We end 2011 staring down the somewhat paradoxical barrel of a gun. It's been a big year, for sure, and there's a reason to listen when someone like Ken Levine stands up and says that this has been a year to be proud of.
"It's a year to be proud of the Uncharted guys," said Levine a couple of weeks back. " It's a year to be proud of Epic. It's a year to be proud of the Call of Duty guys. It's a year to be proud of everybody because people are delivering this year in a way the industry hasn't delivered in a very long time." And he's right, to a certain extent. We've seen tonnes of huge games come out this, reams of blockbuster titles, a November sales window that's never been to utterly stuffed with big-budget quality. There's been more hype, more smack talk and seemingly more choice than ever before. There's more people playing too thanks to motion-control and, a year on, suddenly Kinect doesn't seem a ludicrous a device as initially thought. Indeed, if the latest Dashboard update is anything to go by, Microsoft are shoving it front and centre.
It's easy to sit back and revel in the games that this year has brought to our attention. The technical aspects of the industry are in constant improvement: the visuals look better than ever; sound design, effects capturing and original compositions can make the difference between an average product and a great one; the likes of Portal 2, Skyrim, Deus Ex: Human Revolution, Bastion and Uncharted 3 have shown that good writing well implemented can make for some excellent games.
It's been a year where developers and publishers have been forced to improve their community considerations, looking to give gamers a longer tail with their investments, to provide more complete packages and keep consumers entertained. The likes of FIFA 12, Gears of War 3, Battlefield and Modern Warfare 3 - and portals such as COD: Elite, EA Sports Football Club and any EA-created device ending in '-log' - have consolidated social competition, giving gamers identities within communities, challenging them to go further, compete more, in some case (as with Virgin Gaming) for big bucks.
Diversification has meant that gaming has slipped almost unnoticed into the lives of those who would never have considered themselves gamers a couple of years ago (and many still don't to this day). The proliferation of low-priced material available on one's phone or tablet device and the smooth integration of motion control, Kinect in particular, into front rooms across the globe has created a new breed of gamer. From the office worker discovering Sid Meier's Pirates! on his iPad on the morning commute to the girls busting out a bit of Dance Central with some pre-drinks before a night on the town. I've seen (and done) both.
It's true, sequels dominated the release tables this year, if only because the major publishers pretty much refused to market anything else, but we'll come on to that in a bit. To pick up Batman: Arkham City or Uncharted 3, or indeed any of that list I commended earlier for good writing, was to see that quality could still be had in games suffixed by a number. Plus, if you couldn't find the creativity you were looking for in amongst the AAA titles, plunging into the indie scene soon solved that issue.
But in some ways there's a bit of burn out, a cluster of shadowy spectres in the corner of the eye, and a nagging sense of listlessness. Too many games and studios fell by the wayside this year, the middle tier unable to match the budgets of the big boys above - a situation which saw many a studio splinter into smaller entities as the likes of Bizarre, Black Rock, Team Bondi, Codemasters Guildford, Kaos and Blue Tongue were dissolved. Some, such as Bizarre, were given a bit of a lifeline, but no-one would bite. Some, like Team Bondi, simply imploded because of their own process. For some, such as THQ subsidiaries Kaos and Blue Tongue, good simply wasn't enough, and in a world of spiralling costs, they simply had to go.
It's something which has hit Nintendo in particular very hard this year, with the Wii on its deathbed. Unable to sustain massive first-party production, Nintendo has often courted third party developers in the past with previous consoles. But, with the middle ground disappearing in 2011, and the Wii unable to compete with the HD console for multiplatform releases, the home console scene looked a bit stale. Cue a new console announcement...but they managed to botch that too, with the E3 reveal of the Wii U proving far more confusing than it needed to be. Phrases like 'as powerful as the Xbox 360' didn't help either,and considering Nintendo have made their mark by being the second console in every home with this generation, quite how they're hoping to turn things around and rejoin the HD frontrunners, with heavy third party help and multiplayer support that actually works is anyone's guess.
The question of next-gen has been hovering over us this year, but the fact is that there's no real cut off point where we can definitively say that one generation has ended. The games industry is already in a state of flux. Digital distribution platforms made huge strides this year, although one would hope that as more publishers make the move we'll see clients far less bulky than Origin. Cloud gaming isn't just coming, it's here, the technology works - one account, small free client, multiple devices - but our archaic internet infrastructure needs to catch up with it. There's a real chance some studios will fall by the wayside if they don't find a way to evolve, but will the major console manufacturers and larger publishers be open enough to accept that? Xbox LIVE's recent update, for example, chose to bury games beyond other media. The PS Vita's initial prices sent shudders through the most ardent of fanboys.
Those with short memories will look at 2011 and say with utmost confidence that it's been a good year. But those whose minds stretch a little further, those who can remember the carnival of delights - the often somewhat flawed, but vibrant, creative treats of life on consoles before HD (N64 and PS2 I'm looking at you) - might look back on 2011 with a somewhat furrowed brow. If we're truly ready for the next generation, then we'd be worrying less about technical refinement at this stage of the current consoles' life cycles and more on exploring how that familiarity might facilitate innovation in game design. "It's a year to be proud of everybody because people are delivering this year in a way the industry hasn't delivered in a very long time," said Ken. Well I'd have to respectfully disagree. We should be proud - Call of Duty, once again, was the biggest entertainment event of the year, in any medium - we're making waves and the mainstream is having to find new ways of referring to games, alternatives to the bilious condescension of years past. But Epic, Activision and even Naughty Dog, those names that Levine drops, they all delivered in pretty much the same way as they have done for the past four years.
That said, even post-Christmas, my backlog from this year is frighteningly large and that's simply because this year produced so many titles that I wanted to play. But there weren't that many I simply had to, and there were very few surprises.