Video Games: An industry in transition
|The 5 trends that defined the game industry in 2012|
|December 6, 2012 | By Kris Graft
Editor-in-chief Kris Graft kicks off Gamasutra’s annual year-end roundups with five trends that defined 2012.
Once December hits, pretty much every year I marvel at just how fast time flies. That feeling of the swift passing of time was inflated as I scoured the stories of the past 12 months: Was it really just this year that I saw Tim Schafer at the February DICE Summit in Las Vegas, constantly checking his phone to keep track of his crazy Kickstarter campaign? Was it really just this year that Zynga dropped hundreds of millions of dollars to buy its way into the mobile market?
There were a lot of individual pieces of news, but with the benefit of hindsight, we can see that the news with the most impact culminated in the five following trends: the trends that defined 2012.
Crowdfunding’s new opportunities
There had been plenty of Kickstarter campaigns for games the past few years, but it was Tim Schafer’s Double Fine Adventure in February that blew the doors open on crowdfunding for games, waking the industry up to new possibilities and setting a strong theme for the rest of the year.
Double Fine Adventure drew in more than $3.3 million (a fair bit above the $400,000 target) and shattered previous records for Kickstarter. But then along came Obsidian Entertainment’s Project Eternity, which brought in nearly $4 million. And Kickstarter in 2012 wasn’t just about game software, but also about hardware. The Android-based Ouya console raised $8.6 million. The Oculus Rift VR headset, which major game studios vouched for, raked in over $2.4 million.
Creators didn’t always use Kickstarter for crowdfunding. Chris Roberts, best known for his work on Wing Commander, launched a crowdfunding campaign on his own website, then added a Kickstarter campaign, reaching a combined total of over $6.2 million in funds for his spacefaring game Star Citizen. Introversion’s independently-run crowdfunding campaign is now at $625,000.
Not everyone who took to Kickstarter was successful — there were a number of notable campaigns that came up short. Success or failure, Kickstarter offered not only the means for developers to independently fund their games, but also oft-compelling stories for onlookers and contributors — sometimes about oh-so-close misses, sometimes about a late-campaign rally to success.
The mobile transition
This year, social game developers allocated even more time and resources to mobile platforms, as Facebook’s most dedicated players embraced games on their smartphones and tablets.
Facebook has been helping facilitate mobile adoption for game developers who previously were focused on browser-based social games. The social network opened up new viral channels to allow games to organically spread among Facebook friends, and now developers can more fully hook their native mobile games into Facebook’s Open Graph.
One report in September showed how Zynga, Electronic Arts and Disney/Playdom’s social browser games were seeing double-digit declines of daily active users, month to month. Meanwhile, the top-grossing mobile games continue to gain traction.
Businesses are changing their strategies in order to follow where the players are going. Social game stalwart Wooga told Gamasutra that its main focus is no longer on Facebook games, but on mobile, with over half of its 250-person staff working on smartphones and tablets. Crowdstar has halted development of social network games to focus on mobile. King.com is concentrating on cross-platform browser-to-mobile experiences. And there’s Zynga, whose $210 million purchase of Draw Something developer OMGPOP this year showed just how much the leading Facebook developer thought mobile games were worth.
As mid-tier developers are squeezed out it’s obviously not just social game developers who are flocking to mobile phones. With millions of new phone activations happening each year, mobile hardware becoming more powerful and Facebook itself focusing its efforts on mobile, 2013 will continue to see the maturation of this transition, in all parts of the industry.
So long, MMO subscriptions
If there was any hope left for “premium” MMOs and the monthly subscription model, those hopes were dashed in 2012 when BioWare Austin’s Star Wars: The Old Republic swiftly declined in players, and eventually transitioned to the free-to-play business model.
There was Funcom’s The Secret World — an interesting MMO that charged players a monthly fee. When the players didn’t show up, the company had to restructure, lay off workers and soldier forward. The game still is subscription-based, but isn’t exactly an example of how to make the subscription model work in a modern day MMO.
