2012 has been a landmark year for shifts in the game inudstry. Whether it's the rise of crowdfunding or the downfall of the mid-tier, the ascendence of new mobile royalty or the fall of traditional publishing titans, there's a humongous amount of information to consider, assess, and reflect on. And that's why Gamasutra, in the form of this round-up feature of our annual year-end pieces, has taken an expansive look back at the year -- to closely examine what has happened in the past 12 months.
The 5 trends that defined the game industry in 2012 (Kris Graft)
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. King.com 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.
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.
The 5 events that shook the video game industry in 2012 (Frank Cifaldi)
I can't help but shake the feeling that 2012 is the start of the most major disruption to video games since the crash of the early 1980s. All year long I felt like we were on the precipice of something, some major fundamental change (or, more likely, combination of changes) that is forever going to change the way we work in this industry.
I can't wait to see what it is.
We've already gone over the trends that defined the year, so what I want to do now is whittle the year down to five distinct moments, the five events that shook us the most in 2012.
When 38 Studios imploded
The mere existence of 38 Studios was one of my favorite things about the video game industry. That a man could make his fortune being an all-star baseball pitcher and use it to jumpstart a video game studio, hire his favorite people, and make the kinds of games he wants to play was proof that even the wildest adolescent fantasies can come true.
Unfortunately, the dream didn't last. While still in the midst of developing its ambitious MMO (codenamed Copernicus), 38 missed a loan payment to the state of Rhode Island, which helped get the company going with a $75 million loan (in exchange for operating in the state).
And that was just the start. 38 kept its employees working, without pay before laying them all off and declaring bankruptcy leaving developers -- many of whom relocated, only to find that 38 never actually paid for their relocation as promised -- stuck with no money and no severance in an area not exactly known for its thriving game development community.
When the doctors left the building
It didn't exactly come as a shock to us when BioWare founders Doctors Ray Muzyka and Greg Zeschuk (pictured above) resigned from the (now EA-owned) company they founded -- we'd been hearing rumors for the better part of the year, in fact -- but it still felt like a blow when it happened.
Both claimed that they felt like they'd accomplished what they'd wanted and that it was time to move on, but with the struggles of The Old Republic fresh on our minds, it was really hard not to draw a connection.
When the world hurled money at the little console that could
I had a meeting with Ouya founder Julie Uhrman before its Kickstarter went live and, skeptical as I was about how it would solve the ever-oppressive discoverability problem, I knew developers would flock to support a new kind of game console allowing basically anyone to make a game.
I didn't think it would go this far, though: at $8.6 million in pledges, Ouya is still the highest-grossing video game-related project in Kickstarter history.
The Ouya is obviously speaking to a desire that a whole lot of game developers have: to be able to self-publish games of any scale to a home television console that uses a real controller.
When #1reasonwhy made us all angry
As my boss Kris Graft pointed out yesterday in The 5 trends that defined the game industry in 2012, 2012 seems like it could go down as a turning point for diversity and gender inclusiveness in the video game industry which, sadly, is still around 90% male according to our independent research.
We're certainly no strangers to the issue around here, but never before was there such a concentration of horror stories, ranging from being groped at conferences to studios not hiring women because they're "more trouble than they're worth."
When professionals screamed for blood
This year's E3 was a weird one for us -- as you may have read previously -- but one particular moment sticks out, and is something we're still talking about.
During Sony's big annual press conference, with cameras rolling and the internet livestreaming and major media documenting what's new in the video game industry, we were all shown several minutes of gameplay of Naughty Dog's upcoming adventure game The Last of Us. It's an impressive game that, frankly, looks like it'll be great.
However, at the end of the demonstration, our protagonist -- who, granted, has been defending himself from enemies who would see him dead -- points a shotgun straight at a guy's face who literally begs for his life before being blown to pieces.
And in the crowded room full of video game professionals, the audience erupted in applause. I saw some people stand up in excitement. One guy threw punches at the air, unable to contain his joy at having seen this.
It remains to be seen if this moment is going to have any impact on the rest of the industry, but I think Gamasutra changed at that moment. All of us were frankly bored and a bit disgusted by the endless extreme violence we were seeing at the show earlier that day, but that moment really turned us off of triple-A video games for a while.
Here we are in an industry creating some of the most beautiful works of art that have ever been seen, literally redefining how humans interact with the very world they live in, and this is how we're represented at the largest trade show of the year?
Was it an overreaction? Maybe. But looking back over everything we wrote in 2012, I can't help but notice subtle changes to the way we covered this industry starting from that moment. We've been returning big publisher PR phone calls just a little bit less often, for better or for worse, and have retrenched a bit to focus more on what makes games great, as opposed to what games are selling the most.
The 5 most significant video game controversies in 2012 (Leigh Alexander)
Here at Gamasutra, I've been rounding up the annual biggest firestorms for some years now, yet this is the first time I've felt truly challenged.
Last year, I highlighted the "line in the sand" passionate gamers had drawn in a period of cultural growth -- by which I meant it's become clear more gamers than ever now have a zero-tolerance policy for prejudice, insensitivity and exclusionary attitudes witin our community.
This year bore that out in spades. This year we experienced equal parts righteousness and anxiety over the role and the portrayal of women in our industry, from arguments over "fake geek girls" to the truly humiliating wave of abuse and negativity that followed Anita Sarkeesian's Kickstarter to research stereotypes surrounding female characters in games.
That our most heated conversations this year took place surrounding allegations and analysis of sexism is simultaneously heartening and troubling. On one hand, that so many voices have swelled to fight old prejudices and boys' club attitudes in an industry that is by all metrics for everyone now is nothing short of amazing.
On the other hand, it prompts us to carefully consider our responsibility to educate, connect and empathize on these issues so that they become battles that rational people can share.
It's also an issue of concern to me personally that so often the conversation is about sexism, when in fact the bigger issue is assuring an inclusive industry for all, where everyone, regardless of class, orientation, color, age, heritage or creed, feels welcome and respected.
So I could do a top five list only about controversies over sexism -- and honestly, it's tempting, because so many of us have been waiting so long to be heard, to feel cared for in an industry we all deeply love, and as one of the more vocal women in the press on this movement I can't help but feel responsible.
Yet I made an effort this year to focus not on smaller fires, but on broader trends toward the maturation of games and their relationship with their audience.
Many small fires become an inferno, after all.
Mass Effect's Ending
After three installments in BioWare's widely-celebrated franchise, the saga of Shepard came to an end. And yet it was far from over -- the ending of the game caused a vocal outcry of fan dissatisfaction with everything from the tone to the logic of the story itself. Particularly damning was the allegation that fans didn't have enough choice and control over their destiny, given that one of the strengths of the series is that it works to give players exactly that.
Fans can carry over their protagonist from one game to the next, deeply invested in a character who by him or herself is mainly a cipher, but through player choice becomes someone with an identity and a destiny elected by the game's audience over years. Players saw the fact that they felt such little control over the story's final outcome as nothing short of absolute betrayal, like BioWare had reneged on its commitment to them.
