Trendspotting: How Gaming's Changing In 2012 (Sez I)
So I turned myself to face me
No doubt there are big things yet to come from the last quarter of 2012, but even by October it feels like it's been an uncommonly important, even vital, year for games. The hit rate of great things, expected and unexpected, has been pretty steady, but on top of that there have been major emerging trends as gaming starts to move out of the awkward transitional phase between olde worlde boxed sales and anything-goes online existence.
I'm really just ruminating on a truly fascinating 10-ish months to myself here, but see if you agree with - or better still can add to - any of these arguably defining aspects of the year nearly gone.
Note - I've not included the ongoing move to phone and tablet gaming here, purely because it's a little too far from RPS' remit. But yeah, that. And there will only be more of it, of course.
1) The year of comebacks
The many, many openly nostalgia-centred projects on Kickstarter - from Wasteland 2 to Double Fine's adventure game to Leisure Suit Larry to LootDrop's curiously unspecific Old School RPG - are obviously the bedrock of this, but they're not the sole element of old favourites and old values returning. Dishonored picks up Thief's abandoned baton, XCOM is as much an attempt to reinvent turn-based strategy for a new era and a new audience as it is a veneration of an ancient game and Tribes: Ascend wants a return to multiplayer shooting that's built around movement first and foremost. You can even look to FTL and the Binding of Isaac (a 2011 game, but its 2012 expansion pack Wrath of the Lamb has kept it a mainstay for many this year) as putting roguelikes in the front and centre of a far less niche consciousness, again remixed and reimagined for a changed age.
2) The year of the MOBA
This terrifies me. It seems to have happened so fast, and yet of course it's been brewing for years. It's not that I don't understand MOBAs/lane-pushers/whatever you want to call them, or that I don't see the appeal. It's that they hold no appeal to me, and as such I cannot be truly educated in them, at least not without an undue amount of forcing. It creates a bigger issue both personally and, perhaps, for this site - gaming is going into places that many 30-somethings such as I struggle to reach. I am an old dog, and I already make myself learn more new tricks than I'm necessarily able to.
But it's important that we cover this stuff, and hopefully we will do a better job of it soon. MOBAs seem to me to be the point where the competitive gaming/e-sports we've unconvincgly been told are The Future for years actually meet the mindset of the layperson. League of Legends, Dota2 et al are games for everyone (as demonstrated by their pan-generational playerbase: these are not purely young folks' games), not just a ludicrously skilled elite, and as such they encourage the same hyper-competitive thinking and the swift learning of a new language. Once, the raid and PvP aspect MMOs like Warcraft were fulfilling this role, this need for great learning and great teamwork at ferocious speed, but now the MOBAs are performing some of the same purposes with all the filler and all the drek, even all the long climb, removed. You go straight to it, and you get better at it. I am too tired for it, I really am, and that scares me, but these games, their culture and whatever spins out of them are a vital movement, both in terms of persistency and being a necessary reaction against the errant perceptions of gaming 'skill' brought about by Achievement culture.
3) The year the PC returned to ascendancy
I don't wish to bang any drums with a zealous expression here. Yes, the PC is inevitably the technologically superior platform due to its modular nature, but the age of today's consoles isn't the real cause of the recent shift back towards PC, or at least I don't think so. Contemporary console games look pretty darn good on a decent telly, y'know - developers have become better at wringing every ounce of power out of them even as engines (especially Epic's ubiquitous Unreal) mature and offer more. It's simply the freedom of PC that's caused it to return to the head of the pack. We've been all but force fed hyper-scripted action games for quite some time now, and as such hungry communities have organically formed around alternative offerings - see the MOBAs above, or Tribes Ascend, or TF2. Even seemingly (but not, I well know) out-of-nowhere indies like FTL and before it Minecraft. Word of mouth, Twitter and Facebook are making small games gain huge attention.
At the same time, low-end but perfectly capable gaming laptops have become more affordable than ever before, lowering the pecuniary barrier of entry. That so many of the PC's games are much cheaper, or even free to play much of, than the increasingly absurd-seeming £40+ console games is likely informing this new escalation too.
4) The year free to play made sense
No longer just a dirty word, and no longer inextricably intertwined with the horrible, cynical shit on Facebook, free to play is on its way to becoming the new demo. But in a more powerful way, both for players - they get to actually attach to the game, not simply be teased by a tiny portion of it - and for developers - they have a new arsenal of ways to try and convince a speculative player to turn into a paying customer, rather than the simple do or die methodology of a demo. I don't believe free to play is the only future of games, but I do believe it is a necessary part of the future. An analogy I'm reaching for but haven't quite polished into full sense, but if traditional, paid-for games are movies (be it on DVD or at the cinema), free to play is the serialised TV drama (be it in a boxset or broadcast week-by-week). Microtransactions can far too easily be made deeply unsavoury, but as well as/instead of a means to exploit they can also be a means of handing out a game at a schedule and/or financial rate that feels more palatable to the many, many people who feel short of both time and money.
