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Game Developer Magazine's 2012 In Review

2012 has been a big year for the game industry, and here, Game Developer polled accomplished industry veterans and indies alike for their respective takes on what we're glad to be done with, looking forward to working with, year-end shout-outs, and more.

January 1, 2013

26 Min Read

Author: by Gamasutra staff

A reprint from the December issue of Gamaustra's sister publication Game Developer magazine, this feature asks notable developers to contribute what made 2012 significant to them. You can subscribe to the print or digital edition at GDMag's subscription page, download the Game Developer iOS app to subscribe or buy individual issues from your iOS device, or purchase individual digital issues from our store.

From crowdfunding to studio shutdowns, 2012 has been a big year for the game industry. We've seen indie studios surge to the forefront on new and established platforms, new business models and dev tools lower the barrier to entry, and all kinds of major changes that will undoubtedly be felt for years to come. Game Developer polled accomplished industry veterans and indies alike for their respective takes on what we're glad to be done with, looking forward to working with, year-end shout-outs, and more.

Markus Persson (Mojang)

Out with the old: Physical distribution. Finally consoles are starting to catch up to PC and mobile and offer most of their game content digitally. Soon we'll be able to fully cut out this unnecessary middleman between the game developer and game player. The only downside to this is that game libraries in basements will look a lot less impressive when they're just posters of screenshots of your game collections.

In with the new: Personalities. With the rise of crowdfunding and indie games, there's been a stronger focus on the people behind the games again. This is a wonderful thing for me as a gamer, as I get to know whose vision I'm playing through and maybe understand the creators through their work. As a game developer, it also helps to get new heroes to look up to, which is something I miss dearly from the good old days.

Shout-outs: I could go on forever on this; it's been a great year! Brian [Provinciano] managed to release Retro City Rampage, and it is glorious; Terry [Cavanagh] made a game even more frustrating than VVVVVV, and it is wonderful; Firaxis somehow managed to make a worthy remake of X-COM, and it's killing all my free time; and Valve managed to go another year without giving us Gordon.

I told you so: Microsoft's choice of setting up their own store was a very predictable one, and it's a sad one, for a wide range of reasons.

One-sentence review: You know it's been a good year when you end up with a large stack of must-play games you haven't had time to play, and 2012 has been very good so far.

David Helgason (Unity)

Out with the old: Old things don't go away, but rather take a backseat to the new shiny things. It's not like the console industry died in 2012, and Zynga-style social games are still being played.

In with the new: What I had feared (and predicted) was that there would be a strong consolidation on mobile, with a few leaders emerging to dominate the business. This didn't happen, and instead the biggest hits are still being created by new and/or small studios. Remember that even Rovio was a small company until after Angry Birds, and a tiny studio like Boss Alien created CSR Racing with Unity, which is probably going to make between $50M and $100M (!) in its first year. And there are many, many examples of this.

Shout-outs: Madfinger's Dead Trigger: an insanely cool triple-A zombie shooter on your iPad. InXile's Wasteland 2: badass indie development by rock-star developers doing crowdsourcing and running an open-development style. Defiant's Ski Safari: infinitely addictive and polished game, which started as a Unity-based Flash game, and which I still play daily on my iPhone after nearly a year. Endless Space: a visually impressive Unity-based 4X space-strategy game, created in a radically open-development style. Oh, and amazing UI work, too!

I told you so: How the mobile game industry "grew up." Last year, it became evident that small teams could have great successes in terms of ROI, and make a few million dollars with a great game. What became obvious this year is that similar or only slightly larger teams now make mobile hits whose revenues come into the range of console games, but with massively better ROIs. That's a big deal and is leading all of the big studios to jump in with full force (using Unity, of course).

One-sentence review: We finally stepped into a new era full force, where small studios are going to dominate, and where, soon, more players, games, and revenue will be on mobile devices than anywhere else.