Many fans were happy to eventually receive a new ending and to be heard. What was interesting about the controversy was that it called into question the auteurship of a developer. BioWare's decision to release a new ending provoked much discussion -- should a studio rewire its vision if fans don't like it? Will gamers regularly be able to petition studios to gratify them, and how important is it that fans be totally content with a plot?
The goal of massive franchises for years has been to create a sustaining, even deeply personal relationship with players. But clearly that success comes with a cost.
Anita Sarkeesian, the tall poppy
Feminist media critic Anita Sarkeesian launched a Kickstarter campaign hoping to fund a web series, "Tropes vs. Women," that would enable her to present an exploration of the portrayal of female characters in games. It was a fairly simple ambition for which she asked for $6000 -- and got much more than that, in every sense of the phrase.
Criticisms of the project's purpose or why someone would want thousands of dollars to make videos were to be expected in the demanding crowdfunding age. But what was truly horrifying was the backlash, with vocal online communities mounting hate campaigns and viewing intimidation and harrassment of Sarkeesian as a personal mission. Someone even made a Flash game about beating her face black-and-blue.
Their goal was to get her to give up. But regardless of one's opinion of her work and its goals, the level of purposeful, high-volume vitriol cannot be excused. Calls for change are threatening to a community that particularly values its escapism, its places safe from judgment, and too often men hear the word "feminism" and jump to the conclusion they're being attacked or accused of sexism personally. But there's just no way to rationalize what Sarkeesian endured.
The silver lining is that in a show of support, the community gave Sarkeesian many times what she asked for. The spotlight will be on her intensely now, and the results of her research, the status of which importantly isn't yet known, will be closely scrutinized. But anyone who loves games is obligated to be incredibly conscious of how ugly is the underbelly of our community and how far we have yet to go. We've looked into the abyss.
Are the crowds wise?
This year we witnessed how broad-ranging the impact of crowdsourcing is on determining what products get made, and on the very shape of our industry. In the online age we've talked a blue streak about listening to your players, and about putting the shape of a living, always-on product into the hands of your community.
Now, from a mass rush of Kickstarters to Valve's placing the power of decision in players' hands with Steam Greenlight, the business itself is now increasingly player-led. Largely this has been a good thing, sensible for the allocation of resources and letting demand lead supply at the end of a late console cycle where risk-aversion and uncertainty are watchwords.
But a private anxiety roils beneath the surface of this unprecedented content democracy. To what extent can we trust the wisdom of the crowds? I recently wrote about how a group itself can become just as risk-averse as any investor the more information they're given, and game developers and fans alike are getting increasingly vocal about best practices.
Steam's Greenlight program faced some criticisms from the start, as amid a rush of content fans cleaved loyally to familiar concepts, and it soon became clear that crowdsourcing might not be the best engine to direct the spotlight onto new and difficult ideas. Kickstarter saw a retro boom this year -- turns out what people mostly want is things they've already had.
The extent of the power that crowdsourcing gives its community was poorly-anticipated; the initial wild west age has ebbed, and the results of many of the earliest-funded titles have yet to be seen. There's anxiety now, and both sides of the aisle -- creators and consumers -- will be keeping a close eye on that balance of power. We're learning what it really takes to make it in the era of crowd vote, and not everyone likes that. The rumbles of uncertainty have begun, and will likely reach a fever pitch in the year ahead.
Passionate gamers have mistrusted the games press for years, scrutinizing review sites and their writers closely to ensure that they're receiving a trusted, objective opinion that hasn't been massaged by free drinks, marketing swag or corporate pressure. The Kane and Lynch scandal that led Jeff Gerstmann away from Gamespot years ago shows that there is some foundation to their concerns -- advertisers are aggressive.
Marketers have gotten adept at controlling the information cycle that surrounds new releases, and while the online age and the rise of independent outlets has punctured some holes in the old bargaining relationship between print magazines and advertisers, those advertisers still stamp their influence all over us, as Mountain Dew holds hands with Halo and Geoff Keighley is infamously photographed beside a bag of Doritos.
New concerns came to a very ugly head earlier this year at the UK's Games Media Awards, when at Eurogamer Rab Florence criticized the event -- where the nation's games press is recognized at an event plush with sponsors and a cabal of publishers -- as emblematic of the fact that the relationship between supposed journalists and the companies they're paid to cover is still too buddy-buddy.
Individual writers were slammed widely for participating in a hashtagged Tweet-off to win a free PlayStation 3. Amid the controversy one of the accused writers was ultimately dismissed from her job, the final punishment after a virulent outpouring of criticism some likened to witch-hunting. Before that, Florence resigned from Eurogamer as his piece was edited under fear of reprisal from the accused.
It was a painful experience for all who cover games in the UK, and even on our shores it prompted much soul-searching on our role and identity as professionals -- or whether some of us want or need to be "professionals" at all. It was a watershed moment in a burgeoning identity crisis for writing on games, which increasingly serves many different roles and many different audiences.
Games writers are now critics, essayists, industry experts, news reporters, authors of buyer's guides, comedians, diarists and community leaders. "Objectivity" is not only overrated, but impossible outside the discipline of reportage. But many of us will have to define our roles -- and then act in accordance with those roles -- if we hope to sustain the trust of our readership.
Failure to communicate
Back to the small fires, and to the inferno: The issues that raised our hackles the most this year were led by major communications failures. Borderlands 2's decision to include a mode that encourages a non-gamer friend or partner to have an accessible playtime along with you was clearly a sound one -- it was just those two little words, "girlfriend mode," that made people angry, as they perhaps suggested a wider prejudice.
Hitman made not one but two marketing gaffes: The stripper-nuns yielded a bewildered apology, and a Facebook app that essentially gamified bullying to sell the game after it launched to mixed reception showed a baffling failure of judgment. It was live for just an hour before outrage got it pulled. The apology was already prepared; someone's legal department had been ready to pull the trigger. They knew it was stupid and they did it anyway.
Though I've admittedly not seen it myself, by all the early accounts I've heard the new Tomb Raider game, with Rhianna Pratchett as writer, is actually shaping up to be an interesting portrayal of a younger Lara Croft, who's made a long and often-awkward journey from 90's sex doll toward actual character.
But you wouldn't guess it by the game's early reveals, which featured Croft's torture-porny grunting and moaning as her exposed body took injury after injury, nor by the revelation that essentially the game was going to shape her character by having her endure a rape attempt. We got only enough information to make a negative conclusion -- did anyone actually believe we'd hear that and go, "wow, sounds fun"?
