The 7 Games That Shaped 2012

End of year lists are ten a penny. Top 20 this. Best 5 that. This is the only list you need.

With 2012 such a transformative year for games Michael French, Chris Dring, Ben Parfitt and James Batchelor pick the seven games that exemplify the biggest changes in the market…

Borderlands 2 and the so-called death of retail

Is retail dying?It’s difficult to ignore the hard facts and figures. Sales of physical video games are almost 30 per cent down this year. GAME had to close half of its stores. Big brands such as Halo and Call of Duty failed to match their predecessors at Day One. Even new hardware Wii U and Vita were greeted with indifference from some.

The reasons for these difficulties have been discussed at length in MCV this year; the rise of the digital games market, the on-going economic storm, the end of the console cycle.

But if you were to focus on the handful of games that managed to buck the trend you can see that in fact the retail market isn’t necessarily dying. It’s just lacking content, imagination… and risk.

Borderlands 2 is a shining example. The game was the sequel to the moderately successful 2009 shooter that, at the time, was quite unlike anything we’ve seen before, with its mix of RPG and shooting gameplay with cel-shaded visuals.

2K Games backed the sequel with a big marketing campaign, developer Gearbox delivered on the quality, and fans flocked to the stores. It may be a cel-shaded shooting/RPG hybrid – a pitch that won’t excite many publishers – but it is this year’s fifth fastest selling game.

There are other examples of retail’s still significant power, too. FIFA 13 comfortably outmatched the sales performance of its predecessors, and remains one of the highest rated sports games on Metacritic. Mass Effect 3 beat its forebears despite not being stocked in GAME. Meanwhile Assassin’s Creed III’s debut was a personal sales best for Ubisoft. And one of the very few core new IPs that anyone dared to release this year, Bethesda’s excellent Dishonored, also beat its sales expectations.

These games were backed with marketing and were excellent in quality, and as a result they sold admirably. The titles this year that disappointed (such as Resident Evil 6 and Medal of Honor: Warfighter for instance) either lacked publisher backing or received mixed reviews.

There’s no denying that video games stores had a difficult 2012. Yet there is clear evidence that the High Street can still be a great place to sell video games in 2013, if the support and quality is right.

And with some fantastic looking big-budget boxed games due next year – such as BioShock, GTA, The Last of Us and Watch Dogs – there’s reasons to believe that next year may not be quite so depressing. CD

Double Fine Adventure and the rise of Kickstarter

One of the year’s most defining games doesn’t actually exist yet.

No one will have missed the insatiable rise of games funded via Kickstarter this year. The crowdfunding site has drawn an indelible line under the crucial issue of funding for games, allowing gamers, fans and the media to promote and fund worthy projects.

Double Fine’s new title codenamed ‘Reds’ was the watershed moment, raising $3.3m. The San Francisco studio, headed by famed games designer Tim Schafer, used the service to fund its next adventure title – a genre publishers have lost interest in.

The fan-backed model wasn’t new in 2012, but Double Fine passing its multi-million milestone pushed it into mainstream recognition.

The success of this defined launch strategies for many indies. Kickstarter boomed in Double Fine’s wake, with many using it to get their off-beat projects started. Seven of Kickstarter’s biggest projects ever were from games funds raised this year including launches by InXile (its Wasteland sequel raised $2.9m), Oculus Rift (3D games headset, $2.4m), Obsidian’s Project Eternity ($3.9m) and Ouya (the Android games console, $8.5m).

Kickstarter even launched a UK arm so projects could be launched in Pounds Sterling. Famed designers like Peter Molyneux and David Braben plus a wave of up-and-coming Brit indies leapt at the chance to make dreams (such as Braben’s Elite sequel) a reality.

Crowdfunding, however, is not a magic bullet. And its long-term power is still to be proven. Backing a title can be interpreted as either seed funding cash that you’ll never see back or pre-ordering. Smaller, underexposed indies have grumbled when heavyweights like Schafer and Braben – already rich through their previous projects – have opted to take gamers’ cash rather than bankroll their own games.