Carey Chico (GDMag advisory board)

Out with the old: Gamification: I think we've discovered that this isn't really a game and this word is way too buzzy to convey the next generation of gaming experiences tied with social applications. Ultimately, gamification isn't creating a game -- it's a way to fit a fun experience philosophy into a tiny crack of the social-application universe.

In with the new: Windows 8! I think what they are doing is sublime. They are trying to get the world to transition out of desktop PCs and into something more intimate. I think the idea that the PC is dying is a misdirection that the mobile/tablet world uses as a rally call. In truth, the PC is transforming into a new experience in the same way the first Windows trumped DOS. I get it.

Shout-outs: Hawken. I think Meteor Entertainment showed a guerilla product at the right moment at the right time and are capitalizing on the fury surrounding their upcoming launch. They are an example of a dev startup doing it right. They are also coming out at the height of the session-based gaming craze, most clearly driven by the success of World of Tanks.

I told you so: I saw 38 Studios' closure coming a while ago. From when they first started working on Copernicus, to the ensuing survival strategies of buying Big Huge Games to generate early revenue, this company showed struggle from the beginning. Also, hardcore games on Facebook -- I knew this was the next step in the evolution of social games.

One-sentence review: Stop copying Angry Birds!

Mare Sheppard (Metanet Software)

Out with the old: Prefacing the names of apps, software, books, interior goods, and basically everything with "i," à la "iPad," in a now-awkward attempt to be clever. Oh wait, we haven't stopped doing that yet, have we? Sigh. Maybe next year.

In with the new: There have been a lot of efforts to encourage and welcome new creative people into the world of making games lately, which is great! It's something I personally think is an important part of the vibrant future of this industry -- I can't wait to play these newbies' second and third and fourth games.

Everybody can make games, and it's important that interested people give it a try, but it's equally important that they stick with it and learn and evolve -- as we each refine our craft, that's how our best ideas and concepts develop, so that potential is very exciting to me. It means better games for all of us!

Shout-outs: Queasy Games with Sound Shapes. It was an immensely challenging project for the team, and I was impressed at the way they persevered through the difficulties and focused on their intent to create something beautiful, and then I was doubly impressed at how well they pulled that off. Sound Shapes is gorgeous to look at and easy on the ears, but the best part is how it inspires players to become musicians themselves. Very cool.

I told you so: We at Metanet have been trying to finish a project that we've been working on for... geez, it feels like forever. It was supposed to be finished in September, but the deadline slipped again. I had a hunch. Seriously though, December. It's happening.

One-sentence review: There were so many updates in the last year to projects I'm eagerly anticipating, especially on the indie side!

David Edery (Spry Fox)

Out with the old: It seems that in the past year, a big number of independent game developers have switched focus from downloadable console games to iOS, Android, and Steam. The general perception seems to be that it's just too expensive, risky, and difficult to focus on consoles; that's a pretty big shift in thinking from just two years ago for many people.

These kinds of things don't make me happy or sad; they just are what they are. Platforms are cyclical things; at some point consoles will become attractive to indies again -- that is, assuming consoles as we know them today actually survive the transition this industry is currently going through!

In with the new: Kickstarter! While I don't think it will work for the majority of indies, I'm really excited to see that for at least a subsegment of highly accomplished long-time game developers, it has been a brilliant way to raise cash to develop games that publishers simply aren't interested in funding (or that they would fund, but demand a disproportionate return in exchange for their funding). Excited to see where this all leads.

Shout-outs: I've put a disproportionate amount of my personal game-playing time into Robot Entertainment's games this year. Hero Academy and Orcs Must Die! 2 have both kept me up for way more late nights than I'm comfortable quantifying! I'm impressed by how deftly the guys at Robot have tackled different platforms (PC, mobile) without much help and without simply copying a proven formula, unlike so many other developers.

I told you so: Everything coming to mind is negative, and I'd rather not rub salt in anybody's wound. Hey, I knew Minecraft was going to kill it on XBLA. Of course, so did everybody else, so I can't exactly brag about this. ;-)

One-sentence review: Back to hunting for the next great game platform.

