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2013 in gaming trends

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Recently described by David Cage as a medium “that refuses to grow up,” 2013 has rather fittingly been a year of chaotic, painful and exciting flux for the video game industry

2013 has, thus far, been a year of trade show reveals, hyperbole-laden pitches for the future of the medium and justifications for the invasion of dirty/necessary monetization of play.  With Microsoft omnishambling through policy U-turns and Sony gleefully putting the boot in, the groundwork has been set for the future of gaming in both figurative and literal terms. This year has been a sharp, controlled intake of breath before the dive into the deep sea that is next-gen.

Screen Robot considers the impact and implications of 2013’s key gaming trends.

Companies listening to consumers

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After the dust has settled on the Q4 showdown between Microsoft and Sony, 2013 will be remembered for Microsoft’s much publicized response to fan criticism of the Xbox One. The nature and tone of those inevitable retrospectives will hinge on how successful the launch of Xbox One is relative to that of Sony’s PS4.

Microsoft’s inclusion of features that some saw as radical prompted an outcry from an extremely vocal internet fanbase and mainstream media alike.

Always on-line, always-on Kinect and restrictive used game licensing all caused a storm of fan criticism online.

Microsoft’s crimes were not necessarily their features and policies but their inability to communicate their concepts effectively and their inept handling of fan criticism.

Regardless of your position on Microsoft’s original plans for the Xbox One, the fact that policies were changed or removed entirely as a result of consumer reactions is representative of a greater change in how consumers and companies interact.

The ease of communication afforded by Twitter and official forums means that fans are able to form a near instantaneous and personal dialogue with developer and publishers.

This dialogue can be constructive – EA’s abolishment of the much maligned Online Pass is a victory for consumers, even if it the decision to remove the feature could be attributed in part to EA being voted the worst company in America two years in a row.

Conversely, 2013 has been a year dominated by negative online exchanges between developers and fans.

Former Microsoft Studios creative director Adam Orth tweeted about always-online consoles back in April, when the internet was thick with distaste for the rumours surrounding Microsoft’s new console. Orth received numerous threats via Twitter as a result and left Microsoft soon after.

Recently, Treyarch design director David Vonderharr announced a Call of Duty Black Ops 2 patch on Twitter that led to threats of violence which warranted a response from Activision social media manager Dan Amrich.

An important question here is that just because the opinions of fans can quickly and easily reach developers, should those developers act on them?

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Crytek recently introduced unrealistic and sexualised female avatars to its free-to-play shooter Warface, in response to  regional feedback from a highly vocal and active fanbase.

Crytek’s Joshua Howard told Wired that Russian players of Warface “wanted the women to be not what we would think of as realistic at all. Up to and including running round in high heels,” before comparing regional differences in their title to Coca Cola. In an otherwise standard military FPS where the male characters are depicted in a realistic fashion, the decision to include sexualised female avatars is problematic.

Crytek’s Coca Cola analogy is a telling one – Warface’s free-to-play model means that the game’s financial success hinges on the sale of premium content such as those sexualised female skins.

The price of success, it seems, is dignity.

By listening to the whims of an incredibly vocal male audience, Crytek have excluded and objectified whatever female fans Warface might have otherwise attracted. Should a developer compromise their integrity in order to please passionate fans?

While the frequency with which companies have responded favourably to customer feedback has increased in 2013, consumers must also be wary of confusing business decisions with genuine respect for the loyalty of a fan base.

That said, even if some of the reasoning behind a company’s decision to listen to its fans is financial, a victory is a victory. As such, constructive dialogue between consumers and companies should be encouraged.

The dearth of new AAA games

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In a year replete with reboots, sequels and franchises, will 2013 be remembered as the year that new intellectual property died?

A trawl through Amazon’s bestselling games of 2013 so far reveals that, of the 100 items on the list, only three of them are based on new IPs.

The uncertainty of the AAA games market and spiralling costs have meant that developers are less likely to take the risk on unproven IP.

With Sony studio Guerilla’s claim that development requirements are likely to quadruple for next-gen games, there is a danger that fresh IPs will not be forthcoming, even on Xbox One or PS4.

Thankfully, 2013 has shown glimmers of hope for new IPs.

The Last of Us has been something of a phenomenon, and is, depending on how you look at it, the last gasp or victory lap of the current generation of gaming. Naughty Dog’s latest has been lavished with praise, media attention and, perhaps most importantly, financial success.

Not all of 2013’s new IPs have been so lucky.

Beyond: Two Souls’s ill-timed release and the nature of its non-traditional, hard to define gameplay has meant that the game has only enjoyed a moderate and muted success.

Fuse was a join-the-dots squad shooter with plenty of fireworks but all the personality that its  single-syllable title might insinuate. Given its forgettable nature, Remember Me’s choice of title seems as unfortunate as Mr Hunt naming his first born Charlie. And for all of its Ghibli inherited charm, Ni No Kuni has failed to shift a million units.

