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Gamasutra's Best Of 2011

Another year is ending, and Gamasutra has once again taken a broad look at the ever-expanding face of the industry with a series of articles that identify the games, trends, and companies that have made the biggest impact.

Another year is ending, and Gamasutra has once again taken a broad look at the ever-expanding face of the industry with a series of articles that identify the games, trends, and companies that have made the biggest impact. 

This mega-article, which comprises all of the text we've already spilled on these topics, contains contributions from Gamasutra's staff and contributors, including Kris Graft, Leigh Alexander, Brandon Sheffield, Simon Carless, Frank Cifaldi, Tom Curtis, Mike Rose, Eric Caoili, Chris Morris, and IndieGames.com's Tim W.

In the following article you will find everything from the biggest surprises, trends, and controversies to our outlook for the most exciting games of 2012 -- and much more besides. And if you have an eye for history (or just want to check our track record) you can revisit Gamasutra's Best of 2010, 2009's 'Top 5s' compilation, plus 2008's similar compendium and 2007's chart rundown.

Top 5 Major Industry Events

The dynamic video game industry never disappoints when it comes to major news events, and in 2011, choosing just five of the most meaningful events was as difficult as it's ever been.

That's because this year was filled with many instances worthy of note. There was drama, destruction, risk, death, disappointment, flashes of brilliance, moments of surprise and, above all, victory.

Whereas last year's major events did a fine job of bringing about questions, this year was able to provide at least some answers. Now we know where Nintendo is placing its hopes for its home console business, and that $250 is too much for a 3DS. Now we know that game companies can't take security for granted. And we also know that we won't be carded for an M-rated game anytime soon.

5. Steve Jobs's Death

For someone only ostensibly part of what we might define as the "video game industry," Apple's Steve Jobs had an enormous impact on the sector. It was his iPhone hardware that opened up new kinds of gameplay, the App Store and iTunes that gave game makers a new platform for wide distribution, and the iPad that opened up a tablet market that welcomes video games with open arms.

Steve Jobs passed away on October 5 this year after a fight with pancreatic cancer. It was his design genius that allowed Apple products to touch so many people and so many industries, including the gaming industry (one that he was an active part of earlier in his life).

It's true that there are intelligent capable people he left behind at Apple, and Jobs' death doesn't mean that the company can't still have considerable impact on the games industry. But we'll never know just how much further Jobs could've taken his vision, and how that might have influenced gaming.

4. Wii U Unveiled

As the only pure-play video game company in the big three, Nintendo's hardware unveilings are always big news. The way the company attacks the medium from unique angles has a special way of keeping us on the edge of our seats.

At E3 in June, the company put rumors to rest and gave a name to its next home console: "Wii U". Nintendo's next home console will be high-definition capable and backwards compatible, but most strikingly, the controller boasts a 6.2" touchscreen in between more traditional sticks and buttons.

As with the debut of the phenomenally successful Nintendo Wii, the Wii U's unveiling was cause for excitement, as well as questions. Would Nintendo finally be able to make both the mainstream and the core gamer happy? Will the games utilize the new control scheme in new, fun ways? Or will it just be a gimmick?

Nintendo president Satoru Iwata made a big statement when he told E3 attendees, "The new platform will provide you with deeper game experiences than what even the most passionate gamer has realized before and it will offer wider appeal to gamers, wider even then for Wii... It will let everyone see games in a different way."

3. 3DS' Rapid Price Drop

Months before launch, Nintendo appeared supremely confident that its next handheld gaming machine, the 3DS, would be a hit. There was little indication that it wouldn't be, as the device had generally received positive reviews from the press, and the glasses-free stereoscopic 3D effect wowed others who got a pre-release hands-on with the DS successor.

The March launch price of the machine reflected Nintendo's confidence: $250, or the same price as the Wii when it launched in 2006.

