Well, 2012 is almost gone, and I have to say it’s been one of the most interesting years in the video game industry that I can remember. Although, it started out with a ton of pessimism and fear for investors and gamers alike. 2012 kicked off with people talking about the fact that there weren’t very many games coming out in the year, and had this idea that the bubble was about to burst as it did in the 1980’s. The general feeling was that people were burnt out on the same stuff getting developed every year and that the industry was heading towards a crash. While the industry did fall in some aspects, it found a way to redefine itself rather than fall back into obscurity.
As gaming has become a more popular medium for entertainment, these growing pains are expected. What determines the rise or fall of an industry however is how it responds and adapts. And in 2012 the face of video gaming as we know it adapted and came in full force, but not without rethinking how it stays profitable, and not without sacrifice.
The Winds of Change
Over the last year we saw a shift of talent rock the video game industry, and not always in a good way. Nothing more draws my memory than the story of 38 Studios and their game Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning. Hoping to jump into success as fantasy RPG’s like Skyrim came back full force, 38 Studios had an idea for a game. And a very solid one. While the games public reception was more cult than mainstream Kingdoms of Amalur was considered a great game by those who did enjoy it. 38 Studios also pulled out all the stops by having some of fantasy’s biggest names involved. The story was written by R.A. Salvatore and the artwork was done by Todd McFarlane. to top it all off Ken Rolston developed the game. If you don’t know who he is, he is kind of responsible for this little game called The Elder Scrolls. Despite all of this, the game rocked the industry not because of sales, but because of the fact that they borrowed taxpayer money to finance the game. When the game did not reach its sales forecast and the team could not pay the bill they were sued by the State of Rhode Island and all assets were sold to pay the bill. Other than the obvious of a lot of people losing their jobs, this is a scary revelation to other companies opting to try out new IP’s. Fortunately many studios sent out their job openings to the employees of 38 Studios and attempted to hire as many as they could. The Game Industry should get an award for this. Let’s just hope all those people find new jobs and this doesn’t scare away other teams from being creative.
Other shakeups this year include the leaving of some of the most prominent names in the industry. Bioware founders Greg Zeschuk and Ray Muzyka left the company with much speculation as to why. The official word is they wanted to pursue personal paths, however of course it’s thought that the fan outcry about the ending of Mass Effect 3 drove them to think no matter what they did it wasn’t appreciated. Who knows what impact this will have on future Bioware games and storytelling as they were both pivotal in creating these universes. But surely they will go on and are already in the works.
Not too long after, Epic Games’ Cliff Bleszinski also retired after years of helping turn Unreal and Gears of War into the epics that they are. While he said he was originally done, it has since been noted that Cliffy B. has been speaking with publishers including Activision and Sony so maybe he’s not quite done just yet.
We also witnessed one of the old favorites, THQ, struggle with finances and fall. Due to possibly over funding too many games and other problems, THQ failed to hold on. Hoping that Darksiders 2 would bring in enough sales to carry them into the first quarter of 2013 and into a possible profit gain with the new South Park game, however Darksiders 2 failed to perform on the market. While THQ’s bankruptcy filing will bring them a new start, hopefully they’ll come back with less IP’s and come back with great games. Notable in this case is another example of how we currently have too many high budget titles hitting the market, and both studios and consumers are having a hard time financing all of them.
Steve Ballmer, the very first Business Manager of Microsoft also left. This however, in my opinion was the best news of the year. Microsoft seems to have lost it’s focus. Other than Halo 4 and some Kinect games, the Xbox didn’t offer much in 2012. While there are plenty of multiplatform games on the system, there was really no reason to buy one if you didn’t have one already. Ballmer has said that the Xbox is not a gaming machine and was determined to make it the central home entertainment device. And this showed as Microsoft pumped more money into network and cable TV type programming, shoving Indie games to the back, and spamming the Dash with ads not related to gaming. I see Ballmer’s leaving an opening for someone who see’s the Xbox for what it needs to be to stay in the gaming industry. I hope.
Probably the worst change we saw however in 2012 was the closing of other studios. The count is not 100% confirmed as some studios were merged or swallowed by other studios. Roughly 21 developer studios closed. Hopefully most of these studios employees are finding work and continuing on. The only good thing to come of this is consolidation of talent. I’d rather have 25 games next year to play that are worth every penny, than 50 games that are probably better off being rented or purchased used. Really, how many season passes and multiplayer games can you play in the same year and actually enjoy the investment.
While this all looks very bad, it may in fact be very good. We need new ideas in the industry and video games are like art and music. They have a stamp of sorts by their creators, and sometimes those creators need a break to reinvent themselves in new ways. This opens up those positions to new people, and hopefully new games, new visions and new IP’s.
Don’t Underestimate the Little Guy
As we saw sequels return, and old developers leave, we also saw another shift in the industry. Indie games. Once thought of as the attempts of hipster developers the Indie game has hit big. Gamers have been screaming on forums for years about the rehash of the same stuff and the Indie game answered that by bringing new titles that either gave us completely new experiences or provided a modern return to genres we loved over the years but have been left behind. New variations of platformers, racing games, beat ‘em ups, and open world have been given back to us, and at a discounted rate. Most of these smaller games are under the $20 mark and don’t take a lifetime to complete, keeping the fun focused, enjoyable and to the point without filling hours with repetitive crap just to extend the game.
