"Old-School RPG" (aka Shaker)
This aborted Kickstarter project by Brenda Brathwaite and Tom Hall started as an honest attempt by two veteran designers to go back to their roots and create the kinds of games they'd had the most fun making, but it ended as what might be the best case study we have in how not to pitch your crowdfunded game.
As we're finally starting to realize, micro-backers behave a lot like "real" investors: even if they're only risking a couple bucks, unless you're a total rockstar already, they need to be convinced that your project will succeed. They want to know details, and they want to see some kind of demonstration of what it will feel like to play.
What they got instead with Old-School RPG was a pitch video that offered very little in the way of a coherent vision. Instead, Brathwaite and Hall banked on the concept of "old-school" being enough to excite players (who, by the way, were already backing Obsidian's "old-school" RPG Project Eternity by the thousands).
Instead of showing what would make their game unique, they essentially just kept saying "old-school" over and over -- six times in the first 40 seconds of the video, we counted -- and hoped that was enough.
As the campaign progressed they quickly retrenched and started showing off some concept art and laying out some basic ideas, enough so that it became a respectable pitch, but herein lies the second lesson Old-School RPG makes clear: first impressions are everything on Kickstarter.
Thankfully they learned their lesson, and promise to come back with a stronger pitch soon.
Persona 4 Golden
What could make fans invest in on Sony's expensive, troubled handheld platform for the sake of a game many of them have already played? Recent Persona games have been a force of nature in past years for fans of the dwindling Japanese roleplaying genre, coupling accessibility with fresh, modern aesthetics and storytelling without sacrificing the depth players expect. Its focus on social interaction and managing daily school life alongside darker, more supernatural themes has much to offer.
Persona 4's Golden edition, a PS Vita version of PlayStation 2's Persona 4, goes further than the typical remake, adding polish, new characters and intuitive shortcuts that circumvent previous frustrations. One could say that Persona 4 Golden is indicative of the rather sad state of the Vita in 2012, as this PlayStation 2 remake is one of the most intriguing games on the platform. But that's selling this game short, because there's enough newness to make players want to return to the universe they loved on PlayStation 2 a few years ago, while still feeling up-to-date enough to attract those who finally want to see what all the fuss has been about.
Papa & Yo
Minority Media's PSN debut release Papo & Yo turned a lot of heads for its subject matter; it's a puzzle-platformer that serves as a delicately-presented metaphor for growing up with an abusive alcoholic parent. The strength of that autobiographical narrative landed Papo & Yo in the pages of the New York Times. From an industry perspective, however, we're more impressed by the fact that Papo & Yo got so much attention for doing something interesting in spite of its significant issues in technical execution. In the past, players, critics, and the industry at large have not been so willing to see past a game's playability problems, and we think Papo & Yo's relative success in spite of its issues speak well for the maturation of our medium.
Radical Entertainment, Activision
You probably didn't play Prototype 2 -- not many people did, despite it being a pretty enjoyable experience. The original sold just over 2 million copies in 2009, and Activision was hoping that the sequel would blow that out of the water, surpassing 4 million sales worldwide. Those big sales didn't happen.
Following the game's release, Activision threw its hands up in the air and in so many words said, "That's it, we're out." Subsidiary Radical Entertainment was closed down after 20 years, and the Prototype IP won't be getting any more installments. 2012 has not been great for retail console games, and Prototype 2's lack of sales more than epitomized the state of the ever-challenging triple-A market -- a market where you either can go toe-to-toe with the biggest and the best, or just get out altogether.
We've heard numerous stories about mobile studios turning their paid games into free-to-play titles, after seeing sales dwindle and being taken in by the lure of F2P success stories. And yet RocketCat's Punch Quest, one of the most enjoyable mobile experiences of 2012, went in the completely opposite direction, slapping a price tag on its free-to-play title.
As it turned out, Punch Quest's in-app purchases simply weren't being picked up, and hundreds of thousands of people were just playing the game for free instead. Whether it's that the in-app purchases weren't obvious or essential enough, or that RocketCat provided too much of the experience for free without pushing consumers enough to pay, was a key topic in this year's paid vs. free-to-play arguments.
Rage of Bahamut
Despite its superficial similarities to deeply strategic collectible card games like Magic the Gathering, Rage of Bahamut is a simple game, bolstered by engagement tricks that keep players coming back.
That said, it is one of the most significant games of 2012 because it conclusively proves that dedicated players can make a huge success of a mobile niche title -- making Rage of Bahamut one of 2012's top-grossing games on both iOS and Android.
If you can find an appealing theme, a gameplay hook that players find satisfying, and a niche that is willing to pay, then you have a recipe for success -- a sustainable game. It's not about mining a little money from a tiny sliver of your audience, but instead about cultivating a smaller but more dedicated audience. That's a lesson that's going to be studied by tomorrow's successful free-to-play developers.
Resident Evil 6
This game is proof positive that critically panned games with big names can still sell. The 67 metacritic-rated game went on to sell over 700,000 units in the first two weeks in Japan. Resident Evil 6 is a huge, sprawling, hulking beast of a product -- a 20 hour action game with too many ideas tackled too poorly. It's the poster child for triple-a feature creep, with some 600 internal and external employees working to stitch it together. The biggest lesson for us was the way many triple-A games are missing the trees for the forest. By trying to rush out their big features, they miss details that wind up distracting and alienating players.
2012 saw a bit of a survival horror renaissance, one that was not driven by major horror franchises like Silent Hill or Resident Evil, but by small independent developers. Slender -- a free PC download that spawned from the absolutely creepy Slender Man internet mythos -- was representative of this back-to-roots horror game movement that also included games like Lone Survivor, Anna and Home. As triple-A horror games focused increasingly on guns and ammo, Slender and its counterparts focused on helplessness, unpredictability and atmosphere -- notions that are often lost on today's big-budget horror games.
Who needs real-money gambling when you can have one of the year's top ten-grossing apps by implementing fake-money gambling? Slotomania is a slot machine game that incorporates video game elements such as levels and experience points. It monetizes through sales of fake coins, which players can "gamble" in the machine. Slotomania was a top performer this year, but it wasn't alone, flanked by games like Big Fish Casino and DoubleDown Casino. As social and mobile companies make moves towards real-money gambling in the U.S. and abroad, we could just be seeing the tip of the iceberg.
Game journalists love to write about story, writing, and interactivity, and Spec Ops: The Line gave them an unexpected opportunity to do that -- over and over again. The game's narrative was loosely based on Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness novella, and gave journalists fodder for discussion of linearity, unreliable narrators, and the affect of being complicit in horrible acts. The big takeaway was that there is a rabid audience out there awaiting more games with a even a moderately challenging narrative structure, and for Yager and 2k, their gamble paid off.