Steam has more than proved itself to be the digital publishing platform of choice for PC games. With over 35 million users as of this writing, Steam commands a huge chunk of the digital game distribution marketplace. Developers of downloadable console games such as Super Meat Boy and Bastion have reported making significantly more money on Steam than on consoles, and cross-platform development across console and PC is becoming more common as a result.
Valve's platform has become the de facto standard for independent game companies looking to publish on PC, and companies such as EA and GameStop have tried to make inroads with their own systems, with Origin and Impulse respectively.
Regardless of whether the future of PC games will be fragmented across multiple services, it was Steam that proved the model, and continues to be a game changer for companies across the industry. Steam continues to update, with Steam Cloud, which allows some storage of game data on a cloud service, built-in DRM solutions (for better or for worse), and Steam Guard, a safeguard against account hacking.
Though Steam has been available to some degree for many years, its continued and increasing relevance keeps it on our list.
Here we have the 500 pound gorilla of the social space. Zynga is huge, to be sure, with 232 million active players as of November, 2011, and over 2,000 employees -- but the company is also leading the social industry on multiple fronts.
For its huge corporate anonymity, Zynga has actually been rather open with its development practices, sharing best practices for web game development at conferences, and discussing the use of social metrics in games.
In terms of its actual games, Zynga has also made big strides when it comes to trying to get the core gamer into the space, with games like Empires & Allies and Adventure World. Others have made inroads, to be sure, but it's nice to see when a larger company doesn't play it totally safe.
Zynga also runs Zynga.org, a charity outlet that has donated thousands to worthy causes, based on in-game item purchases. Though some question the legitimacy of Zynga's practices and place at the top, it is doing some good while up there.
Though the revolution came some time ago, Apple deserves to make our first list of game changers for iTunes, and its supported iOS platforms. Since their inception, the iPhone, iPad, and iPod Touch have collectively become a major force in the game industry, and a (relatively) cohesive platform in their own right.
Apple's devices have not only skyrocketed Apple to the top of the technological heap, they have also launched the careers and assured the fortunes of a great many independent developers. Apple's 70/30 percent revenue-share has become the industry standard, and the platform shows no sign of slowing down.
While Apple hasn't put as much focus on facilitating games on its home computers, many expect some manner of convergence across iOS in the near future.
Developers in general seem to agree that cloud-based gaming is an important step in the advancement of the digital medium. It can free players from having to keep their PCs or consoles up to date, and could pose a platform-agnostic model for game development. But at present, there are two major players vying for the biggest slice of the pie -- OnLive (Palo Alto, CA) and Gaikai (Orange County, CA).
OnLive is currently pushing its physical device, the OnLive Game System, which streams game content to a TV-connected box that allows the direct use of controllers. So far, over 50 companies have signed on with OnLive, which allows gamers to play on the aforementioned console, their PC, or Mac.
Gaikai, on the other hand, is a browser-based service, with no specific game console, and the ability to embed in web sites. Many leading games are already available on the service.
Whether one of these companies wins or loses is not the point -- the game changer is the cloud service itself, which frees consumers from console cycles, game-based PC upgrades, and in some cases, installation or downloading of software. Gaming on the cloud is not a totally proven model yet, as the servers are quite expensive, but as costs go down, prospects certainly look up.
As the next generation of web content starts to become a reality, 3D games in browsers become more common. And for that to happen, we were going to need something better than standard Java. Mozilla's WebGL, among other 3D web libraries, has risen to fill that need.
Though WebGL is far from perfect, the fact that it provides a 3D graphics API without the use of plug-ins is an extremely important step toward 3D games in the browser. There are some competitors out there, but at the moment, WebGL is the (slightly fickle) darling of the browser game development community.
As the library expands, and best practices start to emerge, trends indicate that we'll be playing a lot more plugin-free 3D games in our browsers than ever before, further reducing the barrier to entry for players. And who can argue with that?
LA Noire may have shuttered a studio (Team Bondi) and not fully pleased its parent (Rockstar Games) in the sales department, but it also brought us one heck of a piece of tech. Depth Analysis' 32 high definition camera setup allowed full capture of all aspects of actors' faces, mapping that to their digital counterparts for an incredibly lifelike performance. Though the characters were clearly still made in game engines, the animation was truly astounding. Since the game hoped to allow players to gauge whether characters were telling the truth, precise performance was incredibly important.
After many years of R&D, Depth Analysis' work appears to have paid off, as the performances in LA Noire have been universally lauded. The company claims its setup can capture up to 50 minutes of final footage, processing up to 20 minutes of facial animation automatically per day.
This technology is available only from Depth Analysis, so far, but now that the technique has been illuminated, it's likely that others will follow. The only problem now is that with such lifelike facial animation, the rest of the computer generated body begins to look even less realistic by comparison -- but that's a problem for another day.
Google's Android platform is currently the only serious contender to iOS in the smartphone game space, and has shipped on millions of devices, yielding massive sales for some of the developers on the platform. Even Sony is using it for its upcoming tablets, and a set-top box is in the work to serve games to televisions like a standard game console.
But in terms of game development, Google has arguably made an even greater impact in free collaboration software. While Google Docs may not be the perfect place to keep that game design document or store spreadsheets, it's free, and certainly useful in the prototyping phase.
The company continues to push the envelope in the free collaboration space, and though some may decry the fact that through data mining, their users are their product, few can deny the services' usefulness.
Looking forward, Google is making good strides with its Native Client solution. The intent is to get ARM native code running safely in browsers, allowing web programs to run at near-native speeds. The implications on this for browser-based games are pretty clear. Faster is (almost) always better!