Most importantly these games focus on game mechanics. Mechanics are what truly breaks or makes a game, and it’s amazing to see what new ideas are cropping up without the pressure of big publishers pushing the developer to a certain goal. Games like Journey, Minecraft, Mark of the Ninja, Fez, The Unfinished Swan, I could go on. We also saw an increase in smaller developers like TellTale and their adaption of The Walking Dead take storm in the industry and prove that smaller games and episodic content can work.
Mobile titles are increasing in quality as well, and all of these platforms are giving small studios and upcoming individuals a chance to make their mark.
Why Do Something Different? Oh, That’s Why
This seems to be the general thought of big publishers and investors over the last few years. Why do something different when they are successful so far with established ideas. But once again 2012 was short on big budget releases and sequels, with a few exceptions. However what this did was give lesser known and new IP’s a chance to steal the spotlight. Although we saw the usual Assassin’s Creed, Mass Effect, Call of Duty etc. come out in all of their glory, these were not the show stoppers.
But games like Borderlands 2 and Dishonored proved something. They proved that people are interested in games other than the standard annual release. If companies take more time on their sequels and provide quality and excitement in anticipation they can succeed. Borderlands isn’t what I’d call a AAA rated title, but to those who loved it, it was one of the best games of this generation. Borderlands 2 came out a few years after the first and gamers flocked to it in droves. Dishonored had it’s own mark. A stand out game and new IP at the same time, and talk everywhere was how great it is.
I hope if anything, this last year showed the publishers to take your time with your IP’s, and take a chance on something new. Everyone hits burnout at some point and gamer’s are reaching that point with annual releases. Give us something to be excited about again, not what we just finished playing.
It Costs How Much?
No matter how much money you make, the economy worldwide is a concern. People are tighter on money now more than ever and are looking for options. Alongside the mobile games at under $5, the Indie games under $20, and the big budget releases of $60 people are checking out Free To Play and other services. In 2012 we saw an explosion of pricing models that may rock the industry into 2013. Even MMO’s are feeling the squeeze as almost all of them are developing a F2P option for gamers. Under much criticism I like this idea. It’s like a long demo, and if I like it I will pay more. The catch is to avoid Pay to Win but I’ll avoid that topic for now. F2P gives you the chance to try a game out at no risk. Sure maybe it’s limited but so are demos and F2P games aren’t games that always look or feel old. The PC is seeing a plethora of quality franchises return on this model such as Planetside 2 and Mechwarrior.
Sony is toying with the idea as well such as supporting DC Universe Online and the upcoming Dust 514 currently playable in Beta. Dust 514 is a very solid FPS, and if it’s something you enjoy playing each night why not invest. My wife is an example of why this works. She’s busy, very busy but she loves DC Universe Online. So she pays for it and buys stuff for her game. She doesn’t have time to play many games like I do, so her gaming investment is just different than mine.
Sony is also pushing a free-to-lay model of their own in PlayStation Plus. For about $5 a month, you can subscribe to PS Plus which gives out about 4-6 games a month for free. Everything from Crysis 2 and Batman to Retro City Rampage and Sonic. While you might not always get a game you like, I’ve found I’m playing games I wouldn’t think about usually and I’m enjoying them. Matter of fact since they gave away 12 games after E3 2012 and keep sending out monthly games, I have only actually bought 2 games since the summer as the service keeps my hard drive on my PS3 fuller than I have time to play. If I could pay $20 a month to play any game on the PlayStation Network Store, I would. I expect to see this model improve with Sony’s purchase of Gaikai and grow next year, and other companies may offer something as well. After all, if you read the fine print on your games it sounds more like a service like Netflix so why not have that option?
We also had Kickstarter taking off and helping fund games publicly from gamers willing to pay money upfront to help finance projects. This will be interesting to watch and see what happens in the future. Right now that future seems to be in the hands of Ouya and Double Fine. Should either one of these companies fail to either produce a product, or a product as promised Kickstarter will probably see a quick and painless death as skepticism will scare most people away. If they succeed, we may see an entirely new era of gamer to developer relations and a plethora of unique and accessible games.
Moving Into the Future
Wether you like it or not, smartphone and tablet gaming are here to stay. But they aren’t a crutch as you might think. Every penny dropped into the industry comes back to the gamer as a new game to play and encourages new developers to want to create games. It all helps and no one is ditching the consoles or PC anytime soon. In 2012 we started to see this merger between EA and Ubisoft making mobile games, and mobile games showing up on consoles. There are even a few companies now like Gameloft who are solely mobile focused, and are cranking out near console quality games on a regular basis.
This could also be one of the reasons Nintendo decided to have a tablet controller, as tablets in homes are not taboo anymore and are in wide use and familiar. Sony is pushing the Vita as their offering, and Microsoft pushed Smartglass as theirs. 2012 showed us a new focus on connectivity, technology, social interaction, and mobility. As well as the fact that small games and big games both have room to share on your shelf now and both are worth playing.
The last year made me very excited for the Next Generation and Nintendo is already underway. If anything, 2012 showed us that the gaming industry isn’t looking at becoming interactive realism and is returning it’s focus to creativity and offering a media experience nothing else can give you.
I could go on for hours here, but if you wanted to read a book you would be and if I wanted to write a book…well I probably still wouldn’t. There are dozens of other news makers and shakers we saw this last year, and 2012 ended up becoming more than I bargained it would. Probably the biggest shift I saw was the future of the video game industry. In comparison to other medias, it’s still young, confused and it’s trying to reshape itself and adapt to consumer needs and wants while pleasing the investors and creators at the same time. Publishers are trying to find the balance between budgets and profits and developers are trying to get their dreams out for everyone to see.
And they want to see them anywhere we go, on every device we own, and on two screens at the same time.