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The games industry has a constant ebb and flow -- last year's rising trends might be this year's declining trends. For 2011, Gamasutra's Top 5 Major Industry Trends are all about the rise.
Whether it's technology that's gaining traction, unit sales that are defying gravity, or independent developers who are finding new ways to get the money to pursue their passion, 2011 was marked by growth, evolution and ingenuity.
5. HTML5 Buzz
More than any previous year, 2011 saw plenty of chatter over the potential of HTML5. While some companies pit HTML5 versus Flash in what they perceived as a zero sum game, others argued that competing technologies could coexist.
Game development on an open format web standard such as HTML5 is an enticing idea: Developers would only have to build their game once, and it would be inherently cross-platform, it's relatively easy to learn, and it's an alternative to Adobe-owned Flash.
But there are concerns -- even though game companies are jumping on board, HTML5 is still not finalized, and notable players in the games industry like Unity have said that the technology just isn't quite up to snuff yet for games.
Nevertheless, game companies this year have been acquiring game studios with HTML5 expertise, and the format got a vote of confidence from Adobe this year when the Flash owner said it would cease development of Flash for mobile browsers in favor of HTML5 for mobiles. Next year, expect the buzz and the debate to give way to more concrete answers to the future of HTML5.
4. Xbox 360's Sales Strength
Historically, hardware sales are supposed to be falling after five years on the market, not growing. And that's assuming your console can even last that long on the market. (Alas, poor Dreamcast.)
But Microsoft's Xbox 360 has endured and expanded its base in the U.S. during 2011. Not only that, but the Xbox 360 has managed to increase its reach while avoiding a proper price cut for years. A $200 model has been the baseline since September 2008, and except for retailer deals, it hasn't budged.
Consider this: the Xbox 360 actually increased its average selling price from $280 in June of this year to $306 in September. Simultaneously it handily outsold the rival PS3 whose average selling price had dropped to $271 on the back of a much-ballyhooed price cut.
It would be easy to ascribe record Xbox 360 sales as a direct result of Kinect, but the reality is more complex. The stickiness of Xbox Live and a stable of exclusive super-sellers like Gears of War and Halo have all contributed to Microsoft's increasing fortunes.
The PlayStation 3 has been a solid seller in 2011 too, but the Xbox 360 is a year older and is still managing to rack up strong numbers every month. It's not often, if ever, that the games industry sees a game console that achieves five years of successive growth in the U.S. -- and if this year's sales trend continues, you can make that six years.
3. A Maturing Social Games Space
Social games are beginning to show a certain level of maturity as the young space continues to evolve. While many social network games are still engineered to appeal peoples' compulsive nature, rather than their desire to do something fun, there are signs that this is changing.
There are more and more experienced game designers who are moving from the traditional game development space over to social games, bringing their expertise in "finding the fun" over to social, balancing out the metrics-focused bean-counters.
Publishers such as EA are aggressively targeting the core gamer via social networks, and independent startups, several founded this year, are also trying to woo the more traditional gamer and expand the audience.
This year, Facebook also announced major updates that could improve the overall social gaming experience for all players. And as the number of social games swells, developers are starting to realize they need to launch a quality game right off the bat, or else they're essentially doomed in this competitive marketplace.
We also noted last year the evolution of social gaming. But in 2011, the changes again can't be ignored. Now we see that social games are going everywhere, including mobile, and console games are also adopting social aspects. Major publishers who were once only reliant on packaged goods -- namely EA -- are now eyes-deep in social gaming. Zynga is headed for an IPO. Google+ is ramping up its games outreach. Upstarts abound. There will continue to be growing pains, but more than ever, we're seeing companies truly adapt to full games-as-a-service models via social networks.
2. Kickstarter And Crowdfunding
This year, as more video game developers looked to independence, they needed some funds. Instead of turning to a game publisher or a venture capitalist, many turned to crowdfunding.
The most prominent hub for crowdfunding was Kickstarter, where game developers such as Robert Boyd (Cthulhu Saves the World), Eric Zimmerman (Metagame), Young Horses (Octodad) and David Board (Lifeless Planet) have all reached the funding targets needed to continue their work on video games.
Those weren't the only game developers who got a boost from Kickstarter. In April this year Kickstarter said that over the course of two years, games had received over $1 million of funding through the service -- more than the respective funding of dance, fashion and comics projects. As more independents look for new ways of gathering funds, expect the crowdfunding trend to continue into 2012.
1. Lots of Layoffs, Lots Of Upstarts
As the games industry continued to shift, the people within it were displaced throughout the course of 2011. Major publishers closed well-known studios, and independent, mid-tier development houses ran out of steam, scattering their staff across the industry.
But even though it's typcially sad and disappointing when a company shuts down, people who lose their jobs in this industry often do not stay idle for long. This year, a lot of laid-off game developers struck out on their own and founded new independent game development studios.
For instance, Disney shut down UK-based Split Second developer Black Rock in September, giving birth to at least three new companies from former staff: West Pier Studio, Roundcube Entertainment and ShortRound Games. Zoo Tycoon house Blue Fang shut down, and its leaders formed Beach Cooler Games. When Activision shuttered Project Gotham developer Bizarre Creations, ex-staff went on to form multiple studios.
Layoffs plagued the industry this year, sweeping across companies including Disney, Activision, THQ, RockYou, Silicon Knights, CCP, Ignition, Team Bondi and others. The people who make the games, however, continue to prove their passion and resilience, and stay in an industry that they know can be difficult, adapting to the ever-changing landscape of the market, all for the sake of fulfilling their desire to make great games.