It’s not just the shortfalls of the subscription MMO model that are notable, but also the success of new MMOs and online-focused games released this year, that launched as free-to-play games. Player expectations shifted dramatically in 2012 — and aside from the lumbering giant World of Warcraft (released eight years ago) and the rather brilliant EVE Online, the subscription model for MMOs is all but finished.
At about the mid-point of the current console generation, prognosticators warned the game industry: Going toe-to-toe with studios in the top-tier, high-budget “triple-A” video game sector is going to become an increasingly harrowing task.
We saw this happening last year as well, but the trend continued in 2012 — mid-level developers and their games are falling out of the picture. Slow sales of Square Enix’s Sleeping Dogs hurt the publisher’s earnings this year — a disappointing shortfall, as the publisher made a special effort to scoop the game up from Activision, where it was called True Crime: Hong Kong.
Lightbox Interactive’s Starhawk released to some solid reviews in May, but by October the studio was hit with layoffs, and transitioned to mobile games. Activision-owned Prototype 2 developer Radical Entertainment also suffered layoffs; 007 Legends developer Eurocom cut staff and began focusing on mobile.
THQ’s Vigil Games didn’t see restructuring, and released a well-reviewed game in Darksiders II over the summer. That game sold 1.4 million units, but THQ said it still didn’t meet expectations. THQ president Jason Rubin conceded in November: “In the current marketplace only the absolute top tier of releases is making an impact on game consumers.”
If you want to survive and thrive in triple-A, and fight against the Call of Dutys, the Gears of Wars, the Assassin’s Creeds and the Halos, you’re going to need a whole lot of money and a whole lot of talent. And even if you have those ingredients, nothing is certain.
Resounding calls for diversity and inclusiveness
The video game industry seemed to reach a turning point this year, as frank, open discussions about diversity and gender inclusiveness frequently took place on video game websites and social media.
In late November, gender-related issues that were being expressed throughout the year appeared to culminate in the #1reasonwhy Twitter campaign. The hashtag, brought about by the question of why there are relatively few women in the game industry, exposed many examples of sexist behavior in the work environment, and put that ugliness up for the world to see.
But that was only one of the many pointed instances that brought diversity issues to the surface. There was a certain trailer for Hitman: Absolution that caused an uproar and sparked discussion about misogyny in games — developer IO Interactive eventually apologized for the teaser, which showed protagonist Agent 47 violently beating down gun-toting dominatrix nuns. Game journalists took Crystal Dynamics to task when one developer suggested players will want to “protect” main character Lara Croft from sexual assault.
Blogger Anita Sarkeesian launched a Kickstarter for a web series investigating female tropes in video games. Along with support for her efforts came disgusting, juvenile, sexist reaction from internet posters with limited brain capacity. But in the end, the Kickstarter was funded well over its goal, and the people had spoken, not only with their words, but with their wallets.
We could go on with examples of calls for inclusiveness and gender equality: Halo 4 developer 343 Industries talked openly about fighting gender stereotypes in the game; Electronic Arts officially took a stand against the Defense of Marriage Act; author and game designer Anna Anthropy spoke out against “token characters” in games at Indiecade; Boston’s No Show Conference for games aimed to have women make up at least 50 percent of the speaker lineup. Of course, Gamasutra contributing writers were an active part of the discussion as well.
The movement is concentrated, but it’s spreading, picking up traction every day. As people who care about video games grow up — both players and developers — they’re becoming more vocal and insistent that video games grow up with them.
GUARDIAN GAMES BLOG Tuesday 11 December 2012
It’s the year that brought us Kickstarter, Wii U and Doritos-gate – so what did it all mean for the video game industry?
From the crowd-funding explosion to the arrival of the first ‘next-generation’ console, the games industry has had quite a time of it this year. Although the technological plotlines that brought us to this point have been building steadily throughout the decade, 2012 saw a period of tumultuous change, lurching from incredible highs to depressing lows, often within the seconds it takes to fire off an ill-advised tweet.
