The year 2012 will be reflected upon as a significant period in game history. It was the year where – akin to a total solar eclipse - a culmination of events had intersect to provide a window of revelation. A year where the muse of hundreds across a decade had a quiet whisper of an answer. It has now happened and we are living in new times.
How we play has changed.
Steam, the App Store, Indie Games. Long has there been debate on these and other similar ‘new wave’ works and delivery mechanisms. The arguments still vehemently rage today on whether or not these bite sized distractions are even real games at all. Some outlets refusing to acknowledge they exist lest they lose their perceived audience or sustain a barrage of gamer backlash.
2012 is the year to etch it in stone – ignore at your peril, as the contemporary path is a perilous one.
Game of the Year – Journey – GameSpot
Game of the Year – Journey – IGN
Game of the Year – Fez – Eurogamer
Game of the Year – The Walking Dead – Destructoid
Game of the Year – The Walking Dead – Spike TV
Game of the Year – The Walking Dead – Wired
It might be easy to take the perspective that something new has manifest and captured the hearts and minds of the fickle. The ‘casual gamer’, or the bored, or even the non-committed. The so called ‘core gamers’ - those that identify themselves as true gamers – are loathe to include such experiences in the category of ‘video game’.
This is not a new materialization, this is a rebirth. For, what is core but that which has always been?
“The more things change, the more they stay the same.” - Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr
A one dollar app store purchase akin to a twenty cent arcade machine of the 1980s. Both are short, focused experiences. In both, the gamble on return is almost negligible. Don’t like it? Move down the row to the next.
The real core gamer, they that have been since the birth of video games, are thriving in a new era of the pure. The return of the perfected mechanic, over before it bores and another ten waiting.
What was the trigger for such a shift? It was a culmination of many, but the baily’s beads if you will, the last blinding light before the full eclipse, was the association with the motion picture. Long has there been debate on the comparisons between the game and film industries and if there is merit in the comparison at all. 2012 is the year the DNA sequence lined up and showed a match, and that, yes, there is a correlation around the consumption of both. With film, there is the Hollywood blockbuster that rakes in millions and becomes a preposterous media event. Contrast this with the critically acclaimed films that don’t necessarily make a lot of money, are shown in art house cinemas, and the mainstream perhaps unaware they even exist at all.
This was never the case with video games in the previous decade or more. There was one stream, the blockbuster stream, which was lauded and consumed by all. Over produced and slickly packaged, the games media – made up almost entirely of fans rather than critics – rabidly consumed and hence perpetually promoted. The production got slicker, the budgets got larger, the teams grew gigantic. It was a slithery beast consuming itself and people begun to ponder sustainability. This developer studio, that developer studio, a publisher here and there, gone gone gone. One after another, games would fail and continue to fail to recoup the costs invested in creation. More more more was the answer, make it bigger, longer, people want more. Fill it with side quests, collectibles, repeat the corridors, rooms, extend the game another twenty hours. Players wanted more content for the same dollars to justify the costs, right?
Certainly big budget games are experiencing a monumental shift matching that of the Hollywood blockbuster. A few will hit the big time and make stupid amounts of money, but many will fail. The path ahead for any mainstream release is a dangerous one, and Bioshock Infinite will be riding these seas with many lives on deck, fists clenched with every wave crest. It is, in many respects, the last great flag bearer of this generation, chasing the setting sun and hoping there’s still land ahoy.
Sony, at least at this early indication, are banking on the concept of more with the recently announced PlayStation 4. More more more is their tact as they throw more polygons and hardware at consumers, fixing the blinkers and focusing on that well worn path. In an article entitled ‘More, More, More – How Do You Like It?’, The Gameological Society conclude:
“And yet Sony’s developers insist on the myth of “more.” More polygons and more gigabytes because surely this time, they will lead to the promised land of creative expression. In practice, this dogma hasn’t done much to improve games. Quite the opposite. As production budgets balloon and the cost of entry shuts out independent voices, the worship of “more” is likely to be the ruination of console gaming as we know it. The industry’s arms race with itself simply is not sustainable. Yet here’s Sony, blithely promising to build a bigger gun. They’d better watch out—the recoil’s a bitch.”
Giant Bomb co-founder Jeff Gerstmann can be heard on numerous occasions pondering sustainability on the Giant Bomb podcasts, but takes it a step further with the hypothesis that maybe, just maybe, we could be on the cusp of another great video game crash.