Plus: none of those high-profile projects have emerged yet. Crowdfunding is a powerful marketing tool, giving a chance to games that wouldn’t have appeared through traditional means, yet it’s no guarantee of actual delivery.

Even Double Fine, which first promised a completed game within 2012, pushed launch to mid-2013. The money is being spent on building a game engine first.

So, one of 2012’s most defining games doesn’t actually exist yet. But its influence is undeniable. MF

Nintendo Land and the arrival of new hardware

It’s the one issue the industry seems to have a consensus on: we need new console hardware.

This generation has lasted far longer than the industry is used to, stretching the business strategies that many publishers and retailers are founded on to their very limits.

The software release slate that is supposed to sustain us between the arrival of new machines has settled into a well-trodden cycle of FIFA, Call of Duty, Assassin’s Creed, Need For Speed and the like. That’s understandable – the financial turmoil of the last few years has made new IP an unacceptable risk – but without the encouragement of new hardware, the market is starved of new ideas.

So a fresh batch of consoles can excite consumers and drive new revenue into the channel. This year, we had two hors d’oeuvres to 2013’s next-gen main course.

Nintendo Land embodies how new ideas spring from new hardware. It’s the Wii Sports of Nintendo’s newest invention. It is a promise of ideas that could capture both the imagination of the masses, whose disposable income retailers have been sorely missing this year.

Now, we must watch Wii U and wait for details on the successors to 360 and PS3. You can all but guarantee details – if not a release – from both in 2013, but it will take something more tangible than mere anticipation to keep tills ringing. JB

Minecraft and the power of 360 brands

That’s 360-degree games brands, multi-platform hits that cross the divide between platforms and the digital/physical gulf – not ones on the Xbox 360.

But saying that, the best example of this game can be found on 360: Minecraft which by the end of this year will have sold close to 5m via Xbox Live Arcade. It will have raised almost 70m in global revenue from the Xbox port of a PC indie hit that first debuted in May 2009 (albeit as an alpha version that would be incrementally updated over the next two years until full release).

That small fiscal nugget is a key example of the new era of compelling games that launched as a digital game, but went on to become merchandised and cross-platform properties bigger (or at least more robust) than anything spat from the triple-A firms.

It’s a lot like the concept of a ‘360 deal’ in music, which sees an artist partner with just one company to take full control of their career, sharing work on albums, tours and merchandise. But here the developers call the shots. Publishers are an afterthought.

The actual process they go through is simple to see, but hard to replicate: start as a quality online property, reach and grow an audience, then run through the classic growth tickboxes of sequels, ports, events and licensing.

Minecraft is the poster-child, but a raft of games are sucking money – and crucially, time – away from the more established games franchises on the market

This kind of property has long been the dream of Activision, Nintendo, Sony and EA. Arguably, FIFA, Call of Duty, Mario and Sonic are already there. But in the last few years, Moshi Monsters, Angry Birds and Minecraft have grown in record time compared to those long-running franchises. The 360 Minecraft port’s six-month sales of almost 5m only underline that.

Crucially, these brands are platform agnostic. They tolerate no snobbery about retail, digital, or the acres in between. They do it all. They have agreements with format-holders, and offer plenty to sell through retail. You’re just as likely to find a foam Minecraft pickaxe or stuffed Moshling – both available in GAME for Xmas – filling stockings this year as you are a copy of Call of Duty. MF

Mass Effect 3 and the collapse of GAME

It’s impossible to identify the exact moment GAME’s – its descent into administration – became unavoidable. But there was one specific moment when the retailer’s struggles could not be kept hidden from consumers.

That moment was March 2nd, when gamers headed into GAME stores to pick up the hugely hyped sci-fi RPG Mass Effect 3… only to discover that the chain wasn’t given any stock. And it wouldn’t get any other EA titles, either.