E3 was ugly, too. Our Frank Cifaldi already outlined how uncomfortable our staff felt seeing colleagues and fans rise to cheer for a shotgun blow to the face. Many of us shared our private uncertainty: Tons of us started in this field as barely older than kids ourselves; now many of us have our own, and feel anxious about how an environment where scantily-clad women parade around a celebration of violence reflects on our choice of career. Following the event many women were outspoken about how unwelcome they felt. We want to believe that developers are still doing rich, diverse work -- but it sure doesn't look that way to see how Los Angeles celebrates our industry with that tone.
Or with the recent Spike VGAs, which while much improved tonally on recent years, still featured a Wayans enthusiastic about his son, who by according to him hasn't yet grown pubic hair, getting to shoot people in the face thanks to gaming. "Without characters, how can you shoot someone in the face?" joked presenter Samuel L. Jackson.
We don't need always to be reverent; nobody wants to live with their finger constantly hovering over the "I'm offended" button. There are all kinds of games out there, from tiny homemade essays on the self to big-budget retail war orgies -- and that's good. There's room for all kinds. We are entitled to be silly and violent just as much as we're entitled to be sincere.
The problem is that in spite of the vast array of game development going on, the solving of design problems, the success of games of all sizes and budgets for bigger, richer and more passionately-engaged audiences than ever, most people think this is all we are.
What if they think this is all we can ever be, no matter how hard we're trying to tell both the creative industry and the rest of the world who we really are, what we're really doing here, why we love video games? That should outrage everybody.
The 5 biggest disappointments of 2012 (Christian Nutt)
This was a hard list to write, for a lot of reasons. Of course, I have my own personal disappointments -- where the hell is the U.S. version of Bravely Default? -- but they don't necessarily stop the industry in its tracks.
There's also something unpalatable about reflecting on disappointment. One's mind wants to bounce over the surface of the emotion, like a rock skipping on a pond, without diving in. And trying to think back and remember what was disappointing is an odd experience. Can you?
Some things, though, simply stood out to me, and once I gave in to the feeling, it was easy to come up with a list of letdowns.
Star Wars: The Old Republic
Almost a year ago, Star Wars: The Old Republic launched amidst tremendous fanfare and confident projections from publisher Electronic Arts about its commercial potential. Astute observers had noted signs of trouble for years; many had questioned whether or not BioWare's strength in single player storytelling would translate to an MMO; whether too much money was being spent on the game's development; whether the subscription model still worked, and other concerns.
Well, things went just about as badly as they could have, in the end. Yes, the initial sell-through was strong, but that was the last good news about the game. The Old Republic's design was panned as uninventive; the player population dwindled precipitously when subscribers reached the end of the game's scripted content; by the middle of the year, EA had already announced plans to take the MMO free-to-play to shore up its sagging server populations. For what's reputedly the most expensive game ever developed, this is not a good outcome.
The PlayStation Vita is the most capable dedicated handheld gaming device ever launched -- and apparently the most undesirable. While Sony made sure that the launch was supported with an outing from the Uncharted series and a host of other games across various genres, software support has since been anemic the world over, and sales of both hardware and games have followed in kind.
Japanese gamers are content to stick with the PSP, which continues to be the favorite system of die-hards, or migrate to Nintendo's 3DS, which has become a resounding success in that territory over the past year. Western gamers are essentially avoiding the system altogether. Insider reports of the sales of what should have been the system's flagship Western holiday title, Call of Duty: Black Ops Declassified, are commensurate with its Metacritic score (31, as of this writing.)
The top game for the system -- in both Japan and the U.S. -- is Persona 4: Golden, a port of a four year old PlayStation 2 game. That is a sad condemnation of the system, quality of the game aside, and an indication that Sony never understood its audience of hardcore early adopters, widely missing the mark with its software lineup.
No matter how problematic it may be this lineup, apparently, is something Sony seems to -- for some reason -- have little interest in anymore. E3, Gamescom, and Tokyo Game Show went by with a single outstanding title revealed -- Media Molecule's Tearaway, which will be a very lonely game indeed.
With Call of Duty all but assuredly a failure, the Vita's outlook for 2013 is extremely muted. What Western publisher will touch a system that Call of Duty can't save? With Japan ignoring the system -- it has no announced Final Fantasy titles, a first for a Sony system -- what will those Persona 4 Golden fans move on to?
We've already written about the turning point this year's E3 was for Gamasutra's staff, among others. I won't recapitulate that here. But the show failed on other levels, too.
E3 feels dated. The show, originally launched in 1995, has essentially remained unchanged -- except for two years of flirtations with new formats in 2007 and 2008 which were, if anything, worse.
Think back to those years. The show's management, recognizing that it had become a ridiculous spectacle, hideously expensive and inefficient, scaled back wildly to restrict the expo to the press and those who had real business to do.
Fast forward to 2012, and the show is just as huge and loud and tacky as ever it was; it's just as choked with retail employees and others who have no actual business to conduct at the event. In fact, more games than ever are now exclusively behind closed doors, a tacit acknowledgment of how many unwanted civvies are getting in -- which is also reflected in how all the booths have been completely reduced to tacky spectacles, with a focus on booth babes, aliens, cars, celebrities, and other distractions.
But also look at the swelling attendance of Gamescom and Tokyo Game Show, which let in the masses in an honest way -- and manage to separate the business and public aspects of the show very effectively. Look at PAX, which is a wholehearted celebration of games for gamers, with the community gathering to enjoy its hobby together. E3 is simply a showcase for the biggest, loudest, most crass and most powerful forces in the core game business, and without indies and other players outside of the triple-A console space, doesn't represent the industry as it really is.
Where's the vibrancy of the game industry we know and love? Elsewhere, it seems.
The pitch was fantastic: Indies having trouble? No problem. We don't have the time to deal with this problem internally, so we'll crowdsource a solution. The result, though, was severely problematic at launch, and still isn't quite right.
The original problem with the system -- the fact that Steam users could downvote games they weren't interested in, which lead to lots of partisan bashing of innocent titles -- was quickly fixed. But good games by serious indie developers, like Incredipede, are getting overlooked in favor of irredeemable trash like Postal 2. It has quickly devolved into a popularity contest, and what's popular is -- turns out -- not always great.
Now, games that are very far from release are getting into the voting, confusing its purpose. Is it meant to be a gateway for new games, or a way for the Steam community to vote on what it thinks might be interesting?
There's no doubt that Greenlight will become a valuable part of Steam, but it hasn't gotten there yet, leaving many of the people it was devised to help wanting more.
It's Mega Man's 25th Birthday and Nobody Came
When Keiji Inafune, Capcom's head of R&D, stepped down a couple of years ago, inside sources say that the franchise he created -- which was once the flagship property of the company he'd worked for since the 1980s -- was vanished. Games in development, both announced and unannounced, were unceremoniously killed. Mega Man was put on ice.
But 1987 was the year Mega Man was born, and you would have expected some meaningful acknowledgment of this from the company. Few publishers have vibrant, appealing franchises that date back to the NES days -- or ones so ripe for a reimagining, ones with such a passionate fan base.
