning fog under the noon-day sun.
2012 had several tragic and heartbreaking incidents that have traditionally launched pundits and talk-show junkies into bloated tirades on the horrible influence video games have on our society. And yet, it never materialized. At least not with any real, lasting oomph, as it has in previous years.
I don’t know if there are broad conclusions to draw from that, or whether 2013 will see the proselytizing vigorously renew. For now, it seems that video gaming as a menace to society is a topic that has fallen out of favor. And it gives me some hope, not only that people aren’t demonizing the medium, but perhaps some are even beginning to see that it can be a beneficial, an informing, an inspiring practice.