2012 was the year the blockbuster became the blockbuster, anything else is just bust.
Conversely, 2012 was the rise and rise of the indie game, the app store game, riding on the coat tails of new distribution channels. Consumers were no longer constrained by gigantic publishers who were becoming less and less risk averse and increasingly demanding the blockbuster. The smaller games, designed, built and released often by one or two people, were getting out there.
In 2012, they became the critically acclaimed.
And in 2012 - the year of renewed play - pinball came back too.
Pinball used to be big. Huge. Between 1955 and 1970, pinball made more money than the entire American movie industry. The introduction of video games certainly made a dent in the pinball market in the 80s, but pinball triumphantly came back in the 90s only to flicker and burn out by the end of the decade.
By this stage, video games were fully entrenched in the home. People grew up with them and it was difficult to understand pinball for two reasons in particular: It could not be controlled, and was score based. Video games offered utter control, and was progression based. The age of high scores on a video game seemed like a distant memory, of kill-screens and never ending predictable patterns. Video games had moved on, progression, achievements, progression, achievement. Pinball was stuck in the past.
But there’s a secret no one let on. Pinball actually has a significant progression element and has done so for decades. The person who wanders over and pops in a dollar would be none the wiser. It is the game designers who dropped the ball in educating the player in both this and the level of control. There are many advanced techniques that can be used to tip the balance in the players favour, but the designers - many of whom are world tournament players - seem to expect the general public to somehow know this on instinct alone.
Tutorials have been part of video games for a very long time. Pinball has nothing. The designers lost the players through a lack of evolution.
What finally spelled the death of pinball was this availability of video games in the home, and the widespread availability of the internet. These forces combined to provide online play, an unstoppable force that would have gamers locked up in their homes for hours or even days on end. Pinball had no chance, pinball exists in the real world, they are clumsy and big, and you have to travel to play them.
In 2012, The Pinball Arcade was released on almost every video game playing platform out there. The Pinball Arcade is an attempt to emulate real world pinball machines digitally and has done so quite successfully. But there is one key element which has drastically changed the perception of pinball: tutorials. In The Pinball Arcade, exhaustive tutorials accompany each game and players are now acutely aware of what can be achieved, and the progression of the game is brought to the fore.
Players are armed with knowledge, and they now seek to execute that knowledge on the real machines.
There’s more. Pinball is in direct contrast to the last ten years of play. Video games are pushing more and more online capability; multiplayer, persistent leaderboards, achievements, social network ties, always-on DRM connectivity. Players have spent years in some virtual worlds with only the companionship of raspy voices down headsets.
Pinball is the antithesis of the online experience, as it is generally located in populated areas such as bars, pubs, bowling alleys and arcades. The digital cacophony of background chatter is replaced by analogue background conversations, and it appears to be welcome.
Perhaps those that enjoy play are seeking more complex and challenging social experiences. An experience that is not concealed by artificially constructed avatars but instead raw and real, the ultimate acceptance of ones persona.
Or perhaps, with the saturation of social media and online systems, and the advent of the smart phone, one does not need to be at home to be connected to ones social groups. Play can branch out, the tie has been cut.
Yes, pinball is back. Stern, the only pinball manufacturer of the last decade, has said that sales were up 32% in 2012. The Professional and Amateur Pinball Association saw 100 more players compete in the 2012 Pinburgh world championship tournament compared with 2011, and a further 130 register for 2013 filling all 400 spots for the first time. The International Flipper Pinball Association has increased their database of ranked world pinball players by 31%, registered pinball tournaments in the world up 25%, and the next IFPA world tournament setting a record for the most represented countries in a pinball tournament ever, at 19 countries participating.
And in 2012, Stern were joined by three more pinball manufacturers building games with hopes to ship out to hungry pre-paid customers in 2013.
2012 marks the year the industry grew up enough to stand up and be counted. Where indies garner critical acclaim, blockbusters found their place, and play widened its net and welcomed old friends. A year where the stars and moons aligned to give us a true picture, a perspective. The people that play can enjoy shorter, focused, rich, emotional, and intelligent experiences, and can enjoy it together.
There’s a long way to go yet, but gaming may have - in the least - reached its late teens, and it was achieved in 2012.