Not so for Mega Man. So far we've seen the release of the (so far) Japan-only Rockman Xover, a social RPG for phones -- tenuously connected the anniversary at best -- and Street Fighter x Mega Man, a fan-made hack given legitimacy by Capcom USA's marketing department, desperate to stamp the otherwise unused Mega Man 25th Anniversary logo on something this year.
This is a sad testament to how politics can actually kill a beloved character; how we, as an industry, still suck at celebrating our past; and how potentially powerful franchises are left on the vine in the search for the next big thing.
The 5 biggest video game surprises of 2012 (Mike Rose)
Surprise surprise - it's time for another list of 2012 goings-on in the video game industry, this time focused on the events, games and buy-outs that made us sit back in shock.
There were nice surprises that inevitably caused a stir; head-scratching surprises that brought with them questionable connotations; completely out-of-the-blue surprises that caught us off-guard. A very surprising year all round, in fact.
The one thing all these surprises have in common? As each announcement dropped, Twitter and other social media were set ablaze with conversation, arguments and opinion. It's the way of the video game industry!
Double Fine starts the Kickstarter revolution
Before Tim Schafer's Double Fine launched its Double Fine Adventure Kickstarter earlier this year, Kickstarter was a place where smaller indie studios could seek an audience (and hopefully their wallets). I personally didn't know a single person who was even signed up to Kickstarter, let alone was pledging money to video game projects on the platform.
However, following the hugely successful $3.33 million-funded Kickstarter, which came completely out of nowhere and had Twitter all flustered for a good week or so, 2012 suddenly become the year of the video game crowdfunder. Schafer and co. had proved that even big companies could bypass publishers and have a crack at crowdfunding, and hordes of Kickstarter projects started to emerge, as too did the backers -- following the Double Fine Kickstarter, the number of people backing video game Kickstarters jumped by 15 times the original crowds.
Of course, there's now huge discussion on what feels like a weekly basis regarding whether all the Kickstarters that keep popping up are being poorly implemented, and Kickstarting for the sake of Kickstarting. However, there's no question that Double Fine's Kickstarter was a huge surprise, and a notable turning point in 2012.
Steam's Greenlight process opens the submission floodgates
Since the launch of Steam in 2003, Valve has always kept rather quiet about how its game selection process works, and what exactly developers can do to breach the hull of PC game mega sales.
As we're more than aware of now, 2012 was the year that this all changed, with the debut of Steam Greenlight -- a service that suddenly turned the Steam submission process on its head. No longer could developers simply email Valve and then sit back and pray that they were picked up. Now it was suddenly all down to PC gamers, and whether or not they were willing to click the little thumbs-up button on your game's Greenlight page.
The initial surprise announcement was soon engulfed in discussion of how Greenlight would work, who would be successful, whether it would work in the favor of all developers, and what kind of games would be picked up the quickest. It's still early days for the initiative, but the submission process definitely feels a lot more open than it has done for the last nine years.
Zynga fills its mobile hole... for $180 million
It all happened so quickly and so suddenly, that it was impossible not to feel taken aback by what happened to Draw Something studio Omgpop.
One moment, it was launching a mobile version of a Pictionary-like Facebook game that had a moderate number of players. The next, it had the number one top grossing game on iOS, and multiple companies looking to swoop in for the buy-out. But it was likely this rush to own Omgpop that saw Zynga paying a whopping $180 million, all simply to own the Draw Something brand and boost its mobile offerings.
In fact, it took just over six weeks from the launch of Draw Something on mobile for Omgpop to go from being a studio that not many had really heard of, to suddenly being worth $180 million to Zynga. It was this purchase that made us question whether Zynga's spending was out of control, and marked a notable point in the social game giant's decline in 2012.
Sony buys cloud gaming platform Gaikai
It had been rumored for a while that Gaikai was looking for a buyer, and elsewhere there was talk of Microsoft planning to enter the cloud gaming space. Then rather suddenly, Sony announced that it had snapped Gaikai up for a cool $380 million.
Sony said that it was planning to use Gaikai's resources to build its own cloud gaming service, and it's looking likely that this sort of service will be built into the next PlayStation home console. This, of course, set of numerous theories all over the internet regarding how the PS4, or even the PS3, could utilize the cloud gaming space.
The deal has been very quiet since July, and with Sony's falling revenues from its video game business, you have to wonder how this is affecting its cloud gaming future. Only the future will tell whether this surprise purchase will yield results.
The Walking Dead redefines adventure games
If you'd said a year ago that Telltale's The Walking Dead episodic adventure game would sweep the VGAs this year and be a huge talking point in video game discussions throughout 2012, some would think you were mad. After all, Telltale is a great studio with plenty of good adventure games under its belt, but it has never really produced anything especially Game of the Year worthy. Plus, aren't we all a bit sick of zombies by now?
And yet here we are, toasting the bliss of a storytelling masterclass and eagerly awaiting a second season. The Walking Dead isn't simply just another Telltale adventure game -- rather, it's one of the best implementations of storyline and gameplay splashed together in a video game. It's touted as an experience that twists and turns depending on the decisions you make... except that it actually does change, rather than just saying it does on the back of the box. And if you can truly reach the end of the saga without feeling strongly for the characters, there's perhaps no hope for you.
Now we're hoping that by raising the storytelling bar, The Walking Dead's presence will breed a new gaggle of video games that don't feature stories that we'd rather hammer the A button through. We're not holding our breath, but at least we've got season two to look forward to.
Gamasutra's Top 10 developers of 2012
Typically, Gamasutra publishes its Top 5 developers of the year. But not in 2012. This time, we've doubled the size of our list to a nice, even 10 in order to better accommodate the number of developers who exceeded expectations and pushed creative, commercial and cultural boundaries. Of course, even at 10, it was difficult narrowing down who to include.
This is not intended to be a list of 10 developers who happened to make good games in 2012 (though releasing a good game certainly didn't hurt anyone's chances of being included). When selecting the developers on this list (presented alphabetically), Gamasutra and Game Developer magazine editors determined which ones defined the year in a positive way. These are the developers and studios that left their mark on 2012 -- the ones that the industry will be watching in the years ahead.
- Kris Graft, Editor-in-Chief, Gamasutra
For years, one-man show Jonatan "Cactus" Soderstrom has been almost embarrassingly prolific, producing a veritable catalogue of the thoughtful, manic and strange. Doing so many short, experimental games tuned his creativity -- but by his own admission, it highlighted how he's historically lacked the confidence to manage a bigger project, the sort that might actually pull in revenue. You know, for rent and stuff.
This year, he forged an official partnership with visual artist Dennis Wedin, and from Dennaton Games, the sharp and addictive Hotline Miami was born, radiant with the surreality and irreverence of the '80s. The game's nearly-universal positive critical reception crowned the commercial debut of a prolific and always-unique underground artist -- and his attitude to software piracy was eye-opening, even revolutionary.
