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The 50 Games That Defined 2012

This isn't a list of awesome games from 2012, but instead, it's a list -- containing not-so-great games, games that didn't release, or even will never appear -- of games that are representative of a trend or interesting story that captured the zeitgeist of 2012, and they all say something about what happened this year.

At the end of every year, you can count on Gamasutra for our annual series of retrospective roundup lists. Typically, at this point, we'd recognize the best games by platform -- PC, Xbox 360, Wii, PlayStation 3, etc. etc.

This year we're doing things differently. We've nixed those platform-specific lists in favor of compiling (in alphabetical order) the 50 Games That Defined 2012, starting with the first 10.

This isn't just a list of awesome video games from 2012 (that much shorter list comes later). There will be some not-so-great games listed here as well. There will be some games that didn't release in 2012, but still made a mark on the year regardless. There will even be some games that will never release.

What all of these games have in common is that they're representative of a trend or interesting story that captured the zeitgeist of 2012 -- they all say something about what happened this year.

-- Kris Graft, Editor-in-Chief, Gamasutra

Black Mesa

Black Mesa Modification Team

Black Mesa proved two things in 2012: That passion alone can fuel game development, and that an ambitious "fan game" (usually doomed to vaporware) can come out eventually...it just might take a few years.

Black Mesa is a complete remake of Valve's original Half-Life, with 40-or-so fans completely recreating the 1998 game to take advantage of a more modern engine (Valve's own Source) all in their spare time.

The first public release of the game was released in September after years of patience from eager fans and, by all accounts, it has lived up to the hype. And thanks to Steam's Greenlight project, it's going to officially become a Steam game when it's done. Yes, that's right: this fan-made game is, in its way, officially recognized by the creators of its source material.

Borderlands 2

Gearbox, 2K Games

Perhaps the developers at Gearbox knew deep down that Borderlands was going to be a series. But when the original released back in 2009, competing against a slew of high-profile franchises, we had to wonder if the game would be able to even break through all the noise.

It did more than break through the noise, and the game fostered an impressive fanbase -- one that that salivated over this year's sequel. Borderlands 2 exemplifies the ideal modern triple-A game: It's well-done, it garners the sales and fanbase it deserves (sidenote: see how Gearbox boss Randy Pitchford himself interacts with the community via Twitter -- that's someone who really cares) and it's from an independent studio that owns this valuable franchise. It doesn't get much better (or rarer) than that.

Boyfriend Maker

36You

These days, metrics and experience design are paramount -- aren't they? Yet somehow 36You's tacky little iOS app Boyfriend Maker [see the Tumblr here] became the viral sensation to close the year. There are obvious reasons why it caught on: It stars a customizable, vacant-eyed Ken doll with a chat bot core that was prone to spewing unexpected responses and random obscenities. That every happy accident lent itself so readily to Facebook sharing meant Boyfriend Maker spread like wildfire, with the amused and the curious of all genders and predilections signing on to see what their placid, vulgar virtual man would say and do.

More interesting is that Boyfriend Maker relies on a chat bot tailored by internet users, applied in a post-release update so that this unpredictable element somehow sneaked by Apple's walled garden. Boyfriend Maker got pulled after it was revealed users could basically get their virtual boyfriend to offend egregiously, even to condone pedophilia. Yet amid this bizarre accident is an interesting kernel: Let users own randomness, feel creative and share offbeat creations, and even established best practices of viral sharing and in-app purchases seem to turn on their heads.

Bubble Witch Saga

King.com

Taito's Bust-a-Move came out in 1994. Eighteen years later, somebody else's bubble popper ends up on a list of the most significant games of the year. How in the hell did that happen?

Well, that's because Bubble Witch Saga teaches us something: wrapping a proven mechanic in a smartly-designed social layer will yield you amazing results -- in the case of King.com, becoming the number two Facebook developer. The game is also exemplary for the way it synchronizes with its mobile version and how it smartly uses virality to keep players coming back. This overall approach, further refined, will power the success of many developers' games.

It's a fine enough bubble popper with some clever, if unoriginal, design flourishes; in the end, it's here because it proved what's possible.

Call of Duty: Black Ops II

Treyarch, Activision

Call of Duty: Black Ops II left its sizable mark on 2012 by sheer brute force: An enormous marketing campaign that was difficult to escape, midnight launches at retail and a by-the-numbers high budget, high production-value product that has a thick coat of that triple-A lacquer. The monetary result? A billion dollars in revenue following 15 days on the market. Not only is Black Ops II a financial boon for Activision in 2012, it's also a message to the triple-A video game industry: If you want to hang out in this high-stakes business, this is the kind of bombastic effort you're going to have to compete with, for better or for worse.

