Farewell 2013! You've given us a right rollercoaster time of it over the last twelve months. This year of transition, in which we've seen one console generation give way to another, has certainly been an odd one. It's telling that the year kicked off with a tiny three-person outfit dropping one of 2013's most-played games in Temple Run 2 even as the staffers at one of the industry's biggest publishers locked up an abandoned building as THQ finally kicked the bucket.
It had been predicted that one of the industry's biggest companies wouldn't make the jump to next-gen.
2013 has been a year that's seen the storm of change break after rumblings over the past eighteen months or so. On the positive end, that means there's arguably never been a better time to be an independent game maker, with the means and avenues towards realising one's interactive vision more plentiful and accessible than ever before. Sony might have niftily transformed their freshly-found indie spirit into a nice marketing message for the PS4, but they spoke for the whole industry.
Once again, the PC has paved the way. It could be argued that it was only a matter of time before the console manufacturers woke up and realised that offering self-publishing opportunities to the wealth of independent creatives out there, but now we have actions rather than mere words. The exciting advent of open publishing on next-gen platforms is very much a work in progress and there's much to be done, but the wheels are turning at least. Even so, the PC still put consoles to shame with unique gems such as Papers, Please and The Stanley Parable, and where else might you have found a game like Gone Home? The Fullbright Company gave us one of the most important games of the year with their experiential marvel, once again underlining the undeniable fact that the term "game" is about as obsolete and archaic as can be.
Be Careful What You Pay For
The flipside of massive industry change, however, the rise of mobile platforms and diverse monetisation models, has been the insidious advancement of microtransactions, dubious pricing, and a stalled digital future. 2013 was the year that microtransactions made the jump from being little annoyances in mobile titles to the mainstream. It began with Dead Space 3 and it ended with the likes of Gran Turismo 6 and Forza 5, ruining Real Racing 3 in the process -- big franchises suddenly seemingly restricting content behind a paywall.
It's a trust thing, it always has been, and the sad truth is that it doesn't matter whether or not you've designed your game around a pricing model or not, the mere fact that it's there means it's the first conclusion we now jump to. Would it have really taken so long for your scavenger droid in Dead Space 3 to collect goodies if there hadn't been an option to pay to speed things along? Would unlocking the top tier cars in the games above have really required so much grinding without the option to pay to skip ahead? Dan Greenawalt talked a few weeks back about how one idea could be making microtransactions available to pay for cheat codes. Imagine little humorous asides such as Halo's Grunt Birthday Party skull or Golden Eye 64's DK Mode being little payment-unlocked crumbs of DLC. It's a soul-destroyingly horrid idea. Imagine if all the Konami Code had unlocked was a pop-up window begging for a couple of quid.
But the backlash was glorious, and brings us to another highlight of 2013: people power.
For every game that tried to shoehorn microtransactions into proceedings, there was a great deal of online spleen-venting. It's easy to chalk up fan rage to the efforts of a vocal minority, but things went beyond that this year. Disgruntled consumers used the platforms available to them and shouted continuously, berating publishers and developers for what has been by-and-large a seedy practice inextricably and destructively tied to game design. Microtransactions are not dead, and there are companies (hello Microsoft) seemingly hell-bent on working them into mainstream titles, but it is an irredeemable term now and games that attempt to hold back content or adjust the equilibrium of well-worked design just to accommodate needless add-ons will continue to be jeered louder and longer.
It's important that continues because the other thing we saw definitively this year is that companies are listening. Microsoft know better than any other company that backlash can be powerful. The series of embarrassing U-turns made by the Redmond company this year is proof positive that public perception matters. Of course, if they'd been a bit more organised and stuck by their convictions, this could all have gone very differently. But as it is, they shifted two million Xbox Ones in eighteen days, and that's with a heavily limited launch. They'll take that, and so will we. The online community is larger and louder than ever before, and with initiatives such as Greenlight and Kickstarter that will only grow. Whether that's a good or bad thing ultimately remains to be seen, but it's certainly going to make for an exciting future.
Speaking of exciting futures, to look back to this time last year would be to see 2013 spread before us like blank canvas upon which the legacy of the Wii U might be written without competition, following on from an underwhelming start.
Yeah, about that...
If you already owned a Wii U, it's been a great year. "Launch" games like LEGO City Undercover, Pikmin 3, and The Wonderful 101 finally emerged. The Wind Waker HD proved to be just as glorious as we'd hoped, and Super Mario 3D World is about as close to pure joy as you can get, without playing Rayman Legends.
Ah yes, Rayman Legends. In a way, Ubisoft's wonderful platformer perfectly illustrates two of the Wii U's problems: the chicken and egg disaster surrounding third-party titles. The uneasy trend that began in 2012 has gotten worse this year. The tiny audience that the Wii U commands doesn't balance out the cost and effort it would take to port many a third-party title over to the platform, and so it is that Nintendo have lost ground again, unable to provide numerous key third-party experiences on their platform -- something that will only become more starkly apparent now that the PS4 and Xbox One have emerged.