Though naturally he would have preferred the inevitable pirates pay, Soderstrom jumped into the trenches at torrent site The Pirate Bay to offer tech support, advice and even a patch for those that had obtained his game illegally. His embrace of the inevitability of piracy helped start a revolution in the relationship between devs and their community, and even led to other indies earning money for their games through pay-what-you-want goodwill. This year, Cactus has been an icon for how the creative agility and adaptability of a small indie can be leveraged against the larger landscape.
It's not often that an entirely new genre segment explodes, but that's something Tokyo-based Cygames has managed in the mobile social space. Rage of Bahamut debuted earlier this year for Android and iOS in the West, and its Japanese-inflected collectible card gameplay has proven surprisingly successful. Since its launch, it's stayed parked at the top of the top grossing charts for both Google Play and the App Store. That's quite an achievement for a game that even its U.S. publisher, Ngmoco, was initially skeptical about.
But Cygames has accomplished more than blowing open the doors on a new genre on mobile devices. Fads are fads, and collectible card games will inevitably cool off when the market gets saturated (we're already well on the way to this). No, what Cygame did that will have a more lasting impact is conclusively proving that a niche of dedicated gamers can successfully be induced to pay for a free-to-play game on mobile at high enough rates to support the development of core games for these devices. Rage of Bahamut is the mid-core success story of the year, and paves the way for many developers to follow in its footsteps.
The company managed to smash all of the previous video game crowdfunding records when it managed to raise $3.3 million dollars to develop an old-fashioned adventure game, over eight times the $400,000 it was asking for. And it did it merely by being itself.
Crowdfunding has become so commonplace so quickly that it's hard to imagine how weird it would have been, even a year ago, to have a video game designer on camera in his office asking his fans for money. Double Fine paved the way for what appears to be a crowdfunding revolution in 2012.
Add to that its unique Amnesia Fortnight project, in which fans were able to vote on which concepts the studio would prototype next (as well as watch them unfold and, at the end, play them), and you have what could be the early stages of what is either a temporary trend or a video game revolution. Either way, you can't look back at 2012 without closely examining Double Fine.
Before King.com skyrocketed to success on the back of Bubble Witch Saga -- becoming Facebook's number two developer in the process -- conventional wisdom was that if you didn't get onto the platform during the gold rush days of cheap virality, it would be impossible to build meaningful audience share. That's one myth shattered.
But there's more to the King.com story. For years now, the company has operated a successful web-based casual games business. It was able to transition over to Facebook with a stack of proven games, and smartly wrap them in what it calls a "social envelope" which powers its success on that specific platform. Delivering puzzle games to an underserved and hungry audience has driven its success.
Then, King.com turned around and spun its triumph on Facebook into a major win on iOS, driving top 10 success for Bubble Witch Saga without spending a dime marketing the game. Rather, success was achieved by getting its existing audience to go mobile, thanks to a strategy of smart viral integration and progression and purchase parity between versions of its games. This set the standard for cross-platform integration.
Bubble Witch Saga certainly wasn't the first bubble-popping game, and it wasn't even the first on Facebook -- but it's shown the world how this segment of the business is supposed to work.
Sometimes the developers that lead new trends in the ways we think about games never set out to make "games", per se, at all. Toronto-based Christine Love started out exploring ways to make her writing interactive, and work like Digital: A Love Story and Don't Take It Personally, Babe, It Just Ain't Your Story gained cult acclaim for their unique storytelling -- while Love herself became known as one of the rare creators experimenting with the visual novel format in the West.
This year's Analogue: A Hate Story, launched in February, is her most expansive work yet, tasking the player with mining the diaries of a mysterious lost society -- while engaging and bonding with the AI characters who manage that information. The game caught fire among fans for its thoughtful storytelling, especially as regards the development of romantic relationships through conversation, a subject rarely of focus in indie games.
The popularity of Analogue, of which Love has independently sold more than 40,000 units this year, speaks to demand for Love's attention for themes of social interaction and romance in the digital age -- and is incredibly relevant as storytelling moves to the forefront among the text-oriented niches that are exploding in the age of portable reading.
If Double Fine paved the dusty road between game players and game developers, it was Obsidian that turned it into a two-way street.
Double Fine proved that crowdfunding game development is viable, but it was Obsidian that made its fans feel like they were part of the team. Through constant updates, fan forums, and a constant back and forth feedback loop, the team's "Project Eternity" feels like a crowd-developed game.
More importantly, Obsidian represents a developer quickly adapting and thriving in what is a rapidly changing game development world. The studio had been struggling with bad deals and draining triple-A work, but thanks to crowdfunding, it may have reinvented itself while playing to its core strengths.
If the studio is able to sustain with Project Eternity, and even have a follow-up developed in a similar way, it will have proven that a decently-sized studio can survive and thrive by independently making the games it wants to make, for fans that want to play them.
It can be tricky to admit your mistakes, learn from them and move on. That's exactly what Finnish games start-up Supercell did in 2011, when it realized that its multiplatform release Gunshine wasn't so hot with players. Now, a year on from that false start, the company is one of the most successful mobile studios to date, and currently has two games in the top five grossing apps on the iOS App Store.
So how exactly did Supercell swing from a dud release, to making $500,000 a day from two releases, Clash of Clans and Hay Day? The company recently told Gamasutra that it's all down to a mixture of elements, including its tablet-first approach, and its culture of celebrating failure and reveling in zero bureaucracy.
Whether the company will be able to repeat this success with its next upcoming releases remains to be seen, but it's hard to deny that Supercell is keeping its eye on the ball, and scoring success through carefully-planned mobile game execution. Supercell's success should also make other studios question whether attempting to cater for multiple platforms is, in fact, the right approach.
As the foremost stalwart of the episodic business model, Telltale Games had found success with the format, but the studio lacked a real bona fide blockbuster -- a hit that would prove once and for all that the episodic business model is not only commercially viable, but also a format that is capable of uniquely engaging audiences on an emotional level.
All due respect to previous titles from Telltale, but it wasn't until The Walking Dead that the studio really nailed the formula for an episodic series, from a commercial and creative standpoint. It seems that Telltale realized that it was time to identify and leverage the creative advantages of the episodic model, rather than fight against the disadvantages.
What The Walking Dead did this year was reinvigorate (and to an extent, redefine) the adventure game genre. And forget about the episodic format of the game for a minute -- aside from that, its storytelling and narrative were arguably the best of the year, character development was top notch and choices in the game presented a sense of urgency and meaningfulness. All of those aspects added up to one of the most engaging games of the year, one that people could not stop talking about. This list isn't really meant about studios that "merely" released a good game this year, but Telltale made such a leap forward with this series that it likely changed the studio for good -- we suspect other studios have been examining the series closely as well.
Although ThatGameCompany is still very much alive and kicking, 2012 felt like the end of an era at the Los Angeles studio. Up to this point, its three-game contract with Sony has yielded remarkable results with Flow and Flower, and swarms of players and the press alike were eager to see how the agreement's third and final release, Journey, would play out.