Nintendo's new handheld wouldn't hold that price for long. Sales were dropping rapidly and the company had to make the drastic decision to cut the price of the device. Four months after the U.S. 3DS launch, and five months after Japan's, Nintendo announced it would reduce the price of the handheld to $169.99 in the U.S., with similar price cuts worldwide.

If the 3DS' price cut is not the fastest and heftiest post-launch sales drop in video game history, it certainly is a top contender.

Nintendo eased the rage of early buyers by deeming them "Ambassadors," and giving them 20 free downloadable games playable on 3DS. The price drop took effect in August, and gave the handheld much-need traction. Now, with some strong holiday software titles, Nintendo says the 3DS is on track to beat first-year sales of the smash-hit DS, another Nintendo handheld that had a slow start.

2. PlayStation Network Breached

It's not uncommon for a network to have to go offline for a short period of time, due to technical difficulties. When Sony said in late April that PlayStation Network would be down for "a day or two," there wasn't much reason not to believe the company. This of course is Sony -- surely it has the resources to get the network up and running again, promptly.

But that wasn't the case. Rather than an outage that lasted just "a day or two," what appeared to be a technical snafu turned out to be a security breach of monumental proportions, as Sony announced that an "external intrusion" by unknown cyber assailants had compromised personal information of about 77 million registered PSN accounts, plus nearly 25 million Sony Online Entertainment accounts.

Sony had only partially restored major online functions to its network by mid-May, and it wasn't until six weeks later, in early June, that a full restoration would take place in the Americas and PAL territories, plus parts of Asia. Japan and the rest of Asia were fully restored in late May.

The event showed that even the world's largest companies aren't safe from hacking and other kinds of cyber attacks. Sony went on to add to its staff a "chief information security officer," and promised that security is now a "full-time commitment."

1. Video Games Are Protected Speech

Easily the biggest news for the video game industry was the validation by the highest court in the land that video games are protected speech.

The long-awaited, landmark ruling in June this year set a precedent for the government's role in the regulation of the video game industry, and helped place the video game industry on equal ground with other forms of media in terms of government regulation.

Games could continue to be self-regulated by the industry, and not treated by the government as pornography or some kind of addictive substance that's harmful to youth. Rather, the people who make games could enjoy the same creative freedoms as authors, playwrights and film directors.

The ruling tells politicians to think twice about penning unconstitutional laws, and using taxpayer money to initiate more moral crusades against the video game industry. Now we know that, according to Supreme Court of the United States of America, "Video games qualify for First Amendment protection."

Other notable industry events of 2011 included:

Sony unveils NGP/ PS Vita
Japan's devastating earthquake
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3's big sales
Duke Nukem Forever actually launches
EA acquires PopCap
Adobe halts Flash player development for mobile browsers
Zynga files for major IPO


Top 5 Major Industry Trends

The games industry has a constant ebb and flow -- last year's rising trends might be this year's declining trends. For 2011, Gamasutra's Top 5 Major Industry Trends are all about the rise.

Whether it's technology that's gaining traction, unit sales that are defying gravity, or independent developers who are finding new ways to get the money to pursue their passion, 2011 was marked by growth, evolution and ingenuity.

5. HTML5 Buzz

More than any previous year, 2011 saw plenty of chatter over the potential of HTML5. While some companies pit HTML5 versus Flash in what they perceived as a zero sum game, others argued that competing technologies could coexist.

Game development on an open format web standard such as HTML5 is an enticing idea: Developers would only have to build their game once, and it would be inherently cross-platform, it's relatively easy to learn, and it's an alternative to Adobe-owned Flash.

But there are concerns -- even though game companies are jumping on board, HTML5 is still not finalized, and notable players in the games industry like Unity have said that the technology just isn't quite up to snuff yet for games.

Nevertheless, game companies this year have been acquiring game studios with HTML5 expertise, and the format got a vote of confidence from Adobe this year when the Flash owner said it would cease development of Flash for mobile browsers in favor of HTML5 for mobiles. Next year, expect the buzz and the debate to give way to more concrete answers to the future of HTML5.