The sad fact is that the Wii U became a really strong retail proposition this Christmas, but the lack of third-party support, Nintendo's seeming inability to market their console or its games despite having no direct competition for most of the year, their failure to distinguish the Wii U from its predecessor, and the lack of publicity for any game with "Mario" in the title have dug the console a hole from which it may not be able to crawl back out. This should have been a year of well-worked consolidation for the Wii U; instead, it's been a shambles.
Though arguably not the worst shambles of the year. That honour goes to OUYA.
The Plucky Little Console That Couldn't
Microconsoles successfully identified one of the biggest problems with gaming: expense. Buying a new console or a gaming PC is expensive, and the games on offer aren't exactly cheap, particularly for the former. But the likes of OUYA and GameStick turned out to be woeful when it came to the crunch. You had to admire the sheer balls of it all: indies had taken the software market by storm, why not the console space too? The OUYA in particular was the little console that could -- a sub-£100 friend to everyone that could stand up to the faceless corporations embodied by Microsoft and Sony.
Except it didn't.
Free The Games made absolutely no sense and then became an exploitative noose. The audience uptake was slow and small and what you were getting for your money as a consumer was an underpowered, outdated mini-cube that looked lovely but fell apart rather easily in the hands. But more and more, as the year went on, there came the feeling that microconsoles were trying to fill a space that never really existed in the first place. Do people really want to play mobile games on a big screen? Why would you buy into a console so unrefined, cluttered and confusing when the PS3 and Xbox 360 came crashing down in price, boasting outstanding back catalogues? Microconsoles arrived on the scene like party crashers turning up with a crate of booze. We all cheered, and then wondered who'd invited them after they vomited all over the carpet.
No MOJO, you can't come in. Party's over.
The fact is that those microconsoles never stood a chance, and the future of living room alternatives seems to now rest firmly in the hands of cheap-but-efficient small form factor PC and Valve's Steam Machines plan. We can't wait to hear more on that.
The fact is, though, that this was Microsoft and Sony's year. A console battle for the ages. From February onwards, Sony smoothly sated their case with personality and a certain amount of humility (to begin with, anyway). The message was clear: games would be the focus. After a spluttering PS3 campaign that finally roared into life for the second half of its lifespan, Sony had learned their lessons and would be upholding the status quo in retail terms, but overhauling everything they'd done back in 2006 for the PS4 launch.
It's easy to see the PS4 as the safe choice, taking easy options to win public points when it came to our digital future or lack thereof. But actually, Sony's biggest success in 2013 wasn't the PS4 (not on the strength of its launch games, anyway), but making an annual subscription a viable alternative to buying games in the manner we'd always done before. For the price of a single game every twelve months, PlayStation Plus has kept us gaming solidly throughout 2013, from triple-A titles across PS3 and Vita to boutique indie curios. We can only hope that Sony will expand the service to cater for PS4 owners meaningfully in the new year. As a value proposition, PlayStation Plus has been second to none this year and points a way forward for a digital gaming diet that satisfies the soul whilst still allowing for pick'n'mix retail offerings.
Microsoft played the role of pantomime villain through most of the year, having not realised that guessing what gamers want to hear and doing exactly that was a surefire way of guaranteeing applause rather than jeers. Had they been rather less honest, they might have slipped that original, always-connected Xbox One in more or less under the radar, but the benefit was that Gamescom saw a leaner, meaner machine, and an Xbox chain of command eager to connect with the social media savvy audience that had clamoured for changes in policy. That the two consoles ended the year more or less on a level with one another is a testament to the impressive speed with which the Redmond company moved -- though we'll have to wait and see if the short-term benefits are balanced out by any long term effects.
To be honest, though, Microsoft are well positioned for 2014. Though the PS4 might edge things in terms of power and possibility, it's Microsoft who have the confirmed games in place and a more promising release schedule for the upcoming year. That's simply a case of what's been announced and dated rather than what's necessarily coming, though, and Sony have plenty of studios up their sleeves. In short, the drama and controversy of this year, the gripping back and forth between two industry leviathans, it'll all fade as attention turns from the pre-game strutting to the meat of the matter: the games themselves.
2013 has been a year brimming with news, the rumour mill had to be rebuilt due to overuse. But the speculation and the smack-talk is done. Though we had some blockbuster titles making big waves -- Bioshock Infinite, The Last of Us, and GTA V to name but three -- this explosive year has really served to set the stage for a barnstorming next twelve months. We've had the farewell fireworks for the last-gen generation, now our attention turns to pastures new.