Mark Deloura (GDMag advisory board)

Out with the old: At the beginning of the year, social games were still The Big Idea. Now we talk about games that are social, no matter what platform they are on. I like that idea much better.

In with the new: I've really come to appreciate JavaScript. I've been a diehard C++ guy for years, but the productivity increase I've seen using JavaScript for prototyping and Node.js for back-end systems has been dramatic. Partly it is due to ease of use, partly due to the massive community, and partly the number of established frameworks. Of course, JavaScript performance doesn't compare to native code, and debugging can be an adventure. But all in all, it is incredibly useful.

Shout-outs: Spry Fox continually impresses me with their creative, whimsical game designs.

I told you so: Graphics fidelity continues rising in mobile games, leading to rising development costs. Add to that a very crowded marketplace and developers are starting to ask, "How do we improve discoverability? How can we make our game stand out?" Enter Publisher 2.0.

One-sentence review: 2012 was tumultuous and full of opportunity.

Damian Kastbauer (GDMag audio columnist)

Out with the old: Proprietary audio engines and tools in game audio are dying off like the dinosaurs. The closing of Radical Entertainment saw the loss of its 10-years-in-the-making audio toolset. When a studio closes and takes its technology to the grave, the community feels its loss.

In the wake of this, the development of proprietary tools seems to have slowed in comparison to publicly available audio tools. Where once proprietary tools may have been the bleeding edge, the atrophy and evolution of game audio has superseded most general-use in-house tools in favor of audio middleware.

In with the new: Middleware -- everyone's using it! Powering up your development with existing libraries is nothing new, but the widespread adoption of middleware has lowered game development's barriers to entry. It's not just a trend among new developers either; the power of middleware in games has firmly taken root and enabled the creation of wildly diverse game types through a combination of accessibility and power.

Shout-outs: Nu retro and sublime beatitude. The audio work in games like Fez and Dustforce tapped the nostalgia vein while simultaneously projecting an aural vision of the future. Meanwhile, the Botanicula soundtrack and audio aesthetic aligned perfectly with its gameplay's sense of childlike glee. The sound for Journey also shone brightly for its understated and minimal reflection of a truly inspiring experience.

I told you so: Dyad, Sound Shapes, and PixelJunk 4am subversively pushed the confines of interactive audio into real-time music creation. The winning combination of pure joy and the mastery of craft made these games the fruition of music games in the post-Rock Band landscape. Expressive musical instruments in their own right? You betcha!

One-sentence review: Developers seem comfortable with the tools at their disposal and confident in their ideas of the kind of experiences they want to create.

Robert Boyd (Zeboyd Games)

Out with the old: I can't think of any things that the industry has grown out of this year. However, the number-one thing I wish the industry would grow out of is manipulative freemium practices. The freemium model is not bad in and of itself, but the practice of designing games specifically to addict the weak-willed in an attempt to encourage them to spend hundreds or even thousands of dollars needs to stop.

In with the new: One thing that I'm extremely excited about is the combination of traditional controls with new forms of control in the same game. We started to see this in the DS and the Wii, but I expect the use of traditional controls being supplemented by alternate controls to really come into its own with the Vita and the Wii U.

We've already seen some great examples with some of the early Vita games -- using gyro controls to fine-tune your aim and camera in various 3D action games, having the UI double as additional commands in Silent Hill: Book of Memories, and fast menu controls in many games. You get the precision and speed of traditional controls combined with the intuitiveness and versatility of touch- and motion-based controls -- the best of both setups.

Shout-outs: Keiichiro Toyama's work on Gravity Rush. We already knew that he was a talented horror game director thanks to his work on Silent Hill and the Siren series, and with Gravity Rush, he's cemented his status as one of the top video game creators of our time. Gravity Rush is extremely creative in every aspect -- from its vertically oriented floating cities, to its unique art palette and unorthodox soundtrack, to its exhilarating gravity-based combat and exploration. And it's a great showcase of how to combine traditional and nontraditional controls to increase the player's immersion.