As we now know, Journey did not disappoint, garnering critical acclaim all-round. Like its predecessors, Journey is not your typical video game release, with a huge focus on visual stimulus and exploration with no hand-holding provided. And yet, while its premise appeared to clash with the types of experiences that the average console player would usually take part in, the game was hugely successful on PlayStation 3, and it soon became impossible to find someone who hadn't at least given it a go.
ThatGameCompany showed that players are in fact open to different experiences outside of their comfort zones, and it's notable that other similar games (such as The Unfinished Swan) have also been discussed widely since Journey's release.
Of course, that's not the whole 2012 story. Following the release of Journey, and the subsequent end of the Sony contract, various big-name individuals began to peel away from the company, including Kellee Santiago, Robin Hunicke and Chris Bell. Co-founder Jenova Chen remains, however, and the company now plans to develop games for multiple platforms. With all the studios' accomplishments in taking such emotional games mainstream, we can't wait to see what's next.
Instead of fretting too much over transitions in the triple-A space, Ubisoft Montreal (backed up by Ubisoft's worldwide network of studios) has been keeping its head down, making big, beautiful games, selling lots of them and simply knowing the kind of customers that it needs to cater to. Better than any other publisher-owned studio this year, Ubisoft Montreal has been able to deftly balance business responsibilities with an evolving creative vision that makes an honest effort to go beyond slapping a thick coat of gloss on tired ideas.
Ubisoft is apparently confident in the capabilities of its Montreal studio, releasing both Assassin's Creed III and Far Cry 3 into the thick of the highly-competitive 2012 shopping season. The strategy has worked out so far with Assassin's Creed III -- the annualized game still has momentum, selling through to consumers 7 million units in one month, the fastest-selling game in Ubisoft's history, according to the company. It's a testament to the game's quality (and to its massive marketing campaign). And when the studio revealed the upcoming Watch Dogs this year at E3, for many, it was the highlight of the show.
People are willing to pay $60 for a video game today, but expectations are high, and perhaps players are more demanding, as they have so many choices nowadays. They want to feel respected by developers. That respect is conveyed through a top-tier product that challenges not only their motor skills, but their expectations. There will always be room for triple-A games from the big publishers, as long as studios like Ubisoft Montreal lead by example -- simply inject about $60 worth of value into these games, and perhaps everything will be just fine.
The 10 Best Games of 2012
When Gamasutra and Game Developer staff got together to assemble this list, the mission wasn't necessarily to argue which games were the "best." Getting several very opinionated people to agree on something like this is close to impossible, especially when the task at hand is agreeing on which video games were the "best."
So this was our task: to identify the games that, to the highest positive degree, captured the interest, garnered the respect and appealed to the tastes of our veteran editorial team. That is to say, it's a pretty personal selection here. Does this selection also happen to be made up of the 10 "best" games of 2012?
Well, yeah okay, that's likely the case. So I'll just be blatantly presumptuous and call these The Best Games of 2012.
Note that we didn't bother arbitrarily ranking the games -- if your game is on this alphabetical list, it's a Game of the Year as far as we're concerned, and you're in great company.
- Kris Graft, Editor-in-Chief, Gamasutra
Dear Esther was a surprisingly moving experience for me. I had followed the game, and knew that it was around in some shape or form years prior, but only really played it when this year's complete makeover was finished. Arriving on the lonely island, I didn't know where to go or what to do, what my goal would be, what these abstract symbols and sparse narration even meant. That uncertainty and lack of direction fought against my intuition as a person who's played video games for most of his life. And that uncertainty is what makes Dear Esther so beautiful.
Once I accepted the fact that I'm just "here," and decided to look around (like any normal person would if they were dropped on an island, alone), is when I started to realize that Dear Esther is not so much an experiment in story, but in narrative. And it's a successful experiment. As players, we're so used to the heavy hand of the writer and designer, that we've gotten used to its weight, and when we lose that guiding hand, we're initially rather lost. But Dear Esther shows how a gentle nudge in the right direction can have more impact than a forceful push. It shows that a clear authorial vision and a unique brand of player agency can not only co-exist, but also flourish together. That gives me hope for the future of video game narrative. -- Kris Graft, Editor-in-Chief, Gamasutra
Arkane, Bethesda Softworks
I've always had an ambivalent relationship with first-person games. I don't like being a pair of disembodied hands made for killing. But something about Dishonored got to me -- the simple but intuitive stealth mechanics, the incredibly atmospheric machinist-mariner universe. The heart, a haunting narrator. The innovative range of abilities helped me feel more like I had more power over who my character was. I've been pretty disinterested in the genre conventions that sell in triple-A all year, but I'm happy to have been able to enjoy a game that focused so much on making its own road.
Even the game's violence is a considered, calculated symphony; every part of Dishonored is mindful. That's worth a lot to me. -- Leigh Alexander, Editor-at-Large, Gamasutra
I don't play for Hero Academy for hours, but I have played it basically every day since I bought an iPad, quite often with Kris Graft of this very web site. I like tactics games, and so does he, but we like different kind of tactics games. I tend toward the Japanese tactics games with their emphasis on style and smooth UI, where his interests are more in the hardcore XCOMs of the world. But Hero Academy quenches both our respective thirsts.
The game takes the traditional square grid, turn-based bent of tactics games like Final Fantasy Tactics, and makes it asynchronously multiplayer. But taking one turn at a time would be horrifically boring, so Robot gives you five turns that you must take. The "must" part is critical, because forcing each player to make five moves at once, with no skipping, means it's less likely that a griefing player will force his or her opponent to be the aggressor every time.
The game is also free to play, offering one balanced team to start with, and additional teams at a cost. This works well, because all the teams are quite well balanced against each other, each with strengths and weaknesses, and unique styles of play. These teams simply make the game more fun, they don't give an advantage to the player who spends. (The marked exception is the Team Fortress 2 team, which is unlocked when you buy the game for Steam, and is in definite need of nerfing.)
Robot has also smartly made inroads to China, going so far as to create a Shaolin team for the game's launch in the region, which features Shaolin monks, Taoist spellcasters, and traditional Chinese zombies.
Most importantly, the game actually allows for different tactics. Try playing the game against your game developer friends, and you may notice different trends emerge. Why are designers so aggressive? Why do programmers tend to be more methodical and defense-oriented? Who knows what the heck artists are trying to accomplish? A multiplayer game that shows you the personality of the player is a good game indeed. -- Brandon Sheffield, Editor Emeritus, Game Developer magazine
With its previous visually-unique, dreamlike titles flOw and Flower, Thatgamecompany was clearly aiming for something in particular, but it wasn't until Journey that it seemed to really attain that. Journey bore many of the same signatures -- the lightness of air or water, a focus on introspection, for example. But it had the very specific goal of creating a cooperative online experience that was specifically about players acting with and not upon one another, while remaining at a level of abstraction that permitted meditation.