4. Xbox 360's Sales Strength

Historically, hardware sales are supposed to be falling after five years on the market, not growing. And that's assuming your console can even last that long on the market. (Alas, poor Dreamcast.)

But Microsoft's Xbox 360 has endured and expanded its base in the U.S. during 2011. Not only that, but the Xbox 360 has managed to increase its reach while avoiding a proper price cut for years. A $200 model has been the baseline since September 2008, and except for retailer deals, it hasn't budged.

Consider this: the Xbox 360 actually increased its average selling price from $280 in June of this year to $306 in September. Simultaneously it handily outsold the rival PS3 whose average selling price had dropped to $271 on the back of a much-ballyhooed price cut.

It would be easy to ascribe record Xbox 360 sales as a direct result of Kinect, but the reality is more complex. The stickiness of Xbox Live and a stable of exclusive super-sellers like Gears of War and Halo have all contributed to Microsoft's increasing fortunes.

The PlayStation 3 has been a solid seller in 2011 too, but the Xbox 360 is a year older and is still managing to rack up strong numbers every month. It's not often, if ever, that the games industry sees a game console that achieves five years of successive growth in the U.S. -- and if this year's sales trend continues, you can make that six years.

3. A Maturing Social Games Space

Social games are beginning to show a certain level of maturity as the young space continues to evolve. While many social network games are still engineered to appeal peoples' compulsive nature, rather than their desire to do something fun, there are signs that this is changing.

There are more and more experienced game designers who are moving from the traditional game development space over to social games, bringing their expertise in "finding the fun" over to social, balancing out the metrics-focused bean-counters.

Publishers such as EA are aggressively targeting the core gamer via social networks, and independent startups, several founded this year, are also trying to woo the more traditional gamer and expand the audience.

This year, Facebook also announced major updates that could improve the overall social gaming experience for all players. And as the number of social games swells, developers are starting to realize they need to launch a quality game right off the bat, or else they're essentially doomed in this competitive marketplace.

We also noted last year the evolution of social gaming. But in 2011, the changes again can't be ignored. Now we see that social games are going everywhere, including mobile, and console games are also adopting social aspects. Major publishers who were once only reliant on packaged goods -- namely EA -- are now eyes-deep in social gaming. Zynga is headed for an IPO. Google+ is ramping up its games outreach. Upstarts abound. There will continue to be growing pains, but more than ever, we're seeing companies truly adapt to full games-as-a-service models via social networks.

2. Kickstarter And Crowdfunding

This year, as more video game developers looked to independence, they needed some funds. Instead of turning to a game publisher or a venture capitalist, many turned to crowdfunding.

The most prominent hub for crowdfunding was Kickstarter, where game developers such as Robert Boyd (Cthulhu Saves the World), Eric Zimmerman (Metagame), Young Horses (Octodad) and David Board (Lifeless Planet) have all reached the funding targets needed to continue their work on video games.

Those weren't the only game developers who got a boost from Kickstarter. In April this year Kickstarter said that over the course of two years, games had received over $1 million of funding through the service -- more than the respective funding of dance, fashion and comics projects. As more independents look for new ways of gathering funds, expect the crowdfunding trend to continue into 2012.

1. Lots of Layoffs, Lots Of Upstarts

As the games industry continued to shift, the people within it were displaced throughout the course of 2011. Major publishers closed well-known studios, and independent, mid-tier development houses ran out of steam, scattering their staff across the industry.

But even though it's typcially sad and disappointing when a company shuts down, people who lose their jobs in this industry often do not stay idle for long. This year, a lot of laid-off game developers struck out on their own and founded new independent game development studios.