Call of Duty: Black Ops Declassified

Nihilistic Software, Activision

There's a dark irony that the developer of this game is called "Nihilistic." Black Ops Declassified may, in fact, be a significant step on the road to oblivion for its target platform -- the PlayStation Vita. Qualitatively, it's a complete disaster, earning a 31 Metacritic as of this writing. Reports suggest this isn't Nihilistic's fault -- the game started development at another studio, and was rushed to market for the holiday season as a key part of the marketing strategy for the struggling platform.

Indeed, it may end up being the turning point for the system. When Western publishers see that a Call of Duty game can't perform on Vita -- and those with knowledge say it isn't selling -- the lesson learned will likely be "don't bother." If the Vita's pitch is that it's current-gen console games in your pocket, and Call of Duty epitomizes the current generation, then this game is an unmitigated failure.

Clash of Clans

Supercell

While the free-to-play space continues on its journey of discovery (and MAUs), Finnish developer Supercell is stepping out from the crowd and making huge strides. Four months after the launches of Hay Day and, more prominently, Clash of Clans on iOS, the company now consistently has two games in the top five grossing charts on the App Store.

As other studios scramble to work out just how a relatively unknown company could come out of nowhere and release such a dominant game, Clash of Clans is yet more proof that a careful mixture of free entry, social elements and suggestive in-app purchases can work wonders to loosen the purse strings of mobile players.

"Copernicus"

38 Studios

The state of Rhode Island probably never expected to own the rights to an ambitious fantasy-themed MMORPG but, hey, here we are. Copernicus was the codename for the game that 38 Studios -- the developer founded by retired all-star baseball pitcher Curt Schilling and partially funded by the state -- was pouring money into before its money dried up and it was forced into bankruptcy, its assets (including whatever work was done on the game) defaulting to Rhode Island.

The specifics of what happened are beyond the scope of this article, but in 2012 Copernicus was a reminder of just how expensive and risky a triple-A MMO is in our rapidly evolving climate.

CSR Racing

Boss Alien, NaturalMotion

The first product from a group of triple-A expatriates, CSR Racing was a big departure for new mobile game company Boss Alien. Formed by ex-Disney Black Rock staff, who specialized in racing games like Pure and Split Second (and whose studio eventually shuttered), Boss Alien took its triple-A, packaged product sensibility and carried it over to the freemium mobile space. The result? CSR Racing, a drag racer with realistic graphics, generated $12 million in revenue in its first month, and the studio was promptly acquired by NaturalMotion. CSR Racing is proof positive that there is life after "triple-A" for developers willing to brave the Wild West of the mobile space.

Curiosity -- What's Inside the Cube?

22Cans

When Peter Molyneux spoke at this year's Unite conference, he gunned right past his usual "enthused" toward "manic." It's always a bit difficult to know if you should take his claims seriously, but Curiosity makes it even harder. Is it even a game? He has described it as an "experiment"; you might describe it was "gamified bubble wrap."

His grandiose claim that the secret at the center of the cube will be "life changing" is probably irrelevant; what matters is that Molyneux has shown that a big developer going mobile can do whatever he or she wants, with all of its implications. Whether you think the attention the app has gotten is unfair, whether the "experiment" is merely on players' wallets, or whether you believe Molyneux is showing the power of big minds and small teams, there's no doubt that this bizarre little app exemplifies the time we live in.


DayZ

Dean "Rocket" Hall

When Arma II studio Bohemia Interactive provided mod support for its realistic tactical war shooter back in 2009, there was surely no way that it could have predicted how huge a decision that would be three years later. With the launch of the DayZ survival horror mod, Arma II suddenly saw a tenfold increase in sales as players flocked to the DayZ alpha release.

The survival elements appeared to sit rather well with thousands of players, and now the mod is getting its own standalone release in the new year. It was truly a meteoric rise to game industry fame for developer Dean "Rocket" Hall, and a reminder of the power that the modding community can wield, thanks to the open nature of the PC platform.

Dear Esther

thechineseroom

When you first enter the lonely island of Dear Esther, you're not really sure where you're supposed to go, or what you're supposed to do. And that's part of the beauty of it. Dear Esther struck a rare balance between a distinct narrative vision and a unique brand of player agency.