I told you so: Gonna have to go with the obvious one -- the fall of Zynga. It should have been clear to everyone that Zynga's business practices were not sustainable -- they were engaging in the video game equivalent of strip-mining.

One-sentence review: With more and more quality games coming out every year, visibility is going to become the number-one challenge for developers.

Erin Robinson (Ivy Games)

Out with the old: Although it hasn't been confirmed by Microsoft yet, I share the concern that Windows 8 will be a closed platform. There are fears that releasing a game on Windows will be like developing apps for an Apple device, vetting process and all. That's bad for indie games for obvious reasons, but it's been interesting to see the bigger names -- Gabe Newell from Valve, Rob Pardo from Blizzard -- weigh in against the closed-system approach as well. We've really taken it for granted that anyone can release a game on Windows, and I hope we don't lose that.

In with the new: I'd say this is the year that crowdsourcing really came into its own. This was certainly a banner year for Kickstarter games; there's clearly a strong desire among certain fan bases to see more of the types of games they love. And that means more offbeat, creative games, which I'm always in favor of.

But I suspect there might be a bumpy road ahead -- not all of the funded projects will ship a game, and some have already failed to deliver their promised rewards. And I think people are starting to question why so many large companies are moving into a space that seemed to be built for smaller, artistic projects.

Shout-outs: Dear Esther was great. I sat down to play half an hour at most, and instead spent the next three hours, uninterrupted, as I traversed the whole thing. It was a strong, quiet presence in this year's game releases, and no one quite seemed to know what to make of it. But I think it'll hold its own as an example of what the games medium can do for storytelling for many years to come.

Unmanned by Molleindustria was an unexpected and worthwhile game. I think it's better if I don't spoil it, but there's a lot of freedom in what you're able to try in the game, and I found myself playing through a couple times just to see how I could affect the main character's life. One last one: shout-out to the Northways for finishing Incredipede -- it's a great, weird physics game that's totally worth checking out.

I told you so: I think some of the recent self-examination going on in game journalism is a (perhaps clumsy) step in the right direction. It's good to question the closeness of the relationship between PR and game journalism, and even certain journalists. But there was some finger-pointing, which probably did more harm than good. Vilifying certain people may make for a better story, but it also gives the false impression that the problem is solved, rather than looking at the larger picture that created it.

One-sentence review: 2012 was stressful, but every year is -- and there was not enough time to play too many games. :)

Keith Fuller (Fuller Game Production)

Out with the old: I'm glad to see many first-time developers going straight into entrepreneurism rather than falling prey to the long-held belief that you have to "break into games" at a big studio. It's exciting to see so many people focusing on just shipping games that they want to make and worrying about the details of a career or a company afterward.

In with the new: In the past year I've appreciated the flight of so many triple-A developers into indie ventures, eschewing big bucks and corporate benefits in order to fulfill their passions more precisely. What I hope to see next year is more of these individuals banding together either as slightly larger studios or consortiums of studios to enhance their discoverability in the market.

Shout-outs: Brian Provinciano of VBlank, who singlehandedly and with great determination created Retro City Rampage on, like, a billion platforms. Aaron San Filippo and Greg Shives, former coworkers of mine who left the warm nest of triple-A to strike out as indie devs, creating their own companies simply to better fulfill their creative urges. Local Madison mobile studio PerBlue, who in the space of about four years went from a group of students with no game-dev knowledge to a flourishing organization.

I told you so: I wish I'd been wrong, but the triple-A sector has continued to collapse under the weight of its own horribly broken system, consolidating into fewer larger studios and leaving a trail of laid-off employees in their previously occupied space.

One-sentence review: With the proliferation of tablets and smartphones, the increased availability of powerful and easy-to-use tools, and the lowered barrier to entry across the channels, it's been great to see the growth of mobile games bringing to light not only more gamers than we were previously aware of, but more developers, too!

Dave Mark (Intrinsic Algorithm)

Out with the old: I think we are finally getting past the institutionalized mentality of "gamers [want]/[don't want] [whatever]." For too long, that led to devs telling us what we would like to play rather than letting us choose what we liked. Instead, lately there are enough definitions of "game" out there to make Ludwig Wittgenstein and Sid Meier toast each other.