I'm not saying that it's done right most of the time - because it isn't, it really isn't - but the concept of it makes sense on levels far beyond arguments of pay to win or meanly chopping games into chunks.
5) The year the role of violence in games was questioned by games
Only questioned. Not damned, not decried, not dismissed, but there's definitely been a trend towards exploring the issues around our bloody proclivities in games. Again, I'm not arguing that there's a shift in the industry towards wagging a finger at violence, but I think there is one of discussing its consequences rather than having it be simply be something that happens then happens again. Spec Ops is obviously the poster child for this, and the argument around it commenting so much on the horrors, both literal and psychological, of grand-scale killing while at the same time being a pretty routine third-person manshooter will rage for a long time to come. (Pretty much every feature pitch we're sent on RPS seems to concern it, to the point that I'm worried it's become the new 'I cried when Aeris died'). Me, I'm just glad to have the discussion at all - or at least something that tries to have me turn the mirror on myself rather than just flex my digital biceps.
But Spec Ops is far from alone in sniffing around this question. Dishonored offers not just the option for a non-lethal (or even entirely non-violent) playthrough, but whole new quests dedicated to uncovering and enacting bloodless neutralisations of the 'assassination' targets around which each level revolves. And there are, of course, pay-offs - both in the events of the plot, but also the contents of later levels. It isn't a half-hearted option for a creepily dedicated niche, but an entire, endorsed and pandered-to method of playing the game through while roleplaying with hardline principles. In an age where blockbuster action games are promoted off the back of their INTENSE VISCERAL GUNPLAY, too see something of Dishonored's importance to a large publisher's bottom line offer a non-lethal alternative is deeply refreshing.
Then there's the unexpectedly incredible Walking Dead series, which does great, moving things with both the need for and consequences of violence. The knowledge that an innocent child observes my every move in a planet turned to horror informed my actions enormously, while life seems so very precious in a world so desperately short of it.
More discussion/consequence comes from other unlikely sources - while obviously a freeform multiplayer game rather than the more direct choices and ruminations of a singleplayer campaign, a critical part of DayZ is assessing, without any visible cues or clues, whether someone can help you or hinder you, whether they'll most do so alive or dead, and whether the short term gains of either attacking or allying with them could come back to bite you later. Solving this dilemma involves true, human interaction with people (by talking, by spying, by intuiting), adding a skein of honest morality absent from something that's essentially scripted. Meanwhile, Lone Survivor offers flight or fight options, even to the point that you actively choose to take certain in-game medications to turn it towards a gun-wielding survival horror affair.
Yeah, the permutations, consequences and avoidance of in-game violence is barely a concrete trend, let alone a conscious movement, but it feel it's but one glacier-slow rumble of movement towards greater maturity from this industry, and I'm excited to see even the slightest signs of it.
6)The year always-on perhaps won more battles than it lost
I'm going to massively and probably unhelpfully stretch the definition of always-online here, because I mean more the concept of and consumer comfort with a game constantly talking to a server rather than the abused reality of a game that unnecessarily demands to be online for no reason other than publisher paranoia. Ubisoft backed down, as they needed to do, but it's the games that have stealthed into always online that have, I'm afraid, scored a major victory in the war. Games like Diablo III, like Guild Wars 2 (at least as much a singleplayer RPG as it is an MMO), like Mass Effect 3 and its victory rating gubbins, like Borderlands 2's drop-in play, like Dark Souls' clues and invasions from other players... Aye, several of those don't go all the way or fit the descriptor neatly, but what they are doing is further acclimatising us to the idea of being online and that because of that we can experience more, rather than simply have our freedom constrained. There are and there will be many people doing it desperately wrong, insensibly using it as an anti-piracy tool that punishes their legitimated customers, but as more games move into being more enriched by being online in ways big and small, the question of the online requirement is more than likely to become less acute than once was. For more worthwhile always-on systems to win, the bad types have to lose, and their creators must understand why they are bad - and, thankfully, there are increasing signs that's happening. Of course, where there's still choice of on or offline there's no complaint - whether the rewards of being thoughtfully online are anything like enough when/if that choice is taken away is a whole new battle yet to come.