For instance, Disney shut down UK-based Split Second developer Black Rock in September, giving birth to at least three new companies from former staff: West Pier Studio, Roundcube Entertainment and ShortRound Games. Zoo Tycoon house Blue Fang shut down, and its leaders formed Beach Cooler Games. When Activision shuttered Project Gotham developer Bizarre Creations, ex-staff went on to form multiple studios.

Layoffs plagued the industry this year, sweeping across companies including Disney, Activision, THQ, RockYou, Silicon Knights, CCP, Ignition, Team Bondi and others. The people who make the games, however, continue to prove their passion and resilience, and stay in an industry that they know can be difficult, adapting to the ever-changing landscape of the market, all for the sake of fulfilling their desire to make great games.


Top 5 Controversies

Controversies that drum up debate and discussion are valuable contributors to industry conversation. A fruitful year for video games and the folks that make them gets even more interesting when you include crossroads for major industry firms, community challenges for a powerful niche, and misfortune for the studio that made one of the year's most-buzzed games.

Here are some of the issues that drummed up the most spirited debates in the business this year.

5. The Real Zynga?

As the Facebook gaming space's biggest giant prepares to launch a long-anticipated IPO, it's come under enormous pressure. The model of designing and monetizing games on Facebook has been controversial enough in some sectors of the games business, but close scrutiny has come with the territory.

A pair of high-profile expose articles in the New York Times and BusinessWeek illustrated employees under siege, anxious about high standards, the challenge of keeping user numbers up and an excessive focus on investment return and metrics versus a creative internal culture.

If such tidings don't seem bad enough, the business outlook for the company is frequently under fire; one analyst found the success of CastleVille hasn't been significant enough to offset the decline in the company's other games, while another analyst rated the pre-IPO stock as "Underperform" based on Zynga's slowing growth. Often-taciturn Take-Two CEO Strauss Zelnick (whose company till now has largely avoided the Facebook boom) went as far as to suggest Zynga has "disclosure issues" and "sketchy" metrics.

With the company under the microscope more than ever, discussions and close attention are bound to pursue it as it begins trading, and as industry-watchers aim to peg it as a bellwether for the health of games on Facebook -- for good or for ill.

4. Tough Lessons For CCP

Few public apologies are as humble and candid as that of CCP CEO Hilmar Petursson following the launch of some features that outraged fans. EVE Online's fanbase -- widely reputed for its passion and loyalty -- reacted quite poorly to leaked internal documents back in June. Highly-priced vanity items, some as much as $60, threatened game balance and the community's sense of fairness.

Players believed the "Incarna" updates allowed the purchase of in-game advantages that would otherwise equate to many hours of playtime. Further, CCP was seen to have botched communications, initially suggesting that the negative reaction -- which included in-game protests -- was an expected part of a transition the company had determined to pursue.

But the company later changed its tune, in an important milestone many working in community management could watch and learn from. Amid a round of significant layoffs at CCP, Petersson apologized for the "estrangement" many fans had experienced and claimed complete responsibility.

3. Line In The Sand

The game industry has struggled throughout its history with the task of its own defense, facing misjudgment from circles that often sight-unseen determined their content to be some kind of social negative. After years spent advocating for gaming content as healthy for well-adjusted people, a certain social shift seems underway whereby gamers finally seem willing and ready to ask for more from the games they play.

More specifically, content that some judge as racist or sexist is increasingly met with nothing short of absolute outcry, and a failure to show progressive attitudes or sensitivity to minority groups has been roundly punished by audiences this year where they see it.

One NPC in Deus Ex: Human Revolution brought ire as it was viewed by some as a racist caricature, while entire internet community discussions hinged on whether the liberal use of the word 'bitch' in Arkham City was acceptable, or implied sexism. These often-heated discussions about how mature and sensitive people should expect their games to be seem to be a sign that the audience is maturing.

2. Team Bondi Under Fire

With Rockstar-published L.A. Noire, Aussie developer Team Bondi had one of 2011's most discussed and acclaimed titles. And yet it was practically cursed from there, amid a checkered saga that ended with the studio's closure in October.