The result was an experience that flew in the face of the heavy-handed story-telling that is so prevalent in video games today, and launched a meaningful (and continuing) discussion about what a "video game" can be. Other developers, whether indie or part of major studios, would do well to closely examine how Dear Esther's unique approach to narrative left a heavy emotional impact on players. Hopefully others will take thechineseroom's experimental ideas even further.

Dishonored

Arkane Studios, Bethesda

In a year where complaints of sameness in triple-A ran rampant, Arkane managed to pull a sleeper hit that felt refreshing. Dishonored is a bit of a rarity these days -- a brand new property introduced late in the console cycle that relied not on the clout of a popular, established brand, but rather on a new world that challenged peoples' imaginations since the game's first unveiling. Dishonored's success is a victory for interesting-ness.

Players fell in love with the world -- the often-bandied "steampunk" is typically used to describe Dishonored's coupling of beautifully-bleak maritime industry with elegant architecture and the supernatural. But while the atmosphere has shades of Half-Life or BioShock, it has an inventive newness too rarely-seen in today's landscape.

The gameplay itself, combining stealth, unique magic and direct first-person mechanics, offers a range of well-tuned options, adding to the sense of freedom. Most interestingly, the game environment reacts to player choices -- the result is a certain thoughtfulness and elegance that sets Dishonored apart from its contemporaries. The fact that Arkane was able to burst back onto the triple-A game scene in such a fashion is as impressive as the game itself.

Diablo III

Blizzard

Blizzard Entertainment's Diablo III was plagued with tons of issues on launch, from server stability problems and missing features (player vs. player still isn't in the game yet) to deep-seated design criticisms related to the in-game auction house, real-money trading, and un-fun endgame grind -- but none of that stopped the game from setting a new record as the fastest-selling PC game to date or passing 10 million sales. Is Diablo III an example of what's wrong with the risk-averse triple-A game industry, or simply a strong brand doing business as usual? Probably a little bit of both.

Double Fine Adventure

Double Fine

It's entirely possible that 2012 will go down as the year that game development finally became democratized by game players and, in many ways, it all started with Double Fine Adventure.

The company managed to smash all of the previous existing video game crowdfunding records when it raised $3.3 million dollars on an old-fashioned adventure game, over eight times the $400,000 it was asking for.

And not only did it pave the way for the crowdfunding revolution: DFA also laid the groundwork for involving your community in your game's development, giving fans a peek into the offices with constant updates thanks to some backer perks and a video documentary series.

Draw Something

Omgpop, Zynga

We hate to say we told you so, but it turned out that yeah, Zynga probably spent way too much money when it essentially bought mobile game hit Draw Something (and its developer, Omgpop) for an eyebrow-raising $180 million at the end of a bidding war.

The game was a rising star with growth that seemed limitless -- there was even a deal for a network TV show -- but even the most popular games must plateau at some point. And Draw Something plateaued fast.

The fad seems to have gone away, with Draw Something players abandoning ship so fast that Zynga blamed them for being a major contributor in two consecutive quarterly losses that have seen investors abandoning the company faster than, well, Draw Something players.

Fez

Polytron

Ever since its announcement in 2007, the spectre of Fez loomed large over the indie scene, the albatross around the neck of mercurial creator Phil Fish, who wrestled both publicly and privately with mounting expectations, legal threats, dwindling resources and his own obsessive vision.

But the long-awaited Xbox Live Arcade debut earlier this year was met with nearly-universal acclaim. Fez presents a dreamlike world where a lavish attention to craft is obvious -- more interestingly, the game swells with circuitous mysteries and secrets, like the dream palace of some mad royal. Fish spent the year suffering blowback from frustrated fans for some ill-chosen remarks and a controversial public persona -- which makes the game's atmosphere of gentleness and love, a tribute to the Zelda ilk of our wide-eyed youth, of special note. The standards were always going to be high for Fez after so long. But in the end, its existence and its richness feel like a small miracle.

Final Fantasy XIII-2

Square Enix

Despite its desperate attempts to push the boundaries laid down by Final Fantasy XIII, this game is not very good -- in fact, in many cases, it's bad because it's fighting against the original game's stark limitations.

But Final Fantasy XIII-2 also teaches us something interesting about fans and the abdication of creative intent. The original game was blasted for not living up to the standard set by the series. Instead of going back to the drawing board to carry the franchise's ideals forward, this sequel features a checkbox design that sloppily incorporates features fans said they wanted without rhyme or reason, butting up against legacy technical and design constraints. The result is a mess.

