BioWare Austin, EA
Star Wars: The Old Republic was supposed to prove the theory that players were willing to pay for premium MMOs via a monthly subscription model. But what happened this year was just reaffirmation that player expectations have shifted, perhaps for good, as BioWare Austin realigned the MMO to support a free-to-play model.
Seeing an online Star Wars game -- backed with such enormous talent and resources -- fail to succeed with the lucrative subscription model gave the game industry pause. But The Old Republic's move to free-to-play also contributed to the trend of high-budget, high-production value free-to-play games. And that's certainly not a bad thing.
As we wrote earlier this year, there's something primal about Super Hexagon, something that's hard to define. At its heart it's a simple game about avoiding collision with walls that come at you faster and faster until your feeble human brain can no longer keep up with them, but something about it -- and not even author Terry Cavanagh seems to know what that is exactly -- speaks to you in a way that most games just can't.
This is, quite possibly, the perfect video game. It's just as playable sitting down on your couch as it is waiting in line at the grocery store. It's abstract enough to make your brain fill in the gaps and create an experience richer than the most detailed Unreal Engine game, yet pretty enough to actually look good in screenshots.
And perhaps most importantly of all, it's proof that an independent developer can still release an iOS game -- one that, gasp, actually asks you to pay for it, and doesn't offer any in-app purchases -- and actually make money.
After several games with "Ville" as a suffix, Zynga launched one that stands as basically the pure essence of the company: fiercely viral Facebook mechanics that often look like they've been cloned from someone else. But this time, it wasn't a small indie who piped up to complain about its unfair treatment by a giant -- it was Electronic Arts, claiming in a lawsuit that the company had copied elements wholesale from its recent The Sims Social, even to the essence of The Sims brand itself.
The ensuing lawsuit, ugly squabbling about executive poaching and eventual headcount reduction helped make The Ville emblematic of a slowly-gathering tempest in the once remorselessly-prolific Facebook gaming space, and as Zynga's IPO floundered and user attrition continues, history's sure to show it's an icon of a crucial turning point for social game developers.
Mobile and social game ecosystems have lowered the barrier for development and distribution of games. That means giant publicly-traded companies like Zynga now go toe-to-toe in the market with tiny companies -- companies like NimbleBit. NimbleBit created the building sim Tiny Tower, which was meeting a lot of success on the App Store in 2011.
So when Zynga's Dream Heights hit the Canadian App Store early this year, bearing striking similarities to Tiny Tower, it sparked heated discussion about the implications of big guys "borrowing" design ideas from tiny teams trying to make a living. Zynga defended its moves, but a large swath of the game industry didn't seem to accept the company's explanation. What the fiasco showed is that innovation and creativity still often do come from the fringes -- and if you're a big company, don't try to capitalize on that innovation by being a brazen copycat.
Sony Japan Studio/Crispy's, Sony
A slightly clumsy genre mashup featuring post-apocalyptic pets searching for survival in an abandoned city became one of this year's sleeper darlings. The structure of the game lends itself to creating unexpected, shareable moments, making users want to tell stories about it, and its lightweight humor felt refreshing, like a party-hat Pomeranian romping around with vegetarian deer.
At the core of the game's success is the idea that fans still hunger for offbeat cult hits -- especially when they're this fun and clever. Moreover, they might miss the distinctly Japanese tone that's been missing from many games in recent years thanks to challenges in the East.
The Trials series from RedLynx has always been brilliant, but the studio took a big leap with this year's Trials Evolution. What it did was not only hone the excellent design of the previous Trials games, but introduced a level editor so robust that even the development team used Xbox 360 controllers when designing the game.
It was a critical success, as well as a commercial one, giving Xbox Live Arcade a win in the first half of the year. User-generated content has been done very well consoles, albeit very few times. Trials Evolution is a reminder that if you have the talent and tools to engage the community, stunning creative and commercial opportunities await.
Crowdfunding isn't the only way to bring old IPs back. Hi-Rez Studios's Tribes: Ascend revived a classic PC franchise as a free-to-play multiplayer shooter that brought us back to the good old days of guns that shoot exploding frisbees without all of the "realistic" military stuff. Thanks to Tribes: Ascend, and other subsequent high-profile free-to-play games like MechWarrior Online and Planetside 2, free-to-play is finally coming to core PC audiences, and the new future isn't as horrible as hardcore players might've feared.
Many different factors played into the success of The Walking Dead, but what really made this Telltale game shine was the writing. From the relationship between Lee and Clementine, to the trials and tribulations for Kenny's family, the five-part episodic adventure game pushes the boundaries of video game narrative.
Players are able to make huge decisions throughout play that impact how the story unfolds, in such a way that decisions you made in chapter one are still affecting the storyline by the final chapter. The hope is that The Walking Dead's presence will breed a new gaggle of video games with stories and choices that matter, rather than cut scenes that we'd rather hammer the "skip" button through.
The fact that XCOM: Enemy Unknown even exists is kind of weird, in the best way possible. During a time when major publishers like Take-Two are investing in console-based first-person shooters and action games that take place in big, sprawling virtual worlds, here strolls in XCOM: Enemy Unknown, a turn-based strategy game developed mainly with consoles in mind (though also available on PC, naturally).
It's a game based off of a classic series that was born in the 90s on PC, it's developed by a studio that is among the elite PC strategy game developers, and it's getting a pretty good amount of attention from players. That bodes well for this idea that maybe players are willing to pay a triple-A price for a quality strategy game -- a game that makes them think instead of running and gunning.
Monolith Soft, Nintendo
What is a genre, anyway? It can be a trap. But when it's most relevant, it's a framework -- a way of thinking that allows a creator with vision to build on what's come before, not become trapped by it.
Xenoblade Chronicles shows a simple path forward for the Japanese RPG not by casting aside its strengths but by building upon them, in concert with ideas culled from other, similar genres. The result is an engrossing, vibrant game.
In essence, the reason Xenoblade is such a strong game is because its developers so well understand the genre they're working with -- they know its strengths and weaknesses intimately. This game is a testament to the fact that sometimes, the best-positioned people to reawaken a sleeping giant are those who have years of skill and expertise.