Meanwhile, GTA 5 has become the fastest-selling videogame of all time, and 2013’s release schedule has been dominated by new iterations of established franchises that continue to be successful.

And what are you likely to be playing on your new eighth generation home console this Christmas? The tenth entry in the Call of Duty series? The yearly roster update for FIFA? New IPs Ryse and Knack have been met with ambivalence whilst excitement for titles who can only boast improved graphical fidelity has reached fever pitch.

The danger here is one of complacency and stagnation at the top end of the industry.

Thankfully though, whilst 2013 was a year of retreaded ground, 2014 looks to be a year punctuated with fresh IPs.

Titanfall, Destiny and the now delayed WatchDogs are all set to arrive in early 2014. Titanfall looks set to deliver a Halo-esque rush of blood to the brain of the FPS, whilst Destiny looks to set the gold standard for loot based co-op shooters with ambitious mingleplayer features and frenetic gunplay.

New AAA IPs aren’t dead – we are merely at the low point of an overly long console cycle. That said, there is the worry is that with spiralling development costs and the continued stability offered by yearly franchise updates, developers are less likely to take chances on new IPs.

Indie games becoming compelling system sellers

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The panacea to a franchise-driven and seemingly stagnating AAA games market, indie games have recently enjoyed an increased level of success and cultural relevance.

A lot has changed in one console generation. Xbox Live was still in its infancy. Steam was a much maligned and marginalised platform as Kotaku amusingly reminded us. There was no easily accessible platform or far-reaching distribution channel for indie games. Fast forward to 2013 and indie games are finding new fans on platforms that take them seriously and are regularly breaking a million units. The scene has even spawned a movie.

In comparison to AAA games hampered with bloated costs and prolonged development cycles that can have a title sell 3 million copies and still lose money, the indie game market is inclusive and exciting though not without its risks.

The relative lack of AAA games in 2013 has meant that indie games have continued their ascent into public imagination. State of Decay’s emergent storytelling and ambition impressed in spite of its rough edges. Between them, Rogue Legacy, Thomas was Alone and Skulls of the Shogun stole the summer of many gamers.

Sprite-craft side scroller Terraria’s brand of joyful contemporary retroism is a perfect metaphor for the state of indie games in 2013.

With a renewed interest in indie games and a focus on creating quality idiosyncratic titles comes an increased importance for platform holders. When considering the startlingly similar launch line-up’s of Microsoft and Sony’s new consoles, is it possible that indie games constitute one of the more compelling reasons to choose one console over another?

Sony made a big deal of its renewed dedication to indie developers at E3 whilst Microsoft hit back with a reversal of its position on self-publishing, and the news that every Xbox One could be used for development.

The appearance of a physical copy of the Xbox 360 version of Minecraft at retail highlights the importance of indie games to a console market that, in spite of an increase in digital revenues, still has the sale of physical hardware at its core. And Minecraft isn’t the only indie darling to make the jump from the digital to physical marketplace. Limbo was bundled with Trials HD and Splosion Man in a thematically diverse triptych. Thatgamecompany’s three-game deal with Sony yielded the astounding Journey, beguiling Flow and audio-visual art installation that is Flower – the retail bundle containing all three forms a compelling argument that videogames can be art.

When presented with bland, spec-dominated comparisons between the Xbox One and PS4, it is refreshing that distinctive and personality-filled indie games such as Octodad or Crimson Dragon may define the next generation’s early skirmishes.

Whereas AAA titles have gone somewhat stale, indie games have demonstrated astounding levels of creativity alongside increasingly nuanced complexity and it is likely that games built by small teams rather than bloated studios will continue to challenge and edify the industry.

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A year is a long time in videogame terms. Online updates, new and alternative routes to market, and the upward march of digital have made videogames an increasingly liquid medium in 2013.

Gaming trends that have become visible and prevalent in 2013 are likely to have ramifications for the continued growth of the industry in ways both positive and negative.

Whilst free-to-play can be considered the elimination of a financial barrier to entry, the alarming number of titles that monetize aspects of gameplay set a dangerous precedent.

Meanwhile, Nintendo continue to demonstrate an inability to reverse the fortunes of the WiiU whilst enjoying renewed success with the 3DS – the disparity here is proof that the age old adage that software sells hardware can cut both ways.

The existence of trends that simultaneously damage and compliment the world of videogames are signs that the medium could be considered to be in decay as much as it is in bloom.

Taking cue from the propensity for the elderly to consider their teenage years as among their best, we can take Cage’s declaration that videogames are in their adolescence as indication that it is a good time to be alive, and an exciting time to be a gamer.

Did we miss something? What gaming trends have dominated your 2013?

Photos: Microsoft, Crytek, Capcom, Mike Bithell, Sony/Microsoft

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