So here are the five key lessons I’ve taken from the past 12 months – feel free to disagree, or add your own in the comments section.
A few years ago, plenty of industry pundits were writing obituaries for the PC as a games machine. Rampant piracy led to plummeting game sales and mainstream publishers were either introducing draconian and invasive DRM measures or abandoning the platform altogether. For a while, it was all about World of Warcraft and the odd Triple A shooter.
But then came affordable broadband and digital distribution (or Steam as we may as well call it) and alongside that, the incredible growth of the indie sector. The income channels stabilised, tempting the traditional publishing giants back, while the freemium model introduced us to emerging mega-powers such as Bigpoint and Nexon.
These interconnecting factors have produced some of the most important and impressive gaming experiences of the year. There has been innovation, but mostly there has been confidence in the classic PC gaming genres, especially the RPG, with Diablo III, Guild Wars 2 and Legend of Grimrock all excelling.
And this has all happened during a year in which console gaming has suffered a crisis of confidence – or more accurately of identity. The Xbox and PS3 dashboards now act as glorified advertisements for video-on-demand suppliers, while the 3DS and Vita have struggled to establish a user base amid competition from smartphones and tablets. There have been some astonishing games, of course, but there has also been a fin-de-siècle atmosphere creeping through the corridors at Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo as their respective architectures have stared into the abyss of retirement.
The PC has come out of its crisis with a renewed sense of optimism and self-belief; the consoles don’t know whether they want to be set-top boxes or social gaming servers. They’ll need to sort this out before they evolve.
For so long, the old boys’ club of console gaming, with its certification programmes and hugely expensive development kits, kept indie developers out of the mainstream equation. Much of the bedroom coding scene was restricted to flash gaming sites such as Newgrounds and Kongregate, with only a few fortunate souls attracting the dismissive charity of major publishers.
With the growth of digital distribution and the arrival of connected gaming consoles there was a sudden requirement for broader content offerings. Hardware manufacturers suddenly realised that they were in a long-tail market where communities would gather around niche products; meanwhile, the App Store showed that the next mega hit could just as easily come from five guys working in a shack in Finland as it could from 250 coders in a mainstream publishing house.
So in 2012, indie gaming has earned its place at the top table. The power of Minecraft, Angry Birds and insta-hits such as Draw Something has shown that old models of supply and demand are irrelevant in the era of cheap downloadable software and social networking. The likes of Microsoft and EA used to make half-hearted overtures toward the indie community, chucking a few scraps at the dirty upstarts; now they’ve realised the power Notch wields. Many of the most exciting and discussed titles this year – from Slender to Fez – have come from independent studios.
This year has shown that when the next-gen consoles are announced, they had better make sure they have compelling infrastructures to support and promote indie titles. It isn’t about patronage anymore, it is about business.
In February, US studio Double Fine used Kickstarter to raise funds for a new adventure game – within 24 hours it had attracted $1m in donations. From that point on, this was always going to be the year of crowd funding.
The results have been fascinating. There have been heartwarming Kickstarter triumphs (Faster Than Light, Maia, The Banner Saga), there have been Kickstarter scams (Mythic: The Story of Gods and Men) and there has been a controversial glut of nostalgia projects, aimed at testing the love of veteran gamers. It will be interesting to see what ‘investors’ will make of Elite, Star Citizen and Wasteland 2.
But the ‘wisdom of crowds’ dynamic was not confined to Kickstarter and its rivals. In July, Valve announced Greenlight, a new aggregating service that would allow community members to assess prospective Steam titles and vote on whether they should receive a full digital release via the service.
Some saw this as a dereliction of duty, others as a chance for studios to mobilise their fans and take destiny into their own hands. Whatever the case, it was a challenge to the benevolent dictatorships operating on the smartphone and console app stores and introduced a new era in which developers would need to be shrewd publicists and charismatic community leaders to garner success.