Until that point GAME had been able to brush aside much of the concern. Failing to stock Tekken 3DS was alarming, yes, but hardly earth-shattering. The decision not to sell any of Ubisoft’s launch titles for Vita was a bigger concern, but didn’t stop GAME attracting a commanding share of the console’s launch sales.

But Mass Effect 3? Precisely the kind of title that retailers adore. Precisely the sort of game for which they organise midnight launches. It being missing from GAME was the moment that we all realised this was very, very serious.

And so it was that in just a month’s time the retailer would fall into administration, resulting in the closure of 300 stores and the loss of thousands of jobs. Mass Effect 3 and all of EA’s titles would of course return to GAME’s shelves when the firm was rebooted as Game Retail, but all the copies in the world will never be enough to hide the scars it had left. BP

League of Legends and the power of free-to-play

2012 will be remembered as a landmark year for free-to-play games, personified by the success of Riot Games’ League of Legends.

Freemium titles are games that are totally free, but generate their money via microtransactions. Gamers spend real money in the game on extra items or to progress faster in the game.

League of Legends adopts this model, and it’s been a phenomenal success, with 32m gamers playing it each month. Riot Games says it is ‘the most played video game in the world’, well ahead of Call of Duty and World of Warcraft.

And no wonder: free-to-play was a hot topic this year, and not just amongst the established F2P players, but also the publishing giants Ubisoft, EA and Activision who are traditionally console-first.

EA announced the next Command & Conquer game would be F2P. Ubi announced a load of its PC games were going free.

Even the platform holders are getting involved: Sony is publishing free title Dust 514 while Microsoft just released in-game-transaction Xbox Live game Happy Wars.

And many of the hot titles in this space – such as new shooter Hawken – boast stunning visuals of triple-A quality.

But free-to-play has met opposition. Core gamers remain unconverted. One contentious point of discussion has been the ‘Pay2Win’ model, where consumers are asked to spend money for better guns, armour and stats, giving them advantages over other players.

Meanwhile, fellow developers believe the freemium model is not one that is overly trustworthy.

The cost of the play is not very transparent to users so while they may be tempted to think it’s a very good thing for them, I think it’s tricks people a bit,” said Marek Spanel, the CEO of PC developer Bohemia Interactive, in our free-to-play special investigation last month.

The explosion in free-to-play competitors has also made things difficult. As the quality of these games increase so do the costs, and already the market is showing signs of consolidation, with BigPoint closing its San Francisco office and cutting 120 jobs.

So there are challenges around stability in this space. But free-to-play is no-longer a niche model. It’s growing and with free games based on big brands with triple-A production values on the way, it’s likely 2013 will be another important year in the growth of freemium. CD

Journey and the digital quality tipping point

While you cannot deny the rise of digital content in games, until 2012 you could write off a majority of download games as inferior.

Smaller budgets, less experienced teams, shorter production cycles and tight download sizes mean that those games didn’t always stack up to a gigabyte-rich disc game.

But PS3 game Journey, which tells a tale of isolation and exploration, proved that isn’t true. In fact, 2012 was the year digital games outshone physical ones.

Had Journey been released physically it would have been on a pricey disc. And it would have sold sod all and been forgotten. It’s cut from the same cloth as other powerful PlayStation icons like Ico, Shadow of the Colossus and Rez but found immediate glory via its delivery mechanism not in spite of it.

Yes, some areas of the trade have eyed these games with suspicion or just ignored them. The industry needs High Street retail and the trade in non-physical games could detract from it. But the alternative big-money publishing climate of modern gaming has robbed the industry of some joys. Journey offers more thought-provoking thrills via a download instead of a disc, and shows that excitement has returned.

Many of the 2012’s acclaimed games (Mark of the Ninja, Spelunky, FTL, Fez, Torchlight 2 andThe Walking Dead) never saw a physical release. It was the fact that they didn’t need that which allowed them to exist in the first place. BP

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