With the games industry evolving so rapidly and the World Wide Web at our finger tips, it seems that it’s increasingly not just the video games themselves that have relevance to the gaming community and those covering the medium. The discussions and events surrounding the games industry are becoming ever-more relevant and important. We’re used to trade shows, award shows, and game releases, but beyond that there are a greater and greater number of unique events that rock the industry and get us talking every year. Let’s take a look back at the biggest of these events over the past year.
Industry Veterans Depart
If you’d told me at the start of 2012 that the Bioware Doctors, Cliff Bleszinski, and Peter Molyneux would all leave their jobs this year, I would have said you were crazy. It must be admitted that the biggest names in the industry aren’t always the biggest names due to their contributions, but often largely because they've promoted themselves well as public figures, but none the less these are people who’ve done a lot for video games, and the fact that they made their exits all in the same year is rather shocking.
For Molyneux this might be just what he needed; rather than sitting at Lionshead and making Fable and Kinect games until the end of time, he now has his own indie studio through which he can channel his insane and ambitious ideas. What this means for Bleszinski and the Doctors still remains to be seen though, and with Muzyka and Zeschuk specifically, it looks as though they could be making a permanent retirement from the games industry. Now serves as a great time to remember their work in the industry and lament their departures.
Companies on Fire
Undoubtedly, one of the most memorable events this year was the collapse of 38 Studios, not necessarily because they were the most famous company, but more because of quite how spectacular their downfall was. This development studio founded by a former Boston Red Sox pitcher borrowed $75 million from the state of Rhode Island, ran into trouble when their MMO Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning which needed to sell at least 3 million copies only sold 1.2 million, couldn’t properly pay their loan back, laid off their employees, had their possessions auctioned off, and is now facing a lawsuit. It’s been a bizarre train wreck of events.
Meanwhile, the once publishing Behemoth THQ progressed shakily through the year and just weeks ago filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy. A buyer was found for their assets, but the original force that was THQ is essentially out of commission. UK games retail also saw a dramatic hit with long-time king of dedicated games retail Game entering a severe financial rough-patch, and eventually announcing that they were going into administration, ironically on the same day major tax breaks for the UK games industry were also announced. They were bought up by company-sounding company OpCapita, but not before they had to close over 270 stores across the country.
Kickstarter has been a bit of a double-edged sword. I didn’t think it was the divine and revolutionary addition to the games industry some heralded it as to begin with, but at this point it’s become a little bit of a joke. The accessibility of Kickstarter means that anyone can jump in and ask for funding for their project, regardless of who they are or what their project is, but that’s kind of the problem.
The low bar for entry has meant that concepts that seem ill-conceived or projects where it’s unclear whether the creator can execute properly on their ideas have not become uncommon, and that potentially anyone could run off with the money from their project at any time. Even many of the more popular video game projects on the site over the year have come under considerable scrutiny from the gaming community. On top of this, it was only about a week after Kickstarter reached the height of its fame before games journalism outlets started complaining of having their inboxes filled out with spam about the latest Kickstarter projects, and forums started becoming a dumping ground for solicitations of money for projects right, left, and centre.
Despite what problems it may have had though, it’s played host to some interesting ideas, and helped provide millions of pounds of funding for various video games and video game-related undertakings. When Tim Schafer and Double Fine started receiving donations for their Kickstarter, seeing the donation figure climb through the hundreds of thousands was amazing, and it has been promising seeing the strong backing for other projects like Obsidian’s Project Eternity, 22 Cans’ Godus, Frontier Developments’ Elite: Dangerous, and inXile’s Wasteland 2. Even if you remain sceptical of their final quality, it also remains impressive how much projects like Tropes vs. Women in Video Games, Gaymercon, or the Ouya have been able to raise.
Mass Effect 3’s Ending
If any subject was talked to death this year, it was probably this one. Within days of the first players completing Mass Effect 3, online forums became awash with hundreds of very similar threads about why the ending was so bad. A lack of closure, a self-contradicting plot, a lack of attention to detail, a lack of variation in the endings, a lack of choices in the endings, a lack of recognition of the choices that were made throughout the series, major plotholes, and a deus ex machina were just some of the issues the outpouring of criticism against the game dealt with.
Different fans handled the situation differently; many were angry, many let their anger towards the game turn into an unreasonably hostile attack on Bioware, some thought the ending was good, others politely requested that Bioware change the ending, or even sent them baked goods to try and encourage them to do so. The question was even raised over whether Bioware altering the game’s conclusion would compromise their artistic integrity. In some ways the bar was set impossibly high for Mass Effect 3, and fans did seem to get a little too obsessed with the ending when there was a whole other ~34 hours of that game to reflect on, but it can’t be denied that they had a point.
To their credit, Bioware did release a revised version of the ending for free, but it wasn’t perfect, and nothing could undo the negative experience people had to begin with. There was a positive side to all this negativity though; this reaction was a clear indicator that we had come to expect a kind of quality from a video game story unlike anything that had been seen before, and that despite what some might tell you, a narrative in this medium can matter deeply to people. Right now Mass Effect 3’s conclusion is probably the last thing we want to hear about, but it might just be a major landmark on the road to seeing video games evolve into a truly powerful storytelling medium.
Women in Games
From top to bottom the issue of women in games and the games industry was repeatedly raised this year. Within the industry itself the appropriateness of booth babes at trade shows was called into question, and the #1reasonwhy Twitter hashtag acted as a means for men and women alike to speak out against the discrimination of female developers. On a level closer to the games themselves, the Hitman: Absolution trailer threw up questions about the possible fetishisation of violence and where, how, and to what degree sexualised women belong in games. Further discussions of gender politics ensued surrounding the treatment of Lara Croft in the new Tomb Raider, and the comments one developer made about how players will want to “protect her”.
Even bigger than any of these though, was feminist pop culture critic Anita Sarkeesian’s announcement of her Tropes vs. Women in Video Games series, and with that came what continues to be one of the saddest parts of this whole debate: The way the gaming community are treating gender issues in games and the people talking about them. Worries about the gaming community’s treatment of women also arose when professional fighting game player Aris Bakhtanians sexually harassed a female team-mate live on-air and then attempted to play it off by claiming such behaviour was part of the fighting game culture.
Whether you agree or disagree with the critics of the games industry, the kind of abuse, attacks, and harassment that befell Sarkeesian and others like her can’t be defended. This is still a difficult and very controversial issue, but hopefully, this is all part of us working towards a games industry that is more inclusive and welcoming for both the people in it, and its audience.
Duder, It’s Over
Besides the aforementioned, other notable events of the year include Doritogate, The War Z case, Activision advertising Call of Duty using Oliver North, EA using the Medal of Honor site to link to real gun manufacturers, GaymerCon, the Ouya, the continuing rise of indie games, and the uproar over the Mass Effect 3 launch DLC.
One of the less fortunate trends consistent throughout this past year has been the departure of major companies and figures in the industry, but if there’s one real positive trend that can be identified it’s efforts towards the maturing of video games as a medium, and people really caring about the health of games and the games industry more than ever before. People are taking steps to try and ensure our medium is an inclusive one, not an exclusive one, and that both the industry and its audience are holding the narratives in certain games up to the same standard they would a TV show, film, or book.
Thanks for reading and see you all in 2013.