But what of the arty titles, the insular, delicate experiments that might not catch the eye of Steam’s most active demographics? The past year has introduced us to what may well become a key question going forward: does popularity mean quality? Or does the crowd – like the major publishers – naturally gather around the most familiar and understandable projects? Are we trading one form of elitism for another?
It used to be so simple: there were hardcore titles for real gamers, and then there were the mainstream inanities that brought families together at Christmas. A few titles managed to span the divide, but not many.
But then came smartphones, app stores, social games and the freemium revolution. Suddenly, everyone was playing games everywhere, and with hundreds of titles released every week, your mum was just as likely to discover some indie ripoff of Angry Birds as you were.
At the same time, the mechanisms of casual games have infiltrated the ‘hardcore’ sector. Auto Log, Battle Log and Call of Duty Elite are effectively social networks for gamers, while the free-to-play paradigms of endless iteration and updating have brought us into an era of episodic content and multiple DLC drops.
The barriers between devices have turned into pathways. The ideas of cross-platform connectivity and pervasive gaming have led to titles that play and save seamlessly across consoles, tablets and handheld machines. The idea of the ‘second screen’ – the image of families watching TV while simultaneously browsing on their iPads and laptops – has infected gaming to such an extent that we know have a console (the Wii U) and a major new application concept (Microsoft SmartGlass) based around the proposition.
Minecraft should be hardcore, but it is everywhere; it is even a Lego model now. The market has widened this year; mainstream consumers are no longer bound by the old gatekeepers, they have been emancipated. And it turns out that they actually want to play Dark Souls as well as Call of Duty. We’re all gamers now.
The transition from the old games industry of boxed copies, huge publishers and dominant consoles to a highly competitive content-rich digital marketplace has been tough. This year has seen major closures from Sony Liverpool to Eurocom, while the likes of Zynga, THQ and Popcap have laid off staff and cancelled projects.
2012 was a year of extremes. At the grassroots level, the rise of indie gaming and digital distribution have opened new avenues to success for smaller developers. But at the other end, the huge costs involved with producing Triple A console titles has shut doors for all but the richest and largest mega-publishers. Major titles now call for teams of several hundred staff and budgets of $50m – this is unlikely to be sustainable going into a new console generation. The whole shape of the mainstream industry is changing accordingly – at first it was about outsourcing routine graphics tasks to specialist studios in the Far East or Eastern Europe; but we may now be seeing a more dramatic restructure, away from vast in-house teams and toward a movie industry model of freelance specialists brought in for specific tasks.
At the same time, the rise of social networks, gamer forums and community engagement has led to a new era of accountability and mass controversy. Games developers, publishers and journalists have all found themselves in the firing line this year as consumers have mobilised via Twitter and sites like NeoGaf to wage war on industry failings.
Games companies have found themselves out of step with the sensibilities of this empowered audience – the Hitman sexy nuns trailer being a case in point. Game news sites, too, have become answerable to a powerful and engaged user base that sees conspiracy and subjectivity in the relationships between journalists and publishers. The Doritos-gate controversy, originating with Robert Florence’s attack on comfy press/publisher relations led many writers to rethink their dealings with the industry.
Mistakes leapt on, miscreants savaged, careers ended – the games industry in 2012 became a hyperactive microcosm of wider business and media practice. The will of the people, once easily influenced, curtailed and controlled is now an unpredictable force, and the old adage that all publicity is good publicity has been smashed against the rocks of Twitter outrage.
Freedom – of choice, of expression, of access – has brought volatility. There are no cosy second acts in games industry lives.
Some useful infographics here
Not long now.
How is the representation of GENDER constructed in this extract?
How is the representation of AGE constructed in this extract?
Adele’s 21 has hit 2 million downloads on iTunes, the first artist to do so. This adds to her record Billboard Chart stay of 21 weeks (the irony) which beats Whitney Houston’s record.
Another very useful infographic from Dailyinfographic on just how dominant mobile games are becoming.
And here’s an offering from PC Mag on online gaming.