I played Journey for the first time in front of a room full of non-gamers, expecting them to carry on talking while I distracted myself. But they talked about the game without prompting, played with its symbolism. And there was a moment when everyone present stopped talking and watched. And applauded. I felt finally some of my friends understood why I do what I do. I'll never forget it. -- Leigh Alexander, Editor-at-Large, Gamasutra
Integrating music-making into a game is a very tricky thing to do. In that light, perhaps the best thing I can say about Queasy Games' Sound Shapes is that within 30 seconds of understanding the way in which it wraps music around a simple platforming design, I slapped my forehead and thought, "Man, why didn't I think of that?" Of course, it only looks easy; co-creators Jonathan Mak and Shaw-Han Liem prototyped and iterated a lot before arriving at Sound Shapes' final design (see the Game Developer postmortem for more details), but their end result feels so simple, elegant, and obvious, which is a beautiful thing.
I could go on about its inspired artist/musician combinations (the Beck and Jim Guthrie/Superbrothers levels are my personal favorites), or how I adore the fact that the level editor tutorial is part of the actual game. But really, I think Sound Shapes is on our Top 10 list because it is, above all else, a triumph of design. -- Patrick Miller, Editor, Game Developer magazine
Mossmouth, Microsoft Studios
Remember when games were about discovery and serendipity? Spelunky's ingenious design doesn't just make those relevant again; they're its foundation. I've spent even more time watching my boyfriend play this dramatically updated version of Spelunky than I've played it myself, and I've spent a lot of time doing both.
I find myself saying that not just because it's indicative of how engrossing the game is -- when you watch someone else play, it's a tense drama of highs and lows. I'm also saying it because ever since I encountered the game this summer, I've lived in a permanent state of "wanting to play more Spelunky." It's not really possible to have played enough Spelunky, because there's always something to be gained from playing more.
It's always exciting, because it's always active. Moment-to-moment decision-making can have significant consequences. Since you can't memorize the game's layout, the only way to get further in Spelunky is to get better at Spelunky -- and that's what makes it so appealing. Knowing that if you are careful, lucky, and clever you'll not only get further, but maybe find something you've never seen before, means that there's always a reason to go back and try again. -- Christian Nutt, Features Director, Gamasutra
I've never been what you might call a "competitive gamer."
It's not that I don't understand competition. I am, for example, a fiercely competitive editor that loses sleep when another publication scoops us. I also have to, have to get there first if we're both driving to the same place. And don't get me started on food: while I'm enjoying the meal you cooked, I'm secretly planning how to make it better. But when it comes to video games, I prefer a solitary experience. I'm of the Nintendo generation, not the arcade one.
There was something about Super Hexagon that compelled me to continuously best my friends and claw my way up the leaderboards. It reached inside and touched some kind of hidden, primal part of me that made me spend the better part of a Sunday afternoon trying to best a friend's best time that was just three seconds better than mine. Three seconds! How hard could it be?
Maybe more importantly than all that, though, Super Hexagon just may have revived my faith in this art form. I had a trying year in 2012, not really wanting to play any of the games I was seeing, wondering if I'd somehow "outgrown" games…in my 30s! But somewhere in this perfect little game I found the simple joy that led me into this career in the first place. Video games are awesome. Thanks for reminding me, Terry. -- Frank Cifaldi, News Director, Gamasutra
The Walking Dead
For the first time ever, I teared up at a video game in 2012. That game was Telltale's The Walking Dead, and it was by far one of the most welcome surprises of 2012, acting as conclusive evidence that an incredible narrative can in fact overcome middling gameplay elements. This Telltale-developed title features some of the most glorious story writing and choice elements I've ever seen in a video game, and feels like a huge step in the right direction for storytelling in our industry.
From the relationship between Lee and his daughter-by-default Clementine, to the trials and tribulations for Kenny and his family (some of which really got my eyes watering), the five-part adventure game pushes the boundaries of video game narrative. It's frequently heart-wrenching as your fellow apocalypse survivors are picked off one-by-one, but there are also numerous moments of fuzzy warmth, despite the zombie-filled surroundings.
Oh, and you know when a game says that it's giving you choices, but then those choices barely affect much at all? The Walking Dead's decisions actually matter, in such a way that choices you made in chapter one are still having great consequences by the final hurdle.
With The Walking Dead easily claiming my own personal game of the year tag, the hope is now that its presence will breed a new gaggle of video games that don't feature stories that I'd rather hammer the "skip" button through. I'm not exactly holding my breath, but hey -- at least The Walking Dead Season Two is confirmed. -- Mike Rose, UK Editor, Gamasutra
XCOM: Enemy Unknown
As I was sitting on my couch, Xbox controller in hand, something dawned on me: I'm playing a turn-based strategy game on my TV, it's a new XCOM, it's a big-budget retail release from a major publisher, and it's really good. So, good on everyone who worked to get this thing greenlit. XCOM: Enemy Unknown really appealed to me because of its layers of grand strategy, which are layered over a tactics system that played like a board game (which makes sense -- the developers used a board game to prototype the system).
It's also extremely rare for a strategy game to weave a narrative into the gameplay, but XCOM pulled it off, thanks to a brilliant framework that facilitated emergent storytelling and narrative.
Perhaps the most subtle, yet important reason that I enjoyed XCOM so much is that everything -- from the action figure-esque character design to the fact that it's based on a dormant PC strategy series -- gave me the impression that someone's hands were on this game. It's a big-budget, polished game, that wasn't just a product. This game meant something to Firaxis, and it shows. -- Kris Graft, Editor-in-Chief, Gamasutra
Zero Escape: Virtue's Last Reward
Spike Chunsoft, Aksys Games
A lot of people talk about the idea that narrative and gameplay have nothing to do with one another -- or, beyond that, the idea that story should be stricken from games entirely; the premise of this argument is that story somehow pollutes games.
I can't stand this, because I love stories. I love stories that have been crafted by writers -- stories that are full of ideas. That would be reason enough to love Virtue's Last Reward, as it's a complex but coherent story that's just bursting with them. But there's more going on here: it's a story that you explore, a story not aside from gameplay, but as gameplay.
Like any good mystery, it keeps you guessing. In fact, that's the engine that powers Virtue's Last Reward: you throw yourself into the story, trying to piece it together, and literally leaping from node to node, exploring every moment of its narrative. What's important? What's a red herring? What's just an interesting idea that's there just because it's interesting, and nothing more? It's all there for you to discover -- to fully participate in its discovery.
When you find yourself tackling this story -- piecing it together in your head as the game pieces it together in front of you, breaking open its "locks" as the pieces start to fit -- it's a real moment of forward motion in storytelling gameplay. It's a passionate exploration of what narrative as game can be by people who care about both. -- Christian Nutt, Features Editor, Gamasutra
Kris Graft, EIC, Gamasutra
Assassin's Creed III - Ubisoft Montreal: A lot of care was put into recreating colonial America, and it's the setting that I appreciate most about this game. It's a finely-tuned triple-A action-adventure romp, with lots of objectives to accomplish and enemies to dispatch, but the best part was just walking around and enjoying the scenery whenever possible.
