It wasn't supposed to be like this.
Stood at the end of 2011, staring down the barrel of 2012, one could have been forgiven for being a little pessimistic. We noted twelve months ago that, although high in quality, we hadn't seen anything particularly out of the ordinary emerge. Although Irrational's Ken Levine praised the likes of Naughty Dog, Epic, and Infinity Ward, they'd all delivered in much the same fashion as they had in previous years. We found ourselves hungry, back in January; hungry for something new - expecting news, expecting change, expecting some sense of progression from our industry.
Well, we got change, all right, and there was news aplenty, as certain quarters soared, new opportunities arose, and bright new frontiers presented themselves. On the flip side, the dark clouds of financial deficit, fan hysteria, confused markets, hack journalism, and patronising publicity threatened to ruin everything.
Let's start with the recession, which bit deep this year. Every fortnight, it seemed, there was another industry casualty. From the UK alone, we waved goodbye to Sony Liverpool Studio, EA's Bright Light, and Eurocom. We bid farewell to Bomberman's creators at Hudson Soft, to Monumental, 4mm, and Zipper. Thousands of voices cried out in terror and were suddenly silenced as NCsoft shut down Paragon Studios after seven years, and binned City of Heroes, much to the chagrin of an impassioned, dedicated fanbase.
Some closures were simply the nature of things running their course. Hogrocket, for example, were only ever designed to be a one-title studio, with Tiny Invaders proving to be a noteworthy collaboration between talented friends. However, there were others, it might be argued, who brought bad fortune upon themselves.
We had hoped that Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, with its dream-team design team of Rolston, Salvatore, and MacFarlane, might have rocked the worlds of RPG lovers hungering after something fantastical to sin their teeth into following adventures in Skyrim. Reckoning would be noteworthy, as it happened, but not much in terms of critical praise or high sales, rather as the centrepiece in a financial maelstrom that painted a picture of a studio borrowing taxpayers' money, then being sued by the state of Rhode Island for not being able to pay the bill.
Of course, for the thoroughly depressing scandal of the year, though, Denis Dyack and Silicon Knights stepped up to the plate. Here was a company who'd sued Epic back in 2007 for failure to "provide a working game engine" (referring to Unreal Engine 3...you know, that rather ubiquitous dev engine used by creative types all over the world) and, after a five year court case, was finally ordered to not only pay Epic damages and court costs, but to destroy every single remnant of SK-developed material that had incorporated UE3, after the court was convinced that SK had in fact stolen and copied thousands of lines of Epic's code. Toss that in with accusations of siphoning money and resources from X-Men Destiny to work on a prototype believed to have been for Eternal Darkness 2, and you could be forgiven for weeping in abject disappointment.
There were other embarrassments for the industry all over the place. E3 was, even more so than usual, a mess of booth babes and ultraviolence. Warren Spector was amongst the business and trade show's largest detractors this year, as marketers seemed hellbent on showing the outside world that this industry was only really concerned with blood, tits, and gore, and confusing discerning consumers with action-heavy trailers for franchises that has previously seemed a stealthy bunch, only to tell us it was our own fault for having short attention spans when we complained.
Games journalism was put under the microscope too. The "Is Lara Croft Being Raped?" fiasco destroyed a worthy discussion of whether or not this medium is equipped to deal with such a traumatic taboo subject through opportunistic preaching, shameless tabloid "journalism", bandwagon ethics, and shrill denunciations. It didn't matter that the quote had been the opinion of one man, it didn't matter that those so furiously eviscerating Crystal Dynamics hadn't actually played the segment in question, it didn't matter that we'd been so obviously manipulated by a showreel that made every game look like kinky torture porn. We had the opportunity as an industry to have a sensible debate, and we bottled it. Then again, the upper echelons of UK games journalism had a discussion about the nature of the relationship between PRs and journalists in which several people lost their jobs primarily played out on Twitter. And this is an industry that laments not being taking seriously by the "mainstream".
At the end of the year, when many of the usual newspapers levelled their accusatory fingers at the video game industry for having a hand in corrupting weakened minds, set against the backdrop of another unfortunate school shooting in the USA, we had no leg to stand on really. After all, June had been a month that saw marketers go further than ever before to celebrate and revel in gratuitous violence. There's always been a place for cathartic power fantasies in gaming, but what we got was needless blood-soaked saturation.
"We have two opportunities every year – two – to talk to the real world, of normal humans: E3 and Gamescom," Spector told me a couple of months after E3. "We showed one thing...and it was the one thing that confirmed everything our critics incorrectly believe about games. We did ourselves real harm, and that really bugs me, because I believe in games."
There's a lot to be angry about there, and yet, strangely perhaps, 2012 was actually one of the best years in gaming for those of us who enjoy games. Standing at the end of this year, there's a sense that 2012 has been utterly fantastic for consumers. As hard as this industry tried at times to shoot itself in the foot, the games won out this year. We stand at the of 2012 with beaming smiles and another enormous backlog.
"I'd pay good money to see that!" - the catchphrase that ushered in a reality. Crowdfunding existed before this year, of course, but now it became a widespread viable alternative route to market for indie and big companies alike. Since Tim Schafer made that video and kicked off the Double Fine Adventure, the Kickstarter revolution has snowballed with insanity. It's been such a meteoric rise in consciousness that one only hopes when the bubble of goodwill bursts (if it hasn't already) the quality of promises fulfilled can capitalise on what has been very much A Good Thing. Scepticism remains, and it will take the fruition of a Big Success such as the Ouya, or Wasteland 2 or Project Eternity or Star Citizen, but we're still optimistic.