7) The year fan pressure was taken seriously
Communities are becoming able to mobilise in ways that are probably profoundly terrifying for developers and publishers. Bioware bringing in a replacement ending for Mass Effect 3 as outrage over unmet promises reached fever pitch is the most notorious moment of this (whether it's positive or negative is not a question I wish to address), while a more unanimously happy outcome was Namco releasing a PC version of Dark Souls after an enthusiastic petition. The port might have been a bit iffy, but people still adore it and it's been, as far as I can tell, a commerical success - so the wisdom of the crows can certainly work. We've also seen CCP have to take big steps to appease EVE fans after trying to foist faintly absurd microtransactions upon them - and of course there's Ubisoft finally, finally backing down on their self-sabotaging always online DRM for singleplayer player games. You could perhaps also argue that fan petitions around the eternally absent Half-Life 3 has eked some response out of Valve, even if it's not the desired illumination.
8) The year that gender roles and perception took baby steps towards equality
Whatever side of the argument you might stand on, we are seeing the issue come up time and again, both in terms of depictions of women in game and the industry's treatment of women outside of games. Whether or not you symapthatise with some, all or none of the controversies that have peppered the year (and I'm well aware that a great many gentlemen who don't agree that they play life on Easy Mode believe undue, even hysterical, fuss is ritually being made by observers and media alike), the industry is nonetheless being forced to address subjects it formerly steamrollered right over without thought. The outcome is uncertain, but the debate keeps coming back. We've got the Hitman nuns, Borderlands' 'girlfriend mode' hoo-hah, Anita Sarkeesian's divisive Tropes vs Women in Videogames project and attendant abuse for it, a game conference (Eurogamer Expo) mandating no more booth babes and banning a big YouTuber who was either acting like or pretending to act like a sexist jackass (the jury's still out there)... All of these caused outrage on both sides of the fence, and both sides were guilty of unwise words: but again, the debate is happening more and more. We're also seeing a huge rise in writing from both inside and outside the industry on the problems around its depiction and treatment of women, and there is a slow but refreshing rise in games journos who aren't straight white men.
I'm not saying we're on the cusp of a seachange. Sadly, there's such a long way to go before that. I'm not even saying every example of controversy is justified. I'm just saying that the conversation's happening more and more, and I honestly believe that's ultimately good for the industry and for its customers. (I'm also very glad to see that two of my favourite games of the year, Dishonored and XCOM, both entirely avoid sexualising their female characters. I hope those games don't prove to be happy aberrations in that regard).
9) The year of new independence - and its silent masters
Kickstarter has freed some important developers from the shackles of publisher demands and fears - Double Fine, Obsidian, InXile, Revolution - the list goes on - while Steam's Greenlight has opened at least a door to marketing budget-free indie games getting onto Steam without having to meet the unknown demands of invisible gatekeepers. There's a long way to go and not a little risk of over-pandering to the loudest minority, but it is a massive movement towards game-makers and game-players having direct access to each other and making the games people really want rather than the game a CEO's bottom line wants to make. It's a ridiculously exciting prospect, very much in line with the interests of this site, and I can't wait to see the first fruits of this new deal next year. (In a similar vein, if the aforementioned Dishonored and XCOM sell well that may help persuade publishers not to be quite so risk averse, to know that there is an audience for the stuff people on forums constantly cry out for after all).
But even if the power of publishers is winding down, gatekeepers still exist. Kickstarter and Steam (and to a lesser extent IndieGoGo and Desura) wield enormous power now, and as they struggle with the paradox of appearing to be quasi-philanthropic and interference-free while needing to forever increase profits they may well make any number of mistakes. The $100 Greenlight fee could be said to be one (though there is much debate, to say the least), while Kickstarter's wariness about ensuring the legitimacy of projects on it might be another. Hopefully all will be well - I just can't help but think of Twitter and its many botched attempts to turn a system that's inherently about freedom of expression into a source of greater revenues. Then there are rumours that big publishers are trying to stealth their way onto Kickstarter, using fan-favourite developers as a front for their projects. Hopefully just flash in the pan darkness - but wherever the prevailing winds of profit are, someone will turn up to try and exploit it.
A confusing year. A busy year. A year full of controversies. A year with a whole lot more still to come. Most of all, I think, a year of a hope - big baby steps towards a brighter future for games. Things are changing fast, in profound ways - even if there are many lessons yet to be learned, and no doubt some nasty falls with them.
I honestly don't know what 2013 will bring, but where a couple of years ago I was seriously worried that (mainstream) gaming had become entrenched in cynical, often lowest common denominator ways, I now feel once again that it is still young, still with so much left to happen, and that we still don't know it at all. And hooray for that.