But in the end, many players -- and critics -- were satisfied. Is it because this is a better game? Or is it simply because their voices were heard?

FTL: Faster Than Light

Subset Games

FTL: Faster Than Light is The People's Game of 2012; it was made by an independent two-man development team, finished with Kickstarter funding (they aimed for $10,000 and ended up with over $200,000), and its design draws inspiration from classic roguelikes (particularly its combination of permadeath and procedurally-generated challenges) and Star Trek in roughly equal measure -- hardly a recipe for mainstream success. FTL delivered pretty much everything that crowdfunding promised us in the beginning of 2012, and it did it right when we were starting to feel dumb about throwing too much money at too many slick Kickstarter campaigns.

Guild Wars 2

ArenaNet

While the debate over free-to-play vs. subscription-based MMOs raged on, Guild Wars 2 took a cue from the first Guild Wars and went for the middle ground, allowing players to buy the game at a typical retail price, and actually give them true access to the entire game, with no required subscription fee. The game is also supplemented by an inoffensive microtransaction system that is there if you want to use it.

The point of mentioning the business model here is that Guild Wars 2 is also a critical hit, and the fact that ArenaNet didn't have to bend its vision to a subscription or free-to-play model most certainly played a role. With a Metacritic score of 90 and 2 million units sold as of September, Guild Wars 2 became the triple-A MMO success story of 2012, something the game industry needed.


Haunts: The Manse Macabre

Mob Rules

As games such as FTL fulfill Kickstarter backers' hopes (and pledges) with a complete, high-quality product, games such as Mob Rules' Haunts: The Manse Macabre fulfill their fears.

Developer Mob Rules, made up of ex-Cryptic Studios developers, pitched Haunts as a "turn-based horror" game, and garnered enough support to raise almost $29,000 in pledges, which was over the $25,000 goal purportedly needed to complete the game (which already had $42,500 invested from the devs).

Nearly a year after the campaign launched, the well-meaning developers announced that the game ran out of money, programmers and steam. Development of the game pushes forward as a volunteer-supported open source project, but that certainly wasn't the original plan.

What Haunts did was remind people in 2012 that even if a project reaches its goal, nothing is certain with Kickstarter, for the developers or for the backers.

Hitman: Absolution

IO Interactive

hitman_shot1.jpg

Hitman: Absolution may be remembered for its decent action and stealth sequences, but that's not really what it makes our list for. The biggest mark the game left in 2012 was through its marketing, specifically the "Nuns, Guns, and Agent 47" E3 trailer, in which a bunch of sexy dominatrix nuns are bloodily dispatched by Hitman's Agent 47.

And there was the game's ill-advised Facebook app that encouraged people to put "hits" out on their friends who would be identifiable by their "small tits," "hairy legs" or "tiny penis." The reaction to these initiatives was resoundingly negative in the game criticism sphere. So negative, in fact, that developer IO Interactive apologized, and changed the level the sexy nuns appeared in, to give them more backstory, while the Facebook app was pulled within an hour.

Both controversies kicked off a wide-ranging discussion of portrayal of women in games, which some might say is a net positive result, but they're also evidence that game marketing needs to grow up.

Incredipede

Northway Games

Incredipede is a great physics-based puzzler that launched in October, with an inspiring story behind how it was built. But what really made Colin Northway's project so notable in 2012 was how it has fared on Steam's new Greenlight submission process.

Northway, creator of the popular Fantastic Contraption, was hoping for a new, more direct path onto the all-powerful Steam store. But despite his abilities and a fantastic-looking game, it simply wasn't noticed amid the Greenlight masses. After launching the game outside of Steam, it quickly shot up the Greenlight charts and is now just about to get a Steam release. But in terms of Greenlight actually making a difference for indies pre-launch, the jury's still out.

Journey

Thatgamecompany

tgc_journey2.jpg

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 felt as if it had truly attained it. 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.

The result is beautiful, and a pleasure: Every player's experience is unique, yet the monomyth throughline is universal. Proving that a game about interaction doesn't have to be yet another brawl on yet another map, Journey's world of light and sparkling sands felt markedly like evolution in a year when too many fans were thirsty for something new.

