At the end of every year, you can count on Gamasutra for our annual series of retrospective roundup lists. Typically, at this point, we'd recognize the best games by platform -- PC, Xbox 360, Wii, PlayStation 3, etc. etc.
This year we're doing things differently. We've nixed those platform-specific lists in favor of compiling (in alphabetical order) the 50 Games That Defined 2012, starting with the first 10.
This isn't just a list of awesome video games from 2012 (that much shorter list comes later). There will be some not-so-great games listed here as well. There will be some games that didn't release in 2012, but still made a mark on the year regardless. There will even be some games that will never release.
What all of these games have in common is that they're representative of a trend or interesting story that captured the zeitgeist of 2012 -- they all say something about what happened this year.
-- Kris Graft, Editor-in-Chief, Gamasutra
Black Mesa Modification Team
Black Mesa proved two things in 2012: That passion alone can fuel game development, and that an ambitious "fan game" (usually doomed to vaporware) can come out eventually...it just might take a few years.
Black Mesa is a complete remake of Valve's original Half-Life, with 40-or-so fans completely recreating the 1998 game to take advantage of a more modern engine (Valve's own Source) all in their spare time.
The first public release of the game was released in September after years of patience from eager fans and, by all accounts, it has lived up to the hype. And thanks to Steam's Greenlight project, it's going to officially become a Steam game when it's done. Yes, that's right: this fan-made game is, in its way, officially recognized by the creators of its source material.
Gearbox, 2K Games
Perhaps the developers at Gearbox knew deep down that Borderlands was going to be a series. But when the original released back in 2009, competing against a slew of high-profile franchises, we had to wonder if the game would be able to even break through all the noise.
It did more than break through the noise, and the game fostered an impressive fanbase -- one that that salivated over this year's sequel. Borderlands 2 exemplifies the ideal modern triple-A game: It's well-done, it garners the sales and fanbase it deserves (sidenote: see how Gearbox boss Randy Pitchford himself interacts with the community via Twitter -- that's someone who really cares) and it's from an independent studio that owns this valuable franchise. It doesn't get much better (or rarer) than that.
These days, metrics and experience design are paramount -- aren't they? Yet somehow 36You's tacky little iOS app Boyfriend Maker [see the Tumblr here] became the viral sensation to close the year. There are obvious reasons why it caught on: It stars a customizable, vacant-eyed Ken doll with a chat bot core that was prone to spewing unexpected responses and random obscenities. That every happy accident lent itself so readily to Facebook sharing meant Boyfriend Maker spread like wildfire, with the amused and the curious of all genders and predilections signing on to see what their placid, vulgar virtual man would say and do.
More interesting is that Boyfriend Maker relies on a chat bot tailored by internet users, applied in a post-release update so that this unpredictable element somehow sneaked by Apple's walled garden. Boyfriend Maker got pulled after it was revealed users could basically get their virtual boyfriend to offend egregiously, even to condone pedophilia. Yet amid this bizarre accident is an interesting kernel: Let users own randomness, feel creative and share offbeat creations, and even established best practices of viral sharing and in-app purchases seem to turn on their heads.
Taito's Bust-a-Move came out in 1994. Eighteen years later, somebody else's bubble popper ends up on a list of the most significant games of the year. How in the hell did that happen?
Well, that's because Bubble Witch Saga teaches us something: wrapping a proven mechanic in a smartly-designed social layer will yield you amazing results -- in the case of King.com, becoming the number two Facebook developer. The game is also exemplary for the way it synchronizes with its mobile version and how it smartly uses virality to keep players coming back. This overall approach, further refined, will power the success of many developers' games.
It's a fine enough bubble popper with some clever, if unoriginal, design flourishes; in the end, it's here because it proved what's possible.
Call of Duty: Black Ops II left its sizable mark on 2012 by sheer brute force: An enormous marketing campaign that was difficult to escape, midnight launches at retail and a by-the-numbers high budget, high production-value product that has a thick coat of that triple-A lacquer. The monetary result? A billion dollars in revenue following 15 days on the market. Not only is Black Ops II a financial boon for Activision in 2012, it's also a message to the triple-A video game industry: If you want to hang out in this high-stakes business, this is the kind of bombastic effort you're going to have to compete with, for better or for worse.
Nihilistic Software, Activision
There's a dark irony that the developer of this game is called "Nihilistic." Black Ops Declassified may, in fact, be a significant step on the road to oblivion for its target platform -- the PlayStation Vita. Qualitatively, it's a complete disaster, earning a 31 Metacritic as of this writing. Reports suggest this isn't Nihilistic's fault -- the game started development at another studio, and was rushed to market for the holiday season as a key part of the marketing strategy for the struggling platform.
Indeed, it may end up being the turning point for the system. When Western publishers see that a Call of Duty game can't perform on Vita -- and those with knowledge say it isn't selling -- the lesson learned will likely be "don't bother." If the Vita's pitch is that it's current-gen console games in your pocket, and Call of Duty epitomizes the current generation, then this game is an unmitigated failure.
While the free-to-play space continues on its journey of discovery (and MAUs), Finnish developer Supercell is stepping out from the crowd and making huge strides. Four months after the launches of Hay Day and, more prominently, Clash of Clans on iOS, the company now consistently has two games in the top five grossing charts on the App Store.
As other studios scramble to work out just how a relatively unknown company could come out of nowhere and release such a dominant game, Clash of Clans is yet more proof that a careful mixture of free entry, social elements and suggestive in-app purchases can work wonders to loosen the purse strings of mobile players.
The state of Rhode Island probably never expected to own the rights to an ambitious fantasy-themed MMORPG but, hey, here we are. Copernicus was the codename for the game that 38 Studios -- the developer founded by retired all-star baseball pitcher Curt Schilling and partially funded by the state -- was pouring money into before its money dried up and it was forced into bankruptcy, its assets (including whatever work was done on the game) defaulting to Rhode Island.
The specifics of what happened are beyond the scope of this article, but in 2012 Copernicus was a reminder of just how expensive and risky a triple-A MMO is in our rapidly evolving climate.
Boss Alien, NaturalMotion
The first product from a group of triple-A expatriates, CSR Racing was a big departure for new mobile game company Boss Alien. Formed by ex-Disney Black Rock staff, who specialized in racing games like Pure and Split Second (and whose studio eventually shuttered), Boss Alien took its triple-A, packaged product sensibility and carried it over to the freemium mobile space. The result? CSR Racing, a drag racer with realistic graphics, generated $12 million in revenue in its first month, and the studio was promptly acquired by NaturalMotion. CSR Racing is proof positive that there is life after "triple-A" for developers willing to brave the Wild West of the mobile space.
When Peter Molyneux spoke at this year's Unite conference, he gunned right past his usual "enthused" toward "manic." It's always a bit difficult to know if you should take his claims seriously, but Curiosity makes it even harder. Is it even a game? He has described it as an "experiment"; you might describe it was "gamified bubble wrap."
His grandiose claim that the secret at the center of the cube will be "life changing" is probably irrelevant; what matters is that Molyneux has shown that a big developer going mobile can do whatever he or she wants, with all of its implications. Whether you think the attention the app has gotten is unfair, whether the "experiment" is merely on players' wallets, or whether you believe Molyneux is showing the power of big minds and small teams, there's no doubt that this bizarre little app exemplifies the time we live in.