We'll have to wait and see whether or not 2012 becomes the year we look back on as the turning point in broad perception of F2P, but the signs are good. The likes of PlanetSide 2 and Hawken showed that F2P could deliver high production values and a retail experience for no money whatsoever. The struggles of SWTOR and The Secret World to soldier on in an age where traditional MMO pricing models are in decline proved that F2P is certainly emerging as a more attractive proposition for consumers, at least in that genre. The continued mountains of money that Wargaming.net appear to be amassing point towards an attractive proposition for developers and publishers too...provided that you get it right.
Perhaps that was the lesson of this year too: get things right. Karma had a good 2012. Sleeping Dogs, discarded by Activision yet snapped up by Square Enix, was the littlebig game that could, providing an underdog story that led to a triumphant ending and became one of the finest releases of the year. Taking time over an IP, ensuring the product you had was truly original and inspiring, these are the things that made Dishonored a success, delivering a big "Fuck you!" to those who'd prophesied that new IPs were unfeasible so close to the end of a console cycle. Conversely, even armed with one of the largest names in gaming, EA's Medal of Honor: Warfighter proved that releasing a half-arsed game will often lead to a half-arsed return.
We'd feared for the middle ground last year, but the digital marketplaces proved to be arbiters of salvation in that respect. Once again, the likes of XBLA, PSN, GOG, Steam, and Desura wowed us with their delights. It's telling that the marketplace and Indie categories were, yet again, two of the most difficult to narrow down to a shortlist for the GOTY awards, let alone pick a winner. In The Walking Dead we had proof of something to which many of us have long held: that games have the potential to offer the most engrossing, emotional, and engaging storytelling medium available. Telltale finally found the winning formula for their episodic release format, and it worked wonders, creating gaming events throughout the year.
And then there was Journey. It wasn't for everybody, and it required a certain willingness and open-mindedness of the player, but it gave us one of the most strikingly original artistic experiences of the past few years. Was it a reflection on life? On the games industry? On faith? On companionship? It didn't matter, it was up to you and what you read into it, or did it matter whether or not you thought it was a game, such discussions were pointless and reductive. What mattered was that you went on the journey.
There was a spirit of experimentation everywhere, even in the most restrictive of genres. Treyarch did what little they could to make Black Ops II a rather refreshing COD instalment, and largely succeeded. 343 beat the odds to deliver a moodier, more personal Halo experience that was every bit as gripping as Bungie's efforts, and keep us returning weeks after release with a tweaked multiplayer, and the simple-yet-effective strategy of 7-day DLC drops with Spartan Ops. Far Cry 3 pointed towards a far more interesting future for the industry than mere shiny visuals, with the living, breathing jungle of the impressive open world standing as a testament to clever use of environmental AI.
This was the year when one of Peter Molyneux's post-Bullfrog promises came true! He predicted that millions of us would find ourselves furiously tapping away at the layers of a giant cube on our mobile phones. Oh Peter, we chuckled, but Curiosity came to pass. There were millions of people willing to peel back the layers of 22Cans' social experiment, although unfortunately it seemed that not even Peter himself had believed that one, as servers groaned, fizzled and popped under the weight of demand.
The Wii U emerged, perhaps a little too early one suspects, but who would have thought that the most revolutionary aspect of Nintendo's console would have been its social community features. Miiverse is still a fairly untapped well of potential, but it is to be hoped that Nintendo really capitalise on their promising social hub in 2013...that, and deliver some stonkingly good games please! They have a clear advantage in time over Microsoft and Sony, but they're competing with a current generation determined to keep on delivering the goods, and they need killer apps desperately.
Microsoft and Sony had relatively quiet year, but there were still notable shifts. One hopes that the departure of Steve Ballmer from the former might usher in an age of open business and forward-thinking, but just writing that in the same sentence as "Microsoft" feels wrong these days. Sony had the dubious honour of releasing the most advanced portable console ever made, only to have it sink without a trace. The Vita, it turned out, was dead on arrival, with only Sony themselves seemingly less interested in the handheld than the general public. They did, however, strike two resounding notes of success: PlayStation Plus has become a revelation in terms of quality and value, and it is to be hoped that its availability on the Vita might resurrect the handheld somewhat. Elsewhere, even as OnLive was fading rapidly after a bright start, Sony snapped up Gaikai and began to heavily invest in cloud services. We're yet to see the fruits of such labours, but the possibility of an 'on demand' streaming library of PlayStation games thrills us.
Heading into 2013, there are a number of things we'd like to see happen, but the largest resolution we'd like to be realised is this industry learning from its mistakes. The Vita failed early-on for the same reasons certain consoles have always disappointed: a misjudged price that was too high, and a lack of follow-up games. It remains to be seen whether or not we'll be saying the same about the Wii U, but we hope against hope that Microsoft and Sony will learn from these mistakes when it comes to the almost inevitable advent of the next generation at the end of next year.
Of course, for consumers all will be forgiven provided the games are good. The endless politicking, the scoring of points, the back and forth of big business, the financial mires, it might sound shallow but none of that will really matter as long as we can still play interesting games at the end of all of it. Perhaps that's why we stand at the end of 2012 with a certain sense of optimism - because in a turbulent year where the odds were against us, creativity still won out. With quality games everywhere you looked, in every genre, for all ages and dispositions, we were all winners.