Guild Wars 2 - ArenaNet, NCsoft: I don't like MMOs, but I've always been able to enjoy the Guild Wars series. Guild Wars 2 is one of the more beautiful games of the year, with an aesthetic that differentiates itself from World of Warcraft and other fantasy games. That, combined with coherent storytelling and tight systems made this a standout title for me this year.
The Room - Fireproof Games: This iOS game is a lesson in tactile and intuitive touchscreen design. It lets players explore not a vast world, but various puzzle boxes that players poke, prod and investigate. It's a personal experience, finely crafted and quite elegant.
Christian Nutt, Features Director, Gamasutra
The Last Story - Mistwalker, Marvelous AQL, XSEED: I wasn't even interested in this one at first, but I fell in love with it before long -- fell in love with its cast of characters, fell in love with its fat-free storytelling and gameplay, fell in love with its classic heart but innovative spirit. A surprise and a gem.
Kid Icarus Uprising - Project Sora, Nintendo: The sprawling creativity and appeal of its single player campaign is actually outshone for me by its multiplayer, which blends the kinetic precision of Smash Bros. with Western shooter gameplay. You wouldn't expect it to work but it does -- beautifully.
Theatrhythm: Final Fantasy - Indies Zero, Square Enix: Final Fantasy as rhythm game seems ridiculous at first blush, but the perfect selection of tracks, simple but responsive touch gameplay, and ruthlessly tuned progression kept me hooked. I'd play it in the morning as soon as I woke up, play it in the evening in stolen moments, guiltily -- and beg to play the multiplayer given half a chance.
Frank Cifaldi, News Director, Gamasutra
The Last Express - Smoking Car, DotEmu: Jordan Mechner's first, last, and best adventure game finally feels like it founds its home on my iPad's screen. I'm a big fan of interactive narrative confining itself to one small environment and spending its time fleshing it out as much as possible: what better place than a train to play with this idea?
Spec Ops: The Line - Yager Development, 2K Games: - I don't play shooters for reasons beyond the scope of this article. They're just not for me. But there was something so incredibly ballsy about the bait-and-switch this game pulled on its players -- a Heart of Darkness homage disguised as a Call of Duty knock-off -- that I couldn't help but play through it with deep respect and admiration.
The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening - Nintendo: OK, so this game didn't come out this year, but I discovered it for the first time, and I'm floored by its elegant simplicity. Remember when video games felt like, you know, video games? Why isn't there anything remotely as good as this 19-year-old game on Facebook?
Mike Rose, UK News Editor, Gamasutra
Mark of the Ninja - Klei Entertainment: Stealth gameplay done so very right. It's slick, it makes you feel like a boss, and it lets you tackle each situation in a huge variety of ways. 2D platforming at its finest.
Trials Evolution - Redlynx, Ubisoft: I hated Trials HD, so to call Trials Evolution one of my personal favorite games of the year may sounds crazy. But what RedLynx did to the original formula -- gave it personality; made it more accessible while keeping the difficulty levels up; adding fantastic social elements -- was a godsend.
Gravity Rush - SCE Japan Studio, Sony: Both this and Uncharted: Golden Abyss made me love my PS Vita this year, but Gravity Rush just pipped Drake at the post for my most memorable Vita experience. There's nothing quite like soaring through the sky and watching the gorgeous visuals go by on a handheld screen.
Leigh Alexander, Editor-at-Large, Gamasutra
Tokyo Jungle - SCE Japan Studio, Crispy's, Sony: Cats, deer and dogs in party hats in an abandoned city. Charming and eminently playable, the way it makes light of the frailties of nature makes experiences you want to tell stories about.
Persona 4: The Golden - Atlus: More than just a remake, the fresh, modern and massive JRPG has gotten a coat of polish shiny enough to seduce new fans and to tempt old ones for another go. The JRPG often feels like a niche art, but this is the kind of formidable, appealing hit that hints there's still a big audience out there.
Eurydice - Anonymous: One of the top-ranked games in the 2012 IF Competition bypasses preconceptions about nerdy parser-struggles to deliver a sparse yet beautifully-written parable on love and death. It's one of my favorite experiences this year.
Brandon Sheffield, Editor Emeritus, Game Developer magazine
Dust: An Elysian Tail - Humble Hearts, Microsoft: I don't much care for the character designs, but this is one of the biggest passion projects I've ever seen. Incredibly detailed animation, a full, living world, clever puzzles and challenges, all created (by and large) by one person who couldn't even program at the start of development. The combat in this game is some of the most fun I've had in a 2D action title in years, and is the first game I actually played to completion this year. (Disclaimer - I'm only including games I beat.)
Lili - BitMonster Games: When it comes to high-end iOS games, you can have your Infinity Blades and Horns, those games' universes don't appeal to me. I like wonder and whimsey in my games, something you rarely see in the present era of realistic guns and guts. Lili's well-realized world is one I actually want to explore, and it has characters I'm interested in, and mechanics that don't drive me up a wall (your mileage may vary - definitely play it on an iPad). I found this game incredibly charming, and I would love to see more games follow suit.
Cave Rescue - Quikding Gamesoft: I'm not expecting anyone else to agree, but I love the bizarre, and Cave Rescue is a fantastically curious experiment. The game's inputs are simple, the graphics are MSPaint atrocities, and the music is like a gorgeous fever dream. And it all works perfectly together. Not only that, the game is loaded with extras, with bonus games peppered through the game's many arcade machines (walk up to one - like in Shenmue - and have a go). I'm constantly surprised that more people aren't singing the praises of Quikding's fantastical game oddities, but that probably says more about me than it does you.
Patrick Miller, Editor, Game Developer magazine
Hotline Miami - Dennaton Games: Hotline Miami's psychedelic, ultraviolent visual motif stands in direct contrast to its clinical, iterative game design to produce what i imagine is a study in psychopathology. Each level feels, to me, like a problem-solving exercise similar to a crossword puzzle -- even though I'm murdering hundreds of people. If there's one thing devs could learn from this game, it's "Show, don't tell."
Skullgirls - Reverge Labs, Lab Zero Games: Skullgirls embodies perhaps the best and worst of 2012 for fighting games. The game design, the score, the character art and animation -- everything about Skullgirls is a love letter to the 2D fighting game at its best. Had Skullgirls managed to pull in enough sales to build the critical mass necessary to sustain a dedicated, long-term competitive community, I think it would have had a shot at the top 10.
ZiGGURAT - Action Button Entertainment: Let me be clear: There are many mobile game developers, but there are not so many developers who know how to make mobile games. ZiGGURAT is a simple game -- one person, one gun, countless alien freaks -- but it is the only game I have ever played that made a touchscreen feel as finely-tuned and capable as any physical-button controller.