Dean "Rocket" Hall
When Arma II studio Bohemia Interactive provided mod support for its realistic tactical war shooter back in 2009, there was surely no way that it could have predicted how huge a decision that would be three years later. With the launch of the DayZ survival horror mod, Arma II suddenly saw a tenfold increase in sales as players flocked to the DayZ alpha release.
The survival elements appeared to sit rather well with thousands of players, and now the mod is getting its own standalone release in the new year. It was truly a meteoric rise to game industry fame for developer Dean "Rocket" Hall, and a reminder of the power that the modding community can wield, thanks to the open nature of the PC platform.
When you first enter the lonely island of Dear Esther, you're not really sure where you're supposed to go, or what you're supposed to do. And that's part of the beauty of it. Dear Esther struck a rare balance between a distinct narrative vision and a unique brand of player agency.
The result was an experience that flew in the face of the heavy-handed story-telling that is so prevalent in video games today, and launched a meaningful (and continuing) discussion about what a "video game" can be. Other developers, whether indie or part of major studios, would do well to closely examine how Dear Esther's unique approach to narrative left a heavy emotional impact on players. Hopefully others will take thechineseroom's experimental ideas even further.
Arkane Studios, Bethesda
In a year where complaints of sameness in triple-A ran rampant, Arkane managed to pull a sleeper hit that felt refreshing. Dishonored is a bit of a rarity these days -- a brand new property introduced late in the console cycle that relied not on the clout of a popular, established brand, but rather on a new world that challenged peoples' imaginations since the game's first unveiling. Dishonored's success is a victory for interesting-ness.
Players fell in love with the world -- the often-bandied "steampunk" is typically used to describe Dishonored's coupling of beautifully-bleak maritime industry with elegant architecture and the supernatural. But while the atmosphere has shades of Half-Life or BioShock, it has an inventive newness too rarely-seen in today's landscape.
The gameplay itself, combining stealth, unique magic and direct first-person mechanics, offers a range of well-tuned options, adding to the sense of freedom. Most interestingly, the game environment reacts to player choices -- the result is a certain thoughtfulness and elegance that sets Dishonored apart from its contemporaries. The fact that Arkane was able to burst back onto the triple-A game scene in such a fashion is as impressive as the game itself.
Blizzard Entertainment's Diablo III was plagued with tons of issues on launch, from server stability problems and missing features (player vs. player still isn't in the game yet) to deep-seated design criticisms related to the in-game auction house, real-money trading, and un-fun endgame grind -- but none of that stopped the game from setting a new record as the fastest-selling PC game to date or passing 10 million sales. Is Diablo III an example of what's wrong with the risk-averse triple-A game industry, or simply a strong brand doing business as usual? Probably a little bit of both.
It's entirely possible that 2012 will go down as the year that game development finally became democratized by game players and, in many ways, it all started with Double Fine Adventure.
The company managed to smash all of the previous existing video game crowdfunding records when it raised $3.3 million dollars on an old-fashioned adventure game, over eight times the $400,000 it was asking for.
And not only did it pave the way for the crowdfunding revolution: DFA also laid the groundwork for involving your community in your game's development, giving fans a peek into the offices with constant updates thanks to some backer perks and a video documentary series.
We hate to say we told you so, but it turned out that yeah, Zynga probably spent way too much money when it essentially bought mobile game hit Draw Something (and its developer, Omgpop) for an eyebrow-raising $180 million at the end of a bidding war.
The game was a rising star with growth that seemed limitless -- there was even a deal for a network TV show -- but even the most popular games must plateau at some point. And Draw Something plateaued fast.
The fad seems to have gone away, with Draw Something players abandoning ship so fast that Zynga blamed them for being a major contributor in two consecutive quarterly losses that have seen investors abandoning the company faster than, well, Draw Something players.
Ever since its announcement in 2007, the spectre of Fez loomed large over the indie scene, the albatross around the neck of mercurial creator Phil Fish, who wrestled both publicly and privately with mounting expectations, legal threats, dwindling resources and his own obsessive vision.
But the long-awaited Xbox Live Arcade debut earlier this year was met with nearly-universal acclaim. Fez presents a dreamlike world where a lavish attention to craft is obvious -- more interestingly, the game swells with circuitous mysteries and secrets, like the dream palace of some mad royal. Fish spent the year suffering blowback from frustrated fans for some ill-chosen remarks and a controversial public persona -- which makes the game's atmosphere of gentleness and love, a tribute to the Zelda ilk of our wide-eyed youth, of special note. The standards were always going to be high for Fez after so long. But in the end, its existence and its richness feel like a small miracle.
Despite its desperate attempts to push the boundaries laid down by Final Fantasy XIII, this game is not very good -- in fact, in many cases, it's bad because it's fighting against the original game's stark limitations.
But Final Fantasy XIII-2 also teaches us something interesting about fans and the abdication of creative intent. The original game was blasted for not living up to the standard set by the series. Instead of going back to the drawing board to carry the franchise's ideals forward, this sequel features a checkbox design that sloppily incorporates features fans said they wanted without rhyme or reason, butting up against legacy technical and design constraints. The result is a mess.
But in the end, many players -- and critics -- were satisfied. Is it because this is a better game? Or is it simply because their voices were heard?
FTL: Faster Than Light is The People's Game of 2012; it was made by an independent two-man development team, finished with Kickstarter funding (they aimed for $10,000 and ended up with over $200,000), and its design draws inspiration from classic roguelikes (particularly its combination of permadeath and procedurally-generated challenges) and Star Trek in roughly equal measure -- hardly a recipe for mainstream success. FTL delivered pretty much everything that crowdfunding promised us in the beginning of 2012, and it did it right when we were starting to feel dumb about throwing too much money at too many slick Kickstarter campaigns.
While the debate over free-to-play vs. subscription-based MMOs raged on, Guild Wars 2 took a cue from the first Guild Wars and went for the middle ground, allowing players to buy the game at a typical retail price, and actually give them true access to the entire game, with no required subscription fee. The game is also supplemented by an inoffensive microtransaction system that is there if you want to use it.
The point of mentioning the business model here is that Guild Wars 2 is also a critical hit, and the fact that ArenaNet didn't have to bend its vision to a subscription or free-to-play model most certainly played a role. With a Metacritic score of 90 and 2 million units sold as of September, Guild Wars 2 became the triple-A MMO success story of 2012, something the game industry needed.