In with the new: I see a lot of promise in the increasing use of automatically or procedurally generated content -- whether it be for narrative, dialogue, animation, or level generation. Anything that can help us power through the bottleneck of content creation in games will be a major boon to the industry.

Shout-outs: At first, indies were cute, a little awkward, and mostly obscure. Now, with the tools, platforms, visions, and the freedom to do something different, they've gotten to the point where they are commanding a lot of attention -- and changing games in the process. Huge +1 to the indie space as a whole!

I told you so: A year ago, I was telling people that Unity was going to take over the dev world. While it hasn't quite done that yet, there is a significant level of legitimacy to it now (Rovio!). This can only be a good thing for the indie space in particular because it lowers the technical and financial barriers for entry.

One-sentence review: I like to think of this past year in game development as the one where we finally stopped caring about what Roger Ebert thought of us.

Adam Saltsman (Semi Secret Software)

Out with the old: Not to beat a dead horse or anything, but I do think it's worth noting that Zynga's approach appears to be proving to be not terribly sustainable. I prefer to interpret this as a whole new demographic of game players wising up and looking for something that gives their life more value. I think we (we being the rest of the game makers at large) have a huge responsibility to provide intelligent, diverse and approachable games for them.

In with the new: True self-distribution. Humble Bundle/Store is awesome, but a lot of games are going all the way. Obviously Minecraft is one example, but Spy Party is doing a pretty good job even though it's not even an open beta yet. FTL ran a great beta. Introversion Software (Prison Architect) built their own Kickstarter service. From a business perspective I think these are all really positive examples. It's not just Minecraft anymore. I love that. (Also, holy crap, did you see how many amazing small/indie games came out this year? The list is pretty staggering. How are we going to top that next year?)

Shout-outs: I hope he reads this -- I know he will get all embarrassed -- but for me it's probably Zach Gage. That dude makes exactly the kinds of games I love to make, only he's really, really good at it. SpellTower is great, Guts of Glory is fantastic, and all the prototypes he's been building and not even releasing are all totally amazing too. Dude is brilliant. Second place to Nels Andersen and the Mark of the Ninja team at Klei -- that game really, really pushes my buttons. ALL OF THEM.

I told you so: I was going to say "Zynga" but ugh, that horse is so dead. This might be a better observation for last year (or maybe next year), but the ascendance of Capy Games as a kind of joyful, exploratory force is something I saw coming way before Sword & Sworcery happened, much less Super Time Force, or their assistance on Sound Shapes, or, or, or...

One-sentence review: Sounds cheesy, but at least on the indie side I think we're growing up and getting more open-minded (though we have a long way to go still), and the awesome results of this past year are the obvious consequence of that.

Anna Anthropy (Auntie Pixelante)

Out with the old: I'm really proud of how the industry has finally acknowledged and overcome its rampant sexism and hostility toward women. Wait, whoops -- this is an answer from a year in the future. You'd all better make sure it comes to pass, or there's gonna be a killer paradox.

In with the new: I appreciate that Game Developer magazine has moved away from having to include a two-page spread of a white dude with a huge gun in every issue. I hope this trend continues into the future.

Shout-outs: Swordfight made me experience greater professional jealousy than any other game I've ever seen. That's the one you play by wearing Atari joysticks in strap-on harnesses, trying to press the other player's button with your shaft. Also, your hands are cuffed behind your back. I wish I'd made it.

One-sentence review: Freaks, normals, amateurs, artists, dreamers, dropouts, queers, housewives, and people like you still have a lot of work ahead of us.

Clinton Keith (GDMag advisory board)

Out with the old: We haven't grown out of the blatant sexism just yet, but we're far more conscious of it than we were a year ago due to some outspoken individuals.

In with the new: Kickstarter. I love seeing studios like Double Fine getting serious strings-free money directly from consumers before a game is made.