Wind of trouble at the company, which invested heavily in technology that was used to develop L.A. Noire's innovative facial capture system, first surfaced with complaints that over 100 developers had gone unincluded from the game's final credits. Working conditions were reported to have been highly stressful as well, with much rumor reportage pointing to personality conflicts with studio leader Brendan McNamara.

Further, it came to light that staff were owed $1.4 million in unpaid wages and bonuses, with McNamara himself claiming over $100,000 in pay outstanding, even as he battled allegations of mismanagement. The company entered administration and is set to fully close -- while McNamara ended up selling his next game to veteran film producer George Miller.

1. Sony's Mishandling of the PSN Hack

When cyber attackers rocked PlayStation 3 users in what was reported as one of the largest-scale online security breaches of all time, it took too long for the company to come clean about what exactly was going on and how it planned to fix things.

For too long users wondered what kind of attack had taken place, what the perpetrators' motives might be, and what kind of data would be at risk, and fans were outraged when they received an email notifying them of the potential risks days later. Although the company did its best to step up responsibly, further reports of exploits didn't do much to quell anxiety and discussion over whether the company should be better protecting its users and the online service in which those users had invested.

Although the massive hack brought PSN to the forefront of news and tech reporting and was undoubtedly one of the year's major events, the storm of discussion that followed over whether the company could have handled it better, spoken up sooner, apologized with more attention to humility or been quicker about delivering compensatory rewards to users put Sony in the hot seat for the better part of the year.

Honorable Mentions: Diablo III business model, Scrolls patent debate between Mojang and Bethesda.


Top 5 Most Anticipated Games Of 2012

In an industry as fiercely competitive and rapidly changing as ours, it's important to keep looking ahead toward the future to see where the trends are going. And, yes, while trends seem to be leaning toward the mobile and free-to-play sides these days, those games are so rarely announced in advance that we're hard-pressed to even name any that aren't already available.

Luckily, there are still plenty of promising games on the way to consoles and PCs, and we have a pretty good idea of which games to expect in those spaces next year. The following five titles are the ones we're most looking forward to: both as industry watchers and as fans.

5. Max Payne 3 (Rockstar Vancouver, Take-Two/Rockstar)

Grizzled film noire lead wannabe Max Payne returns in a third outing, and it's about time: believe it or not, Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne came out over eight years ago. Kids who were 13 when it came out can buy a beer now.

More interesting to us, however, is the prospect of a new game from Rockstar Vancouver. The studio hasn't released a new game since 2006's Bully (though they did upgrade and port the game in subsequent years), and we're itching to see how this promising studio has honed its craft over these last six years or so.

4. Sound Shapes (Queasy Games, SCE)

Sony Computer Entertainment's Sound Shapes is looking to be the system defining show-off game for its upcoming Vita portable. It's brand new, it's unique, and it utilizes the unique features that make the Vita what it is.

It's difficult to describe the premise of Sound Shapes, though calling it a "puzzle game" is a good place to start. Players control an abstract shape navigating a retro-futuristic minimalist landscape that incorporates music and sonically evolves as you go, much like Rez.

The game is played with swipe and touch controls seamlessly integrated on both the front and rear touchpads of the Vita, making it a game that just wouldn't be the same on any other system. If the Vita's going to catch up with the 3DS, it's going to need quite a few games like these.

3. BioShock Infinite (Irrational Games, Take-Two/2K Games)

The original Bioshock is one of those rare games that still holds up as a talking point over four years later. When we talk about art, storytelling, and choices in games, we still refer to BioShock, whether we think those aspects of the game hold up or not.

While BioShock 2 was a fine game, BioShock Infinite returns the franchise to its creators at Irrational Games. Like the original, Infinite's art direction -- which combines the Utopian vision of a 19th century

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