League of Legends

Riot Games

Over the last year, League of Legends developer Riot Games has proved that it knows more about developing and encouraging the eSports scene than just about anyone else. From embedding Twitch.TV streams directly into the game client itself, to developing a special LAN-only build for tournament use, to sinking $5 million into the League tournament scene, Riot is now carrying the flag for professional games in 2012 -- and that's doubly impressive considering League is three years old by now.

Little Inferno

Tomorrow Corporation

This Wii U and PC-based indie all-star project, the creation of World Of Goo's Kyle Gabler and Henry Hatsworth's Kyle Gray (with Allan Blomquist!), is definitely divisive, but surprisingly poignant along the way. Twinning an incredibly tight game loop with quirky storytelling and an amazing soundtrack, the game has you burning things to receive tokens to... burn more things. And so on. And so forth. Both a criticism of consumerism and a paean to it at the same time, the game does open up, eventually, for a finale to remember. But it's the feel of wielding fire, alone in front of your Little Inferno Entertainment Fireplace, that will stay with you. Burn it down.

Mass Effect 3

BioWare, EA

When BioWare's Mass Effect 3 arrived this year, it landed in the hands of some of the most loyal fans in all of games. The trilogy would be complete and the saga of Commander Shepard would be brought to an epic finale. But a swath of these loyal fans were not willing to accept the creators' finale. And these most loyal fans were also the most vocal, signing petitions and taking to social media to generate such an uproar that BioWare -- known for listening so closely to its audience -- said "Alright, we'll fix this," promising to patch the game with an ending that the studio hoped would better deliver on player expectations.

Mass Effect 3 raised hard questions about the relationship between players and creators: Did BioWare do the right thing by giving the most vocal fans what they demanded, or did the studio cave, and compromise its creative vision? And did BioWare over-promise when it said Shepard's story belonged to the players? These are questions that were prompted by Mass Effect 3 that still warrant discussion in the years ahead.

MechWarrior Online

Piranha Games, Infinite Game Publishing

Just as soon as developers began to figure out the crowdfunding rules, MechWarrior Online came and rewrote them. Instead of trying to drum up funding through a Kickstarter pitch, developer Piranha Games decided to bring its crowdfunding in-house instead, offering "Founders Packages" from $30 to $120 that gave buyers early access to the closed beta, in-game real money currency at a discounted rate, and other in-game benefits. This helped finance pre-release development and engaged customers, all at once.

Consider this: All in all, Piranha pulled in over $5 million from the Founders packages (about $1.7 million more than the Double Fine Adventure Kickstarter), they don't need to worry about any kind of physical order fulfillment since all the goods are in-game, and they don't need to pay the 5 percent Kickstarter fee. Not a bad deal.

Ninja Gaiden 3

Team Ninja, Tecmo Koei

"It seems like we made a Japanese hamburger for the West," Team Ninja head Yosuke Hayashi told Gamasutra. "Maybe, as a Japanese developer, we need to make good Japanese food." It was a harsh lesson for a team confronted with the fact that they had made the best of a difficult proposition: Make the notoriously unforgivingand very Japanese Ninja Gaiden more popular in the West, in the age of Call of Duty.

Ninja Gaiden 3 is not a terrible game -- far from it -- but its approach drew the ire of fans and critics, who turned their noses up at the game, just as Americans do when confronted by Japanese pizza with mayonnaise and corn on it. More than any game, it shows the futility of this approach for Japanese developers. By trying to make its game more thematically appealing and forgiving, Team Ninja hoped to catch a wider audience. The opposite happened.

Nintendo Land

Nintendo

wiiu_nintendoland.jpg

Nintendo Land isn't Wii Sports.

It sounds obvious, but it's important to remember. Where Wii Sports was constrained, simple, elegant, Nintendo Land is expansive, varied, confusing. Instead of showing players the simplest possible way to enjoy its new generation of control, Nintendo Land brims with ideas -- some unrealized, some robust -- and says, "Why don't you decide what you like best?"

It's hard to argue whether it's an effective proof of concept for the Wii U GamePad, then. Because the GamePad itself is a complex, original way of looking at console games that straddles many modes of interaction and play, so to does Nintendo Land. But that may be the best representation of Nintendo's new system -- so unusual, so complicated, so full of potential that may never be realized.


"Old-School RPG" (aka Shaker)

Loot Drop

This aborted Kickstarter project by Brenda Brathwaite and Tom Hall started as an honest attempt by two veteran designers to go back to their roots and create the kinds of games they'd had the most fun making, but it ended as what might be the best case study we have in how not to pitch your crowdfunded game.