Shout-outs: I've been impressed with so many studios. I can't choose one.

I told you so: Valve's employee handbook reveals that we can treat game developers like trusted creative professionals and build a culture that breeds success.

One-sentence review: After 20 years of development, I've never seen a better time in which to make video games!

Nels Anderson (Klei Entertainment)

Out with the old: It seems we've mostly gotten over motion controls, which I think isn't unwelcome. They're still very well suited to particular domains (Harmonix continues to absolutely nail it with Dance Central), but in general, motion controls felt like a solution looking for a problem. It feels like we're past that wave of pseudo-Holodeck fetishism that motion controls were supposed to provide, which I think was a distraction from the real goal of finding ways to design games that are more intellectually and emotionally engaging.

In with the new: This is probably a little of a cheat, but next year is probably when we're going to see a lot of the big Kickstarter games come to fruition (or not). There have been a few already, of course -- most notably FTL and Diamond Trust of London -- but things like Double Fine Adventure, Republique, Wasteland 2, and others are probably going to start blooming next year. Hopefully they'll all be fantastic games (or at least most of them) and they'll demonstrate that the whole crowdfunding thing can be viable, and more importantly, a reliable way of making games.

Shout-outs: Again, a little bit of a cheat, but I didn't play Dark Souls until this year (ed. note: We'll allow it, thanks to the PC release), and wow, I cannot begin to discuss how transfixed I was (and am!) by the game. The design is a tempest of beautiful whirling contradictions. It's so tight and focused, but broad and allowing for a tremendous diversity of choice. It's restrained but has so much faith in the player's desire to richly explore the game's offerings. It's confident, both in its own design and in its audience. From Software did an absolutely breathtaking job.

As a second shout-out, Telltale is absolutely killing it with The Walking Dead. The writing is smart and mature (in the proper sense), the characters are robust and interesting, and it really commits to its notion of player choice.

I told you so: The shine coming off vapid social games. As hollow treadmills that offer vanishingly little while making increasing demands of the audience's time and/or wallet, I think the shallowness of many of those games is being increasingly acknowledged, both by players and the industry.

One-sentence review: 2012 was a year of innovative design and bold games that found success by refusing to cleave to tired and mundane tropes.

Noel Llopis (GDMag advisory board)

Out with the old: Good riddance to physical media! It had it coming for a while, and I expect it'll disappear with the next generation of consoles. So liberating not to have any more game boxes, DVD cases, or books to lug around!

In with the new: Without a doubt, the "cloud." Seamlessly keeping data on the network and making it available at any time from any device is a complete game changer. Whether it's Steam games, iOS game saves, iTunes Match music, tool data, or even Kindle books, it's clear that the future lies in that direction.

Shout-outs: I was most inspired by The Binding of Isaac by Edmund McMillen and Florian Himsl. The game is a fresh take on rogue-likes and has a sublime pacing and difficulty curve. It shows the amazing depth possible in an indie game created over a few months.

I told you so: The rise of free-to-play games on most platforms (and the rest are coming). Unfortunately, most free-to-play games are much worse than games with traditional payment models. Here's hoping that changes next year as we learn how to design better games that fit that approach.

One-sentence review: A year of indie games of amazing quality and quantity, and the distribution channels are starting to get saturated.

2012 According to Twitter

Here's what our Twitter readership had to say about 2012:

"2012 is the year when free-to-play was no longer the hip thing to do... It became the *only* thing you could do." - @ShnSmit

"Creativity Wars: The Indies Strike Back." - @evans_gr

"I think our 'friends' over at EA put it best: 'Consumers won't pay for crap.'" - @thesmall001

"It's been one hell of an up-and-down roller coaster ride!" - @Tephlon212

"Calm before the storm." - @originx1

"Another year of closing great studios." - @noahbradley

"The indies are rising." - @tgdfweb

"Independent breakthrough innovation." - @heatherross

"Indie dev became mainstream." - @grindheadgames

"Tumultuous." - @DaveVoyles

"The year of no fear." - @VitoGesualdi

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