The 5 trends that defined the game industry in 2012

Editor-in-chief Kris Graft kicks off Gamasutra's annual year-end roundups with five trends that defined 2012, from massive shifts in business to the beginnings of a major cultural shift.
Editor-in-chief Kris Graft kicks off Gamasutra's annual year-end roundups with five trends that defined 2012. Once December hits, pretty much every year I marvel at just how fast time flies. That feeling of the swift passing of time was inflated as I scoured the stories of the past 12 months: Was it really just this year that I saw Tim Schafer at the February DICE Summit in Las Vegas, constantly checking his phone to keep track of his crazy Kickstarter campaign? Was it really just this year that Zynga dropped hundreds of millions of dollars to buy its way into the mobile market? There were a lot of individual pieces of news, but with the benefit of hindsight, we can see that the news with the most impact culminated in the five following trends: the trends that defined 2012.

Crowdfunding's new opportunities

There had been plenty of Kickstarter campaigns for games the past few years, but it was Tim Schafer's Double Fine Adventure in February that blew the doors open on crowdfunding for games, waking the industry up to new possibilities and setting a strong theme for the rest of the year. Double Fine Adventure drew in more than $3.3 million (a fair bit above the $400,000 target) and shattered previous records for Kickstarter. But then along came Obsidian Entertainment's Project Eternity, which brought in nearly $4 million. And Kickstarter in 2012 wasn't just about game software, but also about hardware. The Android-based Ouya console raised $8.6 million. The Oculus Rift VR headset, which major game studios vouched for, raked in over $2.4 million.
Creators didn't always use Kickstarter for crowdfunding. Chris Roberts, best known for his work on Wing Commander, launched a crowdfunding campaign on his own website, then added a Kickstarter campaign, reaching a combined total of over $6.2 million in funds for his spacefaring game Star Citizen. Introversion's independently-run crowdfunding campaign is now at $625,000. Not everyone who took to Kickstarter was successful -- there were a number of notable campaigns that came up short. Success or failure, Kickstarter offered not only the means for developers to independently fund their games, but also oft-compelling stories for onlookers and contributors -- sometimes about oh-so-close misses, sometimes about a late-campaign rally to success.

The mobile transition

This year, social game developers allocated even more time and resources to mobile platforms, as Facebook's most dedicated players embraced games on their smartphones and tablets. Facebook has been helping facilitate mobile adoption for game developers who previously were focused on browser-based social games. The social network opened up new viral channels to allow games to organically spread among Facebook friends, and now developers can more fully hook their native mobile games into Facebook's Open Graph. One report in September showed how Zynga, Electronic Arts and Disney/Playdom's social browser games were seeing double-digit declines of daily active users, month to month. Meanwhile, the top-grossing mobile games continue to gain traction. Businesses are changing their strategies in order to follow where the players are going. Social game stalwart Wooga told Gamasutra that its main focus is no longer on Facebook games, but on mobile, with over half of its 250-person staff working on smartphones and tablets. Crowdstar has halted development of social network games to focus on mobile. is concentrating on cross-platform browser-to-mobile experiences. And there's Zynga, whose $210 million purchase of Draw Something developer OMGPOP this year showed just how much the leading Facebook developer thought mobile games were worth. As mid-tier developers are squeezed out it's obviously not just social game developers who are flocking to mobile phones. With millions of new phone activations happening each year, mobile hardware becoming more powerful and Facebook itself focusing its efforts on mobile, 2013 will continue to see the maturation of this transition, in all parts of the industry.

So long, MMO subscriptions

If there was any hope left for "premium" MMOs and the monthly subscription model, those hopes were dashed in 2012 when BioWare Austin's Star Wars: The Old Republic swiftly declined in players, and eventually transitioned to the free-to-play business model. There was Funcom's The Secret World -- an interesting MMO that charged players a monthly fee. When the players didn't show up, the company had to restructure, lay off workers and soldier forward. The game still is subscription-based, but isn't exactly an example of how to make the subscription model work in a modern day MMO. It's not just the shortfalls of the subscription MMO model that are notable, but also the success of new MMOs and online-focused games released this year, that launched as free-to-play games. Player expectations shifted dramatically in 2012 -- and aside from the lumbering giant World of Warcraft (released eight years ago) and the rather brilliant EVE Online, the subscription model for MMOs is all but finished.

Mid-tier fallout

At about the mid-point of the current console generation, prognosticators warned the game industry: Going toe-to-toe with studios in the top-tier, high-budget "triple-A" video game sector is going to become an increasingly harrowing task. We saw this happening last year as well, but the trend continued in 2012 -- mid-level developers and their games are falling out of the picture. Slow sales of Square Enix's Sleeping Dogs hurt the publisher's earnings this year -- a disappointing shortfall, as the publisher made a special effort to scoop the game up from Activision, where it was called True Crime: Hong Kong. Lightbox Interactive's Starhawk released to some solid reviews in May, but by October the studio was hit with layoffs, and transitioned to mobile games. Activision-owned Prototype 2 developer Radical Entertainment also suffered layoffs; 007 Legends developer Eurocom cut staff and began focusing on mobile. THQ's Vigil Games didn't see restructuring, and released a well-reviewed game in Darksiders II over the summer. That game sold 1.4 million units, but THQ said it still didn't meet expectations. THQ president Jason Rubin conceded in November: "In the current marketplace only the absolute top tier of releases is making an impact on game consumers." If you want to survive and thrive in triple-A, and fight against the Call of Dutys, the Gears of Wars, the Assassin's Creeds and the Halos, you're going to need a whole lot of money and a whole lot of talent. And even if you have those ingredients, nothing is certain.

Resounding calls for diversity and inclusiveness

The video game industry seemed to reach a turning point this year, as frank, open discussions about diversity and gender inclusiveness frequently took place on video game websites and social media. In late November, gender-related issues that were being expressed throughout the year appeared to culminate in the #1reasonwhy Twitter campaign. The hashtag, brought about by the question of why there are relatively few women in the game industry, exposed many examples of sexist behavior in the work environment, and put that ugliness up for the world to see. But that was only one of the many pointed instances that brought diversity issues to the surface. There was a certain trailer for Hitman: Absolution that caused an uproar and sparked discussion about misogyny in games -- developer IO Interactive eventually apologized for the teaser, which showed protagonist Agent 47 violently beating down gun-toting dominatrix nuns. Game journalists took Crystal Dynamics to task when one developer suggested players will want to "protect" main character Lara Croft from sexual assault. Blogger Anita Sarkeesian launched a Kickstarter for a web series investigating female tropes in video games. Along with support for her efforts came disgusting, juvenile, sexist reaction from internet posters with limited brain capacity. But in the end, the Kickstarter was funded well over its goal, and the people had spoken, not only with their words, but with their wallets. We could go on with examples of calls for inclusiveness and gender equality: Halo 4 developer 343 Industries talked openly about fighting gender stereotypes in the game; Electronic Arts officially took a stand against the Defense of Marriage Act; author and game designer Anna Anthropy spoke out against "token characters" in games at Indiecade; Boston's No Show Conference for games aimed to have women make up at least 50 percent of the speaker lineup. Of course, Gamasutra contributing writers were an active part of the discussion as well. The movement is concentrated, but it's spreading, picking up traction every day. As people who care about video games grow up -- both players and developers -- they're becoming more vocal and insistent that video games grow up with them. More Gamasutra 2012 roundups: The 5 events that shook the video game industry in 2012 The 5 most significant video game controversies in 2012

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