As we're finally starting to realize, micro-backers behave a lot like "real" investors: even if they're only risking a couple bucks, unless you're a total rockstar already, they need to be convinced that your project will succeed. They want to know details, and they want to see some kind of demonstration of what it will feel like to play.

What they got instead with Old-School RPG was a pitch video that offered very little in the way of a coherent vision. Instead, Brathwaite and Hall banked on the concept of "old-school" being enough to excite players (who, by the way, were already backing Obsidian's "old-school" RPG Project Eternity by the thousands).

Instead of showing what would make their game unique, they essentially just kept saying "old-school" over and over -- six times in the first 40 seconds of the video, we counted -- and hoped that was enough.

As the campaign progressed they quickly retrenched and started showing off some concept art and laying out some basic ideas, enough so that it became a respectable pitch, but herein lies the second lesson Old-School RPG makes clear: first impressions are everything on Kickstarter.

Thankfully they learned their lesson, and promise to come back with a stronger pitch soon.

Persona 4 Golden

Atlus

What could make fans invest in on Sony's expensive, troubled handheld platform for the sake of a game many of them have already played? Recent Persona games have been a force of nature in past years for fans of the dwindling Japanese roleplaying genre, coupling accessibility with fresh, modern aesthetics and storytelling without sacrificing the depth players expect. Its focus on social interaction and managing daily school life alongside darker, more supernatural themes has much to offer.

Persona 4's Golden edition, a PS Vita version of PlayStation 2's Persona 4, goes further than the typical remake, adding polish, new characters and intuitive shortcuts that circumvent previous frustrations. One could say that Persona 4 Golden is indicative of the rather sad state of the Vita in 2012, as this PlayStation 2 remake is one of the most intriguing games on the platform. But that's selling this game short, because there's enough newness to make players want to return to the universe they loved on PlayStation 2 a few years ago, while still feeling up-to-date enough to attract those who finally want to see what all the fuss has been about.

Papa & Yo

Minority Media

Minority Media's PSN debut release Papo & Yo turned a lot of heads for its subject matter; it's a puzzle-platformer that serves as a delicately-presented metaphor for growing up with an abusive alcoholic parent. The strength of that autobiographical narrative landed Papo & Yo in the pages of the New York Times. From an industry perspective, however, we're more impressed by the fact that Papo & Yo got so much attention for doing something interesting in spite of its significant issues in technical execution. In the past, players, critics, and the industry at large have not been so willing to see past a game's playability problems, and we think Papo & Yo's relative success in spite of its issues speak well for the maturation of our medium.

Prototype 2

Radical Entertainment, Activision

You probably didn't play Prototype 2 -- not many people did, despite it being a pretty enjoyable experience. The original sold just over 2 million copies in 2009, and Activision was hoping that the sequel would blow that out of the water, surpassing 4 million sales worldwide. Those big sales didn't happen.

Following the game's release, Activision threw its hands up in the air and in so many words said, "That's it, we're out." Subsidiary Radical Entertainment was closed down after 20 years, and the Prototype IP won't be getting any more installments. 2012 has not been great for retail console games, and Prototype 2's lack of sales more than epitomized the state of the ever-challenging triple-A market -- a market where you either can go toe-to-toe with the biggest and the best, or just get out altogether.

Punch Quest

RocketCat

We've heard numerous stories about mobile studios turning their paid games into free-to-play titles, after seeing sales dwindle and being taken in by the lure of F2P success stories. And yet RocketCat's Punch Quest, one of the most enjoyable mobile experiences of 2012, went in the completely opposite direction, slapping a price tag on its free-to-play title.

As it turned out, Punch Quest's in-app purchases simply weren't being picked up, and hundreds of thousands of people were just playing the game for free instead. Whether it's that the in-app purchases weren't obvious or essential enough, or that RocketCat provided too much of the experience for free without pushing consumers enough to pay, was a key topic in this year's paid vs. free-to-play arguments.

Rage of Bahamut

CyGames, Ngmoco

Despite its superficial similarities to deeply strategic collectible card games like Magic the Gathering, Rage of Bahamut is a simple game, bolstered by engagement tricks that keep players coming back.

That said, it is one of the most significant games of 2012 because it conclusively proves that dedicated players can make a huge success of a mobile niche title -- making Rage of Bahamut one of 2012's top-grossing games on both iOS and Android.

If you can find an appealing theme, a gameplay hook that players find satisfying, and a niche that is willing to pay, then you have a recipe for success -- a sustainable game. It's not about mining a little money from a tiny sliver of your audience, but instead about cultivating a smaller but more dedicated audience. That's a lesson that's going to be studied by tomorrow's successful free-to-play developers.

Resident Evil 6

Capcom

This game is proof positive that critically panned games with big names can still sell. The 67 metacritic-rated game went on to sell over 700,000 units in the first two weeks in Japan. Resident Evil 6 is a huge, sprawling, hulking beast of a product -- a 20 hour action game with too many ideas tackled too poorly. It's the poster child for triple-a feature creep, with some 600 internal and external employees working to stitch it together. The biggest lesson for us was the way many triple-A games are missing the trees for the forest. By trying to rush out their big features, they miss details that wind up distracting and alienating players.

Slender

Parsec Productions

2012 saw a bit of a survival horror renaissance, one that was not driven by major horror franchises like Silent Hill or Resident Evil, but by small independent developers. Slender -- a free PC download that spawned from the absolutely creepy Slender Man internet mythos -- was representative of this back-to-roots horror game movement that also included games like Lone Survivor, Anna and Home. As triple-A horror games focused increasingly on guns and ammo, Slender and its counterparts focused on helplessness, unpredictability and atmosphere -- notions that are often lost on today's big-budget horror games.

Slotomania

Playtika

Who needs real-money gambling when you can have one of the year's top ten-grossing apps by implementing fake-money gambling? Slotomania is a slot machine game that incorporates video game elements such as levels and experience points. It monetizes through sales of fake coins, which players can "gamble" in the machine. Slotomania was a top performer this year, but it wasn't alone, flanked by games like Big Fish Casino and DoubleDown Casino. As social and mobile companies make moves towards real-money gambling in the U.S. and abroad, we could just be seeing the tip of the iceberg.

Spec Ops

Yager, 2K

Game journalists love to write about story, writing, and interactivity, and Spec Ops: The Line gave them an unexpected opportunity to do that -- over and over again. The game's narrative was loosely based on Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness novella, and gave journalists fodder for discussion of linearity, unreliable narrators, and the affect of being complicit in horrible acts. The big takeaway was that there is a rabid audience out there awaiting more games with a even a moderately challenging narrative structure, and for Yager and 2k, their gamble paid off.


Star Wars: The Old Republic

BioWare Austin, EA

Star Wars: The Old Republic was supposed to prove the theory that players were willing to pay for premium MMOs via a monthly subscription model. But what happened this year was just reaffirmation that player expectations have shifted, perhaps for good, as BioWare Austin realigned the MMO to support a free-to-play model.

Seeing an online Star Wars game -- backed with such enormous talent and resources -- fail to succeed with the lucrative subscription model gave the game industry pause. But The Old Republic's move to free-to-play also contributed to the trend of high-budget, high-production value free-to-play games. And that's certainly not a bad thing.

Super Hexagon

Terry Cavanagh

As we wrote earlier this year, there's something primal about Super Hexagon, something that's hard to define. At its heart it's a simple game about avoiding collision with walls that come at you faster and faster until your feeble human brain can no longer keep up with them, but something about it -- and not even author Terry Cavanagh seems to know what that is exactly -- speaks to you in a way that most games just can't.

This is, quite possibly, the perfect video game. It's just as playable sitting down on your couch as it is waiting in line at the grocery store. It's abstract enough to make your brain fill in the gaps and create an experience richer than the most detailed Unreal Engine game, yet pretty enough to actually look good in screenshots.

And perhaps most importantly of all, it's proof that an independent developer can still release an iOS game -- one that, gasp, actually asks you to pay for it, and doesn't offer any in-app purchases -- and actually make money.

TheVille

Zynga

After several games with "Ville" as a suffix, Zynga launched one that stands as basically the pure essence of the company: fiercely viral Facebook mechanics that often look like they've been cloned from someone else. But this time, it wasn't a small indie who piped up to complain about its unfair treatment by a giant -- it was Electronic Arts, claiming in a lawsuit that the company had copied elements wholesale from its recent The Sims Social, even to the essence of The Sims brand itself.

The ensuing lawsuit, ugly squabbling about executive poaching and eventual headcount reduction helped make The Ville emblematic of a slowly-gathering tempest in the once remorselessly-prolific Facebook gaming space, and as Zynga's IPO floundered and user attrition continues, history's sure to show it's an icon of a crucial turning point for social game developers.

Tiny Tower

NimbleBit

Mobile and social game ecosystems have lowered the barrier for development and distribution of games. That means giant publicly-traded companies like Zynga now go toe-to-toe in the market with tiny companies -- companies like NimbleBit. NimbleBit created the building sim Tiny Tower, which was meeting a lot of success on the App Store in 2011.

So when Zynga's Dream Heights hit the Canadian App Store early this year, bearing striking similarities to Tiny Tower, it sparked heated discussion about the implications of big guys "borrowing" design ideas from tiny teams trying to make a living. Zynga defended its moves, but a large swath of the game industry didn't seem to accept the company's explanation. What the fiasco showed is that innovation and creativity still often do come from the fringes -- and if you're a big company, don't try to capitalize on that innovation by being a brazen copycat.

Tokyo Jungle

Sony Japan Studio/Crispy's, Sony

A slightly clumsy genre mashup featuring post-apocalyptic pets searching for survival in an abandoned city became one of this year's sleeper darlings. The structure of the game lends itself to creating unexpected, shareable moments, making users want to tell stories about it, and its lightweight humor felt refreshing, like a party-hat Pomeranian romping around with vegetarian deer.

At the core of the game's success is the idea that fans still hunger for offbeat cult hits -- especially when they're this fun and clever. Moreover, they might miss the distinctly Japanese tone that's been missing from many games in recent years thanks to challenges in the East.

Trials Evolution

RedLynx, Ubisoft

The Trials series from RedLynx has always been brilliant, but the studio took a big leap with this year's Trials Evolution. What it did was not only hone the excellent design of the previous Trials games, but introduced a level editor so robust that even the development team used Xbox 360 controllers when designing the game.

It was a critical success, as well as a commercial one, giving Xbox Live Arcade a win in the first half of the year. User-generated content has been done very well consoles, albeit very few times. Trials Evolution is a reminder that if you have the talent and tools to engage the community, stunning creative and commercial opportunities await.

Tribes: Ascend

Hi-Rez Studios

Crowdfunding isn't the only way to bring old IPs back. Hi-Rez Studios's Tribes: Ascend revived a classic PC franchise as a free-to-play multiplayer shooter that brought us back to the good old days of guns that shoot exploding frisbees without all of the "realistic" military stuff. Thanks to Tribes: Ascend, and other subsequent high-profile free-to-play games like MechWarrior Online and Planetside 2, free-to-play is finally coming to core PC audiences, and the new future isn't as horrible as hardcore players might've feared.

The Walking Dead

Telltale Games

Many different factors played into the success of The Walking Dead, but what really made this Telltale game shine was the writing. From the relationship between Lee and Clementine, to the trials and tribulations for Kenny's family, the five-part episodic adventure game pushes the boundaries of video game narrative.

Players are able to make huge decisions throughout play that impact how the story unfolds, in such a way that decisions you made in chapter one are still affecting the storyline by the final chapter. The hope is that The Walking Dead's presence will breed a new gaggle of video games with stories and choices that matter, rather than cut scenes that we'd rather hammer the "skip" button through.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown

Firaxis, Take-Two/2K

The fact that XCOM: Enemy Unknown even exists is kind of weird, in the best way possible. During a time when major publishers like Take-Two are investing in console-based first-person shooters and action games that take place in big, sprawling virtual worlds, here strolls in XCOM: Enemy Unknown, a turn-based strategy game developed mainly with consoles in mind (though also available on PC, naturally).

It's a game based off of a classic series that was born in the 90s on PC, it's developed by a studio that is among the elite PC strategy game developers, and it's getting a pretty good amount of attention from players. That bodes well for this idea that maybe players are willing to pay a triple-A price for a quality strategy game -- a game that makes them think instead of running and gunning.

Xenoblade Chronicles

Monolith Soft, Nintendo

What is a genre, anyway? It can be a trap. But when it's most relevant, it's a framework -- a way of thinking that allows a creator with vision to build on what's come before, not become trapped by it.

Xenoblade Chronicles shows a simple path forward for the Japanese RPG not by casting aside its strengths but by building upon them, in concert with ideas culled from other, similar genres. The result is an engrossing, vibrant game.

In essence, the reason Xenoblade is such a strong game is because its developers so well understand the genre they're working with -- they know its strengths and weaknesses intimately. This game is a testament to the fact that sometimes, the best-positioned people to reawaken a sleeping giant